It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years already, but on this day in 2008, the Yankees closed out a chapter of their rich history. That “chapter” was called Yankee Stadium and was filled with memories, pennants, World Series championships, no-hitters, perfect games, and all the achievements you can imagine.
It witnessed the rise and fall of many Yankees legends, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and dozens more. That’s to say nothing of all the other events that took place at Yankee Stadium, like Satchel Paige and the stars of Negro League Baseball, the NFL’s New York Giants and The Greatest Game Ever Played, Pelé taking American by storm in the ‘70s with the New York Cosmos, and famous boxing matches and conventions.
It was a magical place that saw its final game on September 21, 2008. The new ballpark that George Stenbrenner had cherished broke ground two years prior and was set to open in spring 2009. So after hosting the All-Star Game in July, this September evening would be the old Yankee Stadium’s last hurrah.
Let’s start a trip throughout history, filled with nostalgia. Construction of the original Yankee Stadium began May 5, 1922 and it opened on April 23, 1923. It was “The House That Ruth Built,” in large part because the recently-acquired star helped make the Yankees more popular than the National League rival New York Giants and the large crowds he drew represented a financial success. They had shared the Polo Grounds with the Giants, but their manager, John McGraw, conspired to essentially evict the Yankees because he was fed up with Ruth beating him at the box office. No matter to the Yankees’ owners, though — they wanted to open their own far more beautiful ballpark anyway.
Appropriately, Ruth slugged the first homer and the Yankees won their first World Series during their inaugural campaign at Yankee Stadium. There they remained for many years of glory, until necessary renovations from 1974-75 forced them to share Shea Stadium for a couple seasons. In 1976, the Bombers returned to the Bronx and had been in the remodeled Yankee Stadium for 32 years entering this final season.
But back to the date and game that concerns us on this day. Oddly enough, those 2008 Yankees were the first ones to miss the postseason in a non-strike year since 1993, but that doesn’t mean the last game at the old Yankee Stadium wasn’t special. Although it was disappointing that a playoff game would not close the ballpark, the Yankees were determined to show out anyway.
The day was special even before the first pitch. Fans got to enjoy Monument Park and stars such as Berra, Ford, Jackson, Dave Winfield, Ron Guidry, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, and Willie Randolph were announced by Bob Sheppard. There were also representatives of many Yankees who were longer with us, including both the wife and children of beloved former outfielder and announcer Bobby Murcer, who had passed away from brain cancer earlier that summer.
For the four-time World Series champion Williams, it was the first time that he had returned to the Stadium since the Yankees let him go after the 2006 campaign. But back in pinstripes with the unforgettable No. 51 on his back and jogging toward center, he was home.
“I think it’s no question in my mind that I had to be here,” said Bernie to The Times Herald-Record. “I figured this is a good time. I feel as nervous as I was before a playoff game, just to see the reaction.”
It was a perfect time, to be honest.
This was also an emotional reunion with the Yankees for Randolph, who had managed the crosstown rival Mets from 2005 until his unceremonious dismissal in June 2008. Three months later, the former Yankees co-captain and third-base coach was in a Yankees uniform again with a huge smile on his face. Randolph, who stole 251 bases with the Yankees, slid into second after being introduced —a familiar sighting for those who watched the team in the seventies and eighties.
The Yankees had a fitting choice for the ceremonial first pitch. It was 92-year-old Julia Ruth Stevens, the Babe’s daughter (escorted by her son). There was no closing The House That Ruth Built without a Ruth.
Every Yankees icon present on the night was cheered, and most of them had tribute videos with their best plays in pinstripes shown to the crowd.
The beautiful pregame ceremony lasted a bit more than an hour (65 minutes in total), and then it was time to play ball.
With Jeter as the captain and Pettitte toeing the rubber as the starter, the Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles 7-3 thanks, in part, to home runs by outfielder Johnny Damon and backup catcher José Molina (the last ever at the old stadium).
Pettitte reached a personal milestone with his 2,000th career strikeout, a hustling rookie named Brett Gardner scored the final run, and the great Rivera got the last out. Just like that, more than eight decades of history were finished physically, but not in fans’ hearts.
Pettitte got the win, and also didn’t hide his feelings in a bittersweet night. “The way I feel emotionally right now, and just physically so drained, it feels like a huge postseason win for us,” Pettitte said, standing on the infield grass after the game. “I kind of feel embarrassed saying that, because unless a miracle happens, we’re not going to the postseason. But it was special.”
A little while after the final out, the Yankees gathered around their captain. Jeter had some final words to the stadium, acknowledging all the indelible memories it bestowed on everyone over the years.
Jeter famously referred to the Yankees’ fans as “the best in the world” and said a several, well, classically Jeter things.
“There’s a lot of tradition, a lot of history and a lot of memories. The great thing about memories is you’re able to pass them along from generation to generation,” he stated.
“Although things are going to change next year and we’re going to move across the street, there are a few things with the New York Yankees that never change. That’s pride, tradition, and most of all; we have the greatest fans in the world.”
Just like that, a place that saw so much history was demolished. Fate, however, is such a beautiful thing that the Yankees won the World Series next year, their first season on the new Yankee Stadium — just as they did when their old haunt opened all those years ago.