The following is taken from Bronx Banter Presents: Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories, edited by Alex Belth and featuring recollections of the old ballpark—sorry, stadium—from the likes of Pete Hamill, Charles P. Pierce, and Joe Posnanski. Bob Costas has something in there, too, I guess. Here, the great Richard Ben Cramer remembers his first visit to Yankee Stadium and the brief moment he thought he might die.
My grandfather took me to my first game at The Stadium. Not baseball: the Cleveland Browns against the New York Football Giants. I lived in Rochester and, as a consequence, I was a Browns fan. As to whether this was right and proper, I thought not at all. I knew nothing about sports marketing and could not have cared less if small-market Rochester had been gerrymandered into the Browns' TV-turf as a sop to get the Modells' vote for the television package. I was 14, and I loved Jim Brown.
By modern standards, I was still a casual fan. Football was more fun to play than to watch, and I lived in a neighborhood with wall-to-wall kids. There was a backyard game every Sunday, so I probably missed more Browns games than I saw. But even I knew that this would be a big game: December football; the Browns had to win it to get to the championship. It was also a revenge game: the Giants had beaten the Browns two straight (the final game of the season and a special playoff) to get to the '58 championship, said to be the greatest ever played. I knew the Browns would have beaten the Colts, and, dutifully, I reviled the Giants.
I was stunned by the ballpark. My notion of a stadium was Red Wing Stadium, where the Rochester AAA ballteam played. But this was something else—vast and powerful, filled with 60,000 fans, and the tangy scent of smoke mixed with alcohol (which I wouldn't smell again till I could go into bars), and noise like I'd never heard in my life. I couldn't even describe the noise—a wailing screech?—ebbing and then rising as loud as a jet plane. I fell silent. I felt tiny.
But the Browns gave me courage. As I remember, the game was tight, with the Browns clinging to a nervous lead by the half—at which point some kind of miracle transpired. Suddenly, the Browns could do no wrong, and for the Giants, nothing went right. Title was intercepted for a score. Jim Brown caught a pass and waltzed into the end zone. The Giants fumbled, the Browns scored…and again…and again…and I was whooping and cutting up just as loud as I could, just like the (suddenly silent) New York fans…or so I imagined—it only showed how little I understood.
When the Browns' back-ups scored again, and their score climbed to more than 50 points, I asked my grandfather (rather too loudly) if that big Longines scoreboard could show three digits for the visiting team. A couple of New York fans turned around and gave me the look that was my real introduction to Yankee Stadium. I had known for about the last quarter that they probably wanted me to shut up. But their look now didn't say, "Shut up." What it said was they wanted to kill me. What it said was this was the worst moment of their lives and if I didn't shut up they might forget how unutterably sad they were, and have another drink, and kill me for sure.
I shut up. I feared them. But I also respected them. No one I knew felt that way about their team. And they taught me something important, which was the dire seriousness of New York sports—which is what the old Stadium was about.
Richard Ben Cramer was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for international reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He went on to be a contributor to Rolling Stone and Esquire and later wrote a highly celebrated account of the 1988 presidential election. His classic, and classically profane, profile on Ted Williams for Esquire, later published in book form, is the seminal piece on Williams. Cramer's 2000 effort, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, was a best-seller and one of the great, uncompromising jock biographies of them all. He is currently writing a biography of Alex Rodriguez. You can buy Bronx Banter Presents: Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories on Amazon. Visit Bronx Banter here.
Yankee Stadium photo via the New York Daily News.