Bill Becker, 87, of Toms River, N.J., shows the replica of Yankee Stadium he built out of 75,000 matchsticks on Friday, May 17, 2013. The replica was on display in the Bronx at the new Yankee Stadium last week and will be exhibited at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, N.J.(Photo: Tanya Breen, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press)
Larry Higgs, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
TOMS RIVER, N.J. -- You've heard of "The House That Ruth Built"? Now there's the house that Bill Becker built. And they both are Yankee Stadium.
Becker, 87, of Toms River, N.J., is a master builder of models made of matchsticks. Perhaps his greatest triumph to date is the massive replica he has built of the original Yankee Stadium - 75,000 matchsticks strong - using photographs, memory and a lot of Elmer's glue.
It took four years to build.
Becker's masterpiece is one of only a few items in his Toms River home that was not washed under by floodwaters during superstorm Sandy. And now he is getting recognition for his work.
"For once in his life, my grandfather is speechless," said Kelly Herrington, 37, of Suffolk, Va., who with her cousin Sara Becker mounted a massive social media and e-mail campaign to make her grandfather's dream come true - to get his model to the real Yankee Stadium.
Last week Bill Becker, known among family members as "Brother Beans;" his matchstick stadium; and two busloads of relatives traveled to the real thing: the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Becker's tale will be told on the YES Network, which filmed the story for a pregame show to air Monday.
"I can't believe it. I can't believe how the fans came up and wanted to take pictures with me," Becker said of his trip to Yankee Stadium. "I was very surprised the Yankees wanted it. I couldn't believe how nice they were to me."
Among the many matchstick structures Becker has built over the years is one of Lambeau Field, the fabled NFL stadium in Green Bay, Wis., where the Packers play. He has built dollhouses for his granddaughters, a matchstick manger and a Christmas train. His Lambeau Field was on display at the Vince Lombardi Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1975 and 1976. Lombardi brought prominence to the Packers as the team's head coach in the 1960s.
A dream come true
Becker's matchstick Yankee Stadium was on display behind Plexiglas for three days last week in the real stadium's 200 level near the press box.
Becker credits Herrington with contacting the Yankees to make his dream come true. When Sandy pummeled the Jersey Shore, almost everything in her grandfather's house in the Snug Harbor section was lost, except his models of Yankee Stadium and Lambeau Field.
While she could not leave her family in Virginia to help him rebuild his home, she wanted to do something.
"The only thing I could think of was to get the Yankees to recognize his stadium," she said. "I didn't tell him."
One Facebook page, six months of effort and thousands of e-mails later, Herrington and her cousin were contacted by a YES Network producer who wanted to film a story and get the replica stadium to the Bronx. A film crew interviewed the family in April and came to Toms River two weeks ago to break the news that the Yankees wanted to honor him, Herrington said.
"We had 150 family members who went in two buses to the stadium," Herrington said.
Her father, Pat Nugent, drove the matchstick stadium to the Bronx in a rented 16-foot van, with the replica resting on egg crates and blankets.
"He was on pins and needles. It took four hours," Herrington said.
The hobby that almost wasn't
A lifelong Yankee fan, Becker credits the women in his life for his matchstick empire, from his granddaughters for getting him started to his wife, Dottie, who died 13 years ago, for being his inspiration and "head of quality control."
His hobby almost did not happen, after two early attempts to build a dollhouse ended with both collapsing.
A few days later, while working on his mail route in Old Bridge, Becker said he figured out how to do it: by gluing the matchsticks offset from each other instead of side by side. He used that method to build a wall. He let it dry for a few days and it held.
The two-story dollhouse was followed by another dollhouse for granddaughter Sara, a country store and a Christmastime train layout complete with track, trestles and trains made of matchsticks.
After the dollhouses were completed, his grandson Patrick asked him to build him a matchstick Yankee Stadium.
"I said, 'OK, I'll give it a shot,' " Becker said.
And he did, focusing on the model at night after work and on weekends.
The first step Becker took was lighting bundles of wood matches, dunking them in water and sanding off the ash, leaving what is like a miniature plank of wood to work with.
"I saw it (the project) from the first matches getting glued together. It's a process," said Eileen Becker, his daughter-in-law, of Spotswood, N.J.
The stadium was almost complete by last August. Then Sandy hit in October. The two stadiums and other matchstick masterpieces survived.
"It's been a challenge, but I enjoyed it," Bill Becker said from the garage of his home, where the stadium will be until it is sent to the Yogi Berra Museum on the Montclair State University campus for an exhibition. Then the stadium will go to Patrick's house in Virginia, as promised.
Asbury Park (N.J.) Press