x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The final applause

Yankee Stadium, the "cathedral of baseball", will stage its last competitive game tonight.

Yankee Stadium will resound to the cheers of baseball fans for the last time tonight when the Yankees take on the Baltimore Orioles.
Yankee Stadium will resound to the cheers of baseball fans for the last time tonight when the Yankees take on the Baltimore Orioles.

Yankee Stadium, the "cathedral of baseball" and one of the world's most celebrated sporting venues, will stage its last competitive game tonight. A shame, then, that this most famous arena - where Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio wowed millions, where Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis fought, where Popes prayed and where "the greatest NFL game ever played" was staged - will be bowing out with a whimper, rather than a Bronx roar.

Sadly, in their last season at the 85-year-old stadium before moving to a new, US$1billion (Dh3.7 billion) home just across 161st Street, the New York Yankees have been having a wretched time. Despite boasting the highest paid collection of baseball stars ever assembled, the team will not make the play-offs this season for the first time in 13 years. That, though, will be forgotten tonight for the stadium's emotional send-off.

Other events and concerts will be staged at the stadium before they start pulling the old place down, probably early next year, but this weekend's game against the Baltimore Orioles will, in effect, mark the last hurrah for "The House that Ruth Built". In fact, it was not so much a house that Ruth built as a house built for him: the short right porch was specifically designed for his home run swing.

Ruth showed his appreciation at the first game at the stadium on April 18 1923, when he stroked a three-run homer before 74,200 adoring fans to beat archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, 4-1. Four years later, Ruth became the first player to hit 60 home runs in a season - a record that would stand for 34 years until another Yankee, Roger Maris, topped it. So many more great moments in non-baseball history also unfolded in the Bronx, not least the first- round knockout of Germany's Max Schmeling, Hitler's supposedly invincible champ, by Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, in 1938.

And, in that "greatest game ever played", the Baltimore Colts recorded an extraordinary, come-from-behind victory in 1958 over the New York Giants, who played at Yankee Stadium for several years, to win the NFL championship. But, for most, it will forever be baseball and the 26 World Series titles won there during the 20th century that the stadium will be primarily remembered for - from DiMaggio's grace to Mickey Mantle's flare, from the awesome "murderers' row" batting line-up in the late 20s to the unlikely "pinstripe destiny" team of 1996, who overcame the odds to beat the Atlanta Braves after dropping the first two games in the World Series.

Yet, there is one man whose achievements and whose personality stand out even more prominently than Ruth's among the thousands who have competed at Yankee Stadium over the years: Lou Gehrig. Voted the greatest first baseman of all-time in a recent ballot of baseball writers, he was a native New Yorker who played for the Yankees between 1925 and 1939. The "Iron Horse" played 2,130 consecutive games, a record that was to last more than a half-century, and he ended up with a lifetime batting average of .340.

His performances, though, began to tail off in the 1938 season and, the following year, tests revealed that he was suffering from a fatal neuromuscular disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - or Lou Gehrig's Disease as it is still known in the US today. On July 4 1939, Gehrig said goodbye at Yankee Stadium to 61,808 fans. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia described Gehrig as "the greatest prototype of good sportsmanship and citizenship".

In response, Gehrig, who no longer had the arm strength to hold the many gifts he was given, made a speech of such dignity and grace that it still echoes through the ages. "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," he said. "When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body - it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed - that's the finest I know.

"So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you." Lou Gehrig died two years later at the age of 37. Tonight the place he played his baseball will finally pass into history, too. dsapsted@thenational.ae