It’s impolite to speak ill of the dead, so let’s make this quick: Shea Stadium—smothered in something between a blue and purple semi-gloss and set down in a remote Queens parking lot—is the most innocuous, insipid, and uninspiring ballpark in the National League (yes, we have come to bury Shea, not to praise it).
Sometime in early winter, the walls of both Shea and Yankee stadiums will come down. The dates are as yet unannounced, holding out the prospect of playoff baseball (realistic in the east, a pipe dream further north) or possibly an appearance by the Boss (Springsteen, not Steinbrenner) in the Bronx. And so a comparison of the two home fields is natural, if inherently unfair.
Yankee Stadium was constructed privately for just over $2 million. Alternatively, Shea Stadium (working title: Flushing Meadows Park) stands as a testament to the immutable will of Robert Moses, the most notorious public planner in history, who exercised a control over the city similar to J. Edgar Hoover’s over the FBI.
On April 18, 1923, over 74,000 fans turned out for Yankee Stadium’s opening. Babe Ruth hit the first home run in a Yankee win, and, at season’s end, the team brought home the first of their 26 world titles.
After two seasons in the Polo Grounds (also the Yankees’ last home before their stadium was built), the Mets opened Shea on April 17, 1964, in front of more than 50,000 fans with a 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh (the Pirates’ Willie Stargell hit the first home run). A three-year-old expansion team manned by well-past-prime-time players and managers (Casey Stengel was 71 when he took the job and 74 when he left, a mere 20 years senior to the next-oldest manager in the NL, St. Louis’s Johnny Keane), the Mets managed to lose more than 100 games for their third consecutive season, finishing dead last in a 10-team league (also for the third consecutive season) and instantly shaping Shea Stadium as New York’s very own Island of Misfit Ballplayers.
Even worse, those lovable losers—blessed with more character than wins—performed in a facility that possessed no redeeming qualities of its own.
“It was,” says former Met and Yankee Doc Medich, “one of those ’60s-’70s parks that got thrown up that were convertible for football. It just didn’t really capture anybody’s imagination. The most unique thing about it was the noise from the airplanes.”
Even Ron Swoboda, an integral member of the ’69 Miracle Mets, remains unsentimental about the place: “It was designed to hold seats up,” he says of Shea. “I mean, it was utilitarian, you know—it never was glorious.”
Consider, in contrast, the House That Ruth Built. Even as a skeleton of its former self (its insides ripped apart, reconfigured, and somewhat replaced during a two-year John Lindsay initiative in 1974 and 1975), Yankee Stadium is majestic, an edifice elevated to the status of legend by the strengths of baseball’s best-known and longest-lasting working-class hero. Even now, in its second incarnation, the place is a cathedral with an almost sacred history.
Think surroundings don’t matter? Watch a young ball club like Pittsburgh, fugitives from the National League, visit the stadium for interleague play and walk the field like Midwestern tourists entering St. Pat’s. They are caught in a moment—rare for professional ballplayers schooled in the ways of competition—of unabashed and undisguised awe.
But not for much longer. In 2009, both teams will start afresh in facilities valued at $2 billion (or 1,000 times the cost of the original Yankee Stadium).
With the Yankees’ late-July acquisition of Xavier Nady from the Pirates, 104 men have now played for both teams. We asked 11 of them about their first day as a major-leaguer in the city, the importance of a uniform, if there was anything—anything at all—better about Shea, and what they’d take from either site before the deconstruction begins.
“The most memorable thing about the first day at Yankee Stadium was, we were in the outfield shagging and, you know, just taking it all in. Me and Mike Buddie were the only two rookies on the team, and nobody’s saying your name. They probably didn’t even know who I was. And I see Mike Buddie coming across the field, and he’s smiling, and he was like: ‘Hey, man, you won’t believe this—some people knew my name.’ And I’m like: ‘Really? That’s so cool.’ He goes: ‘Yeah, they’re like, “Mike! Mike! Mike Buddie!” ‘ So he turns around, and they like wave to him, and he goes, ‘Hey!’ And they go: ‘Go back to f’ing Columbus, you bum!’ ” —Shane Spencer (Yankees, 1998-2002; Mets, 2004)
“It was pretty unbelievable. You know, you hear everything about Yankee Stadium, but . . . just from the stories you hear, you think, ‘You know, it can’t be that much different from anywhere else.’ Until you actually get out there on the mound, and you realize: It really is a special place.” —Jason Anderson (Yankees, 2003 and 2005; Mets, 2003)
“When you’re a Yankee, and you’re going down your first day into that clubhouse, and you enter the stadium—man, I don’t know how to explain this, but you just get goose bumps and chills and stuff all over your body. You can feel the history.” —Lance Johnson (Mets, 1996-97; Yankees, 2000)
“It was the only stadium in those days to have wall-to-wall carpet in the clubhouse. No other stadium that I know had anything like that. You know, I came from a lower-middle-class background, so I had my spikes on to walk around in thick, wall-to-wall carpet in a plush clubhouse. It was incredible . . . And, actually, I couldn’t really feel the carpet, because I felt like I was walking on air. And then, of course, walking down the tunnel into the dugout was just a magnificent walk. It was like the gates of heaven opened up for me.” —Phil Linz (Yankees, 1962-65; Mets, 1967-68)
II. THE YANKEE UNIFORM
“You know, I played in a World Series, won a World Series, with the Mets. I was a veteran player by the time I became a Yankee, but the first time I put the pinstripes on and walked out of the dugout and up on the playing field—and I had been there before, but when I walked out and I was a Yankee, had the pinstripes—man, that was special. I felt the little short hairs on my neck go up, and I went: ‘Wow.’ I wasn’t prepared to be awed, but I was.” —Ron Swoboda (Mets, 1965-70; Yankees, 1971-73)
“I played for six different teams, so I put a lot of uniforms on and I went in a lot of stadiums. But Yankee Stadium, there is just something . . . and I guess it relates to the history of it. You know, the history of Yankee Stadium is darn near the history of baseball.” —Billy Cowan (Mets, 1965; Yankees, 1969)
“When the season ended in 2004, I realized it was going to be my last day in uniform as a Yankee, and possibly my last time ever at the stadium. I had my bags and made my way to the concourse behind home plate, near sections 2 and 4. It was late at night, and the stadium was dark. I took a few minutes to sit there and look out at the field and the seats. Certainly, my playing career there didn’t go well, but it didn’t take away from the moment for me. I took my time and took it all in, remembering specifically places I sat with my father through our years as fans, the many opening days we went to, and the many disappointments of being a Yankee fan in the ’80s. I got to wear the uniform I dreamed about since I was seven.” —C.J. Nitkowski (Mets, 2001; Yankees, 2004)
“Yeah, it’s the best uniform ever.” —Don Schulze (Mets, 1987; Yankees, 1989)
III. ANYTHING BETTER AT SHEA?
“Better at Shea? [Laughs.] I’m going to have to come right out and say no, there isn’t. Well, I guess I could say they had more flat-screen TVs in the locker room, you know, but that’s probably changed by now.” —Jason Anderson
“Oh, yeah, the players’ lounge is way better. Or at least when I was there.” —Shane Spencer
“Yeah, there is for a pitcher: right field. You didn’t have to be as careful in the later innings with left-handed hitters in Shea. For a pitcher, that was probably the big thing.” —Doc Medich (Yankees, 1972-75; Mets, 1977)
“The Yankee fans are tough fans. Yankee Stadium was a good family atmosphere on the weekends, but it could be kind of brutal during the week.” —Phil Lombardi (Yankees, 1986-87; Mets, 1989)
“No [laughs].” —Phil Linz
“No. The thing about Yankee Stadium, you know you’re walking on the same ground that some of the greatest players of all time have walked on. I’m not saying there weren’t great players at Shea Stadium, but with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Roger Maris . . . I mean, the list goes on and on. Thurman Munson’s locker is still intact. It’s an aura of baseball history that is there. Just the history with Yankee Stadium, I think, far outweighs Shea Stadium.” —Wally Whitehurst (Mets, 1989-92; Yankees, 1996)
“Not really [laughs]. Well, I liked the color blue with the Mets better . . . but that would be about it.” —Don Schulze
“No. You know, the skeleton of Yankee Stadium harkens back to the Roaring ’20s, for God’s sake. And the franchise has existed so much longer and has been through several different eras. The Mets have been through eras—some good, some bad, some in between. It’s like America and Europe, you know. Europe has history; America has a couple hundred years.” —Ron Swoboda
IV. WANT A PIECE?
“Probably the apple in center field at Shea Stadium.” —Wally Whitehurst
“Well, I’m sitting here right now looking at these old benches I have from Comiskey. I mean, you definitely want to have some of the benches . . . Shoot, if you could get home plate—I mean, both of those places, man; everything that’s put in both of those stadiums are worth having as keepsakes.” —Lance Johnson
“I don’t know if they change those home plates or pitching mounds around very much, but, you know, that’d be kind of neat to have.” —Jason Anderson
“You know, I think I got one thing signed from everybody—one bat signed—in the five years I was there, so those kind of things don’t really affect me too much. But I would say maybe a whole length of the Bleacher Creatures maybe, when they do roll call. That would be pretty cool. I liked roll call.” —Shane Spencer
“Well, I don’t know if they still have Mickey Mantle’s locker, but if I had the choice of anything, I would take Mickey Mantle’s locker [laughs]. You know, my locker was next to his for the first four years. In ’62, ’63, ’64, and ’65, my locker was directly next to Mickey.” —Phil Linz
“I want that big Babe Ruth bat outside of Yankee Stadium.” —Don Schulze
“I’d like the pitching rubber, the home plate, and my locker from Yankee Stadium. And enough of the flashing to make a fence around my yard.” —Doc Medich
“I already have my piece of Yankee Stadium, and no, I’m not telling you what it is. In 2001, I told myself I might never be here as a player again and got my memory piece. It’s pretty cool, and from people I talked to, it had been there since at least the renovation.” —C.J. Nitkowski
“I’d like to have a set of seats out of Shea. That’s all.” —Ron Swoboda