Why the Yankees almost moved to New Jersey on multiple occasions
It is the most iconic emblem in sports, an interlocking NY looming with majestic intent. Millions of people wear the logo – on caps, jackets, shirts and hoodies – every day, often unaware that it belongs to the New York Yankees, a mere baseball team. In fact, with so many people recognising the insignia, it has long since transcended sports, earning a place in social ubiquity. Such is the power of the brand and its message.
However, not so long ago, the vaunted NY logo may have been rendered superfluous, incongruous and anachronistic, if a rumoured deal to move the Yankees out of their home state actually came to fruition. Indeed, on several occasions across a 40-year stretch, the New Jersey Yankees became a very realistic proposition, as the most successful MLB franchise of all-time threatened to move if a new stadium could not be built in the Bronx, its humble home.
Only by delving deep into that decades-long flirtation can we decipher just how close the Yankees were to moving state. This, then, is an exhaustive exploration of the entire story, explaining – once and for all – why a J never replaced the Y in the sacred logo. Here is the full history of the Yankees’ touted, teased and truncated move to New Jersey, which never actually happened, but not for a want of trying.
Why the Yankees considered moving to New Jersey in the 1970s
Baseball’s expansion and relocation boom
Once upon a time, of course, New York was the global epicentre of baseball. The Yankees played in the Bronx; the Giants played in Manhattan; and the Dodgers played in Brooklyn. At least one Big Apple team made the World Series in 62% of seasons between 1905 and 1958. On 13 occasions in that span, the Fall Classic was an all-New York affair. There was no doubting the city’s zest for baseball, with barroom debates and playground tussles centred on age-old diamond chestnuts.
Alas, everything changed when the Giants and Dodgers moved west in 1958, settling in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. New York’s bureaucratic machine, headed by Robert Moses, did not mirror the zeal of rabid fans, and intransigence agreeing to much-needed new stadiums eventually saw two cherished institutions flee for the opposite coast. The Yankees could be forgiven for looking wistfully out west, fearing a new baseball age that threatened to leave them behind, and extravagant ideas were needed to turn the tide.
The instant success of baseball in Los Angeles and San Francisco exacerbated the Yankees’ existential dilemma. Perennially troubled in the quaint confines of Ebbets Field, the Dodgers won world championships in 1959, 1963 and 1965, becoming synonymous with winning. Down around 1 million in 1957, the team’s attendance rose to 2.7 million within five years of calling Los Angeles home – a 168% increase. The Giants more than doubled their home gates, too, adding lustre to the great expansion of Major League Baseball.
Almost immediately, the chase was on among politicians and entrepreneurs to find new markets ripe for commercial plundering. Everywhere suddenly held the potential to be the next Los Angeles or San Francisco, and the big leagues swelled to include teams in Anaheim, Washington, Minnesota, Houston, Atlanta, Oakland, Kansas City, Seattle, San Diego and Montreal before the 1960s were out. A Field of Dreams motto engulfed a changing sport: build it, and they will come. And invariably, they did, trashing history and tradition to forge new paths.
New Jersey’s sporting ambition
A growing beast, New Jersey naturally wanted in on this gravy train, and civic leaders began campaigning for a central sports complex to be built so they could lure existing teams from their foundations. Ideally placed to tantalise teams in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, New Jersey fancied its chances of transplanting established organisations, and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) was spawned as a vehicle to drive that mission. The Meadowlands sports complex was duly built in East Rutherford, New Jersey, a network of interlinked facilities beckoning teams from near and far.
While football became the chief focus of Meadowlands officials, New Jersey did have a historic appetite for baseball. The first ever baseball game using modern rules was played at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, of course, and for many years, the state was a hotbed of minor league ball, local teams serving as affiliates of the Yankees and Phillies in particular. The Dodgers considered New Jersey as a possible destination before settling in Los Angeles, too, so there was some precedent for entertaining the prospect of big league baseball in The Garden State. It was just a matter of getting the stars to align.
The Yankees’ demise
Incidentally, as the Meadowlands rose like a phoenix, the Yankees endured their worst era since moving to New York from Baltimore in 1903. Between 1962 and 1977, the Yankees won zero world championships – a monstrous drought for the recurrent winners. Moreover, in 1964, CBS bought an 80% stake in the team and ran it as a mere cog in a faceless corporation. The Yankees even finished last in 1966, propping up the American League for the first time in 54 years. Beloved stars like Elston Howard, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle faded into retirement, leaving a hollow shell behind.
In time, Yankee Stadium morphed into a sad microcosm of its depleted tenant – battered, bruised and beaten. The decrepit ballpark, rather like the creaking roster, suffered through years of neglect, to a point where fans no longer enjoyed their visits to The House That Ruth Built. As a crime wave swept New York, centred on the South Bronx, poverty and urban decay created a desperate situation. Thousands fled the Bronx as property values plummeted to record lows, leaving derelict neighbourhoods to become breeding grounds for criminality. Attending a Yankees game became an ordeal, quite frankly, and many fans stayed away.
To wit, attendance at Yankee Stadium shrank from an average of 20,872 per game in the 1950s to 16,537 per game in the 1960s and 13,268 per game in the first three seasons of the 1970s. A lack of parking spaces and severe traffic congestion exacerbated the chore of watching a declining team. Then, when concrete began falling from the stands, frustration and concern morphed into alarm and panic. The Yankees needed a revamped home, but such a concept was easier discussed than implemented, and progress was generally hard to come by.
The need for a new stadium
In 1970, for example, New York mayor John Lindsay and Yankees president Michael Burke discussed improvements to Yankee Stadium, with the city offering a $25 million renovation package. This sent Burke down a rabbit hole, with the Yankees entertaining proposals for new and reconstructed ballparks elsewhere. One mock-up even included a dome, somewhat randomly, as the Yankees’ vision oscillated wildly.
“We’ve been in the stadium for 48 years, and we can’t stay for another 48 without some dramatic changes,” said Burke. “Our present lease runs until 1981, but honestly, I don’t know if the Yankees will be there until 1981. We have a problem to improve the stadium to satisfy the fans. We have to find some way to do that over the next several years or find another place to play.”
Fascinatingly, that place could have been Long Island, which submitted a ballpark proposal that was summarily rejected. Elsewhere, New Orleans pitched the Yankees on moving south, only for negotiations to break down before they ever really began. When, in 1971, the New York Football Giants announced they would leave Yankee Stadium for the Meadowlands within five years, New Jersey surfaced again as a potential landing spot for the Yankees. After all, if one tenant declared such a move viable, there was little to stop the other from doing the same.
Ultimately, it can be argued that Burke used the Meadowlands as a bargaining chip to leverage every last cent from his deal with New York City. Said deal was formalised in 1972, with the city taking ownership of Yankee Stadium, investing $24 million in its renovation and agreeing a 30-year lease with the Yankees. The city hoped to lure an NFL or CFL team to the Bronx, as well, offsetting its controversial expenditure, but those plans eventually fizzled out, too.
“If the Yankees had left New York, it would have been a disaster for the city and particularly the Bronx,” Lindsay concluded, rather triumphantly. “I think it was the right thing to do.” Meanwhile, Burke was similarly ebullient, crowing that “Yankee Stadium is the most famous arena since the Roman Coliseum.” Still, when the original $24 million budget spiralled closer to $100 million, many taxpayers were unhappy. Optically, it was hard to sell that deal as pivotal to the city, especially amid budgetary shortfalls and fiscal deficits, and many observers became disillusioned with the entire situation.
The Yankees shared Shea Stadium with the expansion Mets for two seasons before finally reopening Yankee Stadium – replete with plastic seats, cleared sightlines and improved access via ramps and escalators – in 1976. Generally, though, the renovations did not earn favourable reviews. Indeed, there was a deflating sense that the city did not get much bang for its buck. Moreover, the stadium was not futureproofed to any great extent, necessitating further upgrades – and further debate – down the line.
How New Jersey became a fleeting option to rehome the 1980s Yankees
By this point, the Yankees were under new ownership, with shipping magnate George Steinbrenner buying the team for $8.8 million in 1973. Though meddlesome and capricious, Steinbrenner invested heavily in the Yankees’ ashen roster, acquiring Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson as pivotal figureheads. Mystique somehow rekindled, the Bronx Bombers won back-to-back world championships in 1977 and 1978 amid a politically-charged atmosphere. A further pennant in 1981 boosted home attendances still further, but Steinbrenner lamented an unsustainable business model that impinged the team’s potential.
George wanted to make the Yankees the most powerful, dominant and revered sports team on earth, but he realised early that, despite the Burke-led renovations, Yankee Stadium had commercial limitations that stymied his progress. Steinbrenner understood the coming importance of luxury boxes, diversified concessions and year-round revenue streams inherent in modern stadia, and he saw a chasm that needed to be bridged.
Of course, the 1980s were bleak and alien for the Yankees, who failed to win a single World Series title in the decade. The last time that happened was before Yankee Stadium was even built, back in the 1910s, and fans grew tired of Steinbrenner’s histrionics. A franchise of resounding iconography, the 1980s Yankees were symbolised by a hobbled Don Mattingly straining against fate, as hope replaced expectation in the jaded Bronx.
The Boss did not give up lightly, however. Instead, Steinbrenner doubled down on his roadmap for a sustainable Yankees resurgence, centred on a new ballpark fit for the twenty-first century. City officials were not especially cooperative, though, and in 1983, when offseason stadium repairs were delayed, George even made tentative arrangements to have the Bombers play their opening series at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado, where 75,000 hungry baseball fans awaited. Only a judgement from the New York Supreme Court stopped the absurd westward march, but Steinbrenner’s intentions were clear: the Yankees were not afraid to do something bold, and refurbishment alone was not enough to satisfy his vision.
“The Yankee pinstripes belong to New York like Central Park, like the Statue of Liberty, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, like the Metropolitan Opera, like the Stock Exchange, like the lights of Broadway,” said acting judge Alan Lane, presiding over a lawsuit. “Collectively, they are ‘The Big Apple.’ Any loss represents a diminution of the quality of life here, a blow to the city’s standing at the top, however narcissistic that perception may be.”
Suitably frustrated, Steinbrenner encouraged the city to remember those sentiments when next they negotiated a new ballpark. In this regard, George drew inspiration from the SkyDome in Toronto, a downtown ballpark brimming with contemporary amenities, and from Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, a neighbourhood ballpark that mixed cutting-edge comfort with retro romance. Competing in the same division as Toronto and Baltimore, Steinbrenner knew the Yankees needed to keep up, and he set about making it happen – by hook or by crook.
Helicopters, renderings and referendums
To that end, in 1987, Steinbrenner met with Robert Mulcahy, a key NJSEA figurehead, to swap ideas about potentially moving the Yankees to New Jersey. As told by Mulcahy in No Minor Accomplishment, Bob Golon’s book about New Jersey baseball, George took helicopter rides over the Meadowlands, scouting proposed sites. Meanwhile, John Hanson, another prominent official, told The Bergen Record he had a handshake deal with Steinbrenner to move the Yanks to East Rutherford. The New Yorker even trailed a cover showing Yankee Stadium being lifted by helicopters and dropped in Jersey. Things suddenly felt real in this gripping, emotive saga, and plans were finally progressing.
Steinbrenner’s posturing led to political engineering, with meat added to the bones of New Jersey’s fanciful baseball pipedream. Artists produced renderings of a hypothetical ballpark, redolent of Kauffman Stadium in Kanas City, that would seat 45,000 people. Soundbites emerged from senior public officials, stoking an illusion of momentum. And, finally, a public vote was held on a $185 million bond proposal to finance the building of said stadium, ostensibly for the Yankees.
Nevertheless, despite the Yankees threatening to quit their lease in the Bronx to complete a move, a resounding majority of New Jerseyites, 67.25%, voted to reject the proposal, quashing the project before it left the ground. “When you have unsettled economic times, people have a tendency not to spend money,” said Hanson while conceding, and hopes of a revised proposal being accepted were subsequently stymied.
Despite this visceral defeat, Steinbrenner was still convinced that the Yankees needed a new ballpark, and he was determined to keep massaging the political mood music until it finally happened. For all its charm and history, Yankee Stadium was fairly decrepit by the 1990s, with poor lighting and crumbling foundations. Bronx-born mayor Ed Koch offered a further round of taxpayer-funded renovations, and Steinbrenner originally agreed before backing out of a deal. George considering Koch’s offer a lukewarm stopgap rather than a long-term solution, and The Boss still yearned for a new ballpark.
When, in 1990, Steinbrenner was banned from day-to-day management by baseball commissioner Fay Vincent for conspiring with a shady gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, a beleaguered Yankees star, the owner's negotiating power was suitably diminished. Mayor David Dinkins rejected plans to build a new stadium in Manhattan, and Steinbrenner responded by threatening to pull the team out of the Bronx. The New York Observer touted Lyndhurst, New Jersey as a potential landing spot on that occasion, although separating fact from fiction became increasingly difficult.
Remarkably, despite the resounding rejection by voters just three years prior, New Jersey governor Jim Florio still wanted the Yankees to find a new home in his state, and exploratory talks did take place. Ultimately, however, Steinbrenner’s absence from day-to-day franchise operations added complexities that could not be overcome. Too many people considered George a loose cannon, and his chameleon-like mood swings made commitments hard to ratify.
All along, of course, diehard Yankees fans bristled at the notion of moving their beloved team from its sacrosanct home. Sure, most of the mooted New Jersey sites were within 15 miles of the Bronx ballyard, a short drive across the George Washington Bridge, but there is a dynamic of tradition and heritage to sports fandom that cannot be simply quantified. Moving the New York Yankees to New Jersey was akin to moving Manchester United to Bolton, or having the England national football team abandon Wembley for Watford. It was sacrilege, quite frankly, and few wanted it to actually happen.
“Forget mass murder, gang shootouts, blackouts, riots and terrorist bombers,” wrote The Kenneth Clark in a 1993 Chicago Tribune op-ed. “Those are things with which New Yorkers can cope. But tell them the Yankees are about to pack up their pinstripes and move, and panic reigns.” Meanwhile, Whitey Ford spoke for the overwhelming majority in a Los Angeles Times piece: “The New Jersey Yankees? That doesn’t sound right. You can’t have The House That Ruth Built in Secaucus.”
How the 1990s dynasty helped the Yankees reconnect with New York, even while New Jersey lingered as a backup
Regardless, the Yankees pressed ahead with their new stadium explorations, instructing lawyers to conduct due diligence tasks and viability studies. “The Yankees have long played in the Bronx,” said team general counsel Melvyn Leventhal. “By the same token, that’s not going to cut it. That’s not enough to keep the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.”
Reading the tea leaves, New York governor Mario Cuomo began to sound pessimistic about the chances of agreeing a new stadium deal. “I believe the Yankees intent to move,” said Cuomo. “I’m doing everything I can to persuade them to stay. I hope winning will make all the difference. If they win the pennant, you’ll get 50,000 people at every game. It’ll be hard for Mr Steinbrenner to convince anyone he ought to move. So what I’m praying for is victory.”
Cuomo’s prayers were answered, apparently, as the Yankees built another vintage dynasty with world titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The team reconnected with its fanbase like never before, breaking attendance records and creating an irresistible duality of pride. Moreover, by the time Steinbrenner returned to daily control, Rudy Giuliani, a passionate Yankees fan, was mayor, and he was more amenable than his predecessors to finding the team a new ballpark in New York. Finally, key stakeholders saw mutual benefit to keeping the Yankees in their historic neighbourhood, with tourist dollars, international cache and local jobs offsetting taxpayer expenditure.
Nevertheless, collective will to keep the Yankees in New York did not thaw Steinbrenner’s steadfast pursuit of excellence, and The Boss was not about to accept any old proposal. In fact, by the mid-1990s, Steinbrenner had rejected 13 different options to keep the Yankees in the Bronx beyond 2002. George was even ridiculed on Seinfeld, the popular sitcom, where his exaggerated doppelgänger wanted to move the team to New Jersey ‘just to upset people.’ There was always an ulterior motive with The Boss, and people grew tired of his antics.
Some say Steinbrenner was never serious about moving the Yankees, that it was all just a ploy, a pawn, a tactic to hold the city hostage and strongarm a favourable deal. For their part, many city officials wanted to keep the Yankees around – on the right terms. That those terms became increasingly difficult to define muddied the waters, but focus generally shifted towards a New York solution by the late-1990s. New Jersey became an elaborate backup, a wild mistress prone to errors, but still it would not go away.
The New Jersey Yankees, a rumour that would not die
In 1996, Steinbrenner commissioned HOK, the architectural firm behind Camden Yards, to study the stadium issue and craft a suite of options. HOK duly produced four possible sites for a new Yankee Stadium – from Manhattan railyard on the west side and Pelham Bay and Van Cortlandt Parks in the Bronx to across the street from the existing ballpark. Generally, though, the HOK recommendations were rather pie in the sky, and serious plans never really developed. Soundbites and rhetoric were traded on all sides, but little actual movement occurred towards putting a spade in the ground, as the entire situation approached another impasse.
The landscape changed dramatically in April 1998, when a 500-pound hunk of concrete and steel fell onto a seat two hours before a game at Yankee Stadium. If spectators were in attendance, sat in that area, there would have been disastrous consequences, and so the hunt for a new ballpark – rather than patched renovations – was imbued with fresh urgency. This is when New Jersey resurface as a possible outlet, bringing another wave of hearsay and hysteria.
Such was the subterranean buzz, New York magazine despatched Allen Barra to investigate the Yankees-New Jersey flirtation. “One has only to conjure up the image of the ensuing midnight traffic jams in the Lincoln Tunnel and on the George Washington Bridge to realise that George Steinbrenner has never seriously thought about moving the Yankees to New Jersey,” Barra concluded. Meanwhile, a similar sentiment pervaded among the other MLB franchise owners, whose ballparks were at their fullest whenever the Yankees came to town.
Nevertheless, Steinbrenner also gazed enviously at the NFL’s success in New Jersey, which offered a blueprint ripe for copying. The football Giants won Super Bowl crowns in 1986 and 1990, while the Jets added a third title back in the days of Joe Namath. Other sports leagues established a foothold in New Jersey, as well, with an MLS franchise sprouting from Harrison in 1994 and the upstart New Jersey Devils winning an NHL Stanley Cup one year later. As many had always argued, New Jersey was fertile ground for professional sports, and Steinbrenner continued to enjoy the idea – if not the logistical reality – of annexing another state and its fanbase.
Wrote David Greenberg in The New Republic: “For Steinbrenner, a new ballpark at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Sports Complex – say, a quirky designed nostalgia park modelled on Baltimore’s Camden Yards – would drench his team in money from yuppie families making an evening’s entertainment of the game and from companies grabbing up season tickets and luxury skyboxes.”
Interestingly, though, a contemporary Newark Star Ledger poll found that 80% of Jerseyites did not want the Yankees if a hypothetical deal involved giving Steinbrenner public money for a stadium. That stance was championed by incoming New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, who pledged to ringfence public funds from any such project.
Accordingly, the age-old tit-for-tat continued unabated, with whispers and leaks outnumbering facts and announcements. The clock continued to tick, though, and the need for a resolution – beyond simply kicking the can down the road – became pressing with each passing year. Something had to give, and the Yankees were unlikely to back down.
Did the Yankees nearly move to New Jersey? How close did it come to happening?
As such, in September 1998, Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer published a report entitled Safe at Home, outlining his vision for a Yankees future in the Bronx that benefited residents and the local economy. Ferrer actually refined the 1996 plans published by HOK, and his proposal included a Meadowlands-esque Yankee Village, crystalising commerce around communal hubs. But Steinbrenner rejected that idea, as well, to the chagrin of city officials.
As the new millennium approached, reiterating the need for consensus, Giuliani worked on a counterproposal that finally assuaged some of Steinbrenner’s key concerns. Giuliani’s initial plan called for a $1 billion stadium to be built in Manhattan’s West Side Yard, and while those specifics never materialised, it was this idea – this impulse towards commitment – that allowed an agreement to eventually fester.
Indeed, by January 2002, just days before he left office, Giuliani said ‘tentative agreements’ had been reached with both the Yankees and Mets on new ballparks. However, those deals were revoked by Michael Bloomberg, the incoming mayor, who branded the agreements tantamount to ‘corporate welfare.’ Bloomberg triggered an escape hatch in the deals, but stated a desire to find an amicable alternative.
Crucially, according to the New York Post, Giuliani also convinced Steinbrenner to sign an emergency lease extension keeping the Yankees in the Bronx through 2005. George only acquiesced when a clause was added allowing the Yankees to leave New York within 60 days of serving notice. The ballclub also received $10 million per year during the extended timeframe to assist with finding a long-term ballpark solution. Giuliani's bias was clear to see.
In fairness, Bloomberg continued working on a deal that contained clear boundaries. The city would pitch in for improvements around a prospective ballpark, said the mayor, but the actual stadium would have to be financed privately. Bloomberg also helped the Yankees find a suitable site for a new park, ultimately settling across the street from the original, and in June 2005, formal announcements were made detailing those plans. A new Yankee Stadium would open in time for the 2009 season, with a further lease add-on protecting their current digs through the transition.
At a subsequent event unveiling designs for the new Bronx ballpark, Steinbrenner mercifully declared the Yankees would stay in the Bronx. And when the $1.6 billion stadium financing round was completed in 2006, the New Jersey concept died for good. The Big Apple had finally secured its most precious heirloom, ending decades of exhaustive haggling.
Interestingly, in October 2008, when the final games had been played at old Yankee Stadium, team president Randy Levine appeared before a congressional hearing and said the Yankees would have left town if tax-exempt financing had not been issued. Levine cited many potential suitors, including New Jersey, as potential alternatives destinations, but firm details have never really emerged.
These days, the Yankees have a Double-A farm team in Bridgewater Township, New Jersey – the Somerset Patriots representing a mere stepping stone en route to big league fame. At different times in history, however, that route may have been reversed, with the Bronx serving as a conduit rather than a hub, a pipeline rather than a geyser.
We may never truly know how close the Yankees came to calling New Jersey home, but the odds were likely shorter than you think. Oh, and the Yankees own their new stadium, so they will not be rocking up at the Meadowlands anytime soon. Keep buying those interlocking NY hats, then, because they are unlikely to lose value anytime soon.
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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!