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Books | Sports

September 30, 2010

A House Full of Memories

Yankees blogger Alex Belth tapped into a vast network of sportswriters for his compilation of memorable moments from the late, lamented House That Ruth Built.

Joseph Ax

Hours after a brawl between the Yankees and the Red Sox on May 20, 1976, left Boston pitcher Bill "The Spaceman" Lee with torn ligaments in his shoulder, he was out in the New York nightlife, downing shots and Demerol with sportswriter George Kimball and the Sox pitching coach. At 3 a.m., Lou Piniella—the man who helped start the fight after a collision with Boston catcher Carlton Fisk—walked into the bar, a chance occurrence in a city of millions.

Alex Belth. Photo by Aris Sakellaridis.
If you live in the city long enough, you see all sorts of places come and go: old movie theaters, bookstores. Sometimes you feel just incredibly lost in this ghost town."

Alex Belth. Photo by Aris Sakellaridis.

Sweet Lou apologized to Spaceman profusely and bought a few rounds. Kimball remarked to Lee, as they walked out into the dawn, that Lou seemed "properly contrite." And Lee delivered the punchline: "What else was he going to say? There were three of us and one of him."

Kimball's story is just one of the compelling tales in Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories: Unforgettable Tales from the House That Ruth Built, edited by Bronx Banter blogger Alex Belth. The book, like Kimball's story, is an engrossing mix of pathos, humor, and personal intimacy, capturing not only the magic of Yankee Stadium but the peculiarity of life in New York City—and, perhaps, the very reasons that sports matter to us so much.

Many of the stories Belth has collected, from sportswriting luminaries such as Richard Ben Cramer, Pat Jordan, Rob Neyer, Tom Boswell, Joe Posnanski, and a host of others, use the stadium as a backdrop for moments of self-discovery, of joy and sorrow, of family and loss. Others feature the House That Ruth Built as a character in its own right.

Maury Allen confesses his role in the wife-and-kids swap engineered (at his house) by Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson. Leigh Montville explains how his best friend ended up sitting in a locker room he had no right to be in with Reggie Jackson after his three-homer World Series game, chatting late into the night. And Jonah Keri remembers missing Dave Righetti's no-hitter, thanks to an ill-timed heat wave.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and space, Belth explains that the book is a tribute to a friend and colleague, the late Todd Drew; talks about whether the new stadium will ever capture Yankees fans' hearts and minds like its predecessor; and describes how Gelf landed him a book deal.

Gelf Magazine: Some of these stories appeared as part of an online series a couple of years ago on your blog. How did they end up becoming a book?

Alex Belth: During the 2008 season, I thought it would be cool to solicit a bunch of people to contribute memories of Yankee Stadium. Over the years with Bronx Banter, I had gotten to know a lot of internet writers and even some of the working media guys, and I just reached out to a whole bunch of them and got an amazing number of responses back from people who were willing to contribute—for free—essays to the site. I collected, I think, 62 in all, and I just ran one a day over a couple of months.
Joe Posnanski has one of my favorite ones. Joe Posnanski is an incredibly nice guy, so I don't want to say that he's someone you can take advantage of, but you can—if you're insistent enough—push on the fact that he's a super-nice guy. He wrote a hilarious essay about me basically badgering him to fucking death. I thought that was really funny, particularly because one of the things we wanted to do in that series was present a whole variety of takes on Yankee Stadium. I wasn't just interested in hearing Yankees fans talk. When you follow the Yankees, you have enough of that reverential bullshit, which is partly great as a Yankees fan but is really exploited pretty obviously by the Yankees and the YES Network. So I didn't want just a pro-Yankee thing. I wanted out-of-town people, people who didn't like Yankee Stadium.
Todd Drew was a fellow blogger who had popped up in the comments section on Bronx Banter, maybe in '05. He started his own site called Yankees for Justice. When I moved the site to a new platform with SNY, I was looking for some extra contributors, and Todd was just the kind of guy who I wanted because Bronx Banter is not just a catchy phrase, it was something I take to heart. I love talking about baseball. I love conversation. Even if I ran the operation, I didn't want to be the only voice. Todd wrote these wonderful blog posts that were much more influenced by guys like Jimmy Breslin, newspaper columnists from an earlier era. That was the kind of voice that I was looking for. And Todd contributed one of the essays to the series.
He wrote it in the second person. I'm always a little leery about the second person, because you have to be so damn good to get away with it. I asked him if he wouldn't mind trying it in the first person. Todd was one of those guys who was always game to make whatever he was working on better. Two days later, he gave me the essay in the first person. It just didn't sing, and I realized he was right in the first place. Eventually, that piece got put into the The Best American Sports Writing 2009 by Leigh Montville. It was a huge honor, but bittersweet for us, because Todd went into the hospital in December of '08 [for cancer treatment] and never made it out.
After Todd passed away, he was only a couple years older than I was, and it was something that shook us up pretty good. We were just completely helpless. The first thing we thought was, maybe we can compile all of his blog entries. Diane Firstman, who's one of our contributors at Bronx Banter, said, "Why don't we put together those lasting Yankee Stadium memories?" That was something I had thought about, but the boat had already sailed on a rush of Yankee Stadium books. I thought we were just too late for that, but she had a point, because the Yankees are always a subject that sells as far as books go.
Actually, it was the first time I did Gelf, that spring in '09: Mark Weinstein, who is an editor over at Skyhorse Press, approached me about compiling them. That's how the book took off.

Gelf Magazine: You got some pretty big names.

Alex Belth: I knew Richard Ben Cramer. He came through with a killer little essay. That took him a year to give me. But when he gave it to me, it was so worth it. He captured something so true not only about Yankee Stadium but about New Yorkers in general. And then my friend John Schulian—who was a former sportswriter and a Hollywood scriptwriter, who came up in the '70s in the Mike Lupica-Tony Kornheiser-Montville era—he got Kornheiser, Thomas Boswell, Charlie Pierce—his contemporaries.
This book was definitely put together with Todd in mind, as a dedication to him. He was one of those guys who was really self-effacing, so he probably would have been embarrassed to know he was the center of attention of a book like this, but at the same time he would have been thrilled by all the guys in the book. Those were all the guys he liked. He was a total sportswriting nerd.

Gelf Magazine: When we spoke last year, we talked about how your blog uses a lot of personal memories and feelings, along with more traditional coverage of the Yankees. And the book shares some of that spirit, I think.

Alex Belth: You're looking for the stories, man. You're looking for the human stories. You take something like Yankee Stadium, and you use it as the backdrop for all of these particular incidents, whether it's Diane Firstman going there with her father, or Pete Hamill Although Bronx Banter focuses on following the Yankees, I really feel it's a New York City lifestyle site, a culture site, as much as it is a sports site. Roger Angell is kind of our model—not necessarily his writing style, but the concept of Roger Angell—that he was a fan writing the fan's experience.

Gelf Magazine: A lot of the memories have almost nothing to do with what's happening on the field—you've got stories in which the stadium itself is just setting the scene for something else, something more profound.

Alex Belth: I mean, Emma Span's story is talking to this really foul-mouthed guy in one of the worst Yankees losses that you can ever remember. You could probably do, like, Empire State Building moments, and it would probably be the same thing. But maybe it has something to do with the Yankees, too. They've won so many times—maybe if you've been to a couple of playoff games and they've won, maybe they blur together in a way that you really remember the time that Steve Balboni got hit in the head with a popup when there were only 2,500 people in the stands.
One of the nice things for me in the book was to read about the old Yankee Stadium, which I never got to see. I definitely made a conscious effort to try to balance some of the older memories as well. I like the fact that there's a couple that mention football as well. It would have been great if we had one on boxing. You could arguably say that the biggest event that ever happened at Yankee Stadium didn't have anything to do with baseball. It could have been the Giants-Colts game in '58 or it could have been Louis-Schmeling. It could have been a friggin' U2 concert or the Pope. It was also nice to mix some of those takes with ones from the guys who worked there in the media. George Kimball's story about the Bill Lee game when he breaks his arm was just freaking great.

Gelf Magazine: And he and Kimball end up out at a bar in the early morning?

Alex Belth: And Lou Piniella shows up all loaded and everything? That's priceless. And Leigh Montville's story about his boys from New Haven where he grew up—his boy Ray-Ray talking to Reggie after he hit the three home runs? That stuff is just priceless.

Gelf Magazine: Any stories in particular that really grabbed you?

Alex Belth: Posnanski's is really funny. Other ones just off the top of my head that really kill me? Josh Wilker, Glenn Stout. Mark Lamster wrote about Melle Mel when Melle Mel used to run the bleachers back in the early '80s. He used to do this killer Stevie Wonder impression. Emma Span's was out of sight. John Schulian, of course. Richard Ben Cramer's—there's almost too many to mention. Leigh Montville, Tom Boswell, Bob Klapisch telling some great behind-the-scenes stories. Steve Goldman and Jon DeRosa. Dayn Perry wrote a really nice one about being a kid from Mississippi who learns about the Bronx by reading a map or an atlas and being mystified. As a New Yorker, I love that.
But I just keep coming back to Richard Ben Cramer's. It's just so short and so sweet, because it's about something so specific to Yankee Stadium and to New York fans' sensibility. But it's almost like picking from your kids—I don't want to leave people out. This is one of those books where you feel like you can just stand behind everything that's in it, which is a thrill.

Gelf Magazine: You end the book with a few stories about the new stadium. Do you think the new building will ever evoke the same kind of memories and emotions that the old one did?

Alex Belth: I think probably, yes. The nostalgic part of me wants to resist saying that's true, because it really was better when I was a kid, but when you follow baseball, that's one of those lines: It was always better when you were young. There are kids growing up now who are going to become great writers or great fans, and the stadium will be all they know. There will probably be some great moments there and some heartbreaking moments there that will form the basis for people's memories.

Gelf Magazine: The old one did have its charms.

Alex Belth: Yeah, charms like batteries being thrown at people's heads.

Gelf Magazine: True—but, for example, the old stadium would literally shake when something big happened. And some people don't think you'll get that feel in the new place, because the seats are too expensive, and the crowd is different.

Alex Belth: Some people might be offended by the garishness of the new stadium, and other people find it more civilized. The shaking was great, but you felt like the place was going to fall in on you. I went to a game earlier this week, and as much as the game experience at the new stadium is dominated by media—by that I mean the HDTV between innings, the constant entertaining of people by showing people in the crowd, so it becomes this constant narcissistic kind of thing—you still see plays on the field when you're at the park that you don't see on TV.
The Yankees had a guy in a rundown on Monday, and there was a guy on third, I think Carl Crawford, trying to score, and Teixeira and Jeter had this other guy in the middle of a rundown between first and second. At the same time they were kind of half-pivoted toward home so Crawford couldn't score. I was watching on TV and saying, "I wish I were at the stadium for this." It was kind of a Keystone Kops moment, this dance they were doing.
It's funny how memory works for us. For some people, memory is completely dominated by who won the game, who lost the game, what happened. For others, it's something incidental: A girl dropped her ice cream when Bobby Murcer hit a game-winning home run.
When we did this series, we could have just called the book Yankee Stadium Memories. But when I originated the series, I didn't want the "best" stadium memories. I wanted lasting stadium memories. Some people like Jay Jaffe gave me a lot of lasting memories, while Richard Ben Cramer gave me just one.

Gelf Magazine: You didn't contribute your own memory of the old stadium for the book. What would you have written about if you had?

Alex Belth: I was there for Roger Clemens's 300th win. I was there for the first playoff game in '95, with my mom after all those years of not making the playoffs. I saw Bobby Murcer hitting a walkoff home run in '81 or '82. There were some pretty great wins. But I would say the last night at the stadium, following Ray Negron. I was out there at four or five in the morning, with hardly anyone around. We sat in the black seats where Reggie's third home run landed. We went inside to the indoor batting cage; at four in the morning, I was sitting in the indoor cage, pitching Ray some BP, and I got in there for a couple of rounds of BP. That's pretty hard to beat.

Gelf Magazine: There's a lot of sadness in the book too—a sense of loss.

Alex Belth: I think that has to be part of it. There is a tie-in with Todd's death that has to be sad. But there's something about living in New York; you have these great institutions and landmarks that are just uprooted and gone. If you live in the city long enough, you see all sorts of places come and go: old movie theaters, bookstores. Sometimes you feel just incredibly lost in this ghost town when you walk down the street. "This is a Barney's now? A Victoria's Secret?" With a place like Yankee Stadium, you knew you were going to get the same kind of sentiment. I don't think the book is overly sentimental, but I think sadness is sort of appropriate when you lose something that matters to you.

Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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