One of the greatest identities associated with the New York Yankees has not been a player;
Nor a manager;
Nor an owner;
Sometimes called The Cathedral of Baseball;
Home to what has been called the greatest game in the history of the National Football League when the Colts beat the home team Giants in overtime to win the championship in 1958;
Site of many famous boxing matches;
Host to Mass celebrated by three different Popes;
Called “Some Ball Yard” by Babe Ruth the day he first walked into it in 1923;
And most often called “The House That Ruth Built.”
Yankee Stadium is the most famous and most celebrated Stadium in all sports.
When Jacob Ruppert and T.L. Huston bought the New York Yankees in 1915 the team didn’t have its own field on which to play.
For a number of years the Yankees shared the Polo Grounds in Harlem with the New York Giants of the National League.
The Giants were led at that time by the irascible John McGraw, as ornery a figure as ever haunted a baseball field. McGraw was a great baseball mind, but was tough, tenacious and unyielding.
At one point early in the century McGraw had the gall and the power to simply refuse to play against the pennant winner from the upstart American League and there was no World Series in 1904.
As long as the Yankees were mediocre, McGraw was only too happy to let them play in his Polo Grounds when the Giants were not using it.
But Ruppert began buying good players in the last years before the Roaring Twenties and suddenly McGraw began to get nervous. Ruppert bought Babe Ruth in 1919 and the Yankees began to get really good really fast.
By 1921, the Giants had to host the upstart Yankees in the World Series and all games were played on the Giants’ home field in the Polo Grounds. This was repeated in 1922, both Series being won by the National League champ.
But long before that, McGraw had made it clear the Yankees had to find some place else to play. He was tired of all the attention the American League cousins were getting.
So Colonel Ruppert began scouting for land on which to build a stadium for his team. In 1921 he found ten acres owned by the Astors right across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds and began construction on what was to become Yankee Stadium.
The Stadium was the first three tiered Stadium ever built for sports in the U.S. It was the first baseball field ever called a “Stadium.” Before that they were referred to as Fields (as in “Ebbetts Field”) or parks (as in “Fenway Park”).
It was also designed as a multiple use facility. As laid out the left and right field bleachers were at right angles to each other and to the third base line so as to accommodate track and field and football games.
Originally there was a misshapen quarter mile running track around the inside of the fence that was composed of cinders and sand. That eventually became the warning track that is customary in all baseball stadiums today.
The original plan was to have the massive upper deck and roof extend completely around the outfield. But during construction that was scaled back and as the park was originally built, the upper deck stopped just short of the foul poles.
Through the years the grandstand with the famous façade and roof were extended. In 1928 the left field grandstand was extended to its present position and in 1937 the right field grandstand was extended, with concrete bleachers replacing original wooden ones.
Another feature of the original stadium that fans of the past thirty years would not recognize were support posts throughout the stands that supported the upper deck. Old pictures of the Stadium feature these massive pillars that were necessary at the time, but interfered with views of any unfortunate ticket holder who happened to sit behind them.
Yankee Stadium opened in 1923. Babe Ruth had said he would give a year of his life to be able to hit a home run in the first game there. And he hit his home run as the Yankees beat Boston.
Yankee Stadium had been built with specifications for Babe Ruth. Straight down the right field line the foul pole was only 295 feet from home plate. Left field was even shorter originally at 280 feet.
But that was the only part of the outfield fence that was close to home. The deepest part of left center field in 1923 was 500 feet from home. Straight away center was 487 feet and right center field was 429 feet away. Left center and center field became known as Death Valley because that was where long fly balls went to die in a fielder’s glove.
Through the years these distances would be changed numerous times, as early as 1928 when the left field foul pole was moved back to 301 feet.
The outfield fences were only about four feet high down the foul lines in the original Yankee Stadium and consisted of wire above a concrete base.
The fences rose gradually toward center field. Eventually the fences would be replaced by higher solid walls which were not padded. After the walls were put in, scoreboards adorned both left and right field walls.
Among of the most amazing features of the Stadium were the monuments to former Yankee greats. In 1932, the first monument was erected in honor of Yankee manager, Miller Huggins who had died in 1929 after a short illness. A monument to Huggins was placed in deep left center in the field of play.
A plaque honoring Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert was affixed to the left center field wall in 1940. In 1941 another standing monument, this one to the great Yankee captain, Lou Gehrig, was placed along side the one for Huggins on the field of play.
The final monument to be placed in the outfield was dedicated in 1949 after the death of Babe Ruth. But other plaques were placed on the wall, including those to honor General Manager Ed Barrow, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle.
When the Stadium was remodeled in 1974-75, the monuments were removed from the field of play and all monuments and plaques were placed in Monument Park, an area behind the left centerfield wall, beyond where the monuments had originally stood.
The old monuments of Huggins, Gehrig and Ruth were set again in Monument Park and were eventually joined by standing monuments to Mickey Mantle (1996) and Joe Dimaggio (1999).
Other great Yankee players, managers, executives and employees also had plaques placed on the wall in Monument Park. They were joined by plaques to the three Popes who celebrated Mass in the Stadium and one to honor the heroes of 9-11.
When the Stadium was renovated in the 1970s one of its most famous features was changed. In the original Stadium, the upper deck was crowned by a unique decorative façade that became a symbol of the Yankees. The façade was removed from all parts of the Stadium except for an area beyond the outfield bleachers with the renovation.
From the day Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 with great fanfare and an exaggerated Opening Day attendance mark of 74,000, it was a Mecca for sports fans. As the area around the Stadium in the Bronx fell into decline it became a less than desirable location to travel.
But the 4 Train still made the daily trip to 161st Street and River Avenue. Descending from the elevated tracks to street level made any baseball fan’s heart rate quicken. In the old days carnival type ticket booths flanked each entrance gate. Those were also removed with the renovation of the ‘70s to be replaced by turnstiles and gaping garage door type entrances.
Billy Crystal has described what it was like for him when his dad took him to his first game at Yankee Stadium and they descended out of the tunnel into the bright sunlight and he looked out onto the greenest grass he had ever seen. And he saw the monuments and thought Huggins, Gehrig and Ruth were buried in the outfield.
This humble fan will never forget his own experience in arriving on the train and walking around outside Yankee Stadium for the first time, waiting what seemed an interminable period for the gates to open.
Nothing read and nothing seen on television could prepare one for the enormous size of the Stadium or the grandeur. Even in its final season in 2008, when it was old and worn and featured amenities that just were not up to the standards of all the modern parks, a fan that came to The Stadium for the first time was awestruck.
Any true fan of the game, that was unable to make the pilgrimage to this shrine before the final game on September 21, 2008, was deprived of a unique experience.
From the day Babe Ruth opened the Stadium with a home run on April 18, 1923 to the last time the lights went out, there was no other place quite like Yankee Stadium. And there will never be again.
37 World Series contests were staged in this arena. Four All Star Games were played there. The only perfect game in World Series history took place there in 1956. And the nation came back to earth and to the national pastime when baseball resumed in Yankee Stadium after the shock of September 11, 2001.
Plans are still to tear down the Stadium. That will undoubtedly happen. But no one will ever be able to destroy the memories of anyone fortunate enough to have gone to the Stadium.
Yankee Stadium is one of the reasons the New York Yankees are the greatest team in the history of baseball.
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