By Marty Appel
1973 – thirty years ago – represented a remarkable anniversary for Yankee Stadium. Not only was the ballpark turning 50, but it would be the last season in the original structure, “The House that Ruth Built” which had opened in 1923.
Of course, “The House That Ruth Built” was a press box nickname. It was actually the house that Jacob Ruppert built, and was at once the first triple-decked structure in the country, as well as the first to be called a “stadium.” And Ruppert, in his wisdom, would create a seating capacity of some 65,000 – far in front of any existing structure, but yet, perfectly fine for the coming decades. He saw baseball growing from its smallness and would be the first to be ready to handle its new popularity. It was one of many ways in which his new stadium spoke to his genius.
The 25th anniversary, in 1948, was a sad event, for Babe Ruth was dying and he bade his farewell that year in a final appearance.
The 50th was not so sad, and apart from the pennant race, had great moments of joy. There were the great expectations for a remodeled ballpark – due to open in 1976 – and anticipation over new ownership in the person of George M. Steinbrenner III and partners, who had purchased the team in January, 1973. Little would anyone then realize, that Steinbrenner would exceed Ruppert’s years of ownership.
Much of 1973 was marked in a celebration of both the anniversary and the impending farewell. (The team would spend two years sharing Shea Stadium while Yankee Stadium was remodeled). A special 50th anniversary patch was designed to be worn on the team’s new double knit uniforms (the Yanks retired flannels after 1972, one year later than everyone else, save the Giants), and the Yearbook featured a special insert with newspaper reprints from historic events.
The anniversary was formally celebrated on Sunday, April 15 – the actual anniversary itself. Bob Shawkey, who had hurled a complete game victory 50 years earlier, came down from his home in Syracuse to throw out the first pitch. In those days, first ball ceremonies were usually handled from seats next to the dugout. That Shawkey, 82, went to the mound to deliver it was quite a sight, especially since Whitey Witt, 77, (born Ladislaw Waldemar Wittkowski), who had been the first Yankee batter in ’23, stood at the plate, bat in hand. Everyone survived the ceremony, including the catcher, Thurman Munson. And all fans at the ballpark received full reprints of the opening day scorecard from 1923, advertisements and all.
Old Timers Day was on Saturday, August 11, the 27th annual gathering. This one was an all-Yankee event, bringing in some 65 former Yankees, representing at least one from each of the 50 previous seasons. Pete Sheehy and Nick Priore had their work cut out for them, putting together uniforms and finding clubhouse space for such a turnout. And while the oldest among them – Witt (representing 1923), Oscar Roettger (1924), Waite Hoyt (1925), Joe Dugan (1926), Shawkey (1927), Bob Meusel (1928), and Bots Nekola (1929), didn’t suit up, they did wear old style, flat Yankee caps. The earliest ones, in fact, wore the white pinstriped style.
Besides Hoyt, other Hall of Famers who participated that day included Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize, Mickey Mantle, Enos Slaughter, and Whitey Ford. Active players who represented recent teams included Mel Stottlemyre, Horace Clarke, Roy White and Bobby Murcer. Other Yankee legends on hand were Joe Sewell, George Selkirk, Spud Chandler, Marius Russo, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, Nick Etten, Bill Bevens, Joe Page, Spec Shea, Allie Reynolds, Ed Lopat, Vic Raschi, Jerry Coleman, Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling, Bill Skowron, Don Larsen, Bob Turley, Bobby Richardson and Elston Howard. Tony Kubek, there for NBC’s Game of the Week, wore a wireless microphone and participated as well. It was quite a Yankee gathering for the ages, the final such gathering on the old field, enjoyed by the big crowd of more than 46,000 (except those, of course, seated behind poles in the old ballpark).
The pageantry for 1973 wasn’t complete yet. Only the pennant race was. The team, which had been in first place as late as July 31, had a miserable end, and finished fourth, 17 games back. Duke Sims, a journeyman catcher who joined the team in the final week of the season, would be the other bookend to Babe Ruth’s first homer un in Yankee Stadium. Sims would hit the last home run in the old stadium, on the park’s final day, September 30. Each of the 32,238 on hand that day received a seven-inch, 33 1/3 rpm record on the Sounds of Yankee Stadium over 50 years, narrated by Mel Allen. (A soft vinyl copy would be inserted in the the 1974 Yearbook).
The game was played in haste. Wrecking balls were actually standing by to begin work the following morning. The fans were hostile, and unaware that Ralph Houk would resign after the game. By the 7th inning, some of them were beginning to pull at their seats, snapping the legs off as they tried to pry them from the concrete as souvenirs. A number of fans did walk off with seats, and when they went onto the field at game’s end, they took a lot of turf with them. (We wonder how that turf has held up after 30 years).
Before the wrecking balls began swinging the next morning, a brief ceremony was held, during which Mrs. Babe Ruth received home plate, and Mrs. Lou Gehrig received first base. The foul poles had been bought by a Japanese team. A ticket kiosk was going to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. E.J. Korvette’s department store had arranged to buy hundreds of seats, and to sell them to customers for $5.75 each. The 600-pound Mosler valuables safe in the Yankee clubhouse, which had the names of the original Highlanders on the draws – Keeler, Chesbro, Griffith, et al, – disappeared.