It was opened in New York in the Roaring '20s. You were expecting perhaps something smaller, cozier, cuter, a Wrigley Field East? No way. Yankee Stadium was what it was supposed to be. And then it became something bigger, as decade upon decade, the Yankees filled it with victories.
Yes, it sometimes transcended baseball. Its size and its location in a city that has functioned as the unofficial capital of the world made it perfect for THE TRULY BIG EVENTS.
The papal visits come, obviously, to mind. Yankee Stadium was, well, an infallible choice as a venue for papal appearances.
Other non-baseball events were so large that they had to happen at Yankee Stadium. There was the 1938 heavyweight championship bout between Joe Louis and Germany's Max Schmeling. In this bout, Louis struck a blow not only for Americans of color, but for everyone in the free world, when he pounded the Nazi's boxing poster boy into the canvas.
The 1958 NFL championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts was at the Stadium. This is now often billed as "the greatest game in NFL history." There are those of us who have seen NFL games that were at least as good, but suffice it to say that this thrilling contest, won by the Colts in overtime on a touchdown run by Alan "The Horse" Ameche, ushered in the modern era of professional football as a dominant televised force.
But what set the table for all of this, what set Yankee Stadium apart, was not simply baseball, but incredibly successful baseball. Over the last 85 years, there were baseball generations of Yankees heroes. And these were players who were set apart, not only because of their individual exploits, which were indisputably splendid, but because of their collective success.
Monument Park inhabitants
|Miller Huggins 5/30/32|
|Lou Gehrig 7/4/41|
|Babe Ruth 4/19/49|
|Mickey Mantle 8/25/96|
|Joe DiMaggio 4/25/99|
|9/11 tribute 9/11/02|
|MONUMENT PARK PLAQUES |
|(in order of dedication)|
|Pope Paul VI|
|Pope John Paul II|
Visiting players, players of substance, players who went on in some cases to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, will tell of being at least momentarily overcome on the field, simply by thinking about the great Yankees who had previously stood on that same ground. They don't speak that way about any other ballpark, because no other ballpark was home to the impressive number of great players that was required to produce 26 World Series championships.
"You almost had to catch yourself and make sure that you paid attention while you were playing the game," Hall of Famer Robin Yount remembers with a smile. "You couldn't let yourself start to wander and think about who has been there before you. If you really have a passion for the game, and you understand what's taken place on that field, you get these weird feelings."
The Yankees represent something unique in baseball. True, for Red Sox fans, they may be "the Evil Empire." For their immense financial resources, they may be envied as much as admired by the other 29 Major League franchises. But if you had the privilege of observing the Yankees closely, as individuals rather than as a corporate entity, that's not what would stay with you.
For people involved in the most recent Yankees run of championships, people such as Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, you remember the dignity and grace and determination they brought with them to their jobs on a daily basis over long seasons. This is also part of what it meant to be a Yankee. This is also part of what sets the Yankees' home of 85 years apart from all other places. The money made a difference, no question. But there were many years when the Yankees simply deserved to win and did win, on merit.
Now, all right, there's some irony at the end. The end for Yankee Stadium should come in a Game 7 of the World Series, won by the Yankees, probably with a walk-off home run in the 14th inning. But it appears that the end will come in a game against the cellar-dwelling Baltimore Orioles, merely in September. The Yankees, after 13 straight postseason berths, are not following the script for a suitable finale.
But over time, this place had a share of greatness larger than any other professional sports facility in this hemisphere. It was originally The House That Ruth Built. But it also became the house that was home to victory, because the New York Yankees played there. The Yankees move across the street now, to a new Yankee Stadium. The old place will be dismantled, but what the Yankees did in this Yankee Stadium will live on as long as baseball is played in New York, or for that matter, anywhere.