Thursday, April 10, 2008

A tale of two stadia.

Anyone who's known me, or read this blog, for any length of time knows this if nothing: I love the Mets; I hate the Yankees. I've loathed the Bronx Bullies since I was in fourth grade, in an elementary school in the panhandle of Florida, when all of my  classmates were cheering for them and I, advocate that I was for the lowly and despised, knew the joy of seeing the underdog Brooklyn Dodgers defeat them in the World Series. I became a Mets fan in 1985 when a friend took me to a game at Shea, after a long baseball latency period precipitated by the Dodgers' move to L.A. During the course of that game, in which the Mets beat the Cards thanks to a dinger off what, that year, was called Howard Johnson's "unlikely bat", my friend, a Brooklyn native, said, "What you've got to remember is that the Mets are really the Brooklyn Dodgers continued by other means." That was enough to re-ignite the flame.

Nevertheless, as both teams play their final seasons in their long-time home venues, it's Yankee Stadium that I mourn, not Shea. To be sure, I've spent more time at Shea, and experienced more vivid emotion (mostly, I'm afraid, of the negative variety, but some moments of surpassing joy) there than in the older stadium in the Bronx. But, as most Mets fans will readily allow, Shea (photo at left above) is a charmless place. It's a product of the most dismal era of American architecture, the early 1960s, which produced such monstrosities as the Cadman Plaza apartment complex that looms over the northeastern flank of my beloved Brooklyn Heights. Painting Shea's walls blue only seemed to make matters worse.

Yankee Stadium (photo at right above), while graceful compared with Shea, has grown somewhat ungainly with recent revisions and additions. Its original facade, in a streamlined neoclassical style, is pleasing but unspectacular. What makes it special for me is its continued existence as a token of an era before my living memory. Shea was completed when I was a university student. Yankee Stadium, completed 23 years before I was born, was always the "House that Ruth Built". Babe Ruth, who died when I was two, was simply the most famous, and most charismatic, baseball player of all time. Most of his career was as a Yankee, and that's how he's remembered, but he came to fame with the Red Sox and made his last living appearance in a baseball uniform as a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers. More than just a superb player, the Babe was a rare character. Herewith two of my favorite Ruth non-baseball anecdotes:

1. The Babe was invited by a New York society matron to be the guest of honor at a dinner party. Ruth's publicist subjected him to a Henry Higgins-like crash course in proper speech and manners. Like Eliza Doolittle, the Babe's first venture into high society rated an "excellent" for form but with a cautionary note for content. When the hostess passed a serving dish to him, he smiled sweetly and said, "No thank you, Ma'am. I never eat asparagus; it makes my urine smell."

2. A few months after Pearl Harbor, the Babe was to be interviewed live on a network radio show. At that time, it was imperative to relate everything to winning the war, so the host told Ruth that his first question would be, "Babe, how do you think sports can contribute to the war effort?" He had helpfully prepared an answer for Ruth to give: "Well, Bob [or whatever his name was], as the Duke of Wellington said, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." They practiced this a number of times, until the Babe seemed to have it safely in memory. But when they went live, and the question was asked, Ruth said, "Well, Bob, as Duke Ellington said, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Elkton." After the show, the host said something like, "Gee, Babe, I thought you had that down pat. Why did you change it?" Ruth said, "Well, you see, I never met this guy Wellington, but Ellington, I know him. And I've never been to Eton, but I married my first wife in Elkton, Maryland, and I'll never forget that place as long as I live."

If there's an event associated with Shea that might make it worthy of preservation, it would have to be this (Note especially John Lennon during the last song, "I'm Down", on which he plays keyboard. I can't recall a moving image of a person, other than as an actor in a drama, in such an unalloyed state of Dionysiac fury; though McCartney, surprisingly, gives him a run for the money.)

The Beatles - I'm Down Live At Shea Stadium - Aug 15th, 1965 from Isaac on Vimeo.