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Tue, 30 Sep 2008

East 161st St and River Avenue: Part I

On September 21st, 2008, with a 7-3 victory over the Baltimore Orioles, an era ended in New York and for the entire sport of baseball: in its 85th year, after hosting more than 6500 games and thirty-seven World Series (as well as twenty championship boxing matches, Masses offered by three Popes, concerts, and numerous professional and college football games), the Yankees played their final game in Yankee Stadium.

At a time when baseball was played in "parks" or on "fields", the owners of the Yankees in 1921 purchased a ten-acre, five-sided parcel of land in the south Bronx, just across the Harlem River from their earlier home in the Polo Grounds, and decided that their team would have a home more in the spirit of the Roman Colosseum than the meadow and prairie settings of their rivals -- a stadium. Two years later, Yankee Stadium opened, with an imposing facade and a bulk that intimidated rivals. Compared to most other ballparks, which at least attempt to look more or less inviting, Yankee Stadium had an imposing, fortress-like mien, looking always ready to withstand a siege by rampaging Visigoths, hordes of Barbarians, or legions of Red Sox fans.

With only some relatively minor rearrangements of the field and stands, Yankee Stadium remained pretty much as it was on Opening Day in 1923 (where, fittingly, Babe Ruth hit a three run homer to lead the Yankees to a 4-1 win over Boston), with its singular collection of peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, and unique characteristics, to the day of my own first visit to the stadium in 1966.

At that time, I was around eight years old, and had already spent an inordinate amount of time after school and on summer afternoons playing baseball on a makeshift field in the neighbor's yard, along with my (then) two brothers and two sisters. Keeping us all supplied with equipment of all sorts was a never-ending task for my Dad. Then one day, he had a brainwave, an easy way to keep each of us supplied with a key piece of gear for a year or more. One evening, during supper, Dad announced that we would all be going to Yankee Stadium to watch a Yankee game -- never having been even to a semi-professional game before, that was already way cool for us -- and that that day was also Bat Day, and each of us kids would receive a genuine Louisville Slugger baseball bat, autographed by one of the Yankees.

What could be better than that?

The days flew by, and, in no time at all, we were all piling into the station wagon for the ride down to the Bronx. On a good day (meaning a non-game day without any traffic), the trip would normally take a little over an hour; this day, Dad wisely left the house nearly three hours ahead of game time. After the inevitable crawl down the Major Degan Expressway, which seemed interminable to me and my siblings, Dad finally pulled into a parking lot, and we walked the three blocks or so to the stadium entrance.

The first thing that stuck me about the stadium was its sheer size. The largest building I had ever been in up to that time was the local church, and I always thought that was big. But Yankee Stadium was far beyond anything like that -- I realized immediately that our church would could easily be picked up and dropped inside the stadium without leaving a trace visible from outside, save perhaps the tip of the steeple (and that was iffy at best). In those days, before Ticketmaster and Stub Hub, outside each of the main gates at the stadium were a row of ticket booths, one of which bore the sign, "Advance Purchases". Dad herded us into the line for that booth; I was too excited to keep track of how long we actually spent on line. A brief exchange traded a paper voucher (and, I seem to recall, a few extra dollars passed over quietly from Dad along with it) for a handful of colored cardboard tickets. "Okay, kids, come on in," Dad called as we followed him through the gate to the turnstiles inside.

Inside the gate, I lost track of exactly what I was seeing and doing in a whirligig of sights, smells, and noises, but Dad kept us all moving ever closer to the turnstiles where our prizes awaited. Finally, we got to the front of the line and, one by one, pushed our way through the clacking stile. As we passed officially from the outside world to the inner sanctum, a worker standing along side the ticket-taker took no more than a moment to size each of us up, and then reached into a large box alongside the turnstile and handed each of us a bat.

Now, keep in mind that many of the great players of the Yankee teams from the Fifties and Sixties were still with the team in 1966, and since each bat was "autographed" by a Yankee player, there was one bat we (and probably most of the kids there that day) coveted above all others: a Mickey Mantle bat. More than a Roger Maris, or an Elston Howard, or a Whitey Ford, or anybody else on the team, The Mick's bat was the gold standard, the ne plus ultra of bats -- how could you fail to be star and pound out homer after homer swinging Mickey's own bat?

"Alright now, be careful with those and don't swing them around. Let's go find our seats," Dad admonished us. "Stay together. We're down here in Section 11."

I looked down at the barrel of my bat. The swirling, loopy autograph: Bobby Richardson.

I had only a general sense of who Bobby Richardson was -- the Yankees' shortstop, good hands, decent clutch hitter, but no Hall of Famer, no Triple Crown threat. No Mickey Mantle. More like a Tom Tresh, a Jake Gibbs, a Dooley Womack, one of the many journeyman players the Yankees were starting to load up with in preparation for more than a decade of mediocrity and last-place finishes in the Sixites and early Seventies. But that was all still in the future. All I knew then was that I had been skunked. At least none of my siblings had gotten Mickey's bat either, so at least there would be no sparring over who could use who's bat later that summer.

We made our way through the crowds and the vendor stands to Section 11, emerging from a short tunnel as the vista of the stadium opened up before us. An usher led Dad to the row with our seats, and we all settled in to enjoy the game.

The first thing I noticed were the metal I-beams holding up the mezzanine and the upper deck of the stadium. As I looked down the first base line towards home plate, I found that a not insignificant portion of the view was blocked by a couple of these posts. The view of the left side of the infield and the outfield were all unobstructed, but I hoped there weren't going to be any close plays at the plate.

The second thing I noticed were the monuments. In the deepest part of center field, a few feet in front of the wall, there were -- tombstones! Three of them, neatly in a row. With a flagpole to boot! Geez, I thought, how good did you have to be to be buried in the Yankee Stadium cemetary? Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, I knew that had to be two of them, but who was the third?

"Dad? Who's buried out there on the field?"

Dad smiled. "Nobody's buried out there. Those are monuments to famous Yankee players. Some get plaques on the outfield wall, but the most important players are on those monuments. Can you guess who they're for?"

"Babe Ruth."

"That's one."

"Lou Gehrig?"

"Good! He's the second. Any idea who the last one is?"

I thought and thought, but I couldn't think of any more famous dead Yankees. I shook my head.

"The third monument is for a guy named Miller Huggins."

"Who's Miller Huggins?"

"He was the Yankees' manager back in the 1920's. He won six pennants, and won the World Series two or three times." (Dad was a pretty deep Yankee fan; I doubt there would be one fan in a hundred today who even knows who Huggins even was, much less why there's a monument to him at the stadium.)

I settled in to watch the game, as the starting lineups were announced, the managers exchanged lineup cards (Ralph Houk was the Yankees manager at the time, as I recall), and the first pitch was thrown. Suddenly, out behind the bleachers, I heard a strange rumbling sound, followed by a screech of brakes, a pause, and then a clackety sound of something pulling away. Every few minutes, the sequence of sounds would repeat themselves, but I could not for the life of me figure out where they were coming from. More interested in solving this mystery than paying attention to the game, I waited until the sounds started again, then tugged on Dad's sleeve.

"Dad, what's that noise?" He turned away from the game and looked out towards the center field wall where I was pointing, his head turned a little sideways to cock his ears in that direction. He listened for a few seconds, then smiled.

"Oh, that. That's the subway. There's a subway station right behind the stadium. The subway trains stop there every five or ten minutes or so. And they do make a lot of noise, don't they?". I nodded. "And the other thing is," Dad continued, "from the station, you can actually see on to part the field. I think some people take the subway there, and then just hang out and try to watch the game for free." Dad was always a realist about human behavior, and, while giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, never underestimated people's tendencies want to score a freebie whenever possible.

Inquisitiveness now satisfied, I could finally settle in to watch the game.

Dad tried to show me how to keep score, and I kind of kept up with the scorecard and the little stub pencil he purchased from a stand on the way to our seats (ten cents, pencil included). I could keep up with one-at-a-time at-bats -- strike out, single, walk, fly out -- but the first time someone got on base and the following batter hit into a double play, it all happened too fast for me to follow. (And, of course, there was no instant replay in those days.) Dad, of course, had seen the whole thing, and, since the DP also ended the inning, there were a couple of minutes for him to go over what happened with me.

"Okay, so that was a double play; you write down "DP" and then how the runners were thrown out. The ball was hit to the shortstop, he threw to second to force the runner, and the second baseman threw on to first to get the batter. Do you remember how that's scored?" Dad had given me a quick rundown of how each defensive player was assigned a number for scoring, and I even made a little reference diagram at the top of the scorecard to help me remember. But I obviously had a few glitches in it.

"Five to four to three?"

"Almost! The shortstop is 'six', not 'five'. 'Five' is the third baseman."

"Oh! Sorry." This scorekeeping was pretty fancy stuff.

"You're doing fine. Keep it up." Dad believed in detailed scorekeeping at baseball games as a way to keep your head in the game, and I was determined to keep up with him for as long as I could. My brother and sisters, on the other hand, were either too young for scorekeeping, or just not interested, or both, so they amused themselves by cheering and booing and applauding along with the crowd, even if they weren't quite sure what was happening all the time.

The game continued, inning upon inning, in baseball's leisurely, untimed way. We all got excited when the people sitting between us and home plate suddenly stood up and began reaching upwards -- I couldn't see what had happened, but I had heard the crack of the bat, and was trying to figure out where the ball was. Apparently, it was a pop foul, heading straight for us. I never saw it until just before it landed, and it finally came down about twenty rows and a couple of sections away from us. (Apparently most fans would make mediocre outfielders, not being able to judge the landing point of a fly hit straight at them.)

After a couple of innings, the vendors started to make their rounds. To an eight year old, this was nirvana -- you could watch the game, and people brought food to you.

"Dad! Can I have one of those?" I pointed to the hot dog vendor making his way along the aisle. He sighed, probably realizing that at some point he would have to pony up and feed his offspring, and asked my siblings, "Who wants a hot dog?" Everyone nodded.

Dad raised his hand, having loaded it with a couple of dollar bills, the better to attract the vendor's attention. "Hey, hot dog! Four please, with ketchup." We were sitting too far into the row for Dad to reach the aisle, so there then followed one of the most curious exchanges I had ever seen in my young life thus far: as the vendor plucked a dog from the hot box he carried, plopped it into a bun, and gave it a quick squirt of ketchup from a squeeze bottle, he would then hand it to the person at the end of the row, nodding towards Dad, and, one by one, the four hot dogs made a slow procession into our hungry hands. Then, even more remarkable, Dad passed his dollars down the row in the other direction, the last person handing them to the vendor. Granted, it was only a few dollars, but it did make an impression on me that nobody tried to scarf down one of the hot dogs as it was passed from person to person, and that no one apparently even thought of trying to pocket some or all of the money on the way back. Everything was on the honor system, but after all, this was about kids at a baseball game, for Crissakes. (Looking back on it, it also strikes me as remarkable that the vendor parted with his merchandise before getting paid. But again, the presence of us kids probably had a lot to do with everyone being on their best behavior.)

Later in the game, it was soda, then popcorn, then yearbooks for me and my brother (my sisters not being interested in that). Dad finally called a halt to the purchases, fearing unscheduled potty stops on the ride home, or, worse, carsickness if we loaded up on too much junk. With scorecard, yearbook, and bat all in hand, things were getting a bit difficult to keep secure; but I didn't want to put anything down, not knowing who could be trusted and who couldn't.

The game continued. With substitutions and pitching changes, I soon got hopelessly behind on my scorekeeping. One of the Yankees (Roger Maris comes to mind) hit a home run, but the Tigers came back the next inning and answered with back-to-back home runs of their own to retake the lead. Another pitching change, everyone watching the Yankee reliever take the long, slow walk in from the bullpen as the organist played jaunty tunes on an incredibly loud organ. More base runners, more runs scored by the Tigers, the Yankees getting in a deeper and deeper hole with each inning. Finally, at the bottom of the eighth inning, Dad looked at the score, and my drooping younger sister, and made an executive decision.

"After the Yankees bat this time, we'll be leaving."

I don't think my sisters quite realized the game wouldn't actually be over at that point. My brother and I made protesting noises, but Dad was firm. He wanted to get back to the parking lot and be back on the road home before the bulk of the game traffic got out of the stadium.

Strikeout. Popout. Walk. Fly out. Inning over.

"Okay, everybody. Make sure you've got your things -- especially your bats! -- and follow me. Let's go." I gripped my booty firmly, stood up, and followed my father up the aisle and back into the bowels of the stadium. The crowd was still mostly inside, although there were a number of other Dads with their kids who apparently had the same idea and were trying to get a jump on the traffic as well. Then back through the turnstiles (with their piles of now-empty bat boxes piled up nearby), and out again into the late afternoon sunlight at Gate Six. My sisters started to complain that they were tired as we walked back to the parking lot, but Dad cheerfully encouraged them to keep going, distracting them by asking them what they liked best about the game, whose name was on their bats, did they need to go to the bathroom before we got in the car, and a dozen other questions that kept the tiredness in their legs out of their minds for the ten minutes or so it took us to get there.

Then it was back in the car, and back on to the Major Degan and home. (Dad did manage to beat the stadium traffic, since many people stayed to the bitter end in the bottom of the ninth, watching the Yankees lose by something like 6-2 anyway, but he didn't anticipate a sudden influx of traffic from New Jersey coming over the George Washington Bridge, and it took longer to get home than it took to get down in the morning.

I took my bat into my room and put it in the corner as I got ready for bed. Actually, it wasn't so bad. It was fairly short, and pretty light, which was good for me -- not being heavily muscled in the arms and shoulders, I needed a light bat to get around on the ball decently. My brother's Roger Maris bat (lucky!) was on his bed (he was taking a bath), and as I picked it up, I realized it was much too heavy for me. Maybe those guys standing next to the turnstiles had some specialized training that allowed them to size up eight year old kids and pick out just the right bat for them. After all, not every kid is going to be the next Mickey Mantle. We went back to the stadium about every other year after that, for a few more years, always on Bat Day, keeping us (and the other neighborhood kids) well stocked with bats for years. And I've always been proud of the fact that my introduction to the professional game came as an acolyte in the Cathedral of Baseball.

(To Be Continued)

Posted Sep 30, 2008 at 21:16 UTC, 3230 words,  [/richPermalink