Sunday, August 20, 2006
REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM
The recent ground breaking for a new Yankee Stadium to be ready for business in 2009 led your faithful scribe to muse on the one that has a couple of more seasons left in it. Only Wrigley Field and Fenway Park are older. It’s where Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne made his "Win One for the Gipper” speech, where Johnny Unitas won the 1958 NFL championship in the so-called "Greatest Game Ever Played," where Muhammad Ali fought. It’s where Casey Stengel hit the first World Series home run for the old New York Giants - an inside-the-park job in Game One of the 1923 World Series, where Mickey Mantle blasted a fly ball off the third-deck facade, 109 feet above the playing field and 374 feet from home plate. It’s where Thurman Munson's locker remains the way it was the day he died in a 1979 airplane crash with his Number 15 jersey and catching gear still intact.
From 1903 until April 11, 1913, the New York Highlanders on their way to becoming the New York Yankees - played all their home games at Hilltop Park. Then they became tenants of the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. In 1920, Yankee attendance, boosted by the drawing power of the sensational new slugger Babe Ruth, doubled to 1,289,422, more than a hundred thousand more than the Giants.
The relationship between the two franchises, never especially cordial, turned even more testy following that 1920 season. The next year, the Giants told the Yankees they were no longer welcome as tenants at the Polo Grounds and should vacate the premises as soon as possible.
Ironically, Yankee co-owner Jake Ruppert had thought of demolishing the Polo Grounds and constructing a 100,000 seat stadium to be shared by the Giants and Yankees. Now, however, he and his partner Colonel Tillinghast l'Hommedieu Huston announced plans to build a new ballpark for the Yankees alone. It would be, Ruppert said, along the lines of the Roman Coliseum.
On February 6, 1921, the Yankees issued a press release announcing the purchase of ten acres of property on the site of a lumberyard in the west Bronx obtained from the estate of William Waldorf Astor for $675,000. Directly across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds, it was at the mouth of a little body of water called Crowell’s Creek. Identified as City Plot 2106, Lt 100, the land had been a farm owned by John Lion Gardiner prior to the Revolutionary War. “It was all farmland,” recalled former Giant ticket taker Joe Flynn. “It was beautiful. You could get fresh milk and vegetables there.”
Two weeks before construction on the stadium began, Rupert bought out Huston’s ownership share of the Yankees for $1,500,000. The White Construction Company began work May 5, 1922, agreeing to complete the project "at a definite price" ($2.5-million) and by Opening Day 1923. The architectural firm, Osborne Engineering Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was under mandate to create the greatest and grandest ballpark of its day. Original plans called for the Stadium to be triple decked and roofed all the way around. It was to be shaped like the Yale Bowl and contain towering battlements enclosing the entire park that would render events inside "impenetrable to all human eyes, save those of aviators." Those without tickets would have no view of the action.
Alas, this initial, soaring grand plan was quickly abandoned in favor of less ambitious designs. Yankee Stadium was indeed a gigantic horseshoe shaped edifice circled by huge wooden bleachers. But the triple-decked grandstand did not reach either foul pole. And whether Ruppert liked it or not, action on the playing field was to be highly visible from the elevated trains that passed by the outfield as well as from the buildings that were to sprout across River Avenue.
The new ballpark was to have unique touches, however, such as "eight toilet rooms for men and as many for women scattered throughout the stands and bleachers" and a decorative element that would become the logo feature of Yankee Stadium: a 15-foot deep copper facade adorning the front of the roof, covering much of the Stadium's third deck giving it an elegant and dignified air. Another singular element of "The Yankee Stadium", as it was originally named, was a 15-foot-deep brick-lined vault beneath second base that contained electrical, telephone, and telegraph connections and allowed for a boxing ring and press area to be set up on the infield. Yankee executive offices were moved from midtown Manhattan and located between the main and mezzanine decks; an elevator connected them with the main entrance.
The first ballpark to be called a stadium, the last privately financed park in the major leagues, the new park boasted 10,712 upper-grandstand seats and 14,543 lower grandstand seats locked in place by 135,000 individual steel castings on which 400,000 pieces of maple lumber were held down by more than a million screws.
The park’s dimensions favored left-handed power, read Babe Ruth. The right-field foul pole was but 295 feet from home plate, although it was 429 feet in right center. The left-field pole was but a short 281-foot poke from home. Right-handed batters had to contend with a 395-foot left field and left center. The park’s deepest points were a distant 460 feet away. The outfield warning track was initially made of red cinders, later of red brick dust.
Yankee Stadium’s inaugural game took place April 18, 1923. . . .