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Bringing Down the House That Ruth Built

THE SPORTING NEWS

One willful and weird man with a power saw, socket wrench and crowbar could do the work in the wee hours of night. He could rent a cherry-picker to lift him to the underside of Yankee Stadium’s upper deck. There he could hack away plaster covering steel-beam joists. Then it’s a matter of loosening a few rivets.

And . . . CLANG! Down falls a 500-pound beam into empty seats of Section 22 on the loge level. No one is hurt. But the incident sets off a metropolitan panic. Yikes! The House That Ruth Built is falling down! Time to get a new ballpark!

All of which brings up questions. Where was the willful, weird George Steinbrenner in the wee hours of April 13, 1998? Does he have an alibi that can be confirmed? Can we be certain that even if he didn’t do the foul deed himself, he didn’t hire it done?

Just kidding. But you have to admit that it’s nigh unto irresistible to imagine The Boss as the sweaty saboteur of Yankee Stadium. After all, it’s obvious the owner wants to move his Yankees from the Bronx to downtown Manhattan. There the city would build the first $1 billion stadium. What better justification for a move than the disintegration of Babe Ruth’s playpen?

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Though made rich and famous by the Yankees, with incalculable thanks to Yankee Stadium’s majesty, Steinbrenner for years has been the stadium’s leading critic.

He believes it to be obsolete. He has decried its location as a den of iniquity unsafe for human visitation. He has wailed about poor city response to his business needs; to give those wailings a human face, he once leaped into the street and directed game-day traffic himself.

Steinbrenner’s propaganda has been productive. Not only has he persuaded himself of the need to abandon baseball’s most hallowed ground, he has enlisted the help of New York’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who seems to go few places these days unless dressed in a style best described as Aging Yankee Batboy.

Under his Yankee cap and wearing his Yankee warmup jacket to a news conference at the stadium, the mayor declared dead anyone who might have been in Seat 7 of Section 22 when the beam came down. Left unsaid was the thought that such a thing might happen again with someone in Seat 7. Further left unsaid: It’s time to blow up Yankee Stadium and start over.

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The Yankees’ lease on the city’s stadium expires in 2002. Steinbrenner has made noises about a renovation that might run into hundreds of millions of dollars on a stadium renovated only 23 years ago for more than $100 million.

Most Steinbrenner-watchers believe those noises are made only as disingenuous cover to placate folks who believe the Yankees belong to the Bronx, not to The Boss. But when it comes to doing what he wants to do--and when did Steinbrenner ever do less?--it’s likely he will ask the city to raise a ballpark so mammoth as to be a miniature of his ego.

Steinbrenner and Giuliani would move the Yankees from the Bronx to Manhattan, from a den of iniquity to a city of manners, from Babe Ruth’s time to Derek Jeter’s time. The new place would be on the West Side.

Curiously enough, that site would be near one of the original prospective sites for Yankee Stadium. The Yankees had moved from Hilltop Park, where they’d been the Highlanders, to share the Polo Grounds with the Giants. But when the Yankees came to Ruthian greatness, the Giants’ manager, John J. McGraw, wanted them gone. “The Yankees,” he said, “will have to build a park in Queens or some other out of the way place.”

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Yankees Owner Jacob Ruppert found three possible sites: 34th street near Penn Station; upper Manhattan at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum; a lumber yard in the Bronx.

The U.S. War Department took the 34th street property. Beer could not be sold on the orphanage land. Which left the Bronx. On May 5, 1922, construction began on Yankee Stadium. It was open for the 1923 season. In a time when an ice cream cone cost three cents and a hot dog a nickel, the most beautiful ballpark in creation cost $2.3 million.

Opening day, April 18, 1923, brought a reported 74,200 people to the stadium. “Ruth appeared several minutes after the rest of the team, and the crowd gave the Big Boy a great hand,” wrote Frederick G. Lieb of the New York Evening Telegram. “Jones was the practice pitcher, and Ruth slammed the first pitch into the right field bleachers near the exit which reads, ‘This way out.’ ”

My friend, the sportswriter Jane Leavy, grew up listening to Yankee Stadium. She listened to the ballpark’s sounds from a building called Yankee Arms on a street where Babe Ruth once lived (and from where he walked to work).

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“As a child,” Leavy says, “I sat in my grandmother’s living-room window with my radio, listening to Mel Allen. I’d hear the crack of the bat on the radio and then hear the echoing of the real crack of the bat coming through the side streets. We’d be having dinner, with the windows open--this was before air conditioning--and all of a sudden there’d be this roar. We knew the Yankees had done something.”


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