If you’ve ever been to Yankee Stadium, you know that one of the mandatory rites involves a visit to Monument Park. It’s a can’t-miss pilgrimage for every Yankees fan, allowing us a chance to feel a connection with players about whom we’ve only read, heard stories, and seen pictures. Let’s take a trip down memory lane to remember how Monument Park became the holiest shrine in the grandest cathedral in baseball.
Monument Park traces its origins to 1932, when the Yankees erected a red granite block in front of the flagpole in center field of the original Yankee Stadium. Mounted on the block was a bronze plaque honoring former manager Miller Huggins, who had passed away unexpectedly three years prior. Huggins was instrumental in establishing the first Yankees dynasty, paving the way for the organization’s future dominance, so it was natural that the team would immortalize his memory.
In 1940, the Yankees hung a plaque on the center field wall honoring former owner Jacob Ruppert, who had died the year prior. Ruppert was responsible for building Yankee Stadium and bringing Babe Ruth to the Bronx — arguably the two most important moments in Yankees history.
After Lou Gehrig’s tragic passing in 1941, the Yankees erected the second granite monument in his honor, alongside his former manager. They did the same for Ruth in 1949 a year after the baseball legend’s death to create a trio of monuments in front of the flagpole. In 1954, they dedicated a plaque to Ed Barrow a year after his passing, hanging it on the wall alongside Ruppert’s plaque. Barrow was the general manager and later team president of the Yankees from 1921 to 1945, and oversaw the construction of the roster from Ruth to Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio.
By this point, what started as an impromptu way of honoring a former manager had grown into a shrine of sorts. The gravestone-like appearance of the three granite monuments to Huggins, Ruth, and Gehrig led to the impression that the remains of the former Yankees greats were actually buried in center field (though thankfully this was never the case).
Before we continue with the story of Monument Park, we actually have to take a step back. When Huggins’ monument was originally placed in front of the flagpole, the center field fence stood some 500 feet away from home plate, so their placement rarely came into play. But then in 1936, the fence was brought in to 461 feet, meaning the flagpole and eventual trio of monuments would sometimes interfere with balls batted to dead-center. A famous episode saw manager Casey Stengel shout, “Ruth, Gehrig, Huggins, somebody get that ball back to the infield!” as one of his fielders struggled to corral the ball.
Following Barrow’s memorialization, the collection of tributes would have to wait 15 years for its next entrants. In 1969, a year after Mickey Mantle retired, the Yankees honored the center fielder on Mickey Mantle Day. During the ceremony, he was presented a plaque by former teammate DiMaggio, with Mantle returning the gesture to the Yankee Clipper with a plaque of his own. It was this moment that spawned Mantle’s famous comment, “If my plaque will be on the center field fence, Joe DiMaggio’s deserves to be higher.”
When the center field fence was again brought in to 417 feet in 1974-75, the monuments became enclosed out of play. Though still inaccessible to fans at that point, the collection of tributes took on the name “Monument Park.” When the stadium reopened in 1976, the area was officialized as Monument Park, and gained three more entrants. Managers Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel each had plaques dedicated, and the Knights of Columbus donated a plaque commemorating Pope Paul VI’s visit to Yankee Stadium in 1965.
Monument Park was not made available to the public until 1985, when the center field fence was brought in again to 410 feet. By this time, a further four former Yankees had been honored with plaques: Thurman Munson in 1980, Elston Howard in 1984, Roger Maris in 1984, and Phil Rizzuto in 1985. In 1997, the Yankees honored Jackie Robinson with a plaque shortly after the league-wide retirement of his number 42.
Following the deaths of Mantle and DiMaggio in 1995 and 1999 respectively, their plaques were mounted on granite monuments like Huggins, Ruth, and Gehrig, and to this day the pair remain the last former players to be honored with monuments. They did however add two more monuments since. The Yankees dedicated a monument honoring the victims and rescue workers of the September 11th attacks on the one-year anniversary in 2002. Then in September of 2010, the Yankees erected a monument dedicated to owner George Steinbrenner, who had passed away two months previously.
When the Yankees moved to the new Yankee Stadium in 2009, Monument Park was relocated from its left-center field location between the bullpens in the old Yankee Stadium to beneath the batter’s eye beyond dead center in the current stadium. It was also redesigned to have the retired numbers mounted on walls flanking the centerpiece that features the monuments to Huggins, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle.
In total, there are 37 plaques honoring former Yankees players, coaches, broadcasters, and owners and 22 former Yankees to have their numbers retired. The most recent honorees are Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter in 2016 and 2017 respectively. In addition to Pope Paul VI, the Knights of Columbus dedicated plaques to the visits of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in 1979 and 2008 respectively. Nelson Mandela was honored with a plaque in 2014 commemorating his 1990 visit to the stadium. Finally, in 2019, the Yankees commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Uprising with a plaque.
So there you have it, a brief history of Monument Park. As Red Ruffing’s son put it, being immortalized in Monument Park is the “the second-greatest honor you can have in baseball,” after enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Time will tell the next Yankee great to have his memory forever honored among the legends who came before him.