Sweetness And Light

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The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

An All-Star Farewell To Yankee Stadium

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Sometimes the man and the moment seem to come around again. So it is with Bob Feller and this year's All-Star Game, which will be played Tuesday in Yankee Stadium, in this last season before they tear down that sublime American monument, The House that Ruth Built.

Feller is not older than dirt, but he is older than Yankee Stadium. He was born during World War I and grew up out by the Raccoon River in Iowa, in a farmhouse that lacked indoor plumbing. He is almost 90, still hale and as crusty as ever. He is the last notable living link to our sports past.

Jack Kramer, the great tennis star, is still alive at the age of 86, but Kramer was barely a presence in the late 1930s. Feller, though, was already indisputably the best pitcher in the game before he went off to war.

Good grief, Feller has been in the Hall of Fame for 46 years. He has his own museum, out by the Raccoon River. I dropped in there a while ago, to visit the repository of those glory days when the fabled Rapid Robert could throw a baseball harder than any other human being.

He was only 17 when he came directly off the farm to start for the Cleveland Indians. Feller was the first real ... what we call ... "a phenom." He seemed to emerge out of thin air as make-believe as the really make-believe "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.," in Damn Yankees.

There had never been anybody like Feller, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that he is the last of his era, still alive and kicking.

Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 after the New York Giants told the Yankees they wouldn't share their home, the Polo Grounds, anymore. The Giants intemperate little manager, John McGraw, had grown jealous of the new Yankee slugger, the glamorous Mr. Ruth. When McGraw learned that the Yankees would have to build their new abode outside of Manhattan, he chortled that the Yankees "were going to Goatville, and before long they will be lost sight of."

This was something of a miscalculation. The Yankees, reincarnated as the Bronx Bombers, became, of course, the golden franchise. Their Yankee Stadium was huge and a marvel.

Before then, baseball had been played in what were pastorally called "parks" and "fields" — ball yards, if you will. Now the national pastime had a certified stadium, its own great lighthouse to shine baseball upon all the land.

In 1939, the stadium hosted its first All-Star Game. Bob Feller, still only 20, pitched 3 2/3 innings, shutting out the best of the National League on one hit and validating his pre-eminence before a national audience.

And now, the All-Star Game is back in the Bronx, a valedictory for the old stadium. A new and improved Yankee Stadium will open next year, of course, and although Bob Feller never wore pinstripes, it would best honor the continuity of the whole game if the ancient phenom were chosen to throw out the first ball when the son of The House that Ruth Built opens next April.

After all, the stadium may hold pews for Yankee fans, but it is the cathedral for the whole sport.



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Sweetness And Light

Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light

The Score On Sports With Frank Deford