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Saying Good-Bye to the Old Stadium
2008-04-04 08:10
by Bruce Markusen
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

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.

 

Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" at http://bruce.mlblogs.com.

Comments
2008-04-04 08:21:44
1.   mehmattski
The "who hit the last homer in Yankee Stadium I" was the trivia question on YES the other night. Michael Kay seemed confident, but also seemed surprised when it turned out to be Duke Sims.

Also, a philisophical question- if we're considering the renovated building as something new for the sake of memories and records, does that mean the current stadium is The House that Dale Ford Built?

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA197604150.shtml

2008-04-04 10:30:21
2.   Alex Belth
Bruce, thanks so much for this piece. It is terrific. And yeah, I was but a babe in 73--two years old.
2008-04-04 10:32:01
3.   markp
According to the SWB blog, Melancon is ok. Apparently his name was omitted from the line-up card, so he couldn't pitch.
2008-04-04 10:36:10
4.   Just fair
My wife just e-mailed asking me to guess what she just did that would make me very happy. Naturally, I simply responded with a Yankees logo. My early b-day gift is one last visit to the Bronx April 16th against the Sox. Man, am I pshched. My last trip was in the freezing rain to watch K. Brown beat the D-Rays for his 200th. Whoopity-do.
2008-04-04 11:20:07
5.   The Mick 536
Terrific. I am with you on the issue of the renovation. Changed the character of the field. Tell me why they didn't make the field more accessible to football? Giants may have stayed in New York, yes.

Funny you highlight Mike Hegan, noting his father's coaching stint with the Yankees. Thinking of him the other day while reflecting on the late season additions who Yanks would bring in to make a run for the pennant. May need one this year.

As for the old man, he starred also as a catcher with the Indians during the careers of Garcia, Wynn, Narleski, Lemon, Feller, Newhouser, etc. Thought he was part of the Cleveland connection, Paul and Rosen, that Georgie relied on in the early years. Otherwise, why take Mike, were it not a favor? He came to the Yankees in August when the team was three games out, replacing Johnny Callison on the roster who was hitting well below the Mendoza line. That ended Callison's career. The Yankees ended the season two games under .500, as noted, 17 games behind. So much for Mike.

It was the beginning of a very interesting transition period for the team. This years team has a similar challenge.

2008-04-04 11:35:16
6.   OldYanksFan
If tonight is rained out, will there be a double-header in the next 3 days?
2008-04-04 11:45:19
7.   JL25and3
I've never had any problem considering the renovated Stadium as a continuation of the old one. When they first reopened it, the dimensions were a lot closer to the previous ones than they are now. Deepest left-center was 430' in 1976, and they chipped away at it for the next decade. (I still consider that "399" sign to be an affront.)

Those dimensions helped the continuity, at least for me. And the field was still the field where Ruth and Gehrig played...

2008-04-04 11:45:54
8.   JL25and3
6 No, not with the number of times they see Tampa Bay.
2008-04-04 12:24:51
9.   Sliced Bread
The renovation of the Old Stadium sparked my childhood conversion from Mets to Yanks fan, and I wonder if it had the same effect on other kids from Queens in the early 70's

I lived in Flushing from '66-'76, and even though my dad was a lifelong Yanks fan (who grew up in Queens), out of convenience my first games, birthday parties, etc. were at Shea, which was minutes from our house.

When the Yanks started playing at Shea, pop started taking me there more frequently, and I could tell he was more jazzed about them than the Mets (even though the Mets were a better, more exciting team those seasons).

In April of '76, the month Stadium re-opened, we moved from Queens to Long Island. My dad took me to the new Stadium that summer, and I officially joined the Yanks bandwagon. Pretty good time to make the jump, too, and never looked back.

Still, I've always had a soft spot for the Mets, which I understand is impossible for the more hardcore fans of either NY club to comprehend.

2008-04-04 13:11:12
10.   Shaun P
7 Its that field I'm going to miss. I've been to the Stadium only twice in my life (so far). I have only a few memories of the structure - the most vivid involves Matt Nokes, of all people - but I have plenty of memories of watching things happen on that field.

Though I never saw the original Stadium, except in pictures, I always felt a connection to it because of the field. It didn't matter that the structure around it looked different. As you said, JL, the field was still the same ground where Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and the rest played.

I still wish the Yanks had built the new stadium where the old one is, and kept the continuity of the field alive.

2008-04-04 13:14:42
11.   JL25and3
9 "I could tell he was more jazzed about them than the Mets (even though the Mets were a better, more exciting team those seasons)"

Funny, I think the Yankees were better than the Mets - certainly in 1974 - and they were far more interesting. The 1973 Mets were basically a .500 team despite the NL pennant, and in 1974 they lost 91 games. They also had pretty much the same case of characters they'd had for some time, quite a few of them past their prime.

The Yankees were revamping their team, and it was fun. Nettles (a year earlier), Chambliss, Piniella, Elliott Maddox, and even Medich, Tidrow and Rudy May. In '75 they made the big Bonds deal and signed Catfish Hunter. Unfortunately, that year they were totally screwed by injuries - but they were still at least as good as the Mets, and they were on the way up rather than the way down.

2008-04-04 13:28:01
12.   Sliced Bread
11 yeah, no question the clubs were going in opposite directions, but I guess for me it took a while for the Mets to lose their World Series glow. Seaver was still around, Mays had only just retired, and shit, they had Yogi, so they still had plenty of juice for my growing bones. What did a kid my age know from past prime?
2008-04-04 13:36:36
13.   JL25and3
12 Fair enough, especially seen from a Mets perspective. I was a long-suffering Yankee fan by then, and those were really fun years.
2008-04-04 14:42:49
14.   OldYanksFan
Can someone tell this NH boy if there will be a game tonight?
2008-04-04 16:01:47
15.   Biscuit Pants
I was in the old stadium as a kid and remember the pictures in the paper of the renovation. They stripped the interior of the ball basically down to it's foundation and entirely rebuilt the upper deck. The current stadium is the The House That John Lindsey Built, not GHR's.

Here's a good comparison of the field changes:

http://tinyurl.com/6pu7j9

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