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22nd August
2008

First Published in The New York Sun, August 22, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Last month, I said that the “old” Yankee Stadium, slated to be demolished after the current baseball season, should be preserved. I suggested that there are ways that we can not only protect this unique piece of our American heritage, but make it profitable for the city and its residents as well.

That column generated quite a bit of interest, with readers weighing in on both sides of the issue, but mostly in favor of halting the wrecking ball. I was flattered and excited by the support I received from one reader up in Connecticut, Linda Ruth Tosetti, who is the granddaughter of the legendary Babe Ruth.

It is not an exaggeration when the stadium is referred to as the “House that Ruth Built.” Babe Ruth was acquired by the Yankees shortly before the new stadium opened in 1923, and began the first of a remarkable string of baseball dynasties, which continues to this day. His on field heroics restored confidence in a game shattered by the infamous “Black Sox” scandal of 1919.

The famous home runs for which the Babe is best known brought championships to the then new ballpark in the Bronx. And the Babe matched the excitement he generated on the field with a compelling larger-than-life persona. He loved the “kids” and they (including my father, growing up in the Bronx) loved him. He was among the first mega stars of popular culture, arriving on the public scene at the same time as newsreels and radio.

Babe Ruth died of cancer in 1948 still a young man, only 53 years old. When he died, his body lay in state in Yankee Stadium as thousands of fans came to pay their respects. His funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a major press event, attended by the nation’s elite. Next month a mass commemorating the 60th anniversary of his death will be held at St. Patrick’s.

It is unfortunate that the Babe died so young, because he never got to meet his granddaughter. He would have been proud. Ms. Tosetti bears a resemblance to her famous grandfather, and has devoted enormous energy to make sure that the name of Babe Ruth is never forgotten. One of her projects is to have the Babe’s famous number “3″ retired throughout the sport, as was done for Jackie Robinson some years ago.

And I’m pleased to say that she has joined my little crusade to preserve and make good use of the old Stadium, the irreplaceable “House that Ruth Built.”

The controversy here has to do with parkland. To build the new stadium, the city commandeered two dozen acres of parkland that they are committed to replace. It is planned that three ball fields would be built here, necessitating the complete demolition of the old stadium. According to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, “preserving the facade would make it difficult to maximize the park space.”

Mr. Benepe has it all wrong. If he measures his success by acreage, the three fields might “maximize” the physical space. But it is more important to measure the quality of the space rather than the quantity. If the structure is preserved along with the field, it would maximize the value of the space to those who use it. This ball field could be scheduled for minor league baseball, college baseball, high school baseball, even Little League baseball. It could be humming from early morning into the late evening from April through October.

I submit: a child, or teenager, or even a hungry minor leaguer coming to bat in Yankee Stadium, standing in the shadows of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle, will never forget that moment. Contrast that with an at-bat in Commissioner Benepe’s plain vanilla venue, designed to maximize acreage, not the experience. No contest here.

Mayor Bloomberg recently announced that a “branch” of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame will be coming to New York from its current home in Cleveland. If we can do that, why not a branch of the Baseball Hall of Fame at the true epicenter of baseball history? I suspect that if the Hall or a branch were located in the “House that Ruth Built” it would draw many times the paltry 350,000 that currently makes the pilgrimage to the privately-owned Hall in remote Cooperstown, N.Y.

We surely won’t need all 57,000 seats in the stadium, so I propose that the bleacher section be replaced with the Hall of Fame structure, and for the upper deck, currently about 15,000 seats, I have a particularly Bloombergian solution. Public art. Fill those seats with thousands of fiberglass “fans” created in a variety of designs and given to artists, celebrities, and children to paint, much as was done with the CowParade some years back. If folks will come to New York to see orange schmattes hanging in Central Park, surely they will want to see the phantom fans of the upper deck in the historic stadium.

There’s no end to good ideas about how to use this historic building, but first we have to save it. My son Erik, a Yankee fan, although transplanted to the Atlanta area, created a nifty Web site that will let you weigh in on this, saveyankeestadium.org.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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