By Marty Appel
Although a handful of college football arenas were called “stadiums” in the first two decades of the 20th century, (plus, believe it or not, little Rice Stadium in Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx), Yankee Stadium would be the first baseball field designed to bear the name ‘stadium.’ (Washington’s Griffith Stadium had been so renamed in 1920). It would happen under the watchful eyes and checkbook of Col. Jacob Ruppert and Col. Til Huston, co-owners of the team. (Huston would sell his half-interest just a few weeks later).
There had never been a triple-decked ballpark before. No ballpark could hold anything near the capacity of this wonder of the South Bronx. The all-time single game attendance record had been 42,000 for a 1916 World Series game in Boston.
Baseball was going big time, and the Yankees were leading the way. The emergence of Babe Ruth had turned the game into big business, and the Colonels knew that the biggest drawing card in all of America was going to need something befitting his stature. It fell to sportswriter Fred Lieb, (it is believed), to first call it “The House that Ruth Built.” The Roaring ‘20s was a age of over-the-top excitement, and New York was now going to have the finest ballpark in the land, rather than be second class tenants to the Giants.
Ah, the Giants. They were world champions in 1921 and 1922, besting the Yanks, but their time was winding down. More people were flocking to the Polo Grounds to see the Yankees than to see John McGraw’s men, and Ruppert, ever mindful of the trend, in 1920 had leased ten acres of land across the Harlem River on which a lumberyard stood.
“We tried to buy a half-interest in the Polo Grounds, but the Giants weren’t interested,” said Ruppert.
“This will allow both teams to have games on coveted Sunday dates,” said Charles Stoneham, the president of the Giants. “We wish them well!”
Stoneham was a successor to John T. Brush, who had originally agreed to take the Yankees in after they had spent their formulative years at Hilltop Park as the Highlanders. (Brush almost had a claim to the first “stadium” – he called the Polo Grounds “Brush Stadium” on the cover of the 1911 World Series program, but no one seemed to take him seriously. A nice try.)
Those who remember the “old” Yankee Stadium probably best remember the triple-decked grandstand that ended at the bullpens. But that wasn’t the way it looked in 1923. In fact, the right field portion didn’t spread past the foul pole until 1937. All of Babe Ruth’s mighty homers to right fell into the bleachers, which ran endlessly from foul territory to foul territory. (The left field grandstand was completed in 1928).
Even that look wasn’t what the original architects envisioned: the saw the entire field surrounded by three decks with little open sky to see. That idea never took.
The success of the Yankees during the Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel years – 27 World Series appearances in 42 seasons – turned Yankee Stadium into the most famous sports arena in the nation, if not the world. The aura and magnificence of the palace awed visiting players. The Yankees became a “brand” synonymous with success, and Yankee Stadium, where they wore the pinstriped uniform, became the standard for sports excellence.
Great heavyweight championship bouts were fought there. The biggest college football games were played there. The New York Giants football team won championships there. Popes delivered mass there.
But mostly Babe and Lou, Joe and Mickey played there. And Yogi and Phil and Scooter. Babe hit his 60th there. Roger his 61st. Larsen hurled his perfect game. Mickey twice hit the copper façade (and pronounced it fa-kaid. There weren’t any facades in Commerce, Oklahoma, after all).
Then the park began to show its age, and in 1976, reopened after a two-year overhaul, with no obstructed views, with escalators, luxury suites, and much more history to be written, as the George Steinbrenner years produced more moments for the ages. Reggie and Graig, Catfish and Gator and Thurman, onto Donny and Winfield and then Bernie and Derek, Mariano and those Sunday perfect games from the Davids.
If all goes according to schedule, Yankee Stadium will have been home to the Yankees for 86 seasons, minus the two spent at Shea in 1974-75. (The stadium was still “home” even though the team wasn’t playing there). “86” is a restaurant expression, born in New York according to legend, that means “all out.” It’s appropriate that a New York term coincide with the finale.
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