On his first day in the Bronx in 1923, Babe Ruth crushed a slow hanger out of the yard, something the New York Times would later call "the real baptism of Yankee Stadium." Eighty-five years later, the iconoclastic grounds have born witness to a countless number of baseball's most-revered names and most-inimitable moments.
"I don't know how beloved Shea is, anyway. It's not in the same league (no pun intended) as Yankee Stadium."
Sportswriter Harvey Frommer's Remembering Yankee Stadium is an exhaustive account of The Cathedral of Baseball and a moving tribute from nearly a hundred voices, former players and pinstripe devotees alike. Frommer is the author of more than three dozen sports books, and his latest effort, replete with photography spanning generationspresents a stadium not long for this world in the splendor of those who remember it best.
Gelf spoke with Frommer about taking up a project this size, this year's Yankees team dropping the ball, and what he considers to be the most indelible moments in the stadium's history. The following interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Frommer, along with ESPN's Buster Olney and author Dave Zirin, read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, September 4th, in New York's Lower East Side.
Gelf Magazine: Your latest book is somewhere around the umpteenth in a series of elegiac chronicles about the history of Yankee Stadiumarguably the most storied venue in all of professional athletics, next to perhaps the Colosseum (Rome, not Long Island). What compelled you to put the book together, considering the deluge of similar writings coming out of the woodwork now?
Harvey Frommer: Not to be immodest, but since people keep telling me I know more about the Yankees and Yankee Stadium, I felt my telling the story of the House that Ruth Built was something I could handle with grace and ease. There are other books out there but mine is the definitive one, going decade by decade through my narrative with dozens and dozens of oral-history voices, through 240 or so archival photographsmany never seen before. I thought the stadium needed such a tribute.GM: What do you say to Al Santasiere, though, who just put out Yankee Stadium: The Official Retrospective?
HF: "Congratulations." I'm sure he enjoyed access that was denied to me. Although I've worked for Yankees Magazine for 16 years and written eight Yankee-oriented books and many articles about the team, the brassfor reasons totally unknown to medecided not to cooperate with my effort. I thought that decision was totally unprofessional because there is room in this world for more than one "official" account.
GM: This is your 40th book. How do you manage to mine all this baseball lore, while keeping it fresh?
HF: Anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy workingwhether it is teaching, building stone walls, cutting wood, planting trees and flowers (all this from a "flatlander"), or researching, interviewing for, and writing what I hope are quality books. I compete with myself. I try to do the best I can do for an audience that communicates with me. Remembering Yankee Stadium was a work not only of the brain but also of the heart. To quote the late Al Lewis, "You gotta outwork the horse."GM: Much of your work deals with the Yankees, so I'm going to take a swing in the dark and wager you don't despise them as much as I, half the city, most major American cities, and probably a lot of Japan, does (full disclosure: the writer is a Mets fan, and has proudly given that team the five-odd years off his life that watching their style of play demands). That all said: what are your Top Three most-memorable moments in the stadium's historyanecdotal or historical?
HF: Reggie Jackson's three home runs: Just the sheer drama, just the circumstances of that season when Reggie was "on the ropes" so much of the time, just the arrogance of it all, the power, the lightningfor me, it was a true New York moment. One I could identify with.
Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941: Persistence always appeals to me. Eye on the ball! Then there was the timing of the streak. Day in and day out, the Yankee Clipperat the Stadium and on the roadkept the streak going against the backdrop of a world soon to be totally engulfed in war and major league-ers soon to be in the Armed Forces.
Any time Bob Sheppard spoke over the PA system: Bob Sheppard was Yankee Stadium. I was fortunate some years ago to interview him in his little booth while he went through announcing duties and talked to me without missing a beat. I was fortunate to interview him for Remembering Yankee Stadium, and he added much to the oral history. I was fortunate to have him write the intro for Remembering, as wellthe only book that has this unique feature. Yankee players, opposition athletes, and fans all have always been impressed with Bob' s voice quality, his elegant style, his knowledge of baseball. To me, he is the bestthe "Voice of God."
GM: What are your ruminations on Shea, another vehemently beloved baseball stadium bracing for the wrecking ball at the end of the season?
HF: It's time for it to go. I don't know how beloved Shea is, anyway. It's not in the same league (no pun intended) as Yankee Stadium.
GM: Fair enough, though Billy Joel might take issue. Shifting from the past to the future, what's your take on the new Yankee Stadium? Was it necessary, what will be the effect on the neighborhood (and the team), and would the Yankees have ever left the Bronx if they didn't get the deal they wanted?
HF: The new stadium will be smaller. Tickets will be more expensive. The neighborhood will grow into it, and it will grow into the neighborhood. So many teams have left for greener pastures after not getting deals they wanted; why should the Yankees be an exception? But it's a moot point, anyway.
GM: Do you feel this final season was cheapened in any way by the Yanks' less-than-stellar game play?
GM: On a scale of "just plain sad" to "wracked with the emotional malaise of a thousand dropped championships," how do you expect you'll feel when the stadium is leveled?
HF: The old Yankee Stadium is really not the original one; so much of its was made less attractive in the refurbishment in the mid-1970s. The new Stadium will strive to emulate some of the feel of the one built in 1923. For millions, though, the Stadium has been a place of drama, magical moments, a place to see the best of the best competingan arena epitomized by the eloquence of the voice of Bob Sheppard. It was always a kick for me to be there. But times change and progress is the new ballpark in the Bronx coming in 2009.