This Tuesday, April 18 marked 100 years since the opening of “The House that Ruth Built” or, as it was more commonly known, Yankee Stadium. I was alerted to this fact by an article by Frederic J Frommer that I chanced upon in The Guardian. You have to make it all the way to the penultimate paragraph for it to become clear that the original stadium was replaced in 2009. In fact, it was demolished in 2010. But, like the Ship of Theseus, for some fans at least Yankee Stadium is Yankee Stadium. It’s a question of identity, and that, ultimately, is a matter of choice.
“Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create one’s sense of self. This amalgamation creates a steady sense of who one is over time, even as new facets are developed and incorporated into one’s identity.”—Psychology Today
You may work for an organization that extols the value of being your true self in the workplace. But even if that really is the case, first you have to actually figure out who you are. And no one else can tell you. For me, it took over four decades to get a reasonable handle on who I am (and I’m a hetero cis white male). By the way, if you’re wondering what any of this has to do with baseball, I’ll get to that soon.
I’m the child of English academic parents, but I was born and raised in Wales. Culturally, I’m Welsh, but having moved to the most anglophone part of the country at a young age, I can’t speak the language. The English are a primarily Germanic people, but Britain has been a melting pot since Roman times, so ethnically all I can say with any certainty is that I’m European. The only possible Celtic connection I have is from my Scots ancestors on my mom’s side of the family, and they were probably Scandinavian. But it’s been over five years since I made Ireland my home. So politically I’m Celtic.
I lived in London for over a decade and did both my undergraduate and master’s degrees there. Like at least half the people who live there, I was a migrant, so to this day I consider myself a Londoner. I find the novels of fellow Welshman Iain Sinclair particularly enjoyable when I recognize lesser known parts of the city in them that I’m familiar with.
However, my mom grew up in Queens, New York. And during my formative years, in the warmer months at school, we didn’t play soccer; we played the Welsh variant of baseball. I was steeped in my mom’s childhood. I listened to her old 45s. I watched reruns of the shows she had watched when they were new, like “Lost in Space”. She told me about hearing about the Army-McCarthy Hearings, and following the Brooklyn Dodgers (which led me to read Roger Kahn’s excellent “The Boys of Summer”). I could see a lot of myself in the character of Jim in “Empire of the Sun” (to the point I bought a replica of his flight jacket). I may have an English accent, but I’m more like a displaced New Yorker; I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. I don’t use (and struggle to pick up on) subtexts.
When I first visited New York City as a teenager for a super brief internship with WBAI radio’s news team, I felt like I had come home. My boss was Amy Goodman. In the space of a week I had blagged my way into a city hall press conference (with a student press card) and asked questions at press conferences with Jesse Jackson, Tony Kushner, Rosie Perez and Susan Sarandon. The city hall story got me on local television (and spared me a dressing down for filing my story late). I was slightly late for Jesse Jackson, which meant I got to sit next to him and didn’t use the room audio feed. As a result, I was the only reporter who got sound; everyone else had to reuse my clips after the broadcast. I also managed to get the Latin affairs program and the news department to collaborate on a story, which I think was a first for the station. When I got back to London, I managed to pull off a phone interview with Tom Leherer. And thus my journalism career peaked before it had really begun.
But back to the baseball. One of the things I did on that visit was to see the Mets play the Astros at Shea Stadium. For nearly 30 years, I’ve been convinced that the Astros won that game, which goes to show how unreliable memory is. But I do remember I was wearing rollerblades and someone was playing along to the stadium jingles with a trombone. Shea Stadium, where my uncle saw the Beatles play on 15 August 1965 (but couldn’t hear them for screaming fans), was demolished a year before Yankee Stadium in 2009. The Mets now play at Citi Field, although it’s still in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
But I digress. And by now, you’re surely wondering why I’m using a Baltimore Orioles logo to illustrate an article that is ostensibly about the Yankees. Well, in that opening game in the Bronx in 1923, George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth hit a home run. He said he was glad to be the first and wondered who would be the last. It was José Molina on September 21, 2008 in a game against the Baltimore Orioles that the Yankees won 7-3. But there is a much deeper and stranger connection than that.
“Baseball was, is, and always will be to me the best game in the world.” —Babe Ruth
Have a look on the street, anywhere in the world, and unless it’s totally deserted there will be someone wearing a Yankees cap. Most of them probably don’t even watch baseball. With 27 World Series championships and 40 American League pennants, the Yankees are the winningest team of all time. But that’s not why so many ball fans hate them. Baseball has always been about business, and no team has taken this to heart more so than the Yankees. They got the most cash, and they used it to snaffle up most of the talent. For soccer fans out there, they were the baseball equivalent of Manchester United. But since 2010, they’ve only managed four American League East Division titles (and United hasn’t won the premiership in a decade).
Originally formed in Maryland in 1901 as the Baltimore Orioles, the team moved to the Bronx in 1903 changing its name to the Highlanders, before becoming the Yankees in 1913. At that time, the main ball team in New York was the Giants, founded in 1883 as the Gothams (and the reason the Yankees were pushed out to the Bronx). The Metropolitans were shut down in 1887 after being sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers, also founded in 1883 but not acquiring their name until 1932.
The original Orioles were an American Association team that played up until 1899. Contracted out of existence, the best players and the manager joined the Dodgers. The third Orioles team, after the one that became the Yankees, was a minor league team that played from 1903 to 1953. This was the team that Babe Ruth started out with before being sold to the Boston Red Sox in 1914. He was later sold to the Yankees in 1919 which some blamed for the Red Sox’s 86-year trophy drought.
At the end of the 1957 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants moved west to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. This left the Yankees as the sole American League franchise and no National League franchise. Founded in 1962 by William Shea to fill that gap, the Mets took their name from the Metropolitans and their colors from the departing Dodgers (blue) and Giants (orange) or possibly the City of New York flag.
The modern Orioles trace their history to the third team to call itself the Milwaukee Brewers. They were part of the minor Western League when it became the American League in 1900. In 1902, they moved to St. Louis to become the Browns, which had been the original name of the St. Louis Cardinals. After a colorful history, the team moved to Baltimore for the 1954 season and promptly made a 17-player trade with the Yankees.
And finally, back to identity. One of the ways we define ourselves is by the sports teams we follow. As a spiritual New Yorker with a connection to Brooklyn (where I stayed in Long Island University dorms during my first visit to the city), I can’t very well be a Yankees fan. Sometimes we define ourselves by what we are not. Perhaps we go to the antithesis: “I’m not English, I’m Celtic”. The antithesis of the Yankees is the Orioles. One day I will make the pilgrimage to Camden Yards.