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Yankees Magazine: Where Legends Live

How Monument Park became the heart and soul of Yankee Stadium
Yankees Magazine

From the moment a monument honoring late Yankees manager Miller Huggins was dedicated on May 30, 1932, the location -- deep center field in Yankee Stadium, approximately 460 feet from home plate -- turned into a distinct and cherished space. Shrines to Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, both greats of the game, were added alongside Huggins' marker in the 1940s. A gallery of plaques commemorating former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, former executive Ed Barrow, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle lined the center-field wall. But it wasn't Monument Park, the heart and soul of Yankee Stadium, where aura and mystique lie in wait. That would come later.

The transformation wasn't simple. As with any change involving a cultural institution like Yankee Stadium, the process took time and effort. Yankee Stadium was crumbling in the early 1970s, with concrete hunks falling from the rafters. A new home for the team was inevitable. Around that time, the New York Giants football team had announced that it was leaving Yankee Stadium for a facility in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey. New York City Mayor John Lindsay pledged not to lose another franchise.

From the moment a monument honoring late Yankees manager Miller Huggins was dedicated on May 30, 1932, the location -- deep center field in Yankee Stadium, approximately 460 feet from home plate -- turned into a distinct and cherished space. Shrines to Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, both greats of the game, were added alongside Huggins' marker in the 1940s. A gallery of plaques commemorating former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, former executive Ed Barrow, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle lined the center-field wall. But it wasn't Monument Park, the heart and soul of Yankee Stadium, where aura and mystique lie in wait. That would come later.

The transformation wasn't simple. As with any change involving a cultural institution like Yankee Stadium, the process took time and effort. Yankee Stadium was crumbling in the early 1970s, with concrete hunks falling from the rafters. A new home for the team was inevitable. Around that time, the New York Giants football team had announced that it was leaving Yankee Stadium for a facility in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey. New York City Mayor John Lindsay pledged not to lose another franchise.

The financials, however, told another story, as the city lingered on the brink of bankruptcy. A solution flailed in the distance like a desert mirage. But then in 1972, the city forced Rice University, which had owned Yankee Stadium since 1962, to sell it to the city via eminent domain for $2.5 million. Later that year, the Board of Estimate approved $24 million to renovate Yankee Stadium.

 

With new ownership led by George M. Steinbrenner, Yankee Stadium closed for repairs on Sept. 30, 1973. When it reopened in time for the 1976 season, The House That Ruth Built had undergone a significant makeover. Among the changes: a new roof, a middle tier including a press box and luxury suites, and a large video screen -- then referred to as a "telescreen" -- constructed behind the bleachers. The playing field had also been altered. "Death Valley," the vast area in left-center field that had vexed right-handed power hitters for decades, shrunk by more than 25 feet to make room for an area dedicated to the monuments and plaques that had once resided on the field. That area was called Monument Park.

Like the team residing in Yankee Stadium itself, Monument Park has evolved into something greater over the years. Now comprising more than three dozen plaques, the 21 retired numbers of 22 Yankees greats and seven monuments, Monument Park remains the ultimate destination for anyone who has worn the pinstripes. "Having a plaque in Monument Park and having No. 20 retired is an honor and a dream come true," Jorge Posada said during his dedication ceremony in August 2015.

A bustling tourist attraction, Monument Park is a highlight for sightseers looking for a brush with history -- not only Yankees history or sports history, but history. "This is the Holy Grail," says Tony Morante, Yankees director of Stadium tours. "A lot of teams respect their great ballplayers, the way they do in Boston and in Baltimore with statues, but this is the way we do it. This is a representation of the greatest history in baseball, maybe in sports. There's nowhere like it in any other ballpark. It can't be copied."

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The Yankees were not the first organization to honor former greats in center field. In 1921, the New York Giants dedicated a monument to Eddie Grant, a light-hitting infielder for the Cleveland Naps, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants from 1905 to 1915. A Harvard man, Grant enlisted in the U.S. Army once the United States intervened in World War I, eventually becoming captain of the 307th Infantry, 77th Division. He was killed in action on the battlefield in France on Oct. 5, 1918. A 5-foot-high stone monument was then mounted on the center-field wall of the Polo Grounds, and a wreath-laying ceremony was held annually, usually between games of the Memorial Day doubleheader, until the Giants decamped for San Francisco after the 1957 season.

The first Yankees great to be memorialized in similar fashion was Huggins, who led the Yankees to their first three World Series titles. As a law student at the University of Cincinnati, he was passionate about baseball. One of his professors, William Howard Taft, allegedly told Huggins, "You can become a pleader or a player, not both. Try baseball. You seem to like it better." Huggins listened to Professor Taft, who, of course, later became president of the United States.

In 13 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, Huggins, a 5-foot-6 slick-fielding second baseman nicknamed "Mighty Mite," collected 1,474 hits. But it was as a manager with the Yankees from 1918 to 1929 that he would make his mark, winning six pennants and sporting a .597 winning percentage. More than his phenomenal record, Huggins' stint with the Yankees was defined by his volatile relationship with Babe Ruth, who often resisted his manager's disciplinary tactics and took to belittling him for his small stature. Huggins finally confronted Ruth, suspending his star player in August 1925 for off-the-field issues. Ruth returned to the team shortly after the incident, but in teaching the Babe a lesson, Huggins had earned his respect. "He was the only man who knew how to keep me in line," Ruth said.

Video: Yankees Retired Number: No. 3, Babe Ruth

 With Ruth on the field and Huggins in the dugout, the Yankees won back-to-back World Series in 1927 and 1928. But tragedy struck when Huggins fell ill with a high fever toward the end of the next season. He died on Sept. 25, 1929, at the age of 51 from pyaemia, a type of sepsis. A favorite with the press since the Ruth dust-up, members of the media lobbied for Ruppert to honor Huggins in some fashion. And on May 30, 1932, the Yankees unveiled a monument in his memory.

Huggins was joined in deep center field in 1941 by Gehrig and then by his old antagonist, Ruth, in 1949. The three monuments, approximately 10 feet in front of the center-field wall, combined with a nearby flagpole to create hazards for center fielders in the rare occurrence when a ball was hit that far. "It was scary -- very scary, oh yeah. It was a good way to eliminate yourself," Dom DiMaggio, center fielder for the Boston Red Sox, once said. "[The monuments] were pretty deep out there in left-center, almost dead center. Heck, [Charlie] Keller, one day, hit two of them out there. Not one, two. God, he hit 'em a ton. I keep running and running. At one point on the first one, I said, 'Well, gee, I've got to peek to see where it is.' And I did, I peeked. And finally I caught up with it. And fortunately, I was right in line with the monuments. And I kind of shook a little bit, but got the job done. I was glad to be able to talk about it."

Fans felt a strong connection to the monuments during that time. Back then, crowds could exit Yankee Stadium after the final out by traversing the playing field, and oftentimes, fans would descend upon the monuments of Huggins, Ruth and Gehrig to pay their respect. The 1974-75 renovation, though, ended that tradition.

But something grander was on the horizon. The monuments and plaques were moved behind the wall, clearing the field of play, and, when Yankee Stadium reopened on Opening Day 1976, there was Monument Park, out beyond the left-center field wall.

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Tony Morante gave his first tour of Yankee Stadium on Veterans Day 1979 at the behest of Bronx Borough President Stanley Simon. On that cold, rainy afternoon, Morante directed two groups of 60 through the Yankee Stadium field and dugout before concluding the expedition in the press box. With assistance from The Bronx County Historical Society, Morante then designed the Stadium tour.

If anyone could be trusted to pass along the Yankees' folklore and tradition, it's Morante. Like many kids growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, he worshipped Mickey Mantle. Morante had another connection to the Yankees: His father was an usher at Yankee Stadium. And so, Morante followed in his father's footsteps, coming aboard in 1958 when he was just a teenager. He began his career as an usher in the upper deck. Years later, he once waited on Jackie Robinson. But his career took a turn with the creation of Monument Park. VIP tours started on that day in 1979. And in 1985, when the center-field fence was brought in once more, the area became accessible to the general public.

The Stadium tour business grew as the Yankees' winning tradition returned in the mid-1990s. Morante says that in 2008, the final year of the original Yankee Stadium, more than 150,000 fans toured Monument Park. You can always tell someone's age by where they start their tour. Baby boomers immediately gravitate toward Mantle's monument. For a kid who grew up in the 1990s, the plaques and retired numbers of the Core Four -- Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada -- are their prized destination.

Video: HOU@NYY: Jeter discusses induction into Monument Park

Morante enjoys seeing their reactions upon entering Monument Park. Younger fans are typically more inquisitive, armed with the kind of smart, pointed questions kids aren't afraid to ask. Older fans, for the most part, are more contemplative, the response more internal. "I saw how the older guys would get teary-eyed because it brought back fond memories," Morante says. "What Monument Park represents is a lot of joy for people." Even baseball's new heroes appreciate what Monument Park represents. Over the years, Morante has given tours to Mariano Rivera, Don Mattingly and even Houston Astros Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio.

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The construction of the current Yankee Stadium offered new opportunities for Monument Park. Designers wanted the park to be visible from the stands, and prioritized creating more space for fans to navigate. Four renderings were presented, Morante says, with the most popular submission winning. Next came the hard part: The monuments would have to be transported from across the street.

In November 2008, construction workers began disassembling Monument Park, first taking down the retired numbers and corresponding placards before moving on to the plaques and monuments. The treasures were kept in a nearby storage facility. The Babe's monument was first to arrive at the new Yankee Stadium. A crane rig then picked up the monuments - which, with the exception of the 7,100-pound monument to Huggins, each weighs in at 5,500 pounds - and lowered them into their new home. The new Monument Park, which opened along with Yankee Stadium in 2009, is made from 125 tons of blue pearl granite imported from the northern tip of Finland.

Plaques commemorating services given by Pope Paul VI in 1965 and Pope John Paul II in 1979 first greet fans walking down into Monument Park. From there, the Yankees top hat logo, the one former owner Larry MacPhail commissioned to a graphic artist named Henry Alonzo Keller just after World War II, is visible. Up a soft ramp and alongside the wall closest to the playing field stand the latest batch of retired numbers -- Pettitte, Posada, Bernie Williams and Jeter. On the back wall lie the plaques all leading into the monuments. The centerpiece is a monument dedicated to George M. Steinbrenner. The most recognizable logo in sports -- the Yankees "NY" insignia -- is embedded in the ground below.

There are two circles on the ground, each on opposite ends of Monument Park. Morante believes they are there for a reason: They are placeholders for future monuments to Yankees legends. After all, Monument Park is a work in progress, constantly evolving to reflect new chapters in history. "It is a living museum, absolutely," Morante says. "This is where history lives: at Monument Park."

Thomas Golianopoulos is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Commemorative Monument Park Edition of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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