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Names Not Yet Etched in Stone

New York City has stadium fever, and I’m not immune.  I wandered out with my camera on a Saturday afternoon vision quest and, as always, the City did not let me down.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a monumental structure cropped upon a high point overlooking the northwest corner of Central Park, on 112th St.  Work began in 1892 (when the Boston Beaneaters took the NL Crown) and continues to this day.  Integrated into the lofty stain glass windows are scenes from the times, including, to my surprise, images of anonymous sportsmen that represent how athleticism is an essential spiritual pursuit.

From Time Magazine (1951):

The Right Rev. Horace W. B. Donegan, Protestant Episcopal bishop of New York, dedicated a new sports window in Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The window was planned by the late Bishop William T. Manning, who believed good sportsmanship and religion had much in common. To illustrate his point, the stained-glass window shows the symbolic figures of athletes surrounding medallions of Esau the hunter, Jacob wrestling with the Angel, and St. Paul with his advice to run a good race. On the wall will be added the names of some modern sports giants: Tennis Champion Robert D. Wrenn, baseball’s Christy Mathewson, football’s Walter Camp and hockey’s Hobey Baker.

I discovered (by asking a tour guide) that although the “Sports Bay” was formally dedicated fifty-eight years ago to a pitcher who threw for John McGraw’s New York Giants around a hundred years ago, Mathewson’s name has yet to be actually etched into the stone walls there.  Upon asking a cathedral official when the stone carvers are scheduled to complete the job, he answered politely, “it’s just another thing we haven’t got around to.”  I was amused, because I tell house guests the same thing when I show them the backyard.

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Further up Broadway on 165th St., in the shadow of high stone towers, a monument rises where the old wooden Hilltop Park rose and fell years ago – but this monument rises no higher than the dirt.  In a contemplative garden at the heart of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center rests a bronze home plate placed and precisely oriented in the same location as the first home plate that a Yankee catcher ever caught behind.  I tried to enter the garden through the public gate but found it chained and locked.  I ventured into the large stone complex looking for a path in, acting as official as possible as I strode passed the front desk.  My dusty Yankee cap didn’t help the act.  “Excuse me sir, may I help you?” asked the guard.  CAUGHT.  “I hope so.  I’m with Baseball Digest dot com, and I’ve come to snap pictures of the old home plate.  Is that possible?”  He looked at me for a moment.  I thought, I could really use a press credential right now.  He gestured to another guard, an older, stern-looking Dominican woman, and starting speaking Spanish to her.  Excellente, I thought, mi gente.  We spoke back and forth in Spanish and she agreed to escort me to the garden.  “Not too long,” she said, “esta muy frio hoy, no?”  I made sure to complement her for the perfume she was wearing on the walk outside.  I took my photos.  “Why don’t you try at this angle?”  She demonstrated.  Good tip.  On the walk back in, I offered her a $10 bill out of professional gratitude.  “No, no,” she said, “don’t break my heart.”

The plaque reads:

Dedicated to Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and the community of Washington Heights by the New York Yankees to mark the exact location of home plate in Hilltop Park, home of the New York Highlanders from 1903 to 1932, later renamed the New York Yankees.

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I was lucky enough to attend the first game ever at the new Yankee Stadium, a misty Friday night exhibition against the storied Chicago Cubs.  Around the seventh inning, some older fellows with “NJ State Trooper” emblazoned on their pullovers started the “get-up sit-down get-up” process of tearing off to their long drive home.  After giving one of them the “down in front!” treatment, I broke bread with another from the group and he struck up a conversation.  “I was here on Opening Day in ’76, after the first renovation,” he recalled.  “Good times.  Different times.”  I was a baby when the last rejuvenation of the franchise’s digs took place, so I kept my mouth shut.  He continued, “so what do you think of this place?”  “It’s a great building,” I responded.  I thought a little deeper for a moment.  What made the old place great was not the etched-granite or the modern scoreboard or the convenient amenities.  The greatness is felt in the memories of victory, celebrations told by the spirits who won there.  Victory and celebration of historical scale have yet to happen in this new “Palace”.  Although some players and many fans take their experiences into the new place, the walls have not yet been infused with all those good times.  I continued to the older gent, “It’s a great place, but these guys have to win.”  He agreed.

There are loads of monuments and photos and dedications in the New Yankee Stadium, but those all point to the past – a great past, but still, the past.  Babe Ruth’s name is embossed in the granite walkway out front.  A hundred years from now, what will be commemorated?  What will be enshrined?  Whose name will the stonecarvers chisel out?

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