Read an Excerpt
Memories of Yankee Stadium
By Scott Pitoniak
Triumph Books Copyright © 2008 Scott Pitoniak
All rights reserved.
A Brief History of Yankee Stadium
It is known as "The House That Ruth Built," but it easily could be called "The House That John McGraw Forced the Yankees to Build."
After all, if it weren't for the pugnacious, vertically challenged New York Giants manager, the Yankees might have become the Manhattan Mashers rather than the Bronx Bombers. They might have written their unparalleled baseball history in the Polo Grounds rather than Yankee Stadium.
From 1913 to 1922, the Yankees rented the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan from McGraw's Giants. And the shared arrangement was working just fine until Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston decided to make Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee a dramatic offer he couldn't refuse. Frazee, whose true passion was the theater, was in need of cash. So, in the fall of 1919, he approached Ruppert and Huston, seeking a loan of a half-million dollars, and the Yankee owners countered with an offer of $115,000 in cash and a personal loan of $350,000 in exchange for the Red Sox's star pitcher and slugger, Babe Ruth. A day after Christmas that year, the transaction was consummated.
Talk about the perfect storm. The time, the place, and the performer couldn't have been more perfectly aligned. The Roarin' '20s were about to unfold, New York had become America's most populous and prominent city, and Ruth was on the verge of changing baseball forever with his booming bat and larger-than-life personality.
During the summer of 1920, the Babe posted otherworldly statistics — 54 home runs, 137 runs batted in, and a .376 batting average. Although the Yankees finished in third place, the fans didn't care. Roughly 1.3 million of them flocked to the Polo Grounds to witness the Sultan of Swat slug homers farther and more frequently than anyone had before. The Yankees wound up drawing 350,000 more spectators than their landlords did.
This scenario repeated itself the following season as Ruth's popularity soared higher than one of his majestic, cloud-kissing home runs. The Yankees won their first American League pennant in 1921, but lost to McGraw's Giants five games to three in a best-of-nine World Series.
Although the Giants had maintained their title as baseball's best team, they had been supplanted as baseball's most popular team by Ruth's Yankees — a situation the seething McGraw found intolerable.
After being significantly outdrawn by the Yanks for a second consecutive season, the manager known in baseball circles as "Little Napoleon" decided he could take no more. He handed the Yankees their eviction notice, telling them that their lease would be up following the 1922 campaign.
"If we kick them out," McGraw reasoned, "they won't be able to find another location on Manhattan Island. They'll have to move to the Bronx or Long Island. The fans will forget about them, and they'll be through."
The eviction notice didn't cause the Yankee owners to panic. If anything, McGraw had done them a favor, providing them with the impetus they needed to build a spectacular new ballpark unlike any that had been constructed before. Ruppert sensed that the baseball industry was about to take off. He also knew that in Ruth he had the perfect drawing card to pack the new place. The timing couldn't have been more exquisite.
As McGraw had predicted, finding a location for the new ballpark presented problems. Initially, the Yankees considered a lot in Long Island City and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Upper Manhattan, but both deals fell through, as did the idea of constructing the stadium over the Pennsylvania Railroad Tracks in downtown Manhattan. (An idea which, by the way, was floated again when the Yankees, Mets, and football Jets went looking for new stadium sites at the turn of the 21st century.)
Ruppert and Huston finally settled on a nondescript lumber yard in the South Bronx, just across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds. They purchased the 10-acre tract for $675,000 from the estate of William Waldorf Astor. Who knew that the lot, which had been a farm before the Revolutionary War, would become baseball's most fertile ground, producing an unequaled bumper crop of championships and Hall of Fame players and managers?
Ruppert's grandiose vision called for a ballpark that would be every bit as imposing as the iconic Roman Colosseum. The original plans drawn up by the Osborne Engineering Company of Cleveland, Ohio, called for a triple-decked structure that would be enclosed all the way around. The architects boasted they would design a stadium that would be visible only to the spectators inside the arena and aviators flying above it. But soaring costs and the closing off of the light from outside the park forced those plans to be scaled back. The new renderings called for the decks to extend only to each foul pole, meaning the open outfield area would be visible to passengers on the elevated subway trains and to residents of high-rises that were beginning to sprout just beyond River Avenue.
Despite the downsizing, the edifice still would be able to seat 70,000 spectators, making it roughly the same capacity as Rome's world-famous Colosseum. The most distinctive feature of the new ballpark would be the 16-foot decorative copper façade that would adorn the roof covering the third deck.
To take full advantage of Ruth's left-handed power, Ruppert instructed the architects to place the right-field foul pole just 295 feet from home plate. The power alley in right-center field also was made tantalizingly close, but dead center would be a ridiculous 490 feet away. Though the left-field foul pole was just 281 feet from home, the power alley in left bowed out quickly and was a near impossible distance of 460 feet in left-center. Right-handed batters would come to curse the unfairness of the park, calling the power alley "Death Valley," a place where even the most monstrous of drives would die in the webs of outfielders' gloves.
The stadium was built by the White Construction Company. The New York City–based firm received $2.5 million to erect the landmark, and the contract included the proviso that it must be completed by Opening Day 1923. Remarkably, the deadline was met. Work began on May 5, 1922, and was finished just 284 days later.
That was no small engineering feat, considering the volume of materials required to build the stadium. Nearly a million feet of Pacific Coast fir was transported through the Panama Canal to construct the outfield bleachers. More than 2,300 tons of structural steel and a million brass screws were needed to erect the first three-tiered arena in America, and the first ballpark to be called a stadium.
Yankee Stadium opened for business on April 18, 1923, and the Babe couldn't wait to christen his new baseball home. Before the game, he told reporters: "I'd give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in this first game in this new park."
In true Ruthian fashion, he smacked a three-run shot off Boston Red Sox right-hander Howard Ehmke in the bottom of the third inning. Much to Ruppert's delight, the ball sailed into the right-field bleachers — a place that would quickly become known as "Ruthville," and later "Gehrigville," after left-handed Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig.
According to the New York Times' account of the day, the stadium "trembled with noise as the big man circled the bases, soft-stepped across home plate, and lifted his blue cap at arm's length, the leading man on the biggest stage in the newest theater in town."
The Babe's blast, along with Bob Shawkey's three-hit pitching performance, catapulted the Yankees to a 4–1 victory and capped a festive day in which New York governor Alfred E. Smith threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and legendary conductor John Philip Sousa and the famed Seventh Regiment Band entertained the announced crowd of 74,217 — the largest throng ever to witness a baseball game.
The following day, New York Evening Telegram sportswriter Fred Lieb called the stadium "The House That Ruth Built," and the name stuck.
Led by the Babe, the Yankees captured their third consecutive American League pennant and found themselves playing their former landlords, the Giants, in the World Series again.
On October 10, 1923, Yankee Stadium hosted its first of 37 Fall Classics, but the Series didn't start out the way the home fans had hoped. In this instance, Mighty Casey — Giants outfielder Casey Stengel — didn't strike out. Instead, he lashed a line-drive, inside-the-park homer that rolled past Bob Meusel and Whitey Witt in left-center. Though the ball had traveled nearly 450 feet from home plate, Stengel almost didn't make it around the bases in time. He nearly lost one of his spikes chugging home and had to slide in order to elude the catcher's tag.
Stengel, who would later become the Yankees' most successful manager, hit another game-winning homer before the Series ended and was slapped with a $50 fine by baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis after thumbing his nose at the Yankees dugout. Despite Casey's heroics, the Yankees — behind the Babe's three homers and eight walks — won the Series in six games. It would be the first of a mind-boggling 26 Fall Classics the Bronx Bombers would capture, prompting the stadium to also become known as "The Home of Champions."
The cantankerous McGraw clearly had struck out with his prophecy that the Yankees would shrivel up and disappear after vacating the Polo Grounds. Thanks to his paranoia and Ruppert's vision, the Bronx Bombers became America's most recognizable sports franchise, and their grandiose stadium is now as world-renowned as that ancient edifice in Rome.
The Yankees, with their unparalleled success and succession of Olivier-like actors such as Ruth, Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter, were the main tenants who made the ballpark as famous as Broadway.
But many other performers and events also contributed to the stadium's unmatched aura and mystique.
This was the stage upon which legendary University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne delivered his famous "Win One for the Gipper" halftime speech — which eight decades later remains the most inspirational and widely referenced motivational talk in sports history.
For 17 autumns, this was the gridiron home of the New York football Giants and the place where "the greatest game in history" was played — the 23–17 overtime victory by the Johnny Unitas–led Baltimore Colts over the "Gints."
This was the place where lords of the ring made a name for themselves. A total of 30 world boxing championships were decided at Yankee Stadium, with pugilistic icons such as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio, and Muhammad Ali all duking it out at one time or another between the ropes on the makeshift canvas ring set up near second base. And none of those fights was more historically or socially significant than the one waged between Louis and German heavyweight Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938. As more than 80,000 spectators looked on, the Brown Bomber knocked out Schmeling in the first round, regaining his title and striking a blow against Adolf Hitler's theory of Aryan superiority.
The stadium also became a place where worshipping went beyond sporting gods, as two popes celebrated mass there, Billy Graham hosted religious crusades there, and 123,000 Jehovah's Witnesses convened there one day in the late 1950s, establishing a stadium attendance record that still stands.
When Big Apple officials sought a venue for a rally welcoming freedom fighter Nelson Mandela to the United States, they chose Yankee Stadium. When actor Kevin Costner looked for a ballpark to film his movie, For Love of the Game, he picked The House That Ruth Built. And when Oprah sponsored a healing vigil for devastated New Yorkers following the tragic events of 9/11, the big ballpark in the Bronx took center stage again.
U2, Pink Floyd, and Bronx-born Billy Joel all wound up rocking The House That Ruth Built in sold-out concerts, and opera stars Robert Merrill and Ronan Tynan made spectators misty-eyed with booming renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America."
More than 200 million people have journeyed through the ballpark's turnstiles since it opened for business 85 years ago. They, too, are a huge part of the building's legacy. They've witnessed some of the most extraordinary moments in the history of sports and New York City. And they have helped make Yankee Stadium into a Big Apple icon as recognizable as the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Carnegie Hall.
It wound up becoming far grander than Ruppert had envisioned when he drew up plans following McGraw's eviction notice.
It wound up becoming the most famous sports arena in the world.CHAPTER 2
May 5, 1922 — The White Construction Company begins building the new $2.5 million Yankee Stadium with the edict that it must be completed in time for the ballclub's 1923 home opener. Remarkably, the New York–based builder completes the monumental task in just 284 days. It is the first three-tiered ballpark in American history and the first one to be called a stadium. For the first several years of its existence, it is known as "The Yankee Stadium."
April 18, 1923 — Legendary conductor John Philip Sousa and the famed Seventh Regiment Band entertain the crowd of 74,217 spectators, and New York governor Alfred E. Smith throws out the ceremonial first pitch. But it's Babe Ruth who steals the show. Displaying his trademark flair for the dramatic, the Babe christens the Yankees' cavernous new ballyard with a home run in the first game ever played there as New York beats Boston 4–1 behind Bob Shawkey's three-hit pitching performance. The following day in his game account for the New York Evening Telegram, sportswriter Fred Lieb describes Yankee Stadium as "The House That Ruth Built," and the nickname continues to be used eight decades later.
July 24, 1923 — A boxing ring is set up near second base, and Benny Leonard, one of the greatest lightweight boxers of all time, wins by decision over Lew Tendler as a crowd of 58,000 looks on in the first of 30 world title bouts at the stadium.
October 10, 1923 — New York Giants outfielder Casey Stengel hits an inside-the-park homer, giving his team a 5–4 victory over the Yankees in the first World Series game played at Yankee Stadium. Stengel's gapper rolls nearly 450 feet to the left-center-field wall, but despite the distance, Stengel barely makes it home safely, because as he chugs around third base, one of his spikes almost comes off.
October 15, 1923 — A year after being swept by the Giants (with one game ending in a tie), the Yankees redeem themselves by beating their crosstown rivals four games to two to capture their first of 26 World Series titles. The loss is especially hard for manager John McGraw to take because his team had dominated baseball for nearly a decade and had once served as landlords to the Yankees in the Polo Grounds.
June 1, 1925 — The lineup change drew scant attention from fans and reporters but would take on historical significance years later. Regular first baseman Wally Pipp was suffering from a headache, so Yankees manager Miller Huggins replaced him with a raw-boned first baseman out of Columbia University by the name of Lou Gehrig. The man who would become known as the "Iron Horse" would be in the lineup for the next 2,130 games.
October 10, 1926 — Grover Cleveland Alexander, who won Game 6 and was sleeping off a hangover, is called upon to face Yankees second baseman Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Game 7 of the World Series. Lazzeri drives a ball into the bleachers that's just foul before striking out against the 39-year-old Alexander. The old warhorse holds on to beat the Yankees 3–2, clinching the championship for St. Louis.
September 30, 1927 — Just when it appears the Bambino can't raise the bar any higher, he does just that, blasting his 60 home run off Washington Senators' pitcher Tom Zachary to surpass by one the single-season mark he established six years earlier. According to a game story in the New York Times, "The Babe made his triumphant, almost regal, tour of the base paths. He jogged around slowly, touched each bag firmly and carefully, and when he embedded his spikes in the rubber disk to record officially homer number 60, hats were tossed into the air, papers were torn up and thrown liberally, and the spirit of celebration permeated the place."
Excerpted from Memories of Yankee Stadium by Scott Pitoniak. Copyright © 2008 Scott Pitoniak. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.