In the spring of 1948, a few months before he died, Babe Ruth traveled 75 miles northeast of Yankee Stadium to pay a visit to New Haven, where Yale was playing a baseball game against Princeton. The Yale captain that year was a lean first baseman named George Bush. Before the game, Ruth shuffled out to home plate carrying a copy of his autobiography, which Bush accepted on behalf of his school. The other thing that Ruth dispensed that day was a compliment. Yale Field, he said, was just about the best place for baseball that he had ever seen.
Today, after a $3.34 million renovation, it is better than ever. The lovely old park where generations of fine players, from Albie Booth to Jimmie Foxx to Ted Williams to Ron Darling to Jeff Bagwell, have spent at least an afternoon has been refurbished, making it as good as old. More happy news for New Haven, a decaying industrial town that badly needs some, is that for the first time in the ballpark's 67-year history, a minor league team—the Colorado Rockies' Double A Eastern League franchise, the Ravens—has taken up residence.
In this era of new ballparks designed to look like relics, Yale Field, vintage 1927, is the real thing. Its renovation comes courtesy of a complex financial arrangement between Ed Massey, the health-care-service baron who owns the Ravens, and Yale, whose latest baseball-loving president, Rick Levin, feels about the San Francisco Giants the way the late Bart Giamatti did about the Boston Red Sox. To make the park suitable for professional baseball, lights were added, but pains were taken to maintain the character of the place.
Yale Field has always been a spacious ballpark, and while the outfield fences were pulled in for professional play and then painted with advertisements for a law firm, a hot dog company and two breweries to provide proper minor league ambience, its version of the Green Monster remains distant and unadorned. Four hundred ten feet from home plate and 40 feet high, the Monster, Yale's centerfield scoreboard, is a hand-operated monolith made of sheet metal. Scores of players claim to have hit a baseball over it. The truth is that while Bagwell, now the Houston Astros' slugging first baseman and a former student at the University of Hartford, bashed one off the scoreboard, he, Booth, Foxx, Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Williams and almost everyone else reputed to have hit one over it did not. The exceptions have been a University of New Haven slugger named Bob Turcio, who did so in 1979; Cornell's Mike Held, in '83; and Jose Malave of the New Britain (Conn.) Red Sox, who lofted one toward the elms beyond the Monster this past May. None of the Ravens have come close, including their manager, former Yankee infielder Paul Zuvella, who has been taking aim with his fungo bat. "No luck," he says sadly.
Yale Field is a pitcher's ballpark, and it is pitchers who speak of it with the most affection. Perhaps the best game ever played at Yale Field was the 1981 NCAA regional tournament contest in which St. John's Frank Viola took on Yale's Ron Darling. Darling pitched 11 hitless innings, but Viola was almost as impressive, and Darling lost his no-hitter—and the ball game—in the 12th, 1-0. "It was definitely one of the most beautiful fields I ever played on," says Viola, who pitches for Boston. "There was no place quite like it, just like there's no place like Fenway or Wrigley."
Darling, who now does his pitching in Oakland, for the Athletics, says of Yale Field, "Of all the fields I played in on the East Coast, none of them had the character that this place had."
Some of the young Raven hurlers would agree. "It's what I'd think the Polo Grounds would feel like," says righthander Lloyd Peever. "It's not The Ballpark in Arlington or Camden Yards, it's the real thing, and we're just one more mark in the wall for Yale Field."
The refurbished stadium is the place to hang out in New Haven.