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This Old House
William Nack
June 07, 1999
Babe Ruth may have built Yankee Stadium, but the foundations of its legacy are the battles waged there and the great athletes who called it home
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June 07, 1999

This Old House

Babe Ruth may have built Yankee Stadium, but the foundations of its legacy are the battles waged there and the great athletes who called it home

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By the sixth inning, Coleman recalls, excited Yankees on the bench began playing manager and moving players around on the field: Move here! Move there! Play up! Play back! Finally Stengel had had enough: "Shut up!" he hollered. "I'm managing this here ball club!"

By the time Mitchell, the 27th Dodgers hitter of the day, came to bat, a cathedral-like stillness had descended on the Stadium. "He was a tough contact hitter," recalls Sheppard. "I thought, Oh, no. The last out. The last player. Top of the ninth. My stomach was churning. It was silent. You don't shout, you just pray." Larsen's first pitch was outside, ball one. The second was a slider for a called strike. Mitchell then swung at and missed a fastball, strike two, then fouled off another fastball. Larsen's third fastball caught the outside corner of the plate. "I can see Babe Pinelli turning and calling, 'Steee-rike three!' " says Sheppard. "The exhalation! It filled the Bronx!"

And it still does, even though the Stadium is no longer what it was in the days when the Yankees shared the place with the football Giants and Louis and Marciano and Robinson. The Giants are long gone to Swampsville in New Jersey, and the last fight to be staged there was on Sept. 28, 1976, when Muhammad Ali feebly outpointed Ken Norton to keep his heavyweight title. In 1973, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the Stadium underwent major surgery. When all of King George's men put Yankee Stadium back together again, all those girders that blocked sight lines were gone, but so was Death Valley and the monuments, which were moved to the other side of the fence in left center. And with the infusion of righthanded power in the Yankees' lineup, most notably Dave Winfield in 1981, the fences kept coming in. "People want to see home runs," Steinbrenner said in 1984, as he prepared to bring the walls in again. "It hasn't been fair to our righthand hitters." Today, that original 460-foot power alley in left center is now 399 feet, and the centerfield wall, once 490 feet away, is now 408.

From the fall of '73 to the spring of '74, the men of the Invirex Demolition Co. busted up the Stadium with jackhammers and wrecking balls, turning Goatville into the greatest archaeological dig west of Cheops. Jay Schwall, the owner of Invirex, ordered the 30-ton copper frieze dismantled and melted down—including that section over rightfield that, he says, bore a dent from Mantle's bazooka shot in '63.

Bert Sugar, boxing historian and baseball aficionado, sifted through the artifacts and unearthed everything but Rockne's halftime speech. He walked away with Babe Ruth's ashtray and bat bag—"which looks like a cow's udder," he says—sheets of undistributed World Series tickets from '48, the year the Yankees finished a close third, 2½ games behind Cleveland; a set of first-down chains (Unitas to Berry, first down); Casey Stengel's shower door; and a full uniform worn by DiMaggio, a pair of Gehrig's pinstriped pants and Ron Swoboda's jockstrap.

Some things are immutable. The Bronx is up, and the Battery's down. And some things should never change. The old Grand Concourse neighborhood is not what it used to be. The doormen are gone, the elevators are going. The Concourse Plaza, where so many Yankees used to live, is now a home for senior citizens. There has been much talk lately of building a new Yankee Stadium on Manhattan's West Side. Or in New Jersey. For those whose lives have been touched by the spirit of Yankee Stadium, such a thought is tantamount to a sacrilege.

"Can you imagine moving the Statue of Liberty to Montauk Point?" says Sheppard.

"How about moving Carnegie Hall to Hoboken?" says Sugar.

Yankee Stadium may not be the house it was when Ruth built it, but it remains on the same plot of land Ruppert and Huston picked out when they decided to stick it to McGraw's Giants, and it has been hallowed by the triumphs and failures of the great athletes who played there and were, in turn, shaped by the experience.

Mickey Mantle used to have this recurring nightmare about the Stadium: He is dressed in his Yankees uniform, wearing spikes. He can hear Sheppard announcing the lineup one player at a time, his voice echoing like Gehrig's farewell. "Catching catching, number 8 number 8, Yogi Yogi Berra Berra...." Mantle is outside, on the street, and he is trying, frantically, to get in. All the gates are locked, but he can see inside. The Stadium is full. He hears Sheppard call his name: "In centerfield centerfield, number 7 number 7, Mickey Mickey Mantle Mantle...." He rattles the gates, a prisoner locked outside, but no one is there to help him, and he cannot get in.

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