(As the games at Yankee Stadium dwindle to a precious few - -for your reading pleasure adapted from REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOUSE THAT RUTH BUILT)
Jacob Ruppert always insisted "Yankee Stadium was a mistake, not mine, but the Giants.”
And in truth, had it not been for the Giants, there might never have been a Yankee Stadium.
Beginning life as the Baltimore Orioles in 1901, the franchise moved to Manhattan in 1903. Named the Highlanders, they played at Hilltop Park in Washington Heights for a decade. In 1913, the Yankees as they were now known were tenants of the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. The landlord Giants and the tenant Yankees never got along.
Ruth's Yankees were a magnet drawing more than a million each season from 1920 to 1922. Never had the Giants drawn a million fans. Angered and annoyed at the gate success of Babe Ruth and Company, the Giants told the Yankees to look around for other baseball lodgings.
Ruppert and Huston suggested the Polo Grounds be demolished and replaced by a 100,000 seat stadium to be used by both teams as well as for other sporting events. Nothing came of the suggestion.
So the duo set about to create a new ballpark. Shaped along the lines of the Roman Coliseum, it would be the greatest and grandest edifice of its time. Many sites and schemes were considered. One idea was to build atop railroad tracks along the West Side near 32nd Street. The Hebrew Orphan Asylum, at Amsterdam Avenue and 137th Street, was a serious contender. Long Island City in Queens was also given some consideration.
Finally, on February 6, 1921, a little more than year after the Yankees had acquired Ruth from the Red Sox, a Yankee press release announced that ten acres in the west Bronx, City Plot 2106, Lot 100, land from the estate of William Waldorf Astor, had been purchased for $675,000 (just under $8 million in 2007 dollars). The site sat directly across the Harlem River, less than a mile from and within walking distance of the home of the New York Giants, at the mouth of a small body of water called Crowell's Creek.
Some noted the site was strewn with boulders and garbage. Others criticized the choice as being too far away from the center of New York City. Some dubbed the plan "Rupert's Folly," believing that fans would never venture to a Bronx-based ballpark.
“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 never publicly responded to McGraw’s criticism. But he did request newspapers to print the address of Yankee Stadium in all stories. And for the first game at his new baseball palace, he included on each ticket stub:
“Yankee Stadium, 161st Street and River Avenue.”
Design responsibilities for the new “yard” were handed over to the Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The White Construction Company of New York was awarded the construction job which Huston oversaw. Ever demanding and meticulous, Ruppert mandated that the massive project be completed "at a definite price" $2.5-million ( about $29-million in 2007 dollars) and by Opening Day 1923.
Ground was broken on May 5, 1922. Sixteen days later Ruppert bought out Huston's share of the Yankees for $1,500,000. "The Prince of Beer" was now sole owner, a driven and driving force behind the vision of the new home.
A millionaire many times over, Ruppert enjoyed giving orders and having them followed to the letter. He lived at 1120 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in a 15 room townhouse. He also had a castle on the Hudson.
Some thought his new baseball park should be named “Ruth Field.” Ruppert, however, was adamant that it be known as “Yankee Stadium.” It would be the first ballpark to be referred to as a stadium.
Original architectural plans called for 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 making all events inside "impenetrable to all human eyes, save those of aviators." Those without tickets would be unable to catch even a glimpse of the action.
However, that initial lofty design was quickly scaled down. It was thought those plans would create too foreboding a sports facility, being too much a tower and not a place to play baseball, being a place where the sun would hardly ever shine. Instead the triple deck would stop at the foul poles.
And Jacob Ruppert notwithstanding, action on the field of play would be visible from the elevated trains that passed by the outfield, from the 161st Street station platform as well as from roofs and higher floors of River Avenue apartment houses that would be built.
Fortunately, a purely decorative element survived the project's early downsizing. A 15-foot deep copper frieze would adorn the front of the roof which covered much of the Stadium's third deck. It would become the park's signature feature.
The new stadium, virtually double the size of any existing ball park, 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, but left field sloped out dramatically to 460 feet. Center field was a monstrous 490 feet away.
A quarter-mile running track that doubled as a warning track for outfielders surrounded the field. Under second base, a 15-foot-deep brick-lined vault containing electrical, telephone, and telegraph connections was put in place for boxing events.
Three concrete decks extended from behind home plate to each corner. There was a single deck in left-center and wooden bleachers around the rest of the outfield. The new stadium had the feel of a gigantic horseshoe. The 10,712 upper-grandstand seats and 14,543 lower grandstand seats were fixed 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 time.
The Yankee bullpen was in left center. The Yankee dark green dugout was on the third base side. Bats were lined up at the top of the dugout stairs. There was a record eight toilet rooms for men and as many for women.
As was usual in that era, each white foul line extended past home plate. There was also a dirt "pathway" leading from the mound to home plate.
On Wednesday April 18, 1923, "The House That Ruth Built" opened for business. It had been built on almost the same spot where baseball had begun in the Bronx, a place where the Unions of Morrisania had played and close to where the old Melrose Station of the Harlem Railroad was located. The original street address was 800 Ruppert Place.
"Governors, general colonels, politicians, and baseball officials," The New York Times reported, "gathered solemnly yesterday to dedicate the biggest stadium in baseball.”
True to Jake Ruppert’s mandate and vision – “The Yankee Stadium,” as it was first called, had been constructed at a cost of $2.5 million in just 185 working days.
The reaction to the newest playing field in the major leagues was over the top. A Philadelphia newsman declared: "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."
Opening Day was, appropriately, Red Sox versus Yankees. A massive crowd assembled for the most exciting moment in the history of the Bronx. The day was chilly. Many in the huge assemblage were bundled up with heavy sweaters, coats, fedoras and derbies although some, in the spirit of the moment, wore dinner jackets.
The announced attendance was 74,217, later scaled back to 60,000. The Fire Department ordered the gates closed and 25,000 were denied entrance. Those unable to get inside soldiered up outside against the cold listening to the noise of the crowds and the martial beat of the Seventh Regiment Band directed by the famed John Phillip Sousa.
Red Sox owner Harry Frazee walked on the field side-by-side with Jake Ruppert who always claimed that his idea of a great day at the ballpark, was when “the Yankees score eight runs in the first inning, and then slowly pulled away.” Yankees and Red Sox were escorted by the band to the flagpole in deep centerfield, where the home team’s 1922 pennant and the American flag were raised.
Ruppert then took a seat in the celebrity box where Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, New York State Governor Al Smith, and New York City Mayor John Hylan were waiting for the game to begin.
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 shouted: "Play ball!"
The temperature was a brisk 49 degrees. Wind blew dust from the dirt road leading to the Stadium and whipped away at pennants and hats.
In the third inning with Whitey Witt and Joe Dugan on base, George Herman “Babe” Ruth stepped into the batter’s box. He 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.” 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 called it a “savage home run that was the real baptism of Yankee Stadium."
Sportswriter Heywood Broun remarked: “It would have been a home run in the Sahara Desert.”
Crossing home plate, removing his cap, extending it, Ruth waved to the standing, screaming crowd.
LEIGH MONTVILLE: Babe Ruth always said that of all the home runs he hit, his favorite home run was the one he hit the day they opened Yankee Stadium, the ballpark that was kind of built for him.
The game moved on. Yankee stalwart "Sailor" Bob Shawkey, a red sweatshirt under his jersey, fanned five, walked two, allowed but just three hits, and pitched the Yankees to a 4-1 victory.
Harvey Frommer is his 33rd consecutive year of writing sports books. The author of 40 of them including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM, an oral/narrative history (Abrams, Stewart, Tabori and Chang) was published September 1, 2008 as well as a reprint version of his "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball.".
Frommer sports books are available direct from the author - discounted and autographed.
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