On a balmy afternoon in February, 1999, as old Yankee Stadium was getting her face lifted and nails polished for the spring opener, I visited the grand old yard to peer into the nooks and corners of her incomparable history and at once found myself standing on the pitcher’s mound, turning slowly on the rubber to behold the scene.

Over the years, I had seen and covered many games in this fabled yard, but not until I stood on that elevated mound of dirt—alone on that field, in silence, with only a few pigeons for company—did I fully understand Babe Ruth’s two-word exclamation when he first stepped from the dugout at Yankee Stadium and looked up at her distant walls, her tiered seats, her vastness. It was April 18, 1923, the day of the grand opening of the 70,000-seat stadium, and here the Babe declared for the ages: “Some ballyard!”

“From the plain of the Harlem River it looms up like the great Pyramid of Cheops from the sands of Egypt.”

Writers would soon be elbowing each other aside to find words bold and colorful enough to describe the place and the things that happened within it.

F.C. Lane, in one article, wrote, “From the plain of the Harlem River it looms up like the great Pyramid of Cheops from the sands of Egypt.”

It was only 281 feet down the line in left, but from there the wall flared suddenly outward until it rose 490 feet away, in dead centerfield. Wrote one pop-eyed scribbler for The New York Sun: “The flag pole seems almost beyond the range of a siege gun as it rears its height in distant centerfield.”

What a day it must have been in this old house! More than 70,000 people crowded cheek-by-jowl in the stadium on that opening day, and cordons of police ringed the dirt roads around it, at one point forming a phalanx to protect the flinty-jawed new baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, as he broke through the flivver dust and pushed his way through the gates. On the field, John Phillip Sousa led the Seventh Regiment Band in the Star-Spangled Banner as the two rival managers—New York’s Miller Huggins and Boston’s Frank Chance—hauled in the rope that lifted the flag above the centerfield fence.

Of course, The Babe had the final word that first day, homering to lead the Yankees to a 4-1 victory over the Red Sox. Not to be outdone, and in the spirit of the day and the occasion, sportswriting immortal Grantland Rice rolled up his sleeves, spit on his hands and came up with a kind of pear-shaped lead that was nearly as colorful as Ruth himself: “A white streak left Babe Ruth’s 52-ounce bludgeon in the third inning of yesterday’s opening game at the Yankee Stadium. On a low line it sailed, like a silver flame, through the gray, bleak April shadows, and into the right field bleachers. And as the crash sounded, and the white flash followed, fans arose en masse … in the greatest vocal cataclysm baseball has ever known.”

From that mound some 76 years later, you could almost see Ruth’s silver flame as it streaked out of the infield and toward the seats, until at last it gradually resolved itself into a fat, gray pigeon winging down and across the field from the upper deck. Over those seven and a half decades, Yankee Stadium became the richest repository of memories in American sports. This was where heavyweight champion Joe Louis fought eleven times, and it is where, in 1938, in the most politically electrified prize fight in history, the Brown Bomber knocked out Hitler’s paragon of Aryan supremacy, Max Schmeling, at 2:04 of the first round.

This was the field where Rocky Marciano, his nose butterflied like a Benihana shrimp and bleeding profusely, came back in a final, ferocious assault to punch out Ezzard Charles and retain his title. This was the house where Johnny Unitas, on Dec. 28, 1958, in what came to be known as The Greatest Football Game Ever Played, started on his own 14-yard line and drove the Baltimore Colts down field in the final two minutes of regulation play—throwing one unerring pass after another to flanker Raymond Berry—to set up a field goal that tied the game, 17-17. The Colts then won it in overtime, 23-17.

In the end, though, this was always The House that Ruth Built. Here the Bambino turned the home run into the engine that drove baseball out of the shadows of the Black Sox scandal and into a run of decades in which it grew into the national pastime. Stand on that mound and close your eyes and you can see them all on a February afternoon.

There is Ruth mincing around the bases on his way to hitting 60 home runs in 1927, and there he is slipping out a door in the right field fence, between innings, to have a hot dog or three surrounded by fans. There is Lou Gehrig, ailing and tired, listening to the echoes of his own farewell speech in 1939. And there is little Al Gionfriddo, the Dodger left fielder, looking over his shoulder as he miraculously ran down Joe DiMaggio’s 415-foot drive in the ’47 Series, with Red Barber famously yelling into his radio microphone, “Gionfriddo’s going backbackbackback!” As Al reaches and catches it, Barber cries out, “Oh, doctor!”

Of all the baseball played in Yankee Stadium in 85 years, nothing matched what happened there on the most memorable night of all, on Oct. 18, 1977, when the Yankees, leading the Dodgers 3 games to 2 in the World Series, were home to face Los Angeles in the sixth game. Reggie Jackson had been perceived as the villain ever since he showed up at Spring Training and declared that he, not team leader Thurman Munson, was the man to lead them to their first World Series victory since 1962. “I’m the straw that stirs the drink,” Reggie said. “Thurman thinks he can stir it, but he can only stir it bad.” That judgment was probably true, but his utterance of it left him ostracized and alone in the Yankee clubhouse, and he spent a good part of the year dodging slings and arrows in the press and fighting with manager Billy Martin. So Jackson came to the sixth game of the ’77 Series still suffering through what had surely been his longest season. Of course, as things turned out, October was his glass, the World Series was his drink, and no one in the annals of baseball ever stirred it better.

Stand on that mound and you can replay it swing by swing.

In the fourth inning, with the Yanks losing 3-2 and with Munson on base, Jackson drove Burt Hooton’s first pitch, a fastball, on a low line into the right field seats. When Jackson trotted into the dugout, Yankee teammates mobbed him, and Billy Martin—who had tried to drop Jackson with a punch to the jaw in June—now patted him gleefully on his cheek.

In the fifth inning, again with a runner on base, Jackson jumped on Elias Sosa’s first offering, another fastball, and Reggie hammered it on a hard line that traced again to the right field stands. The Stadium erupted. He trotted the bases with his shoulders back, his chin up. Again the players swarmed him in the dugout. Fans chanted for him to tip his hat.

By the time he strolled to the plate in the eighth, as memorable as any walk he ever made, the very air felt electrically charged.  Were we witnessing one of the greatest performances in baseball history, a World Series performance for the ages, and in the House that Ruth Built? Yes, we were. Jackson stepped sharply into Charlie Hough’s first pitch, a knuckle ball that did not knuckle, and crushed it in the general direction of Queens.

You can tear her down, brick by brick. You can haul her off to Montauk Point. But you cannot now, you cannot ever, steal her eternal ghosts away from here.

The titanic blow, and the moment, inspired columnist Red Smith to pen a few rainbow lines reminiscent his late friend, Grantland Rice, writing in The New York Times:  “Straight out from the plate the ball streaked, not toward the neighborly stands in right but on a soaring arc toward the unoccupied bleachers in dead center … Up the white speck climbed, dwindling, diminishing, until it settled at least halfway up those empty stands, probably 450 feet away.”

The Yanks won the game, 8-4, and with it the World Series.  I can still hear Tom Lasorda, the losing Dodger manager, saying, “It was the greatest performance I ever saw in a World Series.”

Now I left the mound and moved across the outfield to Monument Park, where a Yankee tour guide was leading about 20 young visitors through that hallowed little patch of ground where old Yankee heroes have been enshrined in a kind of Bronx hagiography. The visitors stopped and stared as they entered the place. There in front of them, as stark as tombstones in a country churchyard, were four bronze plaques representing, in bas-relief, the cheery visages of Ruth, Gehrig, Huggins and Mickey Mantle. Nine young boys from Yorktown, NY, were there to visit, and as they stood there looking at those old stone slabs, one of the boys, 10-year-old Chris Raiano, said what all of them were wondering at the moment.

“Are they all buried here?” Chris asked.

“No they are not,” Deirdre Weldon, a mother of one of the boys, replied. “Only the memories are.”

You can tear her down, brick by brick. You can haul her off to Montauk Point. But you cannot now, you cannot ever, steal her eternal ghosts away from here.

This story is collected in Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories.

[Photo Credit: Ross David Lewis]

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