The recent 2008 Major League Baseball All Star Game-and-a-half showcased not only the game’s current best and greats from yesteryear; it also starred a structure. The venue was the message.
As Yankee Stadium brings athletes and fans through its gates as part of a stationary farewell tour, we are witnessing the end of an era – one that has spanned eighty-five years. The house that Ruth built has been home to the New York Yankees since before the days when their line-up was dubbed Murderer’s Row. Ghosts of legends like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle surely inhabit the place.
But the edifice located at East 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx has been much more than a baseball park; it’s been America’s premier outdoor stage. If we were to pick a place that is to us what the Coliseum was to Rome in days of glory, most would nominate Yankee Stadium.
Of course, this does not mean that we are a nation of Yankee fans – certainly not. You don’t have to root for pinstripes to understand the magic of the place itself.
If we look beyond baseball (and stay with me on this, I am not, nor have I ever been, a communist), and its inseparable relationship with the stadium, we note that the field has provided the backdrop for many sports and cultural events that transcend the game. From concerts, to religious services, to a national memorial service for victims of horrific terror just twelve days after 9/11, Yankee Stadium has been part of the scenery of American life.
When it comes to sports, the stadium has not just been a place for home runs, but also the field of battle for gladiators of the gridiron and soccer stars. And, of course, there was the boxing.
It’s been more than thirty years since a championship fight was held at Yankee Stadium (Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton in September of 1976), and they were becoming rare events for the venue even then. But during the sweet science’s heyday in the 1920s-1950s, the stadium ring planted over second base was the scene of many epic battles.
Sugar Ray Robinson, often referred to as the greatest “pound for pound” boxer of all time, had already won welterweight and middleweight titles. On a dreadfully hot night in June of 1952, he tried to win the light-heavyweight crown against champion Joey Maxim. And he was clearly winning when he succumbed to heat exhaustion in the 14th round. He did, though, last longer than the referee, who had been carried out two rounds before.