I saw three games at “New” Yankee Stadium, the so-called “House That George Built,” as my 19th ballpark of the summer. It wasn’t my first visit, Mrs. Nomad and I had been there once before, so I knew what the Stadium was like.
I believe baseball stadiums are shrines to a team’s baseball legacy. Each game played in the park honors that legacy. The stadium itself is perhaps the most visible statement about a team’s respect for the past. Additionally, teams honor their greatest players with retired numbers and statues. SunTrust in Atlanta and Yankee Stadium have monument gardens, to name just two examples. Many teams have Hall of Fame areas in their stadiums that provide an important historical connection to the past for the fans of the future.
The original Yankee Stadium was the “Cathedral of Baseball.” So many vital events occurred at the original site, it’s sad that it was torn down. Amateur baseball fields across the street now occupy that site.
Building the replacement across the street was in my opinion, a tragic blunder. It’s inconceivable that the Yankees, an organization that says it values its legacy and traditions more than almost anything else, demolished the old stadium. Baseball deserved better.
The Yankees have broken a few of their other traditions as well.
The Yankees Legacy
From 1913 to 1922 the Yankees shared Manhattan’s Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants. Giants owner, Charles Stoneham and manager John McGraw found it frustrating that the upstart Yankees were a bigger draw than the World Champion Giants. 1 The Yankees had this kid named Babe Ruth who was in the process of revolutionizing baseball and sports celebrity. Stoneham and McGraw’s reaction to Ruth and the Yankees’ increasing popularity was to evict them after the 1922 season. The Yankees ownership always wanted a permanent home in the area and built their new stadium right across the Harlem River in the Bronx.
The mammoth Yankee Stadium which people referred to as “The House That Ruth Built” opened at the start of the1923 season. For the next 85 years, Yankee Stadium was the center of the baseball universe. In that span, the Yankees won 39 pennants and 26 world championships. Great Yankee players like Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter thrilled the home town fans. Most of all, some very significant moments in baseball history happened there:
- Ruth’s 60th home run
- Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of the earth” farewell
- Roger Maris’ 61st home run
- Don Larson’s World Series perfect game
- Jackie Robinson stealing home in the World Series
As The Yankees won championships, they codified a series of traditions. The Yankees have:2
- worn their iconic white pinstripe uniforms since 1912, continuously since 1915 3
- worn plain gray uniforms with block lettered “New York” since 1916, continuously since 1931
- never worn names on the backs of their jerseys 4
- worn the insignia with interlocked “NY” on their navy blue caps since 1923 and their chests since 1936
- used the “bat in hat” logo since 1947
- maintained some sort of Monument Park since 1932, when they built their first on-field one dedicated to Miller Huggins
Little Change Since1936
pictures via http://exhibits.baseballhalloffame.org/dressed_to_the_nines
Although the Yankees declare their pride for these traditions, over the years, they compromised some of them when they deemed it necessary. In my mind, it all comes back to George Steinbrenner and money.
If you sacrifice what you say is most important so that you can make more money than I would suggest it wasn’t that important in the first place. It’s easy to say tradition is vital if you don’t have to choose it over more money.
Sacrificing tradition for the sake of higher profits cheapens the Yankees brand.
In 1973, George Steinbrenner led a group of investors in purchasing the then struggling Yankees and started a sometimes controversial resurgence. Steinbrenner was a bombastic owner, and the story of his turbulent tenure is well known. His philosophy was that winning the World Series was the only acceptable option for his Yankees. To do so, he spent millions on free agents, hired and fired managers, and won a few championships. However, his teams finished out of the running quite often. The myth of tradition and success continued.
The Myth of Steinbrenner Success
“I’m not a win-at-all-costs guy. Winning isn’t everything. It’s second to breathing.5
“I hate to lose. Hate, hate, hate to lose.” 6– George Steinbrenner
The Yankees won their first pennant in 1921, their first World Series in 1923. Since then, they have won 40 pennants and 27 world championships. 7 It’s a stupendous achievement and one that the Yankee organization is entirely justified in being proud of. However, the pace of the championships slowed in the mid-1960s. It remained relatively slow throughout the Steinbrenner era.
Although Steinbrenner’s Yankees won seven world championships, most occurred in a short five-year span. The Yankees won four championships in the extraordinary period from 1996 to 2000. However, in the previous seventeen years, the Yankees did not win any championships. Similarly, in the following 18 years since 2000, the team has won only one championship.
Consider that in the ten years before I was born in 1957, the Yankees won nine pennants and seven world championships. They barely equaled this performance in the 45 years since Steinbrenner bought the team.
An 18-year-old Yankee fan who brags about the team’s legacy of twenty-seven championships has only experienced one of them. However, kids the same age in:
- Boston experienced four championships
- San Francisco saw three championships
- St. Louis celebrated two championships
- Eight other cities experienced one championship
Steinbrenner parlayed this exaggerated view of the Yankees on-field success into a fortune. The team is currently worth $4.6 Billion. “The value of the Yankees has compounded annually at 15% since a group led by George Steinbrenner paid $8.8 million for the team in 1973” 8
The Steinbrenner family also reaped a lot of money:
“Steinbrenner’s initial investment in the purchase of the team was just $168,000 (about $890,000 in today’s dollars) according to the L.A. Times, or about 1.9% of the total sale price. By the time Steinbrenner passed away in 2010, his stake in the team had grown to 57%. That share was passed on to his family, led by his sons Hank and Hal.”
“If the Steinbrenner family still owns 57% of the team, it is now worth more than $1.8 billion, or about 200,000% more than the elder Steinbrenner’s initial investment (considering inflation).”Cork Gaines – Business Insider 9
The New Stadium
Why would a historically successful team that insists its traditions are sacrosanct decide to remove the centerpiece of that tradition? I’m going to suggest that those traditions aren’t as sacrosanct as the Yankees claim. It was easier to build across the street and demolish the existing structure. Moreover, doing so, generated the most significant financial return.
Were Physical Improvements Needed?
Yankee Stadium was falling apart, pieces of concrete were falling from its facade. A solution was necessary.
However, almost from the beginning of his tenure, Steinbrenner lobbied for public support to replace the Stadium. As a first step, the Yankees shared Shea Stadium with the Mets in 1973 and 1974 while they remodeled Yankee Stadium. 10
However, after the remodel, Steinbrenner kept pressuring New York for a new stadium. So much so, in the mid-1990s he threatened to move to New Jersey if the city didn’t support a new ballpark. 11 His initial stated concern was that the surrounding neighborhood was dangerous and depressed attendance.12 However, since the Yankees annual attendance has been between 3 and 4 million fans, since 1998, he needed another reason. 13
The other stated needs were “greater revenue, additional parking and better access from highways.” The additional revenue would come from “entertainment attractions, retail shops, and restaurants.”14 Luxury boxes would add even more revenue. 15
My opinion is that 1974’s remodel wasn’t appropriate. Removing the famous frieze that hung from the rooftop and other design changes did not maintain the Stadium’s historical grandeur. Building the new Stadium that was more respectful of the original design was preferable.
However, the best option was to rebuild on the same site, to maintain (and re-establish) the historical connection.
Was Renovation or Replacement Possible?
The question is, was it possible to rebuild at the existing location or renovate the existing structure? Did they have to build a new stadium across the street?
To Steinbrenner, brand new was better than any reclamation project. The city presented plans to renovate the existing stadium. However, the sense from team officials was that the concept would likely not satisfy Steinbrenner.
“Can any structure or renovation ever satisfy the demands of the mid-’90s, consistent with other state-of-the-art facilities around the country?”David Sussman, Yankees Executive Vice President and General Counsel 16
It was also easier and cheaper to build across the street.
To rebuild, they likely would have had to play at a different site for a year or two. That would inconvenience fans – especially season ticket holders – and risk revenue. They would also incur higher costs to lease a new park etc.
Renovation might allow games during construction but would inconvenience many and likely reduce revenue due to lower attendance. Moreover, the project would take longer to complete if they tried to use the Stadium as they renovated.
However, the Yankees couldn’t have it both ways. It’s contradictory to portray their organization as protectors of tradition yet tear down the real Yankee Stadium. Similarly, they can’t explain away the contradiction by complaining about costs. They are the wealthiest team in sports charged with protecting the sport’s grandest traditions. Costly renovations to preserve the sport’s legacy are part of the deal.
The House That George Built
The real debasement of the Yankee tradition is referring to the new Stadium as “The House That George Built.”17
Note that Steinbrenner’s picture looks out over the playing field at the new Stadium. In contrast, there are no similar pictures of any of the great Yankees players. The fans came to see Babe Ruth in 1923 and other great players after that. The fans never paid to see Steinbrenner or any other owner do anything. You can’t exchange Ruth for Steinbrenner and pretend you protect the Yankee tradition.
One wonders if Steinbrenner also “considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth?”
Do The Yankees Honor Their Traditions?
The new Stadium is the most egregious example of the Yankees not protecting their traditions. However, while we’re on the subject, let’s discuss other ways where the Yankee commitment to tradition is wanting.
The Yankees reinforce the idea that they are more successful than other teams by having more retired numbers than any other team. There are currently 21 retired numbers for 22 players – they’ve retired the number 8 twice. 18 The bloated list of retired numbers cheapens the tradition by falsely elevating players into the pantheon of great Yankees.
Through the 1960s only four players: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle had their numbers retired. The team added three more numbers in the 1970s, representing Dickey, Berra, Whitey Ford, and Casey Stengel. After that, the Steinbrenner marketing approach went into action, and the team retired another 13 numbers.
Many of the numbers retired in the Steinbrenner era honor some pretty good ballplayers; however, they were not all significant. Guys like former centerfielder Bernie Williams, pitchers Andy Pettitte and Ron Guidry, and catcher Jorge Posada don’t qualify. There are others as well – this article provides a good list.
In my mind, you need an exceptional reason to retire a player’s number if he is not already in Cooperstown. As such, Thurman Munson, the great catcher who died tragically in a mid-career plane accident, is undoubtedly deserving. Arguably, there are other ways to honor great players. For example, the Blue Jays list the names of their great players, but only retired the numbers of those elected to the Hall of Fame. Statues are another idea. For example, the Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds have a series of these outside Busch Stadium. Frankly, most teams do.
Where’s Jackie Robinson’s Number?
The only number missing from the Yankees display of retired numbers is Jackie Robinson’s number 42. I have not visited any other ballpark that doesn’t include Jackie’s number displayed prominently.
I invite my readers to hypothesize about the missing number 42 as I would prefer not to speculate. However, please don’t suggest that not including his number has something to do with a conflict with Mariano Rivera’s retired number 42. Remember that they display two number 8’s.
Of course, there is a plaque honoring Jackie in Monument Garden. It’s the same size as most of the other players, which are roughly half the size of Steinbrenner’s.
“but wearing a Yankee uniform represents tradition”George Steinbrenner 19
“The Yankees love traditions; for example, with very few exceptions, the team’s uniforms—pinstripes, no names on the back of each players’ jersey—haven’t changed since the early 20th century”Amy Pitt 20
The Yankees have been wearing the same – white, pinstripe home uniforms consistently since 1915. They first wore them in 1912. 21 Similarly, the Yankees started wearing plain gray road uniforms with the block “New York” letters on the front in 1916. Except for a short period between 1927 and 1930, they have done so ever since. 22
Jersey’s With Names On The Back
While the no-name policy is the Yankee tradition, they still license Yankee merchandise with names on the back and sell these in Yankee Stadium. Why do so? I can only assume that it’s because the fans want them, and it thus increases sales.
The better approach is to sell only the unnamed version of the jerseys and if some fans want to debase this significant tradition of the team they love, let them. It’s a free world. There is no need to support or profit from the practice.
Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
In spite of my aversion and complaints about replacing Yankee Stadium in a new location, I did see three games there. Those that don’t know or care about the move across the street, might enjoy watching games there. So, what’s a visit like from my point of view? See my next post.