Food prices soar. Irish rebels battle troops. Wall Street is rocked by fraud scandal. State legislature weighs crackdown on pornography. Detective is accused of accepting bribe. Monetary crisis looms abroad.
The front pages of the Manhattan dailies read like a typical 1973 bad-news day, except that the dateline was April 18, 1923, and the big story was not the closing of gas stations but the opening of Yankee Stadium, a glittering new edifice rising like an ivory Taj Mahal in the gray wilderness of the Bronx.
Attending journalists were unabashedly awed by the splendor and sheer numerical wonder of it all. Luminaries from all walks, it was reported, joined a sellout throng of 74,200 in a triple-tiered monument to baseball that was fashioned from 20,000 cubic yards of concrete and 3,000 tons of steel. Outside, a milling crowd of 25,000, including one scoundrel who was arrested for trying to scalp a $1.10 grandstand ticket for $1.25, vainly tried to storm walls made "impenetrable to all human eyes, save those of aviators, by towering embattlements."
Inside, John Philip Sousa, resplendent in his bandmaster's finery, led the Seventh Regiment Band, a full complement of Yankee and Boston Red Sox players, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Colonel Jake Ruppert and assorted politicians across 13,000 cubic yards of fresh topsoil, past bleachers made of 950,000 board feet of Pacific Coast fir shipped via the Panama Canal, to center field for a flag-raising ceremony.
November 12, 1973
Then, after Governor Alfred E. Smith tossed out the first ball, all that remained was for the redoubtable George Herman Ruth to fittingly dedicate the Yankees' new home with a baptism of firepower. Leaning his generous bulk into a 2-2 pitch served up by Howard Ehmke, the Babe stroked a three-run homer into the Pacific Coast fir seats in right field to ensure a 4-1 Yankee victory, and "the biggest crowd in baseball history rose to its feet and let loose the biggest shout in baseball history."
That was 50 long, storied years ago, and if any echoes still linger they are drowned out these days by the insistent clamor of jackhammers, bulldozers and wrecking balls. Those towering embattlements look as impenetrable as ever, but the sight inside the ball park one chill, drizzly day last week was not becoming to all human eyes. The field, scene of 27 World Series as well as dozens of football games and boxing matches, was a rutted, soupy quagmire strewn with debris. The Yankee dugout, the lair of such wily old grizzlies as Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel, looked like a bombed-out artillery bunker. And down at first base, churning deep into the turf once patrolled by Lou Gehrig, a massive crane reached up and impersonally tore away the park's most distinctive feature, the copper frieze that was strung like a lace doily around the overhanging roof.
Like its modern tenants, Yankee Stadium has fallen on hard times. The city fathers have decreed that it be reduced to a shell and then totally remodeled to show the world, says Mayor John Lindsay, that "we not only honor the past but look with great expectation to the future." So what took $2.5 million and 284 days to erect will require $30 million and 2½ years to tear down and rebuild. That is called progress, big-city style.
The Yankees, who will share Shea Stadium with the Mets until their refurbished digs are reopened for the 1976 season, are dutifully looking Janus-like to their past and future, as directed. Home plate in the House That Ruth Built was presented to the Babe's widow, first base was given to Mrs. Gehrig, and such familiar relics as a flagpole, topped with a Louisville Slugger weathervane that is allegedly one of Ruth's old war clubs, and the monuments and plaques that once graced the distant center-field reaches of "Death Valley" are being saved for enshrinement in Yankee Stadium II.
There are still heaps of mementos for the average fan to have and hold—for a price, naturally. For the past five weeks some 60,000 devoted scroungers have trooped to the ball park for a kind of glorified garage sale run by the company in charge of demolition. For sale—and open to some good old-fashioned Fulton Fish Market haggling—are blowups of team photos and such action shots as Don Larsen hurling the last pitch in his perfect 1956 World Series no-hitter ($150 to $350), box seats ($20 each), turnstiles ($100), hot-dog vendors' trays ($5), an equipment trunk ($75), a pair of mud-encrusted spikes ($15), a locker-room scale ($75), Joe Pepitone's old duffel bag ($50), a sheet of, alas, unused World Series tickets ($3) and such inspirational messages as the IN sign from a men's lavatory ($3), A TO Q RESERVED ($15), SCOUT ADMISSION 50¢ ($.50) and FANS THROWING OBJECTS OR IN ANY WAY INTERFERING WITH PLAY WILL BE EVICTED AND SUBJECTED TO ARREST ($35).
The bounty was irresistible to two fans who appeared the morning the sale opened, took one look around and said, "Lock entrance, please." Yoshio Kano, manager of the New York office of Japan's Daimaru department-store chain, and his associate were ready to buy everything from the foul-line poles to a box of diapers left behind by one of the player's wives. Explaining that their intent was to display the memorabilia in their stores and then sell it off, Kano said: "Japanese crazy for Yankees."
Willie Kowal, the overseer and an engaging Lower Manhattan pitchman ("Whaddya mean, whaddya gonna do with that ticket-stub bin? Use it for a clothes hamper like I do"), would have none of it. "I mean," says Kowal, "what the hell, why not try to keep the stuff here in New York where it belongs." But Willie, who claims that the two Japanese "can speak English like Oxford grads when it comes down to bargaining," relented somewhat and let them haul off $4,000 worth of goods for starters. "Yankees is greatest team!" enthused Kano, a former high school third baseman in Tokyo and a Bronx Bomber trivia buff. "And Babe Ruth is No. 1!"
Certain treasures, like the red ticket-sellers' booths, the bat racks and a section of an ancient wooden staircase once trod upon by the fearsome Murderers Row, were claimed by the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian Institution. Joe DiMaggio's old No. 5 uniform, found in a trash barrel, will be auctioned off for charity. Yet for an avid Yankee booster like Bob Kane, an orthopedic surgeon from Red Bank, N.J., there was delight enough in purchasing a red usher's cap ($15) and a scarred clubhouse chair ($50). He allowed that "now all I have to do is sit down in my new chair, put on my cap, turn on the game on TV, open a beer and voil√†!—it'll almost be like being there."
Frank Burke, an attorney from Yonkers, N.Y., has a more devious aim. "My father is a confirmed Dodger fan and a lifelong Yankee hater," he said, brandishing a brick ($1) from the clubhouse, "and I can't wait to present him with this 'surprise' gift." Kowal, never missing a trick, implored his customer to take along a batting helmet ($15) lest pop turn violent, but Burke gallantly declined.
Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra made certain that a brace or two of box seats were set aside in their names. So did Jim Bouton, the former Yankee hurler now making with the sports pitch on WCBS-TV, and he forked over $500 in all for additional items, including a clubhouse stool and an enlarged photograph of Ruth, hunched up, cap over heart, during a retirement ceremony.
Like many diehard Yankee fans, Bouton regards the partial demolition of the nation's most hallowed baseball shrine as something sacrilegious, like whitewashing the Painted Desert or giving the Mt. Rushmore foursome a nose job. He and many other New Yorkers scoff at the claims of renovators like Perry Green, an architect hired by the Yankees to "insure the retention of the historical aura."
Along with the modern refinements—high-powered sodium-vapor lights encircling a new fluted roof, more commodious seats broadened from 18 inches to 22 inches, a reduction in overall capacity from 64,644 to 52,671 due mainly to the displacement of the center-field bleachers, removal of 105 steel columns that partly obstructed the view from some 25,000 seats, lowering of the field by eight feet, escalators, enlarged parking facilities, expanded access roads and green parklike areas to supplant the dilapidated surrounding neighborhood—Green says there will be some old-timey touches: the return of the little red ticket booths, and a replica of the frieze that will adorn the 580-foot-long scoreboard.
There will be other changes, most conspicuously the lengthening by 14 feet of the skimpy 296-foot right-field foul line that had caused some heretics to dub the place The House Built for Ruth. Elsewhere, especially in the remote regions of Death Valley, the walls will be moved in by as much as 42 feet because, says Green, "Let's face it, there was only one Bambino."
There is only one Yankee Stadium, too, and Green insists that "the old-timers will feel right at home. We'll have natural grass, not synthetic, and the scoreboard won't explode but just give information. There won't be any winsome ball girls, either. Just baseball. This is Yankee Stadium in the middle of New York City. We're not going to change it to some cookie-cutter ball park like Shea Stadium in the middle of nowheresville."
Maybe. Most citizens have assumed a let's-wait-and-see attitude. Nevertheless, in an era when franchises in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have fled their historic confines for new stadiums that, placed together, look remarkably like a matching squadron of grounded flying saucers, there is something to be said for a ball park that has hung on to its bare bones while submitting to an emergency face-lift.
If the results are somehow flattering without being disrespectful, it will be cause for another grand housewarming. If not, well, as that veteran observer of the passing scene, Toots Shor, was heard to remark, "Soon New York won't be New York anymore."