“It came to pass …” Or to use the words of the Martins haunting southern gospel song, “It didn’t come to stay; it came to pass.” Most of the baseball universe has a love-hate relationship with the New York Yankees. The Yankees have won a lot of championships over the last 85 years, which stokes the ire and resentment of all the professional baseball fans who haven’t been so fortunate to root for such a successful team. Even so, the Yankees, their storied history, and their hallowed stadium, constitute an undeniable part of American sporting history, not to mention American history in general.
Over the years, Yankee Stadium has seen more than its share of history. The 26 World Series championships are only the beginning. It was also the scene of some historic football games ever played. Do you remember Knute Rockne’s famous “Win One for the Gipper” speech before the 1928 Notre Dame vs. Army game? It happened at Yankee Stadium. Then there was the 1946 Notre Dame vs. Army contest, a virtual national championship game in which the Irish were ranked number 1 and Army number 2. It ended in one of the most exciting ties in football history. Then there was the 1958 NFL Championship game, which many football historians still refer to as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”
For my money, Yankees Stadium also witnessed the most important sporting event of the 20th Century on June 22, 1938 when Joe Louis destroyed German national hero Max Schmeling in one round of rage-filled passion and fury which forever demolished to the myth of Aryan supremacy. Although the 21st Century is still young, I would argue that the century’s most important baseball game thus far has to be Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. With President Bush throwing out the first pitch in a bullet-proof vest (a perfect strike, I might add), the New York fans rallied their team for three dramatic wins that gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead over the Diamondbacks going back to Arizona. The fact that New York eventually lost that series 4-3 is virtually irrelevant. Those three games gave the city of New York a much needed psychological boost following the devastating events of September 11.
And then there were the speeches. Some of the most poignant memories associated with Yankee Stadium have nothing whatsoever to do with competition, and everything to do with the ordinary drama of life, death, faith, and loss. Three popes have spoken at Yankee Stadium. So has Nelson Mandela, whose “I am a Yankee” speech following his release from incarceration in South Africa turned him into an international celebrity. The largest crowd ever to come to Yankee Stadium came to hear Rev. Billy Graham, whose 1957 sermon at that venue drew an astonishing 100,000 people.
But with respect to the aforementioned preachers and orators, the most powerful speeches delivered at Yankee Stadium have been simple statements of gratitude delivered by Yankee greats who have called it home. On July 3, 1939 Lou Gehrig looked clear-eyed into eternity and told a heartbroken crowd, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Almost nine years later Babe Ruth helped commemorate Yankee Stadium’s 25th Anniversary with his last public address. Severely afflicted with throat cancer, Ruth’s voice echoed through the stadium like a whisper across a grave. He began by ruefully apologizing for the condition of his voice: “Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. You know how thin my voice sounds. Well, it feels just as bad.” Ruth went on to speak for a few moments about his love for the game of baseball, and its importance to America’s youth. He concluded with a simple expression of gratitude: “There’s been so many lovely things said about me, and I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you.”
Last night, September 21, 2008, Yankee Stadium closed its doors forever. I had been dreading that Yankees management would close the stadium with an address from George Steinbrenner, or (even worse) Bud Selig. Thankfully, they did the right thing and turned the microphone over to Derek Jeter, who more than anyone deserved the privilege of giving the last speech ever given at Yankee Stadium.