Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Sound of Time

If there is such a thing as a building following you around like a full moon on a clear night, then Madison Square Garden is it for me.

My father went to see the circus at the original Garden. I began my hockey fandom from the building on Eighth Avenue. I walk to work from Penn Station every morning, the building underneath the "new" Garden, and I go past the site where my father went to the circus when I pass the New York Life building that replaced the Garden as I walk along the north side of Madison Square Park and cross Madison Avenue. I am being followed.

Thomas Wolfe wrote of the old Pennsylvania Station that "few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time." And if you happen to remember the old station you would have agreed with the poetic description Wolfe wrote of the upper level of that "mighty room, distilled out of the voices and movements of the people who swarmed beneath."

If there is irony in this world then it is that the old Pennsylvania Station was demolished in 1964 to make way for what would be the fourth Madison Square, a building that opened in 1968, is still there and whose name alone evokes more sporting memories than all the almanacs in the world. Think of that: the sound of time replaced by another form of eternity.

More irony. The New York Life building replaced the original Madison Square Garden. The fourth Madison Square Garden replaced the old Pennsylvania Station. And when the wrecker's ball stopped swinging, and it was realized what was lost, the Landmarks Preservation Commission was started to preserve buildings like the old Penn Station. The New York Life building--the building that replaced the Garden, that replaced Penn Station--is itself designated a landmark in 2000.

The building pictured above was the third Madison Square Garden, on Eighth Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets, significantly removed from where it first opened on 26th and Madison, hard by Madison Square Park. The third Garden was built in 1925 in 249 days and anyone who ever saw it in daytime had to wonder how could anything resembling a warehouse with windows hold events as varied as hockey, basketball, bike races, track meets, horse shows, rodeos, a circus, boxing, and wrestling. The only glamorous clue to the place was the arched movie-style marquee, that when lit up at night surely made you realize something was going on TONITE.

My father always told me about the original Garden, where his favorite uncle took him to see the circus. Take a kid to a circus and they will be your favorite uncle for life. And he was. The building was topped by a statue of the goddess Diana, by the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. (Think $20 gold pieces.) The statue of a naked Diana outraged the citizenry. When I happened to tour Gaudens's home in New Hampshire there was a reprint of a cartoon that showed the Statue of Liberty shielding its eyes from the naked goddess of the hunt. When I told the Park Ranger the story of my father going to that old Garden he managed to send me a reprint of the cartoon. Cartoons have been delivering messages for a long time.

My own Garden memories start with Eighth Avenue, when the first event I was taken to was a hockey game between the Rangers and the Montreal Canadians in 1959. It turned out to be a very historic game because the Canadian goalie, Jacques Plante was hit in the face by a shot by Andy Bathgate. Plante had to leave the game for repairs. In that era the clubs did not dress two goaltenders. I remember vividly sitting there and asking my father why was the game delayed so long. I'm sure I got ice cream.

Well, Plante came back out, but this time wearing a mask. No goalie in the NHL had ever worn a mask before in a game. Plante had been wearing it now and then in practice, but his coach, Toe Blake, wouldn't let him wear it in the game. Plante insisted on wearing it because his face was so freshly stitched up that he felt it was now or never. The mask caught on.

I had never realized that Bathgate took the shot that Plante stopped with his face. It was when I was reading the souvenir program last week from the Ranger number retiring ceremony that I learned Bathgate was connected to Plante and the dawn of the mask.

Bathgate was the best Ranger player, but reading about him from an adult perspective he apparently rankled some bosses. One story I remember hearing was of him coming to practice with The Wall Street Journal under one arm and The Morning Telegraph (racing paper) under the other. The coach, Red Sullivan, I think, yelled at him and told him he didn't want to see him coming to practice ever again with either paper under his arm. Hockey players were not expected to read, I suppose, and not expected to do something with their money.

To this day, whenever I have The Wall Street Journal and the Daily Racing Form in my bag I think of Bathgate and think that I'll be lucky to have any money left by Monday. I always seem to, but that's probably what Red Sullivan was so mad at: he didn't want his player distracted by going broke.

But the player of the two whose numbers were retired this past Sunday that I remember best was Harry Howell. When they retired Messier's number I was shocked to learn that Howell's hadn't yet been retired. He was their best player on teams that were less than talented. He was Harry the Horse, a defensive bulwark that never strayed in from the offensive blue line and could tie up multiple forwards like a bouncer. He was the second goaltender. And when he did win the Norris Trophy as best defenseman he very wisely said he was glad he got it then, because that young fellow Bobby Orr was going to own it soon. And of course Orr did.

I remember watching Howell tie guys up from my balcony seat vantage. Harry must have been a bit prematurely gray because when I think about him he always looked older than anyone else out there. Almost like a taller, silver haired John Marley on skates. Of course, in that era the players didn't wear helmets, so you could always see their faces. And the old Garden offered great sight lines for that, provided you weren't in anything further back from row A in the side balcony. ($2.00 for end balcony; $1.50 for side; 50 cents side balcony with a student GO, General Organization card.)

The old Garden was built for boxing. Stick a ring in the center, and everyone had a great view. But as the uses expanded, the disadvantages became apparent. But it took until 1968 when it replaced the building that held the sound of time.

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