Yankee Stadium was packed as usual on Easter Sunday in 1979.
George Steinbrenner’s Yankees were one loss away from being swept by the Milwaukee Brewers to start the season. That was no way for the two-time defending World Series champions to perform, so the boss had a conversation with his new veteran left-handed starting pitcher prior to the game.
“He told me ‘This is the biggest game of the year,’ ” Terre Haute’s own Tommy John recalled earlier this week.
In the first inning, Steinbrenner didn’t see the same John who, pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, shut the Bronx Bombers out for the first six innings of the 1978 World Series, putting the Yankees in an early deficit.
In his Yankee debut, John walked Brewers’ leadoff man Paul Molitor on four pitches and threw a fifth straight ball to designated hitter Don Money, drawing boos from the Yankee faithful. John allowed an RBI single by Cecil Cooper that drove home Molitor, but scattered five hits and held Milwaukee scoreless the remainder of his seven innings. Goose Gossage locked up the Yankee win with two scoreless innings for the save.
John’s first game in Yankee Stadium is his favorite memory of the “House that Ruth Built,” which was home to its last game Sept. 20.
It was also the first start of John’s best two seasons during his 26-year major league career. John went 21-9 in ’79 with a 2.96 earned-run average, 17 complete games and three shutouts. He one-upped himself with a 22-9 mark, a 3.43 ERA and six shutouts in 1980.
John’s 808 1/3 innings in Yankee Stadium were second only to the 809 1/3 he tossed in Comiskey Park.
John first pitched there in 1964 as a 21-year-old Cleveland Indian.
“I remember going out and seeing how huge the stadium was,” John said of the ballpark that had its capacity reduced from more than 70,000 to its current 57,546. “It was bigger than it is now.”
John’s generation had seen plenty of the Yankees on television; when John was growing up in the 1950s, the Yankees won six World Series titles.
“Before the game, I went out to the outfield and you just think ‘This is where DiMaggio used to run, and Mantle,’ ” John said. “It was a very, very special place.”
John’s second-best memory was when his son Travis was carried to the mound by Reggie Jackson to throw out the first pitch. Steinbrenner asked Travis to do so because the 2-year-old had recently come out of a 17-day coma after a fall from a third-story window.
“I remember the crowd chanting his name,” John said.
Terre Haute’s Brian Dorsett also had the opportunity to suit up in Yankee pinstripes at baseball’s marquee ballpark.
“Your mouth drops open; you can’t even grasp it all,” Dorsett said of the first time he walked up out of the dugout. “It was really special.”
Dorsett’s first start in Yankee Stadium was Sept. 16, 1989. He went 0 for 3 against a young Randy Johnson.
“It’s a fun night just to be in that ballpark, having a Yankee uniform on,” Dorsett said.
Dorsett also had chances to start games at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, which will become the only historic ballparks left standing when Yankee Stadium is demolished later this year.
Dorsett remembers catching a two-hitter by Jeffersonville native Walt Terrell at Fenway.
Dorsett would like to see both those ballparks stand the test of time.
“The history of the game is there, so it’s something fans would miss out on,” he said.
John, whose name will forever be linked with the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery he had in 1974, is not optimistic about Wrigley and Fenway sticking around.
“It’s almost inevitable that it’s got to go,” John said when asked about Wrigley Field. “The whole thing now is revenue. How can you make more money? They can’t add any more here or there. If there was someplace they could add luxury boxes, maybe on the roof or something … ”
On opening day this year, a group was petitioning for signatures to have Wrigley named a National Historic Landmark. Few sporting stadiums have achieved this status, according to a 2007 piece in USA Today. Fewer than 2,500 historic places have attained that status and less than 1 percent of those have to do with sports. A site must meet criteria, and the owner must comply.
According to the USA Today article, Wrigley is safe because the city of Chicago designated “The Friendly Confines” an individual local landmark in 2004. This means any alteration at Wrigley must be approved by the commissioner of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.
Yankee Stadium was denied landmark status by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission due to the 1974-75 major renovation that included demolition of portions of the stadium.
Fenway, the oldest MLB stadium, having been built in 1912, was saved for the time being in 2005 when plans for a near replica with a new Green Monster were abandoned.
The demolition of Yankee Stadium will prevent future MLB players from walking the massive outfield grass where Mantle and DiMaggio once patrolled.
The aura from the uniqueness and historic feel of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park should be saved at all costs. Both of those teams have proven in recent years they can generate a competitive level of revenue to maintain winning products on the field.
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• Andre Dawson coming to Terre Haute — Former Cub great Andre Dawson will visit the Roly Poly restaurant (424 Wabash Ave.) in Terre Haute on Oct. 18 for a public signing.
“The Hawk,” who finished third in the Hall of Fame voting this summer, will be available from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Advance ticket prices are $15 for signed 8x10 flats, cards, balls, mini-helmets; $20 for bases, helmets, gloves, caps and photos larger than 8x10; and $30 for bats and jerseys.
Contact Larry Kassis at email@example.com or (812) 251-2204.
Craig Pearson can be reached by phone at (812) 231-4357 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.