The original three monuments at the original Yankee Stadium
Writer's note: As the New York Yankees had Thursday night off from their tumultuous and stressful 2013 Major League Baseball season, the players and the fans perhaps were granted a long-awaited moment to exhale; a moment to contemplate.
What follows is the result of a Thursday night reflection, as I began to fondly recall Yankees past and present, ultimately coming up empty wishing for a way to link the legends to the "amalgamation" of ballplayers on the current team. While many great traditions made it across E 161st Street—the Bleacher Creatures, as a perfect example—I chose to focus on Monument Park.
The new Yankee Stadium is like your old friend who changed after becoming successful. Despite his humble beginnings and promise to remain loyal and true to himself and his neighborhood, he became famous and renowned over the years; he received a few promotions and acclaim.
Now he drives a Maserati, wears a Rolex, has a custom-built vacuum-chamber wine cellar (even though he truthfully would prefer Coors Light) and offers you Cuban cigars in his wood-paneled home, even though neither of you smoke.
At least when you visit with him to check in on his business—which, at the end of the day, you, your father and your father's father have all supported—you're not only reminded of what once was, you also can also look to that one part of him and see what has always remained true. Perhaps it is his grin, his eyes or his self-deprecation.
Monument Park is the example of that perennially-true detail of the New York Yankees and of the dominating structure of Major League Baseball now known as the new Yankee Stadium. It doesn't matter whether the open-air museum—of 24 plaques and six monuments—rests behind the center field wall of the ballpark that used to sit across the street, or in the new one.
It shouldn't matter that you honestly wish you could have your old pal back. You know, the one who ate sausage and peppers, not filet mignon; the one who occasionally dressed up in a polo shirt, not the one who now dresses down in a suit without a tie.
Change Hurts When "There's No Place Like Home"
Dorothy passionately exclaimed, "There's no place like home!" Any baseball fan—yes, even Red Sox fans—could tell you that there's no place quite like Yankee Stadium.
But most loyal Yankee fans, and many baseball diehards, would correct you: there's really nothing quite like the OLD Yankee Stadium.
They don't necessarily mean the 1923 version, the one known as "The House that Ruth Built," but they do mean the structure that used to stand at E 161st Street and River Avenue until demolishing began in the fall of 2008.
The new Yankee Stadium is markedly different. Despite four years of its massive Indiana limestone facades gracing a drive along the Bronx's Major Deegan Expressway, its similarities to the long-cherished one don't make its presence any more easily accepted.
In fact, it makes it worse in a way.
Sometimes it stings to see the identical dimensions—318' down the left field line, 408' to dead center and 314' down the right field line—stamped on padded navy blue walls that are much darker than the royal blue of the old stadium.
Instead of Robinon Cano or Alfonso Soriano displaying enough muscle to bounce a home-run ball off of the "black seats" the way Reggie Jackson one did, we watch with pleasure as balls clear the fence, but simultaneously with glum because the shot failed to reach—of all things—the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar.
(side note: no disrespect to Jorge Posada, who hit the first home run at the new Yankee Stadium, and managed to slam the ball off the darkened windows of the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar)
Maybe what bothers me about the new stadium is simply symptomatic of any sporting event now: fans are more attached to their phones than ever, content with telling their followers about being at a ballpark rather than drinking it all in (though if you are texting AND drinking you must be 21 years old to do so from the aforementioned sports bar).
Maybe the energy inside the park has changed because ticket prices at Yankee Stadium have skyrocketed to incomprehensible prices, and maybe the crowd is just quieter. Maybe the "fans" who occupy the expensive "Legends Suite" box seats have come to the Bronx from Manhattan's Wall Street and are still discussing business, instead of arriving from Main Street and discussing life.
But either way, the place just doesn't seem to shake, rattle and roll the way it used to.
Monument Park: What Has Always Remained Through it All
Despite many of the modern upgrades and spiritual changes of the new Yankee Stadium—hey, at least to my dismay—Monument Park has fortunately remained.
It used to be an odd addition to center field in front of the fence of the old stadium. It was then safeguarded by a renovated wall closer to home plate and it has now made its way across the street.
Many MLB fans complain, mock or simply comment on a ballpark nuance like "Tal's Hill" at Houston's Minute Maid Park. We even display exuberance when a particularly talented catch is made while running up the hill (as the linked videos above illustrate).
Tal's Hill is that peculiar slope of outfield grass, first interrupted by the warning track, then heading uphill toward its own little pocket of "deep" center field. It even has an in-play flag pole.
Well, before the original Yankee Stadium was renovated and reopened in the 1970s, its flag pole and three monuments rested on the center field warning track—and in play.
Those three original monuments—the first for Miller Huggins, then for Lou Gehrig and third for Babe Ruth—faced home plate for years, their bronze plaques plastered to red granite stones when the straightaway center field wall was 461 feet away from home (as pictured in stunningly gorgeous photographs here and here).
Longtime manager and the ever-quotable Casey Stengel, during a game in which a Yankees outfielder fumbled with a ball hit to deep center, allegedly once yelled, "Ruth, Gehrig, Huggins, somebody get that ball back to the infield!"
A 2008 Daily News article describes the three original commemorative monuments:
[B]efore the 1974 season, three of the monuments (Gehrig, Huggins and Ruth) were in center field near the 461-foot marker. Huggins, the diminutive manager who helped guide the Yankees to their first three World Series titles, was the first to be honored with an on-the-field monument in 1932. Huggins died in 1929, a year after the Yankees' third title. Gehrig's came in 1941, the year the Iron Horse succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the disease that now bears his name. Ruth's monument was unveiled in center field in 1949, a year after the then-home run king's death.
For many years it was thought of as a great achievement to hit one all the way to Ruth, Huggins and Gehrig.
Then, following the renovation, the original three monuments, plus other plaques and the flag pole, were safely enclosed behind the new center field wall, and thus creating "Monument Park."
Over the following years, numerous retired Yankees players and their numbers received plaques, and others, like Joe DiMaggio, were belatedly and deservedly placed on the red stone monuments similar to Ruth, Huggins and Gehrig.
In 1985, visitors to the ballpark were first allowed to tour the famous open-air section that lies between the home and visitor bullpens.
The most recent dedication was constructed in 2010 in honor of owner George Steinbrenner, who, despite much public polarization, undeniably transformed the Yankees into a successful powerhouse and dynasty.
Before him, Red Ruffing's plaque was the most recent to be erected in 2004.
Of the 30 honorees among the mystique of Monument Park are 27 baseball-related honorees. There are 25 former Yankees players, one longtime owner (Steinbrenner) and one Dodgers great Jackie Robinson. There are additionally three non-baseball-related dedications, including two to honor the respective 1965 and 1979 Masses of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II held at Yankee Stadium and one for the victims of 9/11.
When the tradition of the New York Yankees moved across the street for the start of the 2009 season, all of the honored legends' plaques were carefully brought into their new home, and, as we might like to think, their ghosts were too.
Take Your Kids, Ensure They'll Someday Take Theirs and Pass Along the Legacy
You could visit Monument Park when the Bronx Bombers are on the road but that doesn't hold the same value as making your rounds, paying your Yankees respects and sitting in for a current game with the context and history of the pinstripes fresh in your mind.
Bring your family—even that old friend who now drives the Maserati—and show up to the home game when the gates open. The museum and its monuments remain accessible until 45 minutes prior to the first pitch (per Yankee Stadium Information).
Here is a description from CBS News' Yankee Stadium Guide for visiting the stadium, that, of course, makes inevitable mention of our favorite sports bar:
Although it is now partially covered by the Mohegan Sun sports bar, Monument Park is still the place to pay tribute to the Yankee greats of the past. The Park has been moved from left field to center to honor the placing of the original three monuments at the original Stadium, though they are no longer in the field of play. There are now six monuments and 24 plaques in Monument Park. On game days, it opens with the gates and remains accessible until 45 minutes prior to the game start time. Only a few dozen fans will be let in at a time.
Even though "Only a few dozen fans will be let in at a time," maybe it is best that way.
It is not comparable to visiting Leonardo Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" at the Louvre, crowding around a tiny—abeit enormously famous—square simply to say you were there.
Monument Park is best taken in slowly, contemplated subjectively and ultimately shared passionately with others.
Its space carries a certain aura that makes you believe there really are ghosts of the players honored. Maybe you have visited or maybe you will visit, and you might feel as though there is some life beyond the center field wall. As if some former legends are watching the game, wishing the team and the game well.
Former Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens was no stranger to Monument Park, either.
Before every Yankees game he started on the mound, Clemens would venture out to the area between the bullpens and rub the raised bronze figure of Babe Ruth's monument.
He is known to be a superstitious man, but perhaps Clemens had been picking up a little magic in the House that Ruth Built.
Even if he was not given anything by Ruth, Clemens certainly showed his appreciation for whichever baseball gods guided the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. The accompanying picture shows Clemens after the extra-inning game he had started—the game in which Aaron Boone, in the bottom of the 11th inning, sent the first pitch he saw from Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield soaring into the left field stands of Yankee Stadium.
As many players and coaches ultimately said of the unbelievable end to the game, "The ghosts of Yankee Stadium came out."
Or if you were a Sox fan at the time, the Curse of the Bambino, who was peacefully perched in center field, simply continued to haunt Boston.