The last Opening Day game at Yankee Stadium has already been treated with several heaping measures of media coverage. We can expect that level of coverage to be ramped up even higher—applied full throttle both locally and nationally—to the final regular season game scheduled for the Stadium later this year.
In contrast, the final game at the old Yankee Stadium was treated with relatively little fanfare. Only 32,238 fans showed up for the 1973 finale; barring a tornado, there will be a full house for the final game of 2008, scheduled for September 21 against the Orioles. Of course, there were several factors at play back in 1973. ESPN, Fox Sports, and the World Wide Web had not yet come into existence. (I’m not sure if Alex Belth, Cliff Corcoran, Emma Span or Will Weiss had even been born yet!) The Yankees were mired in the middle of their mediocrity phase, nine seasons removed from their last postseason appearance and still three years away from their first American League East title—and the start of a late 1970s mini-dynasty. And then there is the "reconstructionist" belief that the old Stadium and the new one are really one in the same, that the current incarnation was simply a renovation and nothing more. I don’t really buy the latter argument, not when you consider how drastically the renovation changed the look of the old Stadium, taking away the majestic old façade and those awful view-blocking pillars. (The pillars were necessary, though, in keeping the old Stadium from toppling to the Bronx floor.) The Stadium that we have enjoyed for the last 35 years, while still beautiful to these eyes, looks far different than the one that was originally created at the outset of the Babe Ruth Era in 1923.
Frankly, the final game in the old Yankee Stadium deserved a better sendoff. Although 35 years late in its delivery, here is a tribute to the final game at the original House That Ruth Built.
On the afternoon of Sunday, September 30, 1973, the Yankees and Tigers closed out their respective seasons with one final soiree before the massive two and a half year reconstruction of Yankee Stadium would take place. Although well out of contention for the American League East, the Yankees did have something to play for that afternoon. They needed a win to finish the season at .500, which would have given Ralph Houk’s final season in pinstripes some respectability.
The departing Houk, who did not enjoy working for new Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, made out the following lineup card, heavy on left-handed hitting, to oppose Tigers right-hander Fred Holdsworth. All in all, it was a respectable lineup, save for the two noodle bats at the end of the order.
Roy White, lf
Mike Hegan. ib
Graig Nettles, 3b
Bobby Murcer, cf
Ron Blomberg, dh
Duke Sims, c
Otto Velez, rf
Hal Lanier, 2b
Fred Stanley, ss
In turn, Tigers manager Joe Schultz, the interim replacement for a fired Billy Martin, countered with this batting order against veteran left-hander Fritz Peterson. It was not exactly a whirlwind lineup, lacking the usual presence of stand-byes Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, and Willie Horton) and filled with prospects and former minor leaguers, most of whom would not pan out. Schultz’ lineup looked nothing like the Tigers team that had won the AL East only 12 months earlier.
Tom Veryzer, ss
Aurelio Rodriguez, 3b
Al Kaline, rf
Frank Howard, dh
Dick Sharon, cf
Bob Didier, c
Joe Staton, ib
Marvin Lane, lf
John Knox, 2b
With the names in place, the Tigers and Yankees began the procedure of playing out the season finale. The Yankees struck first in the bottom of the second inning, with a familiar face setting the table. Bobby Murcer lined a leadoff single, moved up to second on a walk to Duke Sims, and scored on Otto Velez’ double to right field.
Given the ease with which Peterson handled the Tigers’ overmatched lineup, the one run seemed like it would be sufficient. Other than Aurelio Rodriguez (the original A-Rod, as some have called him), Hall of Famer Al Kaline, and the always intimidating Frank Howard, the Tigers’ lineup had the look of a spring training B-game.
Then came the seventh. With one out and Peterson maintaining a 1-0 lead, Tigers catcher Bob Didier laid down a bunt single. (Given his .286 career on-base percentage, Didier should have tried the bunting option a bit more often.) After a Joe Staton forceout, Marvin Lane pounded out the first of his three major league home runs, giving the Tigers a 2-1 lead.
The Yankees bounced back quickly. Filling in for Thurman Munson, backup catcher Duke Sims (a personal favorite of mine) led off the bottom of the seventh with a home run. Velez and Hal Lanier then drew walks against a tiring Holdsworth. (Hey, when you walked Hal Lanier, you must have been exhausted!) Holdsworth gave way to John Hiller, the Tigers’ once-and-future closer and a courageous heart disease survivor, who watched Fred "Chicken" Stanley reach first base on a fielder’s choice after laying down a sacrifice bunt. Hiller then retired Roy White and Mike Hegan, only to allow a two-run single to Graig Nettles’ replacement, the light-hitting Celerino Sanchez.
Now up 4-2, the Yankees could not stand their prosperity for long. Tom Veryzer and Ike Brown (a former Negro Leagues player) started the Tigers’ eighth with singles, chasing Peterson from the game. Houk then called on the ageless Lindy McDaniel, who promptly began giving out bases on balls like he was Brian Bruney’s uncle. McDaniel walked Ron Cash (no relation to Norm), loading the bases. After retiring Howard on a harmless pop-up, McDaniel walked Jim Northrup, allowed a second run on a forceout, gave up a single to Staton, walked Lane, and then gave up two more singles before mercifully being pulled from the mound by an exasperated Houk. By the time that sidewinding Wayne Granger snuffed out the last fire of the inning, the Tigers had scored six runs on six hits and three walks by McDaniel.
After scoring a single run in the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees came to the plate for their final at-bat, down 8-5. Now in his third inning of relief work (imagine that!), Hiller prepared to face Stanley, White, and Hegan, the son of longtime Yankee coach Jim Hegan. Stanley tapped back to the mound, White popped out to right, and Hegan flied out to Mickey Stanley in center field, ending the game in two hours and 29 minutes. With that, the Yankees drew the curtains on Ruth’s House, with few fans outside of New York seeming to notice.
Not only did Hegan’s flyout represent the swansong of the old Stadium, it also brought to an end the careers of several of the game’s participants. For the Tigers, 25-year-old Joe Staton’s brief big league career had reached its conclusion before he could leave a lasting impression. Frank "Hondo" Howard’s far more significant career as a major leaguer also ended, though he would resurface for a brief—and highly unsuccessful—stint in the Japanese Leagues before eventually returning to the new Yankee Stadium as a pinstriped coach.
From the Yankees’ perspective, several players appeared in uniform for the final time: Ron "Rocky" Swoboda, only 29 years old and far better remembered for his glory days as a Miracle Met; baby-faced Hal Lanier, who would eventually return to the game as a hard-bitten manager with the Astros; and Celerino Sanchez, only 29 years of age and a tragic figure who would die a correspondingly young death at the age of 48, the result of a horrifying car crash.
For Sanchez, Swoboda, Lanier, Howard, Staton, and the old Stadium, it all came to an end that Sunday afternoon in the Bronx. The clock and the calendar say that 35 years have passed since then, but those names—and that old Stadium façade—make it seem more like several lifetimes ago.