Our Night At The Ballpark
Either it’s our own good fortune to be around at epoch-marking moments or else history is happening everywhere and at all times. Either way, we were in New York not only for the seventh anniversary of 9/11, but also for the final games at the Yankees’ old stadium.
Ever since I saw Field of Dreams (old Kevin Costner movie where a guy builds his own baseball field after hearing voices in his head — great film) it has been a dream to go see a game and we were lucky enough to arrive in New York at just the right moment: as we understood from the film, the magic that surrounds baseball has as much to do with the ground as what goes on inside of it.
Thanks to my friend Greg (lives in Connecticut, supports Yankees) we got tickets to see the game against the Chicago White Sox. We were in the bleachers (the “stands” in UK English) which made us part of the immortal, but oft-derided grouping, the Bleacher Creatures. Membership of this group meant we had to sing all the songs, rail against the decisions, and cheer and shout louder than anybody else — and, naturally, we did our best (Bleacher Creatures are also the ones that get into fights, but luckily we didn’t see any of that.)
For me it was a wonderful night. We had a hotdog, soaked up the atmosphere of the game, I learned how baseball works (it’s simple, but complex at the same time), the Yankees won, we felt the roar and emotion of the crowds, we sang the 7th-innings song, and we drove like crazy New Yorkers through the Bronx. I couldn’t have asked for more.
In Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’ character says at the end, “Baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again”. Magic before our eyes.
A Field Of Dreams
We knew it was no ordinary ball game that we were watching that night — this was something special. The reason why had to do with the stadium. Yesterday they played the final game inside so now the mourning officially begins. One doesn’t need to be a baseball fan to be sorry about the Yankee Stadium’s end; read through the following and see.
1) The Greats Were Here
The Yankee Stadium was built in 1923, and in its 85 year history its walls have held the Yankees, John Philip Sousa, Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali, Pink Floyd, Nelson Mandela and JFK to name a few.
2) The Babe
George Herman Ruth Junior has been voted the greatest ball player of all time in more surveys than anyone can remember. He played for the Yankees from 1920 til 1935, during which time he reached his lifetime total of 714 home runs, a record that was not to be broken for 39 years, and he set various batting records that still have not been broken. On the day of its inauguration the Babe declared, “I’d give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in this first game in this new ball park”. And he did just that. After he hit that home run the stadium was known ever after as “the house that Ruth built”.
On August 16th, 1948 Babe Ruth died. He was 53 years old. His body was lain in the Yankee Stadium and in two days over 200,000 people had filed by to pay him their respects.
3) A Catalogue Of Firsts
In October 1965, Pope Paul VI said the first mass on US soil at the Yankee Stadium; it was the first three-tier stadium in the baseball league; it was the first stadium to use an electronic scoreboard; when the New York Giants American football team borrowed it in 1958 it was the first time ever that an NFL game went into sudden-death overtime — the match became known as “the greatest game ever”; in its construction it was the first time that a special cement (invented partly by Thomas Edison) was used. It was the scene of many a groundbreaking moment.
4) The Sam Rice Mystery
He didn’t play for the Yankees, but he often played in their stadium. In 1925, when playing against the Pittsburgh Pirates he jumped over a wall to make a catch. He disappeared and so did the ball, and then, after a couple of moments had passed, up he popped with the ball in his hand. No one could tell if he had actually caught the ball or not, but the catch was allowed to stand and the batter was out.
For the rest of his life Sam Rice wouldn’t tell anybody, not even his family, whether or not he had actually caught the ball. All he did was put the truth in a letter, to be opened upon his death. After 49 years, Rice died and the wait for the truth was over. In his letter he explained that he had caught the ball.
5) Mickey Mantle
He was no good boy, but Mickey Mantle, who still holds the record for longest ever home run (575 feet) was a hero. He played all his career in a Yankees shirt and during the various World Series tournaments he played in, he set six records which still stand today. The old stadium will remember him well.
An alcoholic and local boy from Oklahoma, he was given a rough ride by the press during his initial Yankees years; he was never consistent, and at one point was the highest-paid active player in the league. However, when he died in 1995, the Yankees played the rest of the season wearing black armbands and his number (seven) embossed on their shirt-sleeves. A hell of a turnaround by the man who said, “Am I a role-model? Sure: don’t be like me.”
6) The Fans
They’ve seen good times and bad times, but they always came. This stadium saw over four million fans a year enter its doors. Not all of them were bleacher creatures…. Ozzy Osbourne, Jack Nicholson, Meatloaf, Henry Kissinger, Bob Dylan and Denzel Washington are among the more famous of the Yankees fans.
7) Thurman Munsen’s Locker
He played with the Yankees for ten years and while doing so became the only Yankees player ever to win both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. He rose to be one of the most famous captains of the club. He famously sported the handlebar moustache which is actually at the limits of what Yankees players are allowed to wear (the Yankees are one of the only clubs that still enforce the decades-old “no long hair or beards” rules that all baseball clubs once subscribed to).
He was originally from Ohio and learned to pilot his own plane so he could return home to visit his family when not playing. Then, in 1979 when he was only 32 years old, his personal plane crashed during test flights and he was killed. His locker remains in the old stadium with just his number 15 shirt hanging inside. The number will never be worn by another Yankees player.
8) Joltin’ Joe
Joe DiMaggio played his whole career for the Yankees and became one of the world’s most famous sportsmen. He was selected for baseball’s All-Star game every season he played, and achieved a legendary 56-game hitting streak (where a player has to make a hit in every game he plays in). The boy who only started playing baseball to get out of poverty, and only stopped when injuries meant he couldn’t take a step without pain, was voted baseballs greatest living player in 1969.
He married Marilyn Monroe in 1954, but divorce came only 274 days later. Sombody said at the time, “a man can’t be a success in two pastimes”. But DiMaggio was never to remarry, and after Marilyn’s death he had red roses delivered to her grave, three times a week for twenty years.
After he died in 1999 the Yankee Stadium had a monument dedicated to him and the team wore little number fives, Joltin’ Joe’s number, on their uniforms for the rest of the season.
A Word Of Thanks
I could say so many thanks to so many people on this trip, and most of them I’ll make personally. But there is one I’d like to make: we had to leave so quickly the next day that I never really got the chance to do it before now. To Greg, my buddy who took us to the game and explained how it all worked, and his family who had us stay in there house and did a thousand small things to make us feel like kings, thank you very, very much.