I hosted the greatest game in NFL history, the 1958 championship game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. After the game was tied at the end of regulation, the referee said to Huff, "I need the captains for the coin toss."
Replied Huff, "For what?" It was the first overtime game in NFL history.
Two years later I saw Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles hit Gifford so hard that Gifford had to be carted away on a stretcher, motionless. Gifford didn't know what to think when he heard somebody say, "He's dead." It turned out they were talking about a security guard who had suffered a heart attack. I can only imagine what bystanders thought when not long after Gifford was hauled off the field, a body covered by a white sheet was carried out one of my exits on a stretcher.
Champion boxers used my locker rooms too. I staged 30 world championship matches, none more socially significant than the pounding Joe Louis gave Max Schmeling, the great Aryan hope, in 1938. I remember in 1957 when one day the Yankees clinched the pennant with a 5--1 win over Boston, and the next day Carmen Basilio used manager Casey Stengel's office to dress for his bout with Sugar Ray Robinson. Basilio won.
I guess when I'm gone you'll be able to tell people that in my last year the Yankees shared their clubhouse with the Cardinals. Of course, those would be the Cardinals who helped Pope Benedict XVI celebrate Mass this spring, the Holy Father joining Paul VI (1965, when he gave his Sermon on the Mound) and John Paul II (1979). I am one of only three venues in the U.S. to host a papal visit more than once, the others also being quintessential New York City--based icons: the United Nations and St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Now here's a question for you: If you put the Cardinals in the Yankees' clubhouse, where do you put the pope? There is an auxiliary clubhouse between the home and visiting clubhouses, one, in fact, that is used for Sunday-morning Masses for stadium personnel, media and the occasional player or coach. Before his health took a turn for the worse, Bob Sheppard, 97, the gentlemanly public address announcer who has given a voice to me since 1951, served as a lector at the service. If you think Bob sounds somewhat godly when he elocutes, "DEH-rick JEE-tuh, numb-BA two!" you might think you've actually entered the pearly gates at his first golden intonation of "Doo-tuh-RAHN-o-mee."
But no, you don't consign the pope to the auxiliary clubhouse. You put His Holiness in the room otherwise reserved for the infallible rulers of the game: the umpires. Mind you, if you know anything about the locker room reading materials and paraphernalia of ballplayers and umpires, you can only imagine the clean sweep that Yankees clubhouse personnel made of their locker rooms before the papal visit. One day umpires are there in their skivvies, playing cards, maybe passing gas, chomping on bubble gum, dropping the occasional f bomb, quaffing a postgame beverage, and three days later Pope Benedict XVI is in the same room preparing to say Mass for 60,000 people. Of course, the pope's detail remade the room with a new carpet and flowing purple-and-gold drapes that covered the walls. Even the umpire's john was covered in majestic papal fabrics.
Having the Holy Father with me again made me think of what the great Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen once said upon Paul VI's visit to New York City. "St. Patrick's," Allen said, "is the Yankee Stadium of churches."
LET ME think ... what is left from how I was before the renovation? Oh, yes, there is the Lou Gehrig Room, long forgotten but only recently rediscovered. As you exit the Yankees' clubhouse, turn right down a narrow concrete hallway painted blue. Go past the umpires' room, then the weight room and then the carpenters' shop (the one in which Nettles corked his bat and where Paul O'Neill and Jason Giambi shaved the handles of theirs). Keep going, then turn right past the indoor batting cage, which is called the Columbus Room, in recognition of the Yankees' former longtime Triple A affiliate (as in, if you wanted to stay out of Columbus, this was the room where you needed to be). Turn left as you pass a storage room filled with assorted junk. And there, behind a rolling metal gate, is what appears to be a larger version of the junk-strewn room you just passed. The place is filled haphazardly with plastic seats, copper and PVC piping, and industrial drums of something called Formula 654, labeled HEAVY-DUTY LIQUID CLEANER.
According to Ray Negron, a special assistant to Steinbrenner, Gehrig sat in this room whenever he sought the comfort of solitude after he became terminally ill in 1939. Negron had been a graffiti guerilla himself, until one day Steinbrenner caught him spraying paint on my facade. Something about the kid touched the Yankees' owner, who gave him a job as a batboy and gofer. In August 1973 Steinbrenner asked Negron to sit with Gehrig's widow, Eleanor, when she took in a game. Negron says he asked her what she thought of Pride of the Yankees, the movie about her late husband. "She said," recalls Negron, "'The only thing they should have used but they didn't was the room.'" Then she told him about it.