American Memorabilia Magazine: Yankee-Shea farewell

By Marty Appel

Doesn’t it seem like to earth should shake a little when the last out is recorded in Yankee Stadium next fall? Or when the (I can hardly say it) wrecking ball hits?

With Yankee Stadium in its final season on its current patch of land in the South Bronx, every emotional attachment that people can have to a destination filled with happy memories will need to be visited. It’s our way, through the written word, of expressing the loss.

It is a monumental moment – America’s most celebrated sports venue will be no more. You might as well say that the Eiffel Tower is being dismantled or that the Taj Mahal is being converted into a Wal-Mart.

And not only that! The much maligned and hardly beloved Shea Stadium, ten miles away, is also doomed! The Mets are building their new home – Citi Field – in the Shea parking lot, evoking the look of old Ebbets Field, while the Yankees construct a new Yankee Stadium (thankfully, no naming right sold), just north of the current structure, a long foul ball across Babe Ruth Plaza and 161st Street.

Two major league ballparks in the nation’s most popular city, exiting stage right in the same month, is an enormous confluence of history for lovers of sports. While Yankee Stadium is steeped in more tradition than there are appropriate adjectives in the dictionary, Shea is not without its miraculous moments. Multiple generations have sat together below the departing jets of neighboring LaGuardia Airport and had the times of their lives watching the Mets make history.

Never mind that the Yankees played 37 World Series in Yankee Stadium and that the Mets played four in Shea. It’s not always about the big games. Sometimes its just the experience; going with friends or family, seeing a great play, celebrating a victory in the company of strangers – now suddenly comrades. The feel of exiting Yankee Stadium to Frank’s “New York, New York” after a Mariano Rivera save has been as good a feeling as there is in New York’s culture. And Shea, so denigrated as an architectural disaster – hey, when Robin Ventura hit that walk off grand slam single, did anyone really care that Frank Gehry didn’t design the place?

“Shea may not be beautiful,” says Bill Goff, who has sold ballpark lithos for 20 years through “But ballparks aren’t necessarily about beauty. It’s about memories. Shea has always been one of our best sellers despite all you hear about it.”

Ballparks come, ballparks go. Myths abound. Are Ruth and Gehrig and the others actually buried in Yankee Stadium under those grave-like looking monuments? Well, no. And who exactly let that black cat free in 1969 to walk in front of the Cubs dugout and essentially knock Durocher’s team out of the pennant race? We still don’t know.

Yankee Stadium, built in 1922 and opened in ’23, was the first triple-decked stadium in the country. I used to think it was also the first to be called a “stadium,” but later research revealed that Griffith Park in Washington became Griffith Stadium a couple of years earlier, and that John Brush, owner of the Giants, tried to convert the Polo Grounds to Brush Stadium in the early teens. It didn’t take. College football fields, notably Harvard Stadium, which was built in 1903, had first dibs on the word in any case.

There are actually very good reasons for the two teams to move next season, so this is all about sentimentality and not at all about logic.

Yankee Stadium, in its current form, was not the ballpark that it was from 1923-1973, when the inspiring façade encircled the field. Once it was remodeled (1973-76), it remained majestic and awesome, but it was just not the place where Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle played. Still, it would become the home to Munson, Jackson, Winfield, Mattingly, Jeter, and A-Rod, would have plenty of its own history, and was the same land on which the earlier legends played.

But it wasn’t built with 4 million people a season in mind. To negotiate its crowded corridors, to exit at the same time down narrow ramps, and the wait on long concession and restroom lines was all one needed to experience to know that the newer parks provided far more comfort.

As for Shea, which Casey Stengel hailed for its escalators in 1964 (“fewer heart attacks”, he said), there will always be the memories of the Serval Zipper sign a mile past left center field, when the Miracle Mets were winning hearts everywhere with their 1969 world championship. Or of the recently deceased Karl Ehrhardt, the “Sign Man,” who like “Freddy Sez” with his tin pan and spoon at Yankee Stadium, became part of the culture. How many fans could say they rose to such heights?

Things could be worse! The Mets, after all, are moving a few hundred feet, not 3,000 miles like the Dodgers and Giants did a half-century ago! And the Yankees had plenty of opportunities to move to New Jersey, but chose to stay where they belong, despite what remains a tough parking situation and a neighborhood that has failed to improve much despite the team’s drawing power.

As the City of New York owns both current facilities, what becomes of the seats and pieces of the structure is in its hands. When old Yankee Stadium saw its last game in 1973, E.J. Korvette’s department store acquired the seats and sold them for $7.50 plus five proofs of purchase from Winston cigarettes. We’re smarter now about smoking – AND about memorabilia – than we were back then.

But nostalgia is nostalgia. We will remember the good times spent in those two ballparks, the good feelings shared among our section, those nice cold $8.75 beers (are they Buds? Millers? When it was $2 at least we knew it was Ballantine or Rheingold).

So here’s to a new era of great moments in a great city for two history-laden franchises. The Yankees haven’t turned a triple play since 1968. The Mets haven’t had a no-hitter since they began in ’62. I’m feeling something special for the last game of the season!