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BILL MOYERS: From our offices here in New York, we look out on the tall gleaming skyscrapers that are cathedrals of wealth and power — the Olympus ruled by the gods of finance, the temples of the mighty, the holy of holies, whose priests guard the sacred texts of salvation containing the secrets of sub-prime lending and derivatives as mysterious and elusive as the grail itself.

This last couple of weeks, ordinary mortals below could almost hear the ripcords of golden parachutes being pulled as the divinities on high prepared for soft, safe landings. All this while tossing their workers into the purgatory of unemployment, like sacrificial lambs. Yes, the billionaires who fed during the fat years of speculation are long gone, to their yachts and offshore islands.

During the last five years of his tenure as CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld's total take was $354 million. The current chairman of Merrill Lynch, who's been on the job just nine months, pocketed a $15 million signing bonus. His predecessor, Stan O'Neal, retired with a package valued at $161 million after the company reported an 8 billion dollar loss in a single quarter. And remember Bear Stearns chairman James Cayne? After the company collapsed and was up for sale at bargain prices, he sold his stake for more than $60 million. And the former heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the gods who failed, are fighting to keep severance packages of close to $24 million combined on top of the millions in salary each earned last year while slaughtering the golden calf. As it is written in the gospel according to me first, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

But let's change our metaphor for a moment. Let's go to our sports desk. Because if religion is no longer the soul of capitalism, we have to look somewhere else to understand this new gilded age. And there it is, just a few miles north of Wall Street, the "House that Ruth Built". Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, who ruled Yankee Stadium and sired generations of princes after him: DiMaggio and Gehrig, Mantle, Maris, and Jackson. Yankee Stadium, as fabled a place to Americans as Ilium was to the Greeks.

But believe it or not, this Sunday — weather permitting — the Yankees will play their last game here. The stadium's being demolished, to be replaced next year with a brand new one. What a history to disappear down the memory hole.

On opening day, in 1923, New York Governor Al Smith threw out the first pitch and John Philip Sousa led a big brass band playing his famous marches. It was the roaring Twenties, when the money flowed like bootleg whiskey, the pride before the fall. The year after the market crashed, as the Great Depression began, Babe Ruth was taking home $80,000 a year, more than the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. "Why not?" Ruth asked "I had a better year than he did."

Yankee star Alex Rodriguez had a better year than both of them. This season, A-Rod is making $28 million. Just part of an annual Yankee payroll of $200 million-plus, the richest in baseball. Their owner, George Steinbrenner, is one of the country's richest tycoons, among the Forbes 400. But when it came to paying for the new pleasure dome costing $1.3 billion, the millionaires on the field and King Midas in the skybox came up with some razzle-dazzle plays to finance their wealth machine. Tax-free bonds, requiring ordinary citizens to subsidize the construction, and hundreds of millions more for new parking garages, a train station and parks. Those parks, by the way, will supposedly replace the ones seized by the city to make room for the new stadium. The little league games that used to flourish on sandlots just outside the old ball park have been moved miles away, sent down to the minors on a long road trip.

That's okay, you may think, there will be plenty of room for the tax-paying public to come root, root, root for the home team — even the coliseum in ancient Rome had bleachers, for the commoners. But in fact there will be 5,000 fewer seats in the new stands.

And while the Yankees reportedly have promised that half of what's left will cost $45 apiece or less, those seats that used to cost $250, right behind the dugout, will cost you $850. And if you want to be near home plate, you'll have to cough up $2,500...per game.

Meanwhile, there will be more luxury suites and party rooms where the fat cats gather, safely removed from the sweaty masses. Corporations and wealthy individuals will be able to rent the luxury suites for anywhere from $600,000 to $850,000 tax deductible dollars a year, assuming they haven't filed for bankruptcy this week.

GEORGE STEINBRENNER: "We are all here today to celebrate the new Yankee Stadium. It's a pleasure to give it to you people. That's what we're doing. This is for you people."

BILL MOYERS: Why aren't the fans and tax payers giving the Yankees a Bronx Cheer? They are. But city officials rolled over them while making sure local politicians stay in the lineup. The pols are getting their own luxury suite at the new stadium for free and first shot at buying the best available seats.

And so this Sunday evening we will bid farewell to dear old Yankee Stadium, and await the new colossus to rise from its ruins. It will cast its majestic shadow across one of the country's poorest neighborhoods, whose residents will watch from the outside as suburban drivers avail themselves of 9,000 new or refurbished parking spaces. Never mind all the exhaust, even though in this part of town respiratory disease is already so high they call it "asthma alley."

Not that the well-to-do in the infield seats will have to hear that wheezing. They'll have access to a private club, a private entrance and a private elevator. Totems of this Gilded Age. Let the games begin.

That's it for the Journal. Don't forget to check out our website at pbs.org. And remember the first presidential debate is coming up and we want to hear what questions you'd like to ask the candidates. Be in touch with us at pbs.org. I'm Bill Moyers.

Bill Moyers Essay: Yankee Stadium

September 19, 2008

Bill talks about a shining illustration of our new gilded age.

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  • kenegbert3rd

    It’s a little late to post about this, given the house that Ruth built is now gone 3 years and this hologram call house that ‘replaced’ it is now considered a fact of life (‘you mean this wasn’t the original?’ I can hear out-of-towners saying any minute now), but I have not and I will not attend anything at The House that The Other George Built With Somebody Else’s Money. My grandfather used to take me to Yankee games in the mid-to-late Mickey Mantle era (we were in the park for his last home run), and the utter and complete waste of tearing a building such as that down is unconscionable. I heard nothing about structural deficiencies. I heard nothing about problems the original (and only) Yankee Stadium had with age or upkeep. No, the old stadium didn’t make George enough money. Sorry, guys. As the movie ETHOS pointed out, if you don’t like a company, don’t buy its products. Maybe that’s all the Yankees were. Maybe that, in the end, is all pro sports is. It probably is. If we as Americans got ourselves a (spiritual) life, we might not rely on the Giants or the Red Sox or the Mariners quite so much as we do for our emotional fulfillment. More fool us, then. I do have one other
    concern, however; that this ‘house that the wrong George built’ is situated in one of the Bronx’ most needy neighborhoods. Why has money not been freed up to assist the residents who will never be able to afford these legendary $45 seats (to say nothng of asthma medication)? Same reason that London suddenly found all that money to build those Olympic venues when there are more homeless persons in the city now than ever before. They aren’t s telegenic as Michael Phelps. Just as the residents of Ogden Avenue in the South Bronx don’t matter as much as Robinson Cano’s batting average.