As the end of New York’s stadiums nears, memorabilia questions pop up

Even though the final games and ultimate destruction of two New York landmarks – Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and Shea Stadium in Queens – are about a month away, and because I have already done historical retrospectives on each park in past issues of SCD, it is nevertheless fascinating as a Stadia fan to chronicle their swan songs of 2008.

It seems that not a day goes by in the Greater New York area without a story being written about these parks, not to mention the veritable flood of related radio, television and newspaper promotions, coupled with merchandising that never ends. To be honest, I would not be going out on a limb to call these events the most grandiose, overhyped trips down memory lane ever embarked upon in the history of American Stadia.

The Yankee Mystique
We shall begin our investigation with “The Big Ballyard in Da Bronx,” which has garnered at least double the attention as the home of the Metropolitans, for obvious reasons. First, Yankee Stadium has more history, opening in 1923 and playing host to a seemingly endless string of historic events involving baseball and just about anything else, including a Papal Mass. Second, it seems like the Yankees have a commemorative ceremony/plaque in Monument Park/merchandise promotion every time a pinstriper sneezes. And I’m a lifelong Yankees fan from the Bronx.

Now, one might wonder why the Yankees – who have been drawing an average of about 52,000 fans per game for the past few seasons – might need a new ballpark, especially one that is located a shallow pop-fly away from their current cathedral, thereby availing itself to the same horrendous access roads and congestion of the South Bronx. Well, the answer is threefold – crumbling infrastructure (questionable), more amenities for fans (believable) and many more luxury boxes/corporate seating (without a doubt).

The publicity machine for the final season at Yankee Stadium started cranking shortly after the Bronx Bombers were eliminated from the 2007 playoffs by the Cleveland Indians last October. Season ticket holders (and everyone else) were warned to purchase their ducats for “The Historic Final Season” before they were all gone. And they weren’t kidding. Barely a month into the season, many dates were sold out, with tickets surfacing on eBay at a pronounced markup, especially dates in late September.
Collectors of ephemera were having a field day. The New York Times went first, publishing a neat pull-out section on March 30 titled “Last Call For The House That Ruth Built,” offering a fascinating peek into the bowels of the park, including a storage room photo featuring an overflowing bin of seat parts that would send any Stadia collector’s heart aflutter. This was followed by a sealed, tabloid-style magazine published by USA Today and a glossy six-part supplement magazine to the New York Sunday Daily News, which divides the Stadium’s history into eras.

As far as merchandise, all one has to do is visit the MLB or Yankees websites to find plaques, pins, medallions and jerseys sporting the distinctive sleeve patch logo commemorating “The Final Season.” Some of these items even include a dollop of infield dirt, which brings to mind two interesting stories from my collecting archives:

First, a friend of mine attended the final game at the “Old Stadium” in 1973, prior to the renovation of 1974-75. (This would make the current Yankee Stadium the “new” Yankee Stadium, now being referred to as the “old” Yankee Stadium. Are you following this?) Anyway, there are photos from that day which show fans literally walking through the outfield toward the exits while carrying seats and other fixtures wrenched from the foundations.

My buddy had the presence of mind to scoop a handful of infield dirt and fill his pocket on the way out, later parceling off a Knotts Berry Farm mini-jelly jarfull to me. Therefore, I can boast of owning “original” Yankee Stadium dirt.

Then, a couple years ago, another collecting buddy of mine just happened to be passing the stadium when he came upon piles of sod stacked neatly near one of the outfield entrances. It seems the Yankees were replacing some patches; these had been removed and were there for the taking. So, he loaded some in his car that would later be transplanted into his front yard (which I think might instigate some kind of curse because he’s a Mets fan). He kindly cut me a 12-inch square piece which now resides, a forlorn kind of beige-gray, in a clear plastic Tupperware among my ballpark relics. I wonder how much the 2-inch square clods I’m sure will be sold at a later date will go for?

If you factor in that this year’s All-Star Game was held at Yankee Stadium, with all the licensed stuff that was marketed along those lines, you might be tempted to call it “The House That ‘Ka-ching!’ Built.”

So, you might ask, what will be the difference between the “new” Yankee Stadium (which, thank goodness, has not acquired a corporate moniker. Yet.) and the one presently in use? Well, the field dimensions will be the same, though home plate is projected to be some 20 feet closer to the backstop in the new park. Seating capacity will be down around 5,000, with the chairs being widened a bit and adding cupholders. (And I’m sure the aisle seats will be sporting the distinctive interlocking NY last seen on the old Polo Grounds chairs.) Also enlarged will be the leg room between rows and the width of the concourses (nearly double). Elevators will increase from three to 16, and the bathroom-to-fan ratio will be 1:60. The fan/concession ratio has been halved (ka-ching), dining and lounge options have been quadrupled, including a martini bar (ka-ching) and, most importantly, private luxury suites have gone from 19 to 56 (ka-ching!).

Aesthetically, there will be a restoration of the white 1923 outer façade and the distinctive frieze that graced the inner crown of the upper deck. Of course, nobody does history like the Yankees, so fans can expect the full museum treatment for the next Monument Park, which is always a must-see, and other exhibits in and around the facility which will recall the many glorious eras in Yankee lore.

Those who are into construction-related stuff can keep up with the new park on the Yankees’ site, which offers pictorial gallery updates. Of course, the biggest “construction” story was that of the David Ortiz jersey, buried in foundation concrete by a Red Sox Nation refugee working on the Yankee Stadium construction crew.

After covering it with two feet of concrete, he made the mistake of blabbing of his deed to others, who alerted the proper (Yankee) authorities. The offender, one Gino Castignoli, had hoped to forever curse the new ballpark with the foundation entombment of the jersey of an all-time Yankee killer. However, as a search-and-recovery crew, under the watchful eyes of Yankee brass, jackhammered holes through the floor in search of the dastardly duds, various academics, including professors from such esteemed institutions as Columbia and Yale, weighed in on the effectiveness of such curses/hexes/superstitions.
I mean, they were comparing this to practices of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Vikings! Their belief was, in effect, that the burial of an “enemy” jersey would actually ward off curses, thereby meaning that Castignoli’s deed had really put a hex on his beloved Bosox, which the Yankees subsequently undid! This was all very entertaining, and it ended up with the jersey being retrieved, somewhat worse for wear, being put on eBay as a charity offering for the Jimmy Fund and bringing a whopping $175,000 from a car dealer in the Boston area.

That’s where we are as we near the end of “the Final Season.” As previously mentioned, Yankee fans are scrambling for tickets, which range from $400 for the primo field level seats to $14 for bleachers. There are also stadium tours ($15 for adults), which can be found on the team’s website. I’ve taken the tour, and it’s well worth it.

Shea’s Swan Song
On the other side of town, Shea Stadium is also grinding inexorably toward its end. Like Yankee Stadium, it is being commemorated with a distinctive patch on the 2008 Mets’ jerseys, and, like the Yankees’ future home, its successor looms just beyond the outfield wall of the present park.

As noted in my previous feature on Shea (12/9/05 issue) this stadium provides little of the cachet of its crosstown counterpart, though it has had bright spots. Met fans have long decried its lack of amenities, lousy food and notoriously bad bathrooms. Their attitude has been, more or less, “It’s a dump, but it’s our dump.” Therefore, the focus is more on the future, in the form of CitiField.

Indeed, as of yet, there have been no History of Shea inserts in the local papers and no real media blitz. During Mets broadcasts on radio or TV, there are “Great Shea Moments” spots, but it isn’t being overdone. And, though there was some grousing over the corporate name (from sponsor CitiBank), it died down quickly. (Shea, as you might recall, was named after the man who helped bring National League baseball back to New York in the early 1960s.)

Therefore, it is not uncommon, especially early in the season, to see large sections of empty upper deck seats at Shea. This should change in the final month of the season.

CitiField will seat approximately 45,000, as opposed to Shea’s 57,333. The chairs will be widened, with sightlines and leg room improved. The concourses will be doubly wide, with wheelchair seating quadrupled. Luxury suites will be increased, though not as dramatically as in the Bronx. Restaurants will go from two to six, concession/fan ratio will be halved and the long lines at restrooms will finally be eliminated. Field dimensions will be roughly the same.

One thing the Mets are doing that the Yankees aren’t is giving fans a chance to add their name to the new edifice by purchasing a brick of the park’s “Fanwalk” for $195 (4-by-8 inches) or $350 (8-by-8 inches), upon which they can inscribe messages up to six lines. They also receive a free replica brick for their collection. (Additional replica bricks can be purchased for $50-$75.)

The new ballpark itself is eerily reminiscent of Ebbets Field, which is both understandable and perplexing. It makes perfect sense because Mets owner Fred Wilpon grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and was a high school teammate of Sandy Koufax, which explains why the elusive HOF southpaw turns up as often at Mets spring training as for the Dodgers.

In fact, the main entrance, or “Jackie Robinson Rotunda,” so closely resembles photos of Ebbets Field, that older fans who attended games in Flatbush will be ecstatic. Jackie’s widow, the elegant Rachel Robinson, paid a visit to the rotunda in April and said, “This is like walking into a cathedral in a way. I love St. Peter’s in Rome and I don’t know if I can compare it to St. Peter’s, but it’s the feeling I have.”

The walls and floor will be engraved with the nine virtues Robinson lived by – courage, excellence, persistence, justice, teamwork, commitment, citizenship, determination and integrity.

What is questionable is the seeming exclusion of all vestiges of the Mets’ other predecessor, the Giants. Remember, the Mets borrowed their team colors (blue and orange) from the two clubs that headed west in 1958, leaving New York without an NL franchise until they filled the void. Heck, they even played at the Giants’ former park (the Polo Grounds) for two seasons until Shea was finished. Oh well, it’s Wilpon’s money, and he can spend it however he pleases.

Artists’ rendering of CitiField’s red brick façade project it as a work of ballpark art, especially when compared with the incomplete donut-shaped Shea. Finally, and similar to the new Yankee Stadium, CitiField will have numerous permanent attractions built into and around the facility to increase fan entertainment and participation, as well as a Mets Hall of Fame.
The only real controversy that has surrounded the new park is whether or not the Shea “Home Run Apple” will make the trip next door. For those outside the New York area, the Mets have a huge fiberboard red apple sporting the team logo that pops up from a black top hat whenever a Mets player homers. This corny piece of ballpark kitsch debuted in the 1980 season as part of a “Mets Magic” promo campaign and has operated just beyond the outfield fence ever since. Mets fans seem split on its inclusion in the CitiField décor, though recently there have been petitions started to hang on to it. Stay tuned on this one.
If one wants to hold onto that Shea magic, then click on the Mets website for a variety of pins, patches, buttons and apparel with the Shea logo. It isn’t as over-the-top as the Yankees, but then, what is?

What does it all mean?
So there you have it. Both New York teams are building state-of-the-art, distinctly different retro-parks that will take them far into the 21st century. But, as a true Stadia fan, you’re probably sitting there thinking, “OK, that’s all well and good, but what’s happening to the stuff?”

Fact is, they only know part of the story.

You see, although veritable volumes of text have been written on the old/new parks, the actual demolition information has been sparse (see sidebars). The largest nugget of information came in March in the New York Post by means of an article titled “Yankees and Mets Want Their Cut$” by reporter Jeremy Olshan.

According to Olshan, who seemed to take a somewhat dim view of the whole thing, the Yankees and Mets are in secret talks with the city of New York to buy the ballparks before the demolitions “. . . so they can plunder them for lucrative memorabilia to peddle to fans.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a millionaire businessman many times over in his own right) confirmed the negotiations but would not elaborate on the specifics of the deal(s).

The Post contacted various memorabilia experts in their quest for the truth. First up was Lelands.com President Mike Heffner, who said, “At other stadiums, everything from the scoreboards to the dugout urinals have been snatched up by fans, but Yankee Stadium is in a whole other league of collectibles . . . each brick could sell for $100-$300 . . .  I doubt we’d have any trouble selling every seat in the house for as much as $1,000 . . . with its huge fan base, Shea Stadium will also fetch a big payday.”

Heffner went on to compare possible upcoming auctions at the New York ballparks to the $900,000 sale of memorabilia from Busch Stadium in St. Louis, which Lelands.com handled in 2005. The rhetorical question was asked, “If Albert Pujols’ locker sold for $20,000, how much would Derek Jeter’s bring?” However, Heffner noted that there was no scientific formula for predicting the value of the thousands of fixtures from each park, though the price of $500 for a single Shea seat was bandied about.

A word of caution was offered by Richie Aurigemma, who is both a respected Stadia dealer and prodigious collector. According to Richie, “With more than 100,000 seats for sale at the two parks, it will take quite some time for them to appreciate. But that said, the teams will have no trouble selling every blade of grass, every grain of dirt, everything that isn’t bolted down, and everything that is.”

Which must beg this question for those Stadia collectors among us: “What are my wooden seats from the original Yankee Stadium now worth?” Well, if you click on eBay, you can see the prices rising as we speak. And, if you have a (much rarer) original wooden seat from Shea (replaced with plastic inserts in the ’70s), and you are able to authenticate it, you have yourself a real gem that should be worth at least double what the newer plastic ones will garner.

It will be interesting to see how these separate yet related soap operas play out. Dramatic music, please!

Will the last regular-season games at Yankee Stadium/Shea Stadium be regarded as the “final” games, or will playoff games count (if either gets that far)?

Will attendees of these last games be metal detected for Sears Craftsman socket sets?

Will the final games end with all-out melees such as those witnessed at Forbes Field and Shibe Park in the 1970s?
Will each individual grain of infield dirt sold have its own hologram?

Will the average Joe collector be priced out of the whole thing?

Only time will tell. Until next time, please stay seated!

Collectors can write to Paul Ferrante at 23 Benedict Ave., Fairfield, CT 06825, or e-mail him at baseballjourney@sbcglobal.net.

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