Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Remembering the First game at Yankee Stadium April 18, 1923
It was 87 years ago that "The House That Ruth Built" opened for business. It was Red Sox versus Yankees. Boston owner Harry Frazee walked on the field side-by-side with Yankee mogul Jake Ruppert. The teams followed the march beat of the Seventh Regiment Band, directed by John Phillip Sousa, to the centerfield flagpole, where the 1922 pennant and the American flag were hoisted.
Many of those who made up the estimated attendance of 74,217, later changed to 60,000, wore heavy sweaters, coats and hats. Some sported dinner jackets. Game time temperature was a brisk 49 degrees, and wind whipped the Yankee pennants and kicked up dust from the dirt road leading to stadium.
More than 25,000 fans were denied admission; many, however, would stay outside in the cold listening to the roars of the crowd.
The Yankee Stadium, as it was first called, was constructed on virtually the same spot where baseball began in the Bronx, a place where the Unions of Morrisania played the game and close to where the old Melrose Station of the Harlem Railroad was located. The original street address was 800 Ruppert Place.
From 1903 until April 11, 1913, the New York American League baseball team played home games at run down Hilltop Park. Then for a decade the Yankees were tenants of the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. The relationship between the teams was strained.
After the 1920 season, a season where the gate appeal of Babe Ruth helped pushed Yankee attendance to 100,000 more than that of the Giants, the Yanks were told to find a new place to play ball.
So Yankee owners Colonel Jake Ruppert and Colonel Til Hutson dreamed the dream of a new ballpark, one along the lines of the Roman Coliseum.
The Yankee Stadium was built on ten acres that had been a mess of boulders and garbage on the site of a lumberyard in the west Bronx, City Plot 2106, Lot 100. The cost for the land obtained from William Waldorf Astor’s estate and located directly across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds, was $675,000.
“They are going up to Goatville,” snapped John J. McGraw, manager of the Giants. “And before long they will be lost sight of. A New York team should be based on Manhattan island.”
Ruppert did not deign to dignify McGraw’s criticism with a public response. However, he asked newspapers to publish the address of Yankee Stadium in all stories about it.
Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, Ohio had the design responsibilities. The White Construction Company of New York was given the construction job. Beer baron Ruppert, a demanding taskmaster and one of the wealthiest men in the United States, insisted the ambitious project be completed "at a definite price" $2.5-million, be built in just 185 working days and be up and running by Opening Day 1923. What he wanted, he would get.
Ruppert also bought out Huston's share of the Yankees for $1,500,000 leaving "The Prince of Beer" in total control of all things Yankee including the team’s new home.
Some said the new baseball park should be named “Ruth Field.” Ruppert insisted it be known as “Yankee Stadium.” It would be the first ballpark to be referred to as a stadium.
Original architectural plans envisioned a triple-decked park roofed all the way around. An early press release explained that the new ballpark would be shaped like the Yale Bowl, enclosed with towering embattlements, that all events inside would be "impenetrable to all human eyes, save those of aviators."
However, that initial lofty initial, grand design was quickly scaled back as those plans were deemed too foreboding for a sports facility, making for a place where the sun would hardly ever shine.
And despite the wishes of Jacob Ruppert the field of play would be visible from the elevated trains that passed by the outfield, from the 161st Street station platform in addition to the roofs and higher floors of River Avenue apartment houses.
One highly positive result of the early downsizing was the survival of a singular and exceptional decorative element - the 15-foot deep copper facade adorning the front of the roof covering much of the third deck. The façade graced the Stadium a magisterial look.
Virtually double the size of any existing ball park, the new Stadium favored left-handed power; the right-field foul pole was only 295 feet from home plate (though it would shoot out to 368 by right center). The left- and right-field corners were only 281 feet and 295 feet in 1923, but left field sloped out dramatically to 460 feet. Center field was a mighty poke - 490 feet away.
Shaped by triple-decked grandstands, the new ball field had the feel of a gigantic horseshoe The 10,712 upper-grandstand seats and 14,543 lower grandstand seats were locked in place by 135,000 individual steel castings on which 400,000 pieces of maple lumber were fastened by more than a million screws. Total seating capacity was 58,000, enormous for that era.
Reviews of the newest baseball field were over the top. A Philadelphia newsman wrote: "It is a thrilling thought that perhaps 2,500 years from now archaeologists, spading up the ruins of Harlem and the lower Bronx, will find arenas that outsize anything that the ancient Romans and Greeks built."
Seated in the celebrity box were Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, New York State Governor Al Smith, and New York City Mayor John Hylan.
At 3:25 Babe Ruth was presented with an oversized bat handsomely laid out in a glass case.
At 3:30 Governor Al Smith tossed out the first ball to Yankee catcher Wally Schang.
At 3:35 home plate umpire Tommy Connolly barked: "Play ball!"
In the bottom of the third inning with Whitey Witt and Joe Dugan on base, George Herman “Babe” Ruth stepped in to hit. Boston pitcher Howard Ehmke threw a slow pitch.
Bam! Ruth slugged the ball on a line into the right-field bleachers - the first home run in Yankee Stadium history.
The New York Times would later dub Ruth’s shot a “savage home run that was the real baptism of Yankee Stadium."
The cheering crowd was on its feet as the Sultan of Swat crossed the plate. He removed his cap, extended it at arm's length and waved.
The mighty slugger had said: "I'd give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in the first game in this new park.”
The game moved on through the spring afternoon shadows. Yankee stalwart "Sailor" Bob Shawkey, wearing a red sweatshirt under his uniform jersey, fanned five, allowed two walks, allowed but just three hits, and pitched the Yankees to a 4-1 victory.
The first Opening Day at Yankee Stadium was now a matter of record.