By Marty Appel
Don’t turn the page! My first impression, as a kid entering Yankee Stadium in the ‘50s, was NOT the massive spread of green grass, so strange to an urban child.
Once I thought that was an original idea. Now, it seems everyone says it. I’ve read it so often, it almost makes the experience seem ordinary! So I’ve stopped saying it. (Although it was awfully impressive).
No, my first amazement and wonderment moment was science, something I knew little about at age seven, and about the same today. It was the whole “speed of sound” thing. I sat with my dad in the right field grandstand and marveled at how long the sound of the ball hitting the bat took to travel to our seats. I had vaguely heard of the speed of light and the speed of sound, but this was like attending the game with Don Herbert, “Mr. Wizard,” of TV fame, for those old enough to remember.
Now I know that this phenomenon could have been replicated at any ballpark, maybe even little Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, but it was at Yankee Stadium that I first experienced it, and I never got over it. (When just a dozen years later I went to work for the team, I was privileged to watch the games from the press box, where all sounds were true to the moment and no delays were noticeable. We couldn’t hear the sound of the Lexington Avenue subway passing by on River Avenue even if we tried).
I continued to sit in the grandstand as I grew older, even when I was old enough to go on my own. For someone who would one day be writing all those promos about “plenty of good seats still available!” I was kind of an idiot when it came to buying tickets. Reserved seats were $2.50, and grandstand, the last rows, were $1.50. I thought you could only buy reserve seats in advance, (“reserving” them), by adding 25 cents to the total order for postage and handling, and making the purchase weeks ahead by mail. Even though the red ticket kiosks said reserved seats were $2.50, I assumed you could only buy grandstand on the day of the game, so that was where I put down my six quarters for a seat.
Now came the day I was actually interviewed for a job, to answer Mickey Mantle’s fan mail. This was in 1967. The outside of the stadium had been painted white a year or so earlier (instead of the natural concrete color), the seats were dark blue (instead of the original light green), and the offices were in the ballpark (instead of at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street).
I entered through the familiar player’s entrance, approximately even with where first base was situated, and then was escorted downstairs to the basement office of Bob Fishel, the team’s PR Director. Bob was a legend because he had been there since 1954, was the editor of the Yearbook, and frequently had his name mentioned by Mel Allen on TV. I knew what he looked like and I thought I was meeting a genuine celebrity. What a nice man he was, and he made me feel comfortable at once.
I couldn’t help but look around his office. A Babe Ruth signed baseball, in a ball holder. A box of a dozen team signed balls on the credenza next to his Royal typewriter. A framed front page of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer from the day he was born, May 15, 1914. Lots of sharpened number 2 pencils, and boxes and boxes of unanswered fan mail. That was going to fall into my lap if the interview went well.
But I wasn’t going to take any chances. Maybe I wouldn’t get the job. I didn’t know for sure as I left that day. So as I left the PR office to turn right up the stairs, something came over me compelling me to turn left, open the door right there, and perhaps “accidentally” peer into the Yankee clubhouse. What a moment that would be!
No good. It wasn’t the clubhouse. That would be another 20 feet straight, 60 feet right, and 30 feet left, as I would later learn. Instead was a harsh sign on the concrete wall saying ‘ABSOLUTELY NO WOMEN BEYOND THIS POINT.” Bold block letters, all caps. Nothing inviting about it.
I took it to mean that they were very serious on that subject, and that somehow it extended to anyone who didn’t belong there, and I better not push my luck and wonder any further. I reversed course and headed back up the steps, past a painting of Wee Willie Keeler hitting one where it ain’t.
Well, I did get hired, and I did answer Mickey’s fan mail, and two years later became Fishel’s full time assistant, and five years later, the team’s PR Director, the youngest in major league history. Did it help that in the late ‘60s I was one of the few my age who knew who Red Ruffing was traded for without looking it up? Probably. Most kids my age were not following baseball very closely at that time. (Cedric Durst!).
Working the fan mail shift (I like the way that sounds, like Joe Friday working the robbery division on Dragnet), I did of course partake in the routines of my fellow front office colleagues at old Yankee Stadium, picking up lunch across the street at the Yankee Tavern, and on nice days when the team was on the road or playing at night, sitting in the empty stands, watching the grounds crew maintain the field, and listening to everyone play general manager by talking about the dead weight we needed to get rid of and the players we ought to trade for. The guys on the ground crew would take a break now and then to pass out football betting slips, if we was in season. (All Yankee employees got two tickets for Giants football games in those days, when the Giants played their games in “our place.”).
The front office was perhaps 40 people, including the secretaries, switchboard operators, and ticket staff. It really was its own small family and we all knew everything about each other. No one in an executive capacity had a marketing degree or carried a title having anything to do with broadcasting, publishing, promotion or community affairs. Our press guide, very modest by today’s standards, was intentionally withheld from public sale so that the “media” – we still called them “the press,” would have some information exclusive to them and not known by the fan at home. Such as how each batter hit, first half and second half, of the previous season.
The Yankee Yearbook, almost advertiser free, was intended to promote the team and Fishel always wanted it to cost less than a buck. You could always order it by mail at PO Box 1969, or whatever year it was. The post office loved us and cooperated in saving us that box number. The Yankee Stadium telephone number, Cypress 3-4300, was unchanged except for the area code, since it was assigned in 1952, and was still in force in 2008.
One of my first adventures on the field itself found me wondering into the outfield on a sunny lunch break, to stand where Mantle stood, to experience – my God! – where Babe Ruth stood.
I was surprised that the outfield was not perfectly level. It certainly seemed that way on television. Of course, it also seemed gray on television, not green. But it had little hills and valleys varying by a few inches here and there and was not as perfect as we now see watching football played on artificial turf. That was a surprise to me.
Looking up at the triple deck seats was awesome. How in the world could an outfielder pick up a ball against that backdrop, especially crowded with fans in different colored clothing? And the enormity of the field was big enough for a dozen homes to be constructed – how could three guys cover all this?
Suddenly I wanted to stand where Ruth stood, and for a moment, I didn’t remember whether he played left or right! How could I not know such a thing?
It turns out, he played both of them, although chiefly right when he was at home. It had something to do with where the more difficult sun field was – and he played where it was less threatening. And right field in Yankee Stadium offered a smaller patch of real estate to cover. So at Yankee Stadium, he mostly played right. And I walked over there and stood where he stood.
This was not really a feat that the common man couldn’t experience. Being able to stand there alone in the empty park was the trick. Until the early ‘60s, the fans would be allowed across the outfield and through the bullpens onto River Avenue as a way of exiting. They could walk over to the three monuments in dead center and check them out in all of their tarnished glory. They weren’t allowed on the infield – the ushers stood protection, but they left “in an orderly fashion” with no efforts to tear up the sod for a souvenir. It was a different time.
I went hunting for the famous drain that Mantle had stumbled upon in the 1951 World Series, the one where his spikes caught, his knee buckled, and DiMaggio called him off at the last second. Could such a drain be found in this enormous real estate? If so, it was beyond my ability. And I later learned that the drains had come to be replaced with a safer drainage system.
I remember how smooth the infield dirt was, but that on occasion, an infielder would reach down to remove a pebble. How, I wondered, could a pebble appear after nearly 50 years of playing there? Did they grow? How did they magically rise to the surface? How could a pebble escape five decades of manicuring? It remains a mystery to me, but then again, science wasn’t my strong suit.
Yankee Stadium, as a functional office building apart from being a playing field, was essentially three usable levels – the basement, with our PR office, the two clubhouses, the press room, offices for electricians, plumbers, painters and grounds crew, and storage areas (where great treasures were discovered upon modernization after 1973), the street level, where the original Yankee clubhouse was built, and where the ticket office, accounting offices, and concessionaire offices stood, and the top level, where the president, GM and farm directors resided. The Stadium Club restaurant, which featured the framed retired uniform numbers 3 (Ruth) 4 (Gehrig) and 5 (DiMaggio) in the lobby, was down the third base line on street level.
The concession stands didn’t show much imagination. In those days, you could buy a yearbook, a scorecard, a pencil, a badge with Yogi or Mickey on it, a pennant, a baseball with facsimilie autographs, a 12-player picture pack (black and white), and maybe a cap. The Yanks were funny about caps. When someone went to general manager George Weiss one day and suggested “Cap Day,” Weiss was said to have pounded his fist on his desk and said, “Do you think I want every kid in this city walking around with a Yankee cap?!”
Either Weiss was far from a marketing genius, or he foresaw the day when nearly everyone doing a perp walk on the local news had a Yankee cap on.
For the renovation, Bob Fishel had suggested building non-baseball offices to lease to outside businesses who would pay plenty to have a Yankee Stadium address. It was an interesting idea that never came to be, just as the original idea of enclosing the entire field with three decks (the 1923 artist renderings showed that), never came to be.
Whatever other dreams were in the mind of Jacob Ruppert probably did come to be. If he dreamed that the team would win more world championships than anyone else in the 20th century, despite giving the rest of the teams a two decade head start, he would have been right. The Yankees went pennant-less from their birth in 1903 as the Highlanders until 1921. He was also classy to name the place Yankee Stadium instead of Ruppert Stadium.
I worked in Yankee Stadium until 1977, including the two years the team played at Shea Stadium during the renovation. When we returned in ’76, my office looked like the George Costanza office on Seinfeld, with windows overlooking the field. It may not have been the same ballpark structurally that the immortals played in, but it was the same patch of earth on which they stood. And there was not a day when I did not peer down and think about working in the same “office” as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle.
Credit Michael Burke, the team president during the CBS ownership years, with insisting that the façade design, which circled the old park, be retained as the décor over the billboards at the rear of the bleachers. In the early ‘70s, that design was not yet thought of as a “logo,” nor held in reverence. He knew it when he saw it. In the end, it was a great contribution to the franchises lore.
And yes, absolutely, credit George Steinbrenner with taking a storied franchise and making it even more legendary, acknowledging all that came before him, honoring the past while giving current day fans a fantastic on-field presentation worthy of exceeding Broadway prices. More stars, and a different ending each day. My only beef with the reverence for the past is that pennant winning seasons, as opposed to world championship winning seasons, are treated as thought the team finished last. All displays featuring the years of championships feature only the ones in which the World Series was won. I think it shortchanges the memories of great pennant winning seasons. But who I am to quibble with Mr. Steinbrenner’s record of success and attention to detail.
As for nostalgia today about moving north a block and leaving the old grounds behind, I take comfort in knowing that, oh, fifty years from now, they will probably tear down the “new” place and build another Yankee Stadium right where this one is. I hope they save the spot. And I hope my grandchildren experience the same feeling of awe when they notice the “speed of sound” thing, although I suspect they will be smarter and richer than me, and be able to plunk down a few thousand bucks for a reserved seat, not one in the grandstand.