A Sunday Spent on Holy Ground in the Bronx

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Hi all. Rather than an overall look at baseball as I see it on this early Monday, August 20, I wanted to write about a visit to a very special place as far as Yankee fans are concerned.
The term “holy ground” means different things to different people. To a Catholic it’s the Vatican or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. To an Englishman it’s St. Paul’s Cathedral or Buckingham Palace. To Civil War buffs it’s the battlefield at Gettysburg.
Sports fans have their holy ground. To Hoosiers, it’s the violent rectangle that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The horse racing crowd believe Churchill Downs is the holy of holies. To Yankee fans, if the new stadium itself isn’t sacred ground, Monument Park is.
Cooperstown, New York is a small village nearly 100 miles east of Syracuse, the nearest big city. Baseball’s holiest of holies, the Hall of Fame is in that small town far from anywhere. Monument Park at Yankee Stadium is much more accessible. Unbeknownst to me, it has been open to the public since 1985. Yesterday was my first visit there, though I have been a fan since 1974 and made many visits to the old stadium, mostly on payday. If I went on a Sunday or on a weekday afternoon when I could wangle a day off from work, it never occurred to me to ask if I could be shown around Monument Park. The idea of even asking seemed absurd to me at the time. As I saw it, I had a broadcast to do (into a tape recorder) and asking security about Monument Park would be a good way to get myself sent packing.
Before Yankee Stadium’s 1974-75 renovation the monuments were in fair territory. The highest honor is to have a monument mounted on a large block of granite. At the time of the renovation, only 3 of these existed-for manager Miller Huggins and players Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Since then, 3 have been added-for Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and owner George Steinbrenner. While plaques existed for the two great center fielders, the monuments on granite pedestals came after Mantle’s death in 1995 and that of DiMaggio in 1999. Walking among those who had received the highest acclaim the Yankees can offer, I had to reach as high as I could to touch these tall monuments to the best of the best. 31 others have been honored with more modest plaques with no engraving on them. I had to bend low to touch the smallish plaque for Andy Pettitte, one of my ex-wife’s favorites along with Gehrig and Don Mattingly who has also been honored in this way.
While the present Monument Park isn’t as grand as the original was at the old Stadium, to walk through it and hear the names of the honorees is to take a walking tour of baseball’s past, and no sport is more tightly connected to its past than baseball. From the time Babe Ruth set foot in New York in 1920 the Yankees became the face of the sport. At the time they were sharing space with the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds, an arrangement that worked out fine as long as the Yankees didn’t draw flies. Once Ruth began launching home runs beyond all sane limits, the Yankees drew such crowds that the Giants’ ownership wanted their tenant gone ASAP. By 1923 Yankee Stadium was built and ready to go. Until 1936, dead center field was an even 500 feet from home plate. So when the first monument went up after the sudden death of manager Miller Huggins, it could be put in play with little risk of anybody slamming into it since few balls went that far. From 1936 until the stadium closed in 1973, dead center was 461 feet from the plate, nearly as absurd a distance as the old 500-foot mark. The next monuments were also to dead Yankees-Lou Gehrig who lost his battle with ALS in 1941 and Babe Ruth, taken by cancer 7 years later. After a while, plaques were put up behind the monuments. These plaques were to honor famous Yankees while they still lived. The best known were for Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, both unveiled in 1969.
Following the renovations, dead center field’s boundary was moved in, first to 417 feet, then to 410. Now the area with the monuments could be enclosed and the fans began using the term “Monument Park.”Even then it took a mighty shot to reach there on the fly. Thurman Munson hit such a colossal wallop in game 3 of the 1978 ALCS, efficiently shutting down the Royals. Nobody who saw that shot or heard it described on radio could have imagined that Munson would have a plaque only two years later, following a plane crash in his home town of Canton, Ohio.
If I was surprised that any of these great men had a plaque, it was Ed Barrow. My surprise only lasted until I looked into this early executive. He was nearly 50 before gaining distinction in major league baseball. The Boston Red Sox were desperate for a manager after theirs was drafted into World War 1. Their owner, Harry Frazee who was later vilified for selling Babe Ruth, summoned Barrow who was president of the Eastern League and asked him to become the Red Sox manager. Barrow responded by leading the Red Sox to the 1918 World Series which they won. They wouldn’t win another until 2004. To try and build up the 1918 Red Sox offense, Barrow asked Ruth to pinch-hit, then determined the Bambino’s bat was worth more to the team than his pitching arm. That was quite a statement, considering the Babe had won 23 and 24 games in the last couple of seasons. Call it fortunes of war.
Barrow joined the Yankees in 1921 as what was then called “Business manager” and would be called “general manager” today. When it came to signing players every year, Barrow and Yankees’ owner Jacob Ruppert played “Good cop, bad cop.” Given a free rein Ruppert would have paid his men more than Barrow would. Starting in 1929 Barrow determined that the Yankees’ players would wear numbers. A few years later it was his decision that the national anthem must be played before every Yankee game. After Jacob Ruppert’s death in 1939 Barrow was the team president until Dan Topping, Larry MacPhail and Del Webb bought the team after World War II. Barrow died in 1953 and a plaque to him went up a year later. From the Barrow years, besides the monuments you can see plaques for pitchers Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez as well as manager Joe McCarthy who Barrow signed when the Cubs fired their field boss. There are plaques for pitcher Allie Reynolds and manager Casey Stengel whose reign was as long as that of Joe Torre. McCarthy’s plaque was the first to go up in the renovated Yankee Stadium. It was hung on the wall on the 29th of April, 1976.
Most of the smaller plaques proclaim the deeds of more modern Yankees. There are plaques paying homage to Munson, Goose Gossage, Ron Gidry and Reggie Jackson from the mid-1970’s Yankees that roused the franchise from its decade-long coma. While some honorees are obvious (Mariano Rivera and Don Mattingly) some have been controversial, particularly Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada and Paul O’Neill. Their detractors ask when undistinguished Yankees like Horace Clarke will get plaques. Two broadcasters have been so honored-Phil Rizzuto in 1985 and Mel Allen in 1998.
And yes, there was a game played after what was literally a breathtaking experience for me. I told my brother I wasn’t having trouble breathing, I was just overwhelmed by the fact that, to my way of thinking I was standing on holy ground. The game was no contest. The Yankees put up 6 runs in the first off the Blue Jays’ Ryan Borucki. The highlight was a grand slam by the Yankees’ beleaguered first baseman Greg Bird. Meantime, J.A. Happ did what J.A. Happ does particularly since joining the Yankees-stop the other team cold. The home team put up 4 more in the 6th and ended up with a 10–2 win.

  • Patrick Ross
    August 20, 2018

    A very well written piece expressing the thoughts and sentiments of those of us who have been fortunate to have visited Monument Park.

    • Don Wardlow
      August 20, 2018

      Thank you, Patrick.
      Above all else, thank you for reading my entries.
      I’m very glad you enjoyed this one.
      Even if the next one drives you totally nuts and makes you think “What is this blind guy smoking,” I appreciate all who read my writings.
      Knowing somebody is out there has kept me from dropping the blog more than once.

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