Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Look at the "New" Yankee Stadium...circa 1976

"It was a building of stone and steel, that old Yankee Stadium, a massive monument to excellence in the middle of The Bronx, a structure of love and life and legend.

It is gone now, the old replaced by the new, the low fence in right where Babe Ruth set records and Roger Maris broke them, the vastness of DiMaggio's center field country, the hanging facade from the roof that Mantle would crush one day, the bullpen fence jumped by Joe Page, the dugout where Casey sat, the soft dirt around home plate where Lou Gehrig stood and thousands cheered.

Now it is of the past. Only the memories remain, the awe and the shock, the pride and the wonder, when a young man walked up through that tunnel and saw those seats, that size, that history surround him."
In less than one month now, the new Yankee Stadium will open amidst a sea of publicity and fanfare. Newspapers and television networks and blogs will wax poetic about the "dawn of a new age" and the bittersweet transition of old to new. (The New Yorker already ran their review of the stadium.) Some will focus their attentions on the cost overruns and the city's questionable roll in the construction. Regardless, there will be plenty of discussion and press when the Yankees make their regular-season home-debut this April. (Plenty has already been written, of course, but that will only rise ten-fold as the home opener approaches.)

I know, I know... that isn't the boldest of predictions to make. But I feel more than confident when I say that - and that's mostly because this isn't new at all. Back in 1976, the old Yankee Stadium re-opened after having been closed for two years for remodeling. The interior of the stadium was completely rebuilt, including the fences, the seats, the roof, and the original grandstand. When the remodeled Yankee Stadium opened that year, the sportswriters of the time took notice and spent their column space doing exactly what we know today's sportswriters will do next month: waxing poetic about the "dawn of a new age" and the "bittersweet transition of old to new" and also talking about the cost overruns and the city's questionable roll in the construction. In fact, the quote above comes from a 1976 Baseball Digest article by Maury Allen called "Memories of Yankee Stadium Linger On...".

Baseball Digest wasn't the only respected baseball magazine to tackle the topic. In the April 26, 1976, issue of Sports Illustrated, the guys at SI took a look back at "The Fall and Rise of the Yankee Stadium":
"Lots of tradition crumbled when the original Yankee Stadium was dismantled. The famous facade that rimmed the roof is gone—mainly because there is now no roof. Instead, nostalgia buffs must reflect on a facsimile of the facade perched atop the outfield wall or on souvenirs they hauled away during the scavenging that immediately followed the final game in the old park. Those who were unable to unbolt a set of seats could return later for a sale of memorabilia that included an impromptu poster show of the Yanks' pennant-winning past. Sacrificed along with the facade and wooden seats was the old scoreboard. It has been replaced by a larger one that will show replays—as soon as if is put in working order."
Make sure to click through to the article and choose "View This Issue". There are some great pictures of the stadium in various stages of disassembly and construction (look to page 37). But it's the article "A Diamond in the Ashes" from that same issue that best explores the stadium's reconstruction.
"My father trained for schoolboy track meets in Crotona Park, the Bronx; I was born in University Heights Hospital, the Bronx; and my father and I attended our first baseball game together in Yankee Stadium, the Bronx, a warm rite that forever fixed the Bombers as my favorite team in my favorite sport. But I remember, too, being disappointed that first time. Mel Allen on the radio had prepared me for something grander—lusher outfields, a more imposing spectacle, a greater sense of sanctuary from the city squatting beyond the fences. He was preparing me, I now realize, not for the House That Ruth Built, but for the House the Taxpayers Rebuilt, that beautiful, shameful, symbolic enclave that now glitters like a diamond in the ashes of the borough of my birth."
Robert Lipsyte, the article's author, clearly had some issues with the rebuilt stadium, and the estimated $160 million it cost the city (from an original $24 million estimate).
"'Yankee Stadium is a symbol of the value system by which this city, this country, bases its decisions,' he says. 'They can spend all that money for a stadium, but when it comes to a little more for a recreational facility that will really enhance the quality of life through sports, there's just nothing left.'

But symbols and chemistry are the name of the game, whether your city is New York or someplace else, whether your game is baseball or some other sport. The "new" Yankee Stadium is not the all-weather, all-purpose facility New York needs. But as an example of the state of the art of cosmetic architecture, it is a handsome improvement. When I take my son to his first major league game, it will be in a brighter, airier, more comfortable ball park.
'It's all so beautiful that it's a little embarrassing,' says one baseball official, talking about the new park, not the short haircuts. 'So many exquisite touches. You'd think the city could have done a little more for the neighborhood outside the Stadium, like it said it would.'

It will take at least a grand jury to fully explain the process by which New York decided to take over and renovate Yankee Stadium, but we can assume that the coalition that swung the deal was basically the same as the groups that have saddled other cities with publicly funded ball parks for privately owned teams. Regardless of what city you are in, those concerned with property values, labor supply, tourist income and public relations seem to believe that their town cannot be truly major league without a big-league baseball team. In metropolises like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the requisite number is two."
Lipsyte goes on to discuss how the Yankees used the threat of relocation to help secure municipal help for their reconstruction.
"Four years later the Mets were created with the promise of a municipal stadium built and operated under such favorable conditions that the club had most of the advantages of ownership with few of the expenses or responsibilities. In 1971 the Yankees indicated that they might be lured away if the city did not do at least as well by them. I thought it was a bluff at the time and would have liked to have told the Yankees to do the same thing that Mantle had suggested to me, but Mayor John V. Lindsay, Abrams and their colleagues fell over each other declaring Yankee Stadium an essential element in the city's chemistry, a bastion against the white middle-class migration to the suburbs, an anchor to the rehabilitation of the Bronx. "
The closing lines of the article written about the 1976 renovation, which came at a time when much of the city was in dire need of attention and improvement, can easily describe the new Yankee Stadium (except for maybe the multipurpose park - no one wants one of those anymore). In the end, Lipsyte found it a tough sell. It'll be interesting to see what people say about the new stadium once they get a chance to experience it in all its glory.
"That is the crux of the problem exemplified by rebuilt Yankee Stadium, with its 'historical aura' and its huge cost overruns paid for out of public funds. While municipal officials and businessmen argue that keeping their city 'major league' is essential to its well-being, perhaps even to its survival, the nonfans among the youngsters, old folks and those in between who live in the city have inadequate facilities. The savings from less elaborate paving, not to mention a multipurpose park housing all of New York's big-league teams, might have built a monument to sports far greater than Yankee Stadium will ever be."
Granted, today we're in a much different media climate, with the internet and cable tv and 24-hour television and radio shows, but, even considering that, we're not that different than 33 years ago. Ballclubs still want the city to foot the bill for their stadium; cities still want to do all that's in their power to keep their ballclubs in town; and, finally, fans are still as conflicted as ever. They want fancy new amenities, but they don't want to give up their history, and they want their stadiums to be built, but they don't want their cities to cave into the owners' demands. It's a tough situation for everyone to be in, and it will always provide sportswriters something to write about. It happened 33 years ago, it's happening today, and it will happen again. That's just the way things are. Hopefully this modern era of ballparks will at least provide the benefits that were promised to all, so that all this hand-wringing was at least worth something.

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