|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2008-9|
illos by Brad Foster
I recently found out that the cable television system here has added the new all-baseball cable television channel and that it aired, on the first day of its existence, a complete replay of one of the most famous games ever played – Game 5 of the 1956 World Series when New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen pitched a perfect game, allowing no hits and not even any baserunners by the opposing Brooklyn Dodgers. No complete recording of the telecast had been thought to exist, but in 2007 one surfaced in the collection of a long time baseball fan in Illinois.
I am also a long time baseball fan, for more than 50 years actually, but how much more than 50 years I’m not really sure. I don’t recall seeing the Larsen perfect game on television, but I do remember watching a telecast of the World Series of 1957, when the mighty Yankees were beaten by the upstart Milwaukee Braves, who featured an up-and-coming young slugger named Hank Aaron. Back then, I was a grade school kid growing up in the wilds of far northern New York State, so there was no way to see a major league baseball game in person. The closest major league city was New York, and that was the better part of a day’s drive away, even supposing that my parents had the resources to get me there. Which they didn’t.
It wasn’t for another ten years before I would finally get to attend a major league baseball game. By then I was a high school senior, and my class hadearned and collected, over the previous two years, enough funds to finance a four-day trip to New York over Easter recess. I don’t remember all that much about the trip except for two things. I came down with a very bad case of pneumonia at the end of the trip, which put me in the hospital for a few days after we returned home. And, on the last afternoon we were there, we all went to see the New York Mets baseball team play the Philadelphia Phillies.
In 1967, the Mets played in what was even then a characterless ballpark named Shea Stadium, which was one of the first of what has come to be called “cookie cutter” stadiums. These were circular and symmetrical in design and had all the charm of a big concrete doughnut, but they could easily function as venues for other sports such as football (both types). To accommodate this multipurpose use, the seats in these stadiums were, in general, not very close to the field and sightlines were usually compromised. But this type of stadium turned out to be so convenient and cost effective that it spread like a plague to many other cities with major league teams.
It took the powerful force of nostalgia to eventually change things. Starting in the early 1990s, a new generation of “retro-style” ballparks were built, replacing many of the cookie cutter stadiums. These new parks were meant only for baseball, with seats relatively close to the field and with designs that paid homage to some of the stadiums that were in use back when I first became a baseball fan. Shea Stadium was one of the last of the cookie cutters to be retired (at the end of the 2008 season), and I, for one, will not miss it. But there is another, even more powerful force that’s been active in professional baseball. Money. New stadiums are designed to maximize the amount of high-revenue seats such as luxury boxes, and this has proven to be so lucrative that cookie cutter stadiums are not the only ones being retired. A wonderfully quirky old bandbox of a ballpark was Tiger Stadium in Detroit, once the home of the Detroit Tigers. It had seats so close to the field that the upper deck in the outfield overhung the lower deck. But it was so small and old that a major revenue-producing upgrade was never seriously considered by the team owner, and it was replaced in 2000 by a new, modern retro-style ballpark.
Back in the late 1970s, I was in the Detroit area on a business trip and I had an opportunity to go to a game in Tiger Stadium. But the meeting had finished late and I was a bit worn down, and it was the better part of an hour drive to get there from where I was staying. So I didn’t go. I figured I’d be back some other time and see a game at Tiger Stadium then. But it never happened.
I still have never seen a major league baseball game in Detroit, but in the years since 1967, I have seen games at many other major league parks. To keep this article in the context of the science fiction fanzine where it will appear, many of these occasions were in conjunction with science fiction conventions I was attending, such as Corflu 5 in 1988 where a group of us from the convention attended a Seattle Mariners game in the now-demolished Kingdome stadium. It’s probably a fair indication of my age that I can claim that I’ve also seen games in many other stadiums that are no longer in use (and in most cases, no longer in existence), including Jarry Park in Montreal, Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Comiskey Park in Chicago, Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, and RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. As of 2009, I can add Shea Stadium to that list. But, as of the beginning of the 2008 baseball season, there was one other stadium that was scheduled for imminent retirement that I had not yet visited – Yankee Stadium.
Yankee Stadium is perhaps the most famous place that baseball has ever been played. It first came into use in 1923, back when the legendary slugger Babe Ruth played for the team, and as of 2008 was the third oldest major league park still in use. The playing field dimensions, especially the relatively short distance to the right field fence, were so beneficial to the left-hand hitting Ruth that a New York sportswriter dubbed the park “The House that Ruth Built”. Over the decades many celebrated, larger-than-life baseball players besides Babe Ruth have played for the Yankees in The House. And there have been many, many famous moments – world championships won, home runs hit, and no-hitters pitched (including that 1956 World Series game). Perhaps the most famous of all occurred on July 4, 1939, while the first World Science Fiction Convention was taking place elsewhere in New York. It was on that afternoon that the great Lou Gehrig, in the early stages of the fatal disease that would be named for him, gave his farewell “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech in front of 60,000 people at the stadium.
The place is a shrine, and all my life I had wanted to see a major league baseball game there. And, nearly six decades in, I had almost waited too long. In the middle of 2008, my wife, Nicki, and I decided we’d take a short vacation to New York City to see a couple of Broadway plays and also see a Yankees game, but when I checked the Yankees website there was a nasty surprise. It turned out that it was not possible to get tickets for two seats together, anywhere in the stadium, for any remaining game.
Luckily, there was another option - a ticket resale website called “Stubhub!” where it is apparently legal for people to buy and sell tickets for many different kinds of events, including major league baseball. I was relieved to see that there were plenty of relatively affordable seat pairs available for many remaining Yankees games.
So we picked Friday evening, July 18th, against Oakland, and I bought tickets for two seats high in the upper deck on the left field side of the stadium. We didn’t know exactly how high we were until the night of the game. They were way up there, two rows from the top – the steep narrow stairs to get there seemed like a mountain trail up to some Himalayan pass. It was so high that we were well above the top of the foul pole, and it was a precarious enough climb that we were both had a death grip hold on the handrail all the way up. And yet, there were food and drink vendors climbing those same stairs carrying what must have been very heavy loads. One of them charged up the stairs while using one hand to balance a big crate filled with beer bottles on his head. I asked him if he received hazardous duty pay, but he only smiled and said, “You get used to it.”
The one benefit from the altitude of our seats was that the view was very panoramic. The other side of the stadium seemed miles away across a huge chasm. The infield, downward and to the right of us, was far enough away that the players looked no bigger than a set of miniatures from some war game. The left field fence was downward and to the left of us and, just beyond it, Monument Park, where many of those celebrated, larger-than-life Yankee players of decades past have been honored with plaques and monuments. It used to be, before the stadium was remodeled in the mid 1970s, that all of the monuments were actually in the playing field next to the outfield fence, but so far from the infield that it took a fly ball of gargantuan proportions to reach them. But it was still something that we grade school kids, back in the 1960s, could aspire to in our daydreams. I remember than one of the playground ballfields backed up to a cemetery and once in a while a fly ball would carry into the graveyard, after which the kid who hit it would brag that he had “hit one over the monuments.”
It was a beautiful evening for baseball, with clear skies and warm weather, but the game itself was almost an anticlimax. The Yankees got ahead early, scored more runs in the middle of the game, and the outcome was never in doubt after that. There were several home runs, including one by Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, and the winning pitcher was future hall-of-famer Mike Mussina.
On the way out of the stadium we could see the new Yankee Stadium looming nearby. I’ve heard it will be similar enough in design to the old Yankee Stadium that the playing field will look about the same, but in the end, it won’t really be the same. I won’t miss Shea Stadium, but the old Yankee Stadium was a special place that cannot be recreated. It will take many years for the new ballpark to have the same ambience and sense of history. The great Yankees player Mickey Mantle once said, “To play eighteen years in Yankee Stadium is the best thing that could ever happen.” But to attend even one game there as a baseball fan must surely come in a close second.