My father first took me to Yankee Stadium in 1973 when I was all of eight years old. I didn't realize it until just before the Stadium finale last monthwhen I finally looked up the game on Retrosheetthat it was actually the final night game in the history of the old Yankee Stadium. More specifically, it was the night of September 28th, a Friday night, with the Yankees playing host to the venerable Detroit Tigers. Like the Yankees, the Tigers were playing out the string that fall, but they carried a royal bearing as the defending American League East champions.
As I recall, we had seats somewhere down the left field line; I think they may have been in the reserved section. Man, I loved that Stadium, from its landmark facade, to the wonderful way the upper deck framed the ballpark, to the fading green color of the seats. It was both a stadium and a time machine. Though my father and I had an unobstructed view, some fans near us were positioned right behind one of the old Stadium's columns, which must have completely blocked their vantage point. (Some people call them posts or pillars, but we always referred to them as columns.) Those old columns, while they looked regal on TV or from a long distance, and gave the place the classic feel of a Roman coliseum, were just about the only drawback to that terrific old ballpark.
Aside from those ever-present columns, I'll always remember that game first and foremost for the fact that Woodie Fryman started for the Tigers. (For some reason, my father and I talked about Fryman a lot that night. He was a pretty good left-hander, a so-so starter for the Tigers who eventually became a very serviceable reliever for the Expos.) Fryman gave up all four Yankee runs over six innings, despite having pitched a shutout through the first five frames. The Yankees' early offensive ineptitude against Fryman shouldn't have been surprising considering that Celerino Sanchez batted fifth in manager Ralph Houk's lineup. I haven't bothered to do the research, but that might have been the only time that Sanchez batted fifth in anyone's lineup.
It should have been the last time, too.
In the bottom of the sixth, with the Tigers leading 1-0, Fryman encountered his first stumbling block of the night. Fittingly for me, he gave up a three-run homer to Bobby Murcer, who was one of my two favorite Yankees at the time, along with Thurman Munson. (Sadly, both heroes are gone now, both men dying long before they should have. But they formed the spirit and soul of those Yankee teams.) The Yankees then tacked on another run in the bottom of the seventh on an RBI single by, of all people, Horace "Hoss" Clarke. That would prove to be plenty of run support for Yankee ace Mel Stottlemyre, who pitched a complete-game pseudo-shutout, allowing only one unearned run against a Tigers lineup that featured old favorites like Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Gates Brown, and Bill Freehan. Hey, with players like "Stormin' Norman" and "Gator," it must have been fun to be a Tiger fan back then.
From the Yankee perspective, Stottlemyre, Munson, and Murcer were three of the rare bright spots for the Yankees of 1973. The team was highly mediocre, finishing just below break-even at 80-82. In other words, they were nine games worse than the Yankees of 2008, hardly a sterling lot in their own right.
But none of that mattered. It was a comfortable late September night, my father giving me lessons in baseball. My father taught me a lot about the game, everything from how curveballs used to be called "drops" to the importance of a field manager in establishing attitude and discipline on a team. That old-fashioned stadium, in the midst of a pleasant fall night, provided an ideal setting for a father and son to cross the generations, aided by the common theme of baseball.
Yes, that old Stadium served its purpose very well.
Bruce Markusen writes about baseball for Bronx Banter.