Yankee Stadium faces the wrecking ball after decades of glory that helped define the American Century.
For the first two decades of the 20th century, the New York Giants owned the hearts of baseball fans in Gotham. With fiery man- ager John McGraw at the helm, the Giants were the perennial powerhouse of the National League and routinely led the majors in attendance, drawing more than 500,000 people most years to their games at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. The team added to its prodigious coffers by taking on a tenant, the lowly Yankees of the American League, who played home games at the Polo Grounds when the Giants were on the road. As long as the Yankees seemed harmless, the Giants were happy to collect rent from them.
Then Babe Ruth came to town.
In 1920, after Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston stole the Bambino from the Boston Red Sox for $100,000, he proceeded to smash 54 home runs in a year when no other team collectively hit more than 50 balls out of the park. While Giants manager McGraw was disdainful of this new home run fad, he was even more galled by another statistic: Attendance at Yankees games more than doubled, reaching almost 1.3 million—400,000 more than the Giants.
The Giants wanted the upstarts out of the Polo Grounds, and not just because of McGraw’s growing jealousy over Ruth. With the blue laws that banned Sunday games repealed in 1919, the Giants wanted every big weekend gate for themselves. They couldn’t evict the Yankees until their lease ended in 1923, but they could say it was time for them to find a new home. For McGraw it felt like the ultimate triumph. He boasted that the Yankees would never find enough open space in Manhattan for a new stadium, and he would chase them off the most important piece of land in the world. “They’ll have to move to the Bronx or Long Island,” he declared. “The fans will forget about them and they’ll be through.”
McGraw turned out to be only half right. The Yankees could not find space for a stadium site in Manhattan and instead forked over $675,000 to purchase a 10-acre estate owned by the Astor family in the South Bronx. But the fans did not forget them and have been flocking to Yankee Stadium from the day it opened on April 18, 1923.
At the end of this baseball season the park dubbed “The House That Ruth Built” will close after 85 years of glory, and the Yankees will move to a new stadium under construction a block away. In the meantime, the old stadium remains a living monument to baseball’s most beloved star and to his times. Yankee Stadium, like the city’s towering skyscrapers that would soon follow, was unlike anything America had ever seen, a New York blend of arrogance and accomplishment. Babe Ruth emerged as the poster boy of the large-living, fast-flying Jazz Age, and Yankee Stadium came to symbolize his outsized personality, New York’s supremacy and baseball’s magnificent future.
The Yankees were not the first to build a modern ballpark. Detroit’s Navin Field, Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field preceded it, but none seated more than 40,000 people. The Yankees were the first to build a home grandiose enough to be called a stadium. Before television and merchandising, team revenue stemmed largely from gate receipts, so the Yankees wanted space for the anticipated masses, especially as Ruth topped himself in 1921 with 59 homers and 171 RBIs. Having the biggest ballplayer in the biggest ballpark in the nation’s biggest city would give the Yankees a tremendous revenue advantage that would enable them to pay for the best scouts, front-office executives and athletes, and lay the groundwork for baseball’s dominant franchise.
The original plans, calling for a triple-deck enclosed structure with 70,000 seats, had to be slightly scaled back in order to finish construction on time, but everything else was breathlessly announced: the 15-foot copper facade, the 950,000 board feet of Pacific Coast fir shipped via the Panama Canal, the 2,200 tons of structural steel, the 1 million brass screws bolted into the seats, the 16,000 square feet of sod. Overseen by Huston, an engineer as well as co-owner of the team, the $2.5 million ballpark was completed in only 284 days. “From the plain of the Harlem River it looms up like the great Pyramid of Cheops from the sands of Egypt,” proclaimed writer F.C. Lane in Literary Digest.
This majestic stage was built to showcase Ruth’s strengths. In most ballparks, right field was “the sun field,” but since Ruth played right, left fielders would have to wage the battle with afternoon glare at Yankee Stadium. Center and left-center were impossibly deep (“Death Valley” was 490 feet), but right field was a mere 295 feet, eminently reachable for a lefthanded pull hitter like Ruth.
Still, as work began on the stadium in May 1922, its future was very much in doubt because Ruth was self-destructing. Baseball’s new iron-fisted commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, suspended him for the first six weeks of the 1922 season for going on an unsanctioned offseason barnstorming tour. Ruth spent much of his time off at the racetrack, and when he returned he slumped through his first games. After getting ejected from one game for throwing dirt in an umpire’s face, he was booed and charged into the stands after one particularly vociferous heckler. American League president Ban Johnson only suspended Ruth for one game and fined him $200 for the incident, but he demanded that the Yankees end Ruth’s role as the team captain.
Ruth earned several more suspensions in 1922 for arguing with the umps and also got into a fistfight with teammate Wally Pipp. The Yankees won the pennant despite Ruth managing only 406 at-bats and finishing third in the league in home runs with 35. Then came the ultimate humiliation in the World Series where the Yankees faced the Giants. McGraw ordered his pitchers to throw Ruth nothing but off-speed pitches out of the strike zone, and the Yankee slugger went a dismal 2-for-17 with no homers as the Giants took the crown.
The press called Ruth “an exploded phenomenon” and a “tragic figure,” who had “flashed like a comet.” Sporting News declared, “The baseball public is on to his real worth as a batsman and in the future, let us hope, he will attract just ordinary attention.”
Knowing Ruth needed motivation, his agent, Christy Walsh, organized an offseason banquet where New York’s press and powerbrokers called on the Babe to reform. State Senator Jimmy Walker, in a brilliant melodramatic touch, struck Ruth’s soft spot, saying he had “let down the kids of America…on the vacant lot where the kids play baseball, and in the hospitals too, where crippled children…look up to you, worship you….You carouse and abuse your great body, and it is exactly as though Santa Claus himself suddenly were to take off his beard to reveal the features of a villain. The kids have seen their idol shattered and their dream broken.” A repentant Ruth began sobbing and promised to both behave and play better in the future.
Ruth largely abstained from partying that winter and arrived at spring training in formidable shape. Yet things quickly derailed when a 19-year-old girl claimed he had raped her and sued for $50,000. She later admitted it was a hoax, but Ruth seemed distracted, striking out often during exhibition games, even against minor league pitchers.
As the team headed into its first season in Yankee Stadium, it seemed quite possible that Ruth would wash out completely, a tragic symbol of American hubris. If he did, the club would collapse, fans would stop coming and the magnificent new stadium would be sneeringly called “Ruppert’s Folly.” Worse, it might become baseball’s Titanic. As The New York Times wrote, “The Babe was on trial, and he knew it.”
“I’d give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in the first game in this new park,” Ruth said just before the 1923 season began.
Opening day at Yankee Stadium—April 18, 1923—was windy and cold, topping out at 49 degrees. The roads surrounding the new ball- park remained unpaved, and crowds pushing forward against the phalanx of policemen nearly choked on the dust kicked up. Commissioner Landis was swept up in a wave of people, and police had to pull him inside. Newspapers estimated that 25,000 fans were turned away.
Yankee general manager Ed Barrow announced the attendance at 74,217, shattering the old record of 47,000 for a 1916 World Series game involving the Boston Red Sox, whose star pitcher happened to be Babe Ruth. Barrow’s count was an active bit of mythmaking because the stadium held only 62,000 seats. The real attendance for the standing-room-only crowd remains uncertain, but in keeping with everything about the slugger and his city, it was undeniably gargantuan. Just call it Ruthian.
Fittingly, the foe that day was Boston. Red Sox pitcher Howard Ehmke, who would go on to win 20 games that year, retired Ruth easily in the Yankees first. But in the bottom of the third the Yankees pushed one run across and had two men on base when Ruth again strode to the plate.
Ehmke worked the count to 2-2. Following McGraw’s World Series strategy from the previous year, he threw yet another off-speed pitch. This time Ruth crushed a line drive eight rows into the bleachers.
“As the crash sounded, and the white flash followed, fans arose en masse…in the greatest vocal cataclysm baseball has ever known,” Grantland Rice wrote in the New York Tribune. As the grinning Ruth reached home, he lifted his cap and waved to the crowds. His home run would be the difference in the Yankees’ 4-1 triumph.
The Babe kept rolling in the weeks and months that followed, belting 41 homers and leading the Yankees to another pennant. In the 1923 World Series, the Yankees finally had their own home, their own turf, their own crowd, and it made a difference as they again faced the National League’s Giants. Ruth batted .368 with three homers, helping to win the first Series carried nationwide on radio four games to two.
Ruth subsequently transformed the Yankees into baseball’s preeminent franchise, leading the team to four more pennants and three more World Series titles while establishing Yankee Stadium as sports’ most hallowed ground. Yankee Stadium is where Ruth broke his own record with his 60th homer in 1927, where a dying Lou Gehrig proclaimed himself the “luckiest man on the face of this earth” in 1939 and where Joe DiMaggio set a new hitting streak record two years later. It is also where the Yankees finished off their astounding fifth straight World Series in 1953, where Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series three years after that and where Roger Maris broke the Babe’s mark with his 61st homer in 1961.
The Yankees reached the World Series 27 times from 1923 to 1964 and won 20 of them—a famous baseball quip once went, “Why is it called the World Series when it’s always played in the Bronx?” But the team stumbled badly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. New owner George Steinbrenner was convicted in 1974 for making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign and was suspended from baseball for two years. His suspension coincided with a costly renovation of Yankee Stadium by the city of New York, which forced the club to play at the New York Mets’ home, Shea Stadium, in 1974 and 1975.
When Yankee Stadium re-opened in 1976, many New Yorkers were aghast. Cost overruns pushed the final bill to more than $160 million (none of which was spent in support of the struggling South Bronx), and fans were appalled at the desecration of the ballpark, most notably the shrinking of the playing field’s dimensions and the removal of the roof ’s 15-foot copper frieze that was a symbol of Yankee grandeur. But while the stadium’s aura was somewhat tarnished, the team’s luster was restored by Steinbrenner’s lavish spending on players. Reggie Jackson’s three homers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series brought championship glory back to the Bronx. Four World Series crowns from 1996 to 2000, the emotional 2001 World Series games after 9/11, and Alex Rodriguez’s 500th career homer in 2007 all added to the stadium’s mystique.
There is nothing revolutionary about the new Yankee Stadium that will open next April. The team is putting up $1.1 billion in private funds, and the city is chipping in another $220 million, for a stadium that follows the “retro” trend that has been the rage since Camden Yards opened in Baltimore in 1992. Across town in Queens, the New York Mets will open Citi Field in 2009 with an entrance that hearkens back to Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ storied home. But Yankee Stadium will be unique in several ways. Instead of trying to create something that feels old by designing something brand new, the Yankees are relying on their actual traditions. The stadium will feature the same dimensions as the current ballpark as well as a replica of the much-mourned frieze. Monument Park, a collection of tributes to great Yankees past, will also be brought over to the new park. Best of all, there will be no corporate renaming. The House That Ruth Built will still be called Yankee Stadium.
But no matter who hits the first home run there, nothing will have the impact of Ruth’s blast in 1923. Although Ruth’s home run that spring day was, statistically, just one of his 714 regular-season round-trippers, it has always retained a magical aura. In 1998 the home run ball was auctioned off for a then-record $126,500, and in 2004 the bat Ruth swatted it with sold for $1.27 million, the second-highest-priced baseball item ever.
Ruth, of course, knew from the beginning that he’d made history. In 1948, shortly before his death at 53 from throat cancer, Ruth came to Yankee Stadium one final time, putting on his uniform to celebrate the ballpark’s 25th anniversary. Barely able to speak, he slowly approached the microphone and told the fans, “Ladies and gentlemen, I just want to say one thing. I am proud I hit the first home run here against Boston in 1923.”
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.