GORDON WHITE: For All Time: Yankee Stadium Memories
Television and newspapers were filled last week with stories about the historic events that have occurred through the 86-year history of Yankee Stadium.
All of this ballyhoo leading up to and during the Major League Baseball All-Star game at "The House That Ruth Built" included the personal memories of many young TV talking heads.
Few of those men and women remembered being at Yankee Stadium events very long ago. So I felt their list of big YS events that went as far back as the mid 1980's in some cases was limited by their youth (under 60 in most cases).
Then I had to laugh at myself, realizing octogenarians without total memory loss have so many more pleasant and treasured recollections than those kids who are put before us these days to inform us with their "great wealth of knowledge and experience". They are actually still collecting memories while some of us are fully enjoying them. Some day their memory bank will be overflowing like mine is today.
Luckily, there are film clips of Babe Ruth hitting that first home run in Yankee Stadium the day it was opened for play, April 18, 1923. Other films shown on TV last week included Lou Gehrig's talk, July 4, 1939, when he said, "I am the luckiest man in the world" even though he knew he was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, which became known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease".
TV showed the second Joe Louis--Max Schmeling fight at Yankee Stadium, June 22, 1938, when Louis, a black man carrying the entire nation's hopes on his shoulders, knocked the German out in the first round of their heavyweight title fight.
The list of YS events goes on and on while few folks on TV are old enough to list many of them as part of their personal experiences at the stadium.
Although I must admit I did not see Ruth hit that Yankee Stadium first home run in 1923 or even his 60th home run of 1927 when he set a season record most folks felt would never be broken, I did see some things at Yankee Stadium a few years ago that were interesting for me. I spent many an afternoon and night in Yankee Stadium, first as one of millions of spectators who walked through the turnstiles, and then as a reporter covering big things in the big arena. Rarely was there anything happening in Yankee Stadium that was not big.
I first walked into Yankee Stadium as a wide--eyed and totally captivated 9-year-old kid one hot July Saturday in 1936 when my father took me to my first major league baseball game. What a thrill!
I was already a fully devoted Yankee fan so there was nothing in the whole wide world better than going with Dad to see my favorites playing against the Cleveland Indians.
Joe DiMaggio was a rookie that season. Gehrig was on first for the Yanks, Tony Lazzeri at second and Red Rolfe at third with Frank Crosetti at shortstop. Bill Dickey was the Yankee catcher. DiMaggio, in center, was flanked by George Selkirk and Jake Powell. Monte Pearson pitched for the Yanks.
The Indians won, 4-2, but DiMaggio hit a home run. I could take the loss. After all, I had seen my Yankees in person in the amazing expanse of the biggest and best baseball arena in the world. Besides, the Yanks were in first place and headed for the first of four consecutive World Series victories.
I went home walking on cloud nine. My Dad could do no wrong --- for at least a few days after that.
Back then we lived in Ridgewood, NJ, a suburb of New York City. After moving to Brooklyn in 1940 I was able to go to Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds for a nickel subway ride each way.
I could walk to Ebbets Field. I did so many times during my high school years, including another family trip I remember so well in 1943 when I took my oldest of two wonderful sisters to Yankee Stadium for a double-header against the hated Boston Red Sox.
Sue, a beautiful, tall blond who turned heads, was in a pretty summer dress and wore spectator pumps, as the style dictated for a young lady who had just graduated from Swarthmore College. I was between junior and senior years of high school.
In 1943 men wore jacket and tie when they went to a ball game while women wore dresses or a skirt and blouse. Nowadays too many male and female spectators look like they just climbed out from a hole they were digging for Con Ed.
That day in 1943 was quite hot. Sue removed her shoes early in the first game and we ate hot dogs, drank coke and enjoyed two Yankee victories. When the full house crowd of nearly 70,000 (capacity in YS in those days) got up to leave, Sue tried to put her spectator pumps back on. But her feet, which had rested on hot concrete for hours, were so swollen she could not get her shoes on. Sue, a real trooper, walked barefoot all the way to the IRT subway platform before she was able to get those shoes back on. She and I laughed about that one for years and years.
By 1951 I was a member of the Fourth Estate. On days off I would occasionally go to a sports event -- sort of the busman's holiday idea.
I was just a spectator in one of the seats behind first base on September 28, 1951, when Allie Reynolds pitched his second no-hitter of the season by hurling it against the Red Sox, 9-0. Reynolds had no-hit the Indians, 1-0, July 12, 1951, in Cleveland.
The game against the Red Sox ended heroically for Yogi Berra, who dropped a high pop fly over home plate by Ted Williams that would have ended the game.
On the very next pitch, Williams hit another high pop that drifted back toward the Yankee dugout. Berra ran over determined not to drop this one and caught the ball while falling into the dugout for the last out.
I was sitting in the press box, May 30, 1956, when Mickey Mantle came closer to hitting a ball out of Yankee Stadium than anyone before or since. Batting left handed, the powerful Oklahoma slugger slammed a pitch from Pedro Ramos of the Washington Senators so high and far that it came within 18 inches of going over the right field roof of the stadium.
The ball slammed into the famous Greek column faade above the third deck just to the right of where the Yankee bullpen was in those days. That facade is what is seen this year as the primary logo for the last year of the original Yankee Stadium. It adorns the sleeve of Yankee uniforms.
Mantle's long home run ball was actually on its descent when it struck the facade, meaning Mantle hit the ball well above the roof of the 36-year-old and original Yankee Stadium. Blueprints at the time indicated the ball hit the facade 117 feet above the field of play. That was Mantle's 19th home run of the early season and was the first of two he hit that day. It came in the fifth inning of the first of two games against the Senators. The Yanks swept the twin bill and Mantle hit another fifth-inning home run in the second game.
As a non-working spectator later that year, I witnessed Don Larsen's perfect game victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers, 2-0, in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks went on to win the Series in seven games.
Probably the most famous event that occurred in Yankee Stadium that I covered as a reporter was Roger Maris' 61st home run, which he hit on Sunday, Oct. 1, 1961, off Red Sox pitcher, Tracy Stallard. And look, Ma, no steroids.
Sitting with other sports reporters in the lower right field stands Friday, Saturday and that Sunday afternoon, we waited for the breaking of the Babe Ruth record that "would never be broken". We were out there to get to the person who caught the ball and write about Number 61. It was a biggie in YS annals.
YS baseball, football and prize fights were on my assignment sheet from time to time. I met and got to know Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Casey Stengel, Phil Rizzuto, Gil McDougald, Jerry Coleman, Hank Bauer, Elston Howard, and many more of the Yankees from the great years of success after World War II.
The stadium will be torn down immediately after the current baseball season ends. The Yankees will move to the new Yankee Stadium that is nearing completion within a long Mantle home run of the original on River Avenue in the Bronx. Dare they refer to the new Yankee Stadium as "The House That Ruth Built"? I doubt it.
Among my many enjoyable assignments at Yankee Stadium was the "Greatest Football Game Ever Played" -- the 1958 National Football League championship game. The Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants, 23-17, in that first pro football title game that went to sudden death overtime. Alan Ameche scored the winning touchdown from the 1 yard line to give the Colts the victory, Dec. 28. 1958.
Two years earlier I covered the NFL championship at Yankee Stadium when Alex Webster scored two touchdowns as the Giants trounced the Chicago Bears, 47-7, Dec. 30, 1956. That concluded the first season the New York Giants of the NFL played their home games in Yankee Stadium. They had previously used the Polo Grounds as their home arena.
But I was out of work, along with my New York colleagues, when the Giants lost to the Green Bay Packers, 16-7, in the NFL title game at Yankee Stadium, Dec. 30, 1962. That was the 24th day of what would become the longest newspaper strike in New York City history. It lasted 114 days and was instigated by a dispute between the Printers Union and the New York Publishers Association.
The young NFL Commissioner, Pete Roselle, a public relations man by previous profession, generously permitted all NYC sports reporters, who covered the Giants regularly during the 1962 season, to attend the game.
I was never too sure I was happy about this when all was said and done. I sat with Dick Young, the superb New York Daily News' sports reporter, in one of the over hanging photographer boxes down the stadium left field line. The temperature got as low as 13 degrees that day with winds gusting over 30 miles an hour. Everyone was nearly frozen stiff when the game ended.
One always wonders how Jerry Kramer managed those three field goals that were the winning margin in the game. The kicks went 26, 29 and 30 yards in weather Green Bay, Wisconsin, would have been proud of.
I also covered numerous college football games at Yankee Stadium, including Army-Notre Dame encounters with the Irish always winning after that famous scoreless tie at YS in 1946. There was an Army victory over Michigan in 1950 and an Army loss to Southern California the next year at Yankee Stadium. I was at the Army 9-6 victory over Syracuse in that arena in 1960 and the Cadets' loss to Oklahoma in YS the next season.
On Thanksgiving Day of 1963, Coach Ben Schwartzwalder's Syracuse team got a 14-7 revenge victory over Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium, a year after losing a tough one to the Irish in Syracuse, 17-15. I was at YS for that one.
I covered many Whitney M. Young Urban League Classic games held during the 1970's and 1980's between two historic black colleges. Grambling was often one of those teams. That is how I got to know Eddie Robinson, the Grambling coach who was one of the finest gentlemen I ever knew to grace the sport of football.
There was a short-lived fiasco of a post-season game called the Gotham Bowl. The first was slated for Yankee Stadium in 1960 but was cancelled when no opponent could be found to play Oregon State. The 1961 Gotham Bowl was played at the Polo Grounds. But when it was moved to Yankee Stadium for 1962, only 6,166 fans paid to watch those two big New York City attractions, Nebraska and Miami of Florida. I covered as the Cornhuskers won, 36-24. But never again did a Gotham Bowl darken New York City's skyline.
Possibly the most unusual and humorous thing that I ever witnessed in Yankee Stadium happened during halftime of a significant college football game -- the first meeting of the new Air Force Academy and Army, Oct. 31, 1959. I was one of three Times reporters assigned to work that game that was obviously the beginning of a traditional service academy rivalry.
The Air Force Academy, founded by Act of Congress in 1954, opened in 1955 and started a varsity football team in 1957.
When Air Force and Army first met at Yankee Stadium the Black Knights from 50 miles up the Hudson River were a very heavy favorite despite a mediocre season the year after Earl (Red) Blaik retired as Army coach.
The game ended in a real "upset" when the teams finished in a 13-13 tie.
Army has the mule as its mascot. Navy has the goat. The new Air Force Academy chose the Falcon.
At halftime of Air Force football games, cadets let loose a couple of trained falcons that fly high and swoop down low over the stands doing what falcons do.
The trouble was that no one took into account what would happen when two falcons were let loose in close proximity to thousands of New York pigeons who made their homes among the girders and pillars under the second and third decks of mammoth Yankee Stadium.
When the handler cadets lifted the hoods from the falcons' heads and released them from their restraints, it sounded like a huge clap of thunder as thousands of pigeons frantically flapped their wings to escape the imminent attack from a much feared predator. The frightened birds headed for the big exit, the wide open space above the YS gridiron.
The falcons were also startled and their handlers said later they were afraid they might lose the falcons that would go after all that meat on the wing.
But the falcons were well trained. Not a pigeon fell from falcon murder although some might have dropped from a heart attack.
Many generations of Yankee Stadium pigeons have followed those who were scared to death in 1959. And they still live happily among the YS supports and feast off the concrete floors and wooden seats where the litter left by careless humans makes banquets to set before kings --- king pigeons that is.
There just is no other place like Yankee Stadium. Where else can you find 26 world baseball championships, home run records galore, and three perfect games pitched to go with countless football thrills, boxing championships won and lost and thousands of scared pigeons flying for their very lives?
It is my hope that the new Yankee Stadium creates many fond memories for generations of Americans to come. I'm sure it will.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com
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