For Fans Who Think they “Know it All”
SECRETS OF YANKEE STADIUM
By Marty Appel
In the old third base dugout of Yankee Stadium, which the Yankees occupied from 1923-1945, Babe Ruth would keep a fresh head of cabbage in the water cooler. Every two or three innings he would tear off a leaf and tuck it under his cap to keep him cool.
Yankee fans love their stadium and know its history, but there’s a good chance they don’t know that one! And there are a lot more secrets of this legendary ballpark, (which until the late ‘50s was often called THE Yankee Stadium in newspaper accounts).
The best kept secret in “old’ Yankee Stadium was a safe in the home clubhouse, where the players could put their valuables into individual draws.
The small draws were painted with names like “Fultz”, “Conroy”, and “Tannehill”, which meant nothing to the players who were tossing in their wallets and jewelry. Even the names “Keeler,” “Chesbro” and “Griffith” went unnoticed, although the gold paint was still visible against the black background. Wee Willie Keeler, Jack Chesbro and Clark Griffith were Hall of Famers, and like Dave Fultz, Wid Conroy and Jesse Tannehill, members of the 1903 New York Highlanders – the original Yankees.
The safe had been in the locker room at Hilltop Park in upper Manhattan, and had traveled with the team when they shifted a mile down Broadway to the Polo Grounds in 1913. Then it moved across the Harlem River to the new Yankee Stadium in 1923. It moved again in 1946 when the new Yankee clubhouse was built, and there it stood in the waning days of 1973, prior to the team moving to Shea Stadium for two seasons before returning to the revamped Yankee Stadium.
“I’ll keep my eye on it,” said Pete Sheehy, who had worked in the Yankee clubhouse since 1927. “Don’t worry.”
But it didn’t make it to Shea, and it didn’t return to the new ballpark. It disappeared. All 400 pounds of it. It has never shown up at an auction, and never been heard from again. The safe had held the wallets of Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle and Berra and Murcer and Munson, but it vanished in that final season of the old stadium, the last surviving memory of the franchise’s first year.
“We saved a vault from the ticket office,” says demolition chief Jay Schwall, “but I never saw the clubhouse safe at all.”
Speaking of Hilltop Park and the Polo Grounds, if you stand at the top of the escalator at Gate 4, you can see a remarkable sight. You can see where both ballparks used to be! Hilltop is now the site of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and easily spotted off to the right, a large flag flying atop the prestigious medical center. The Polo Grounds, where Babe Ruth first wore his Yankee uniform, is now a cluster of apartment buildings, a long foul tip from “The House that Ruth Built.” There is, in the current ballpark, a large red advertising sign in left field for New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Not too many fans would know to make the connection.
The common theory is that the 1923 Yankee Stadium was a hit. That’s a myth. The opening day crowd of a reported major league record 74,200 was not indicative of things to come. If you eliminate that day, the team averaged about 12,000 a game for the rest of the year, despite winning its first world championship. The total attendance was actually less than they had drawn at the Polo Grounds in 1920 and 1921, Ruth’s first two seasons in New York. But The Yankee Stadium would catch on!
While it was not the first baseball park to be called a “stadium” (National Park in Washington became Griffith Stadium in 1920), its awe-inspiring majesty made it the first to feel like the name belonged.
Conventional wisdom holds that no man has ever hit a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium, Mickey Mantle coming the closest by twice hitting the façade in upper right field, although rumor had it that the Negro Leagues’ Josh Gibson may have done it on the left field side. Some historians felt the conventional wisdom couldn’t be true. Babe Ruth’s entire career was spent without a mezzanine and upper deck in the fair territory of right field. The bleachers extended to the foul pole until 1937, three years after Ruth’s last Yankee game, when the grandstand was extended into fair territory in right. But research by author Bill Jenkinson indicates that the “no fair ball” theory may in fact be true. He tracked Babe’s longest Stadium home run as reaching the 70th row of the bleachers in 1930.
The original Stadium’s seats were painted a light green – except for the first two rows of box seats, which were actually unbolted chairs! You only had a box for four and a friend from another box was visiting? Pull up a chair and join us!
There are five remaining legacies of the period when CBS owned the Yankees, 1965-1973. First was the painting of the Stadium – white on the outside, dark blue for the seats (covering the original green). Second is the theme music, “Here Come the Yankees,” still used on the radio broadcasts, and recorded by a house orchestra for Columbia Records (owned by CBS). Third is the presence of an organ to provide in-game music. CBS soap opera organist Eddie Layton was recruited for the task. Fourth is the presence of all the Yankee offices in the ballpark, they having previously existed on 42nd Street, and then at 745 Fifth Avenue, from where the employees would jump on the subway for games just like the fans.
(The phone number for Yankee Stadium, CYpress 3-4300, hasn’t changed since 1952, the Topping-Webb ownership era, except for the area code).
The fifth and final CBS legacy was the end of the practice of fans departing after games by walking across the field and towards the bleacher and bullpen exits. To see fans exiting in such an orderly manner – no one stopping to pick up a souvenir piece of sod – is an amazing sight to witness on old newsreels.
It wasn’t until 1967 that an enclosed parking lot was built for the players and staff. Prior to that, the players parked perpendicular to each other along E. 157th Street, (now the pedestrian plaza), facing the stadium. Fans could walk by and see a Cadillac with an Oklahoma license plate, “MM 77”, belonging to Mickey Mantle, and wait there for an autograph after the game.
The biggest changes to the ballpark came after Larry MacPhail, along with Dan Topping and Del Webb, bought the team from Col. Jacob Ruppert’s estate in 1945. MacPhail, renowned as a master marketer, installed lights for night baseball, CHARTERED A DC 4 – YANKEE MAINLINER – FOR FLIGHTS, built a new clubhouse (necessitating the 1946 move to the first base dugout for the Yanks), built the Stadium Club restaurant and press dining room, renumbered the sections to make everyone feel their tickets were closer to the infield, created an annual Old Timers Day, and commissioned the famous “top hat” Yankee logo. Within two years, MacPhail was bought out by his partners, but his impact was, like him, fast and furious.
The original Yankee clubhouse, on the third base side, was up a flight of wooden stairs. Inside were real metal “lockers” – they had doors that locked! – not the stalls that simply borrow the word “locker” today. And the uniforms of Babe Ruth (#3) and Lou Gehrig (#4) remained in their lockers after their retirements, with clubhouse man Pete Sheehy an early proponent of all things ceremonial and honorary. (In 1976, the clubhouse was named after Pete). Thurman Munson’s empty locker in the current Stadium is not the first “hallowed ground;” the Ruth and Gehrig lockers predated that. But the decision to honor Thurman with an empty locker was made the very night he died, August 2, 1979, as George Steinbrenner began to plan every step of what would be a four-day series of events to mourn the fallen captain.
Munson would sometimes trek up to Steinbrenner’s office to talk real estate or business after batting practice. With good timing, fans might get on the elevator headed for the luxury seat level, and find Munson, in uniform, on his way up to the office level. He didn’t even bother to remove his spikes.
Many secret storage areas existed in the hidden storage areas of the Stadium. Some were never paved and had dirt floors. One would find the pennants folded and stored, assorted trophies presented to the team by civic associations, early versions of the Mayor’s Trophy (from beating the Dodgers or the Giants in exhibition games), damaged oversize photos that had hung in the concession areas, unsold concession items, broken seats, and a variety of material used by the building’s ground crew, painters, electricians, masons and plumbers. You might even find a carton of unused 1959 schedules.
In one of those small rooms, in the post-1976 stadium, a drum kit rested, played by Ron Guidry in the ‘70s and by Paul O’Neill in the ‘90s. In the traveling secretary’s small office, halfway to the bullpen, a prominent Yankee middle relief pitcher of the ‘90s would stop and watch sitcoms from the sofa before heading for the pen around the 4th inning.
And when Roger Maris wanted to get away from the media during the pressure-packed 1961 season, he would slip into the trainer’s room, just after leaving a little plaster model of a hand, in a familiar unpleasant gesture, to greet the media when they arrived at his locker.
When the remodeled Stadium opened in 1976, there were no left field bleachers, only concrete steps, such as are seen in the center field “batter’s eye” portion of the expanse. That was because it was thought those bleachers, behind the bullpens, were too far away for seating. The steps were there because they were from the original ballpark, when little care was given to whether fans were in the batter’s line of vision or not.
When the Yankees won the pennant in ’76, Zachery Fisher – the same man who is credited with creating the Intrepid Museum – paid for a hasty assembly of left field bleachers to accommodate demand for tickets.
A larger room in the “new” stadium was used for post-season hospitality and named after the Yanks’ top farm club: first it was the Syracuse Room, then the Tacoma Room, then the Columbus Room. Finally, it became indoor batting cages, and it was on a pitching mound in there that President George W. Bush prepared for his memorable first pitch honors at the 2001 World Series – throwing to bullpen catcher Nick Testa – before Derek Jeter walked in and told him he better deliver the pitch from the top of the mound or he’d get booed.
Babe Ruth lay in state at Yankee Stadium, with fans lining up around the block to view his body, inside Gate 4, before the funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was one of two “memorial” events at Yankee Stadium. The team’s legendary public relations director, Bob Fishel, died in 1988 and a memorial service in his honor was held at the Stadium a few weeks later before an invited audience of friends, relatives and baseball officials.
The huge “bat” outside the Stadium, so common as a meeting place for fans, is a functioning smokestack and exhaust system for the Stadium. It was the team’s in-house attorney, Joe Garagiola Jr., (now Senior V.P., Baseball Operations for MLB), who suggested asking Louisville Slugger to turn it into a “Babe Ruth Bat.”
“I suggested placing a knob at the top to finish it off,” says Garagiola. “Nobody really loved idea. I had to go to a meeting of the Bronx Council on the Arts to explain why we were doing this without their permission. But I’m glad it turned out to be such a well-known meeting place.”
The Yankee Stadium scoreboard that went up in 1959 had the first electronic message board in the country – eight letter across, eight lines down. (The board it replaced was recycled to Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia). With the opening of the new Stadium in 1976, the Yankees had the first scoreboard capable of instant replays (Boston installed one that same year).
A real Yankee Stadium secret was that Col. Ruppert and his partner Col. Til Huston, installed a vault under second base containing the necessary equipment to stage boxing matches above. The most famous of course, would be the historic Joe Louis-Max Schmelling rematch – the one Louis won in the first round.
And no, George Costanza’s “office” on the Seinfeld show was a Hollywood set – not the real thing, although it looked absolutely authentic to the current offices.
And NO!, no one is buried in Monument Park.
“That’s the most asked question on our tours,” says Tony Morante, the Yankees resident historian and tour director. “I think people are disappointed to learn that.”