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Play Ball!
Yale’s venerable baseball stadium is getting a new lease on life as part of an innovative deal with a professional franchise

On this patch of greensward, on spring afternoons in the 1930s, baseball legends such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig dazzled onlookers with Olympian power and grace. And here it was that Albie Booth (Class of 1932), the “little boy blue” also known for his football exploits, came to bat with the bases loaded during a commencement game against Harvard, and proceeded to wallop a Grand slam that gave the elis a 4–2 victory. And here, too, in 1948, Ruth, near death from cancer, returned for a poignant final visit. The Babe walked slowly to the infield and presented Yale captain George Bush with a donation to the University: an original manuscript of Ruth’s autobiography. Ruth proclaimed the site—Yale Field—to be the finest playing surface he had ever seen.

This stately but small-scale arena sits on what was, at the turn of the century, an apple orchard. Yale men had begun playing baseball in an organized fashion as far back as 1854, and the first regular “nine” was formed in 1865. (Yale won its first game, against Wesleyan, by a score of 39–13.) By the early 1890s the fans were treated to a proper grandstand with a shingled cupola. But demand for seats soon outgrew the capacity (between 1880 and 1898, Yale won 342 games, lost 201 and tied four), and in 1927, the present stadium was constructed to the designs of Charles Duke, who deliberately invoked the arcaded look of the original Yankee Stadium, erected four years earlier.

The Yankees and Red Sox played preseason exhibitions in New Haven.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Yale Field became a glorious shrine to its sport, hosting not only Yale’s own teams, but also some of the best in the major leagues, including the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Boston Braves, all of which played preseason exhibitions in New Haven. Yale’s current director of athletics, Harold Woodsum Jr. ’53, recalls his days as an undergraduate when Yale-Harvard reunion games would draw 10,000 people to the field, requiring extra bleachers in the outfield. He also remembers flatbed trucks rumbling onto the field, carrying Dixieland bands to celebrate alumni weekend.

In recent years, however, reflecting the similar woes of the Yale Bowl, its neighbor across Derby Avenue, the old ballpark had become a far quieter, less festive, less appreciated place. The unfilled seats slowly decayed, the major leaguers no longer held exhibitions, the reunion games were discontinued, and Yale teams played in front of only a few hundred—or sometimes a few dozen—dedicated spectators. There were rare flashes of excitement; fans still speak in hushed tones of the classic encounter during the 1981 NCAA playoffs between two pitchers bound for the majors, Ron Darling of Yale and Frank Viola of St. John’s, who dueled for 12 innings before the visitors finally got their first hit off Darling and won the game. But it seemed that time had passed by this field, and that it had become almost obsolete, a relic used only about 15 times per year, then forgotten.

However, last fall the old stadium was invaded by a small army of construction workers, and in late March the first pitches were thrown in what has become home to a new generation of baseball at Yale. It took the hard work and perseverance of scores of people to pull the renaissance off, but three of the most prominent were Woodsum and two friends from the Class of 1964, Christopher Getman and Edward Massey. Getman, a New Haven stockbroker, began the process by phoning Massey, a health-care executive, and telling him, “If you build it, they will come.”

And so they have. Yale baseball teams will continue to play here, but now they have been joined by the New Haven Ravens, a new minor league baseball franchise affiliated with the Colorado Rockies. (The Ravens play at the AA level, two below the major leagues.) For many years, Woodsum had dreamed of a minor league team coming to the stadium, but preliminary discussions (with the likes of George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees) had never worked out. And then in April of 1992, Woodsum and Getman saw another opportunity. Following Getman’s initial call to Massey, the two classmates met with another member of the Class of 1964, Terry Holcombe, the University’s vice president for development and alumni affairs, and Woodsum. Their gathering place was Mory’s and the talk proved fruitful.

Remembering that meeting, Massey says he was on the verge of going ahead and putting up the money to renovate Yale Field, if only because of his affection for Yale and his desire to help the New Haven community. But a week after the Mory’s meeting, he was spurred to action by the news that a minor league franchise had suddenly become available, thanks to the expansion of the National League, which was adding the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins. Massey, who says he knew absolutely nothing about the business of baseball, went down to his local library and read every book he could find dealing with team ownership. He was then set to make a bid to the minor league expansion committee. Impressed by the picturesque site and its storied past, as well as Yale’s involvement and the community’s interest, the committee approved the New Haven group’s bid over other contenders, which included Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Nassau County, New York. The news was particularly sweet for Getman, who had spearheaded the unsuccessful attempt to add the Yale Bowl to the list of American stadiums to be used for the 1994 World Cup soccer championship matches.

Negotiations among the various parties bogged down.

After the euphoria of landing the Rockies franchise, Getman, Massey, and the other backers settled down to the nitty gritty of working out the details of the deal. For a few months, the negotiations among the various parties bogged down. Construction, which had been scheduled to begin in the summer of 1993, was continually delayed. Not until the end of September was an agreement finally reached; work began at the field in mid-October. Peter Halsey ’71, who in January was hired by Yale to raise funds for the University’s part of the Yale Field renovation, notes, &ldquo of a deal, there is always a good dose of acrimony. Everybody got into this with a lot of enthusiasm about the potential, and everybody made a general commitment without acknowledging that a lot of the details would have to be worked out. Some people felt that commitments had been altered or broken. But it was not bad faith or bad intentions on anybody’s part.”

Contributing to the discord was the fact that Yale is a tax-exempt educational institution and the Ravens are a business, a distinction that affected the financing. If, for example, somebody who had a financial interest in the Ravens wanted to make a tax-deductible donation to Yale to fix up the ballpark for the Ravens, it could have led to problems. Matters such as this were resolved when the tax-exempt Tennis Foundation of Connecticut, which operates the Connecticut Tennis Center (home of the annual Volvo Tennis Tournament) across the street from Yale Field, set up a subsidiary, the Baseball Foundation of Connecticut, to facilitate renovations, lease the park from Yale, and then sublease it to the Ravens.

The outcome was a 25-year lease for the Ravens at Yale Field, although the Rockies signed a contract for just one year. Halsey doesn’t foresee a problem either in keeping the Rockies beyond that year or in landing another minor league team, given the state-of-the-art site. “Minor league teams do move around and affiliations do change,” he says. “The Rockies may not stay in New Haven, but the team would still be the New Haven Ravens, just affiliated with a different ball club.”

Massey dismisses all of last summer’s negotiating pain by saying, “All’s well that ends well. I never had any doubt that men of good will could make it happen.” It helps when a lot of financial clout is added to that good will: Massey, president and CEO of U.S. HomeCare in Hartsdale, New York, paid $3.5 million for the team franchise and in tandem with the University and the state of Connecticut, guaranteed another $3.2 million for the renovation. “Financing this is not easy, but it’ll be a great business,” he says. More than six weeks before the April 14 home opener for the Ravens, approximately $1 million had been committed in advance ticket sales.

In addition to establishing what everyone hopes will be a profit-making venture, the backers are also looking at the community benefits. Already the Carolyn Foundation has awarded a $50,000-grant to help children in the greater New Haven area get involved with baseball. There will be charity nights every week at the ballpark to help local social agencies, and arrangements are being made so that poor children will have a chance to see at least some games at no charge. Plans call for other events besides baseball games. At least one Yale College class has already booked the park for a tailgate party during its fall reunion on Princeton weekend.

“Anything that’s in New Haven’s interest is in Yale’s interest.”

For New Haven, a city that continues to struggle with deficits, high taxes, and store closings, the arrival of a minor league team is encouraging news. The Ravens are expected to generate $3.5 million in direct revenues annually and pump $14 million into the local economy each year. Linda Koch Lorimer, secretary of the University, says, “This is another example of how the city and the University can collaborate for the benefit of both. Our undergraduate players will get a better field, and the magic of minor league ball will be a real benefit to the city.” Adds Lloyd Suttle ’69, an associate provost and adviser to the President: “We see this as a very positive thing for New Haven. And anything that’s in New Haven’s interest is in Yale’s interest. It gives us an opportunity to use our facilities for the benefit of the city.”

Alumni seem to share those sentiments. “The feedback I’m getting is very positive,” says Halsey. “To take a historic Yale facility and put it in first-rate shape—that’s exciting to people. John White is a good example of that.” White, a member of the class of 1942, was a catcher on the varsity baseball team, and has contributed $500,000 toward the field’s renovation. When White announced his donation in February, he said, “I couldn’t be happier about contributing to a stadium that will serve Yale and the community. This is also my way of expressing further support for Yale’s terrific baseball program, which has given us so much to cheer about in the last few years.” Indeed, during the 1992 and 1993 seasons, Yale’s varsity baseball teams won the Ivy championship and reached the regional round of the NCAA College World Series.

The fans for the new schedule will have first-rate accommodations. The project includes a refinished roof, a new lighting system, and a modern press box. The dugout has been renovated, and the seating has been reconfigured. The total capacity will increase from 5,500 to about 6,200, which includes facilities for the handicapped. One historic element of the stadium remains in limbo, however: the double-width seat behind home plate designed to accommodate the ample frame of William Howard Taft (Class of 1878), president of the United States, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a major baseball fan during his years as a professor at the Yale Law School. (Time and weather have taken a toll on the seat.)

Beyond right field, the architects—the New Haven firm of Gregg & Wies—have provided for a pavilion with picnic tables, as well as an area where people can spread out blankets. There will also be a grilling area outside the park. (“The idea,” architect Glenn Gregg told the New Haven Register, “is to make this fun for every type of person. Not just the family, and not just the corporations.”) The original 50-foot high center field scoreboard will remain in place, but there will be two auxiliary scoreboards. “The field itself,” says Getman, “is already perfect.”

One can only imagine what the late A. Bartlett Giamatti would think.

Clearly, this is not one of those sad occasions when an architectural treasure is “refurbished” and, in the process, loses it soul, as many think happened to Yankee Stadium in the mid-1970s. Halsey, who says he has “wonderful memories of sitting at Yale Field in the sun in the bleachers when I was a kid and then an undergraduate,” admits that he was concerned about what he might see when he first checked on construction progress one day last winter. “I was almost scared to see what they were doing to it. But it’s looking great. The sight lines are actually enhanced, not hurt.” (The work is being done by New Haven’s Fusco Corporation.) Amazingly enough, in light of the worst winter weather in memory, the construction crews lost less than two days. “They pulled off a miracle,” says Massey.

One of the most enthusiastic observers of the ballpark’s resurrection is University President Richard C. Levin, who is an avid baseball fan (he says his moods swing according to the fortunes of the San Francisco Giants). “The baseball field symbolizes the close working cooperation that can benefit both the University and the local community,” he says. “This builds on the earlier joint effort that helped bring the Volvo Tennis Tournament to New Haven. Yale is deeply committed to this kind of partnership.” Having coached a New Haven youth baseball league for seven years, Levin hopes the Ravens will boost local interest in the sport. “It’ll be a great opportunity for kids in this community to get out and see some baseball,” he says.

One can only imagine what one of Levin’s predecessors, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, would think if he could see the transformation of his hometown ballpark. In one of his many pronouncements on the game, the former Yale President and commissioner of Major League baseball said: “None of us can go to a ball game without in some way being reminded of your best hopes, of your earlier times, some memory of your best memory. It’s always nostalgic, even when it’s most vital and present. It’s not paradise, but it’s as close as you’re going to get to it in America.”  the end


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