09/19/08 10:40 AM ET
Yankee Stadium: No other place like it
On eve of final series, 'House' was more than a baseball shrine
By Jack O'Connell / MLB.com
Places where baseball was played in the first quarter of the 20th century were usually called parks or fields, such as Yankee Stadium's only standing predecessors, Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park. Even the name of the Yankees' former rental home, the Polo Grounds, had a 19th-century sound to it.
The word "stadium" conjured up images of ancient Greece and suggested importance. As New York Herald Tribune columnist Red Smith once wrote, noting the place of sports in a society, "The oldest building in Rome is the Coliseum."
For 85 years, Yankee Stadium has lived up to its name, which will continue to identify the home of the Yankees when they move into a new facility across 161st Street in the Bronx next year. The modern trend of selling naming rights to corporate entities, for now anyway, won't sway the team to call its park anything but Yankee Stadium.
The new facility will resemble the original structure with "Yankee Stadium" in block letters atop the front gate.
Whether its nickname will change remains to be seen. Can a place be called "The House That Ruth Built" (dubbed by Fred Lieb of the New York Evening Telegram) if Babe Ruth never played in it? Nevertheless, without Ruth, the Yankees might not have ventured into the Bronx in the first place to create a home of their own in 1923, after 10 seasons as tenants and second-class citizens to the then-powerful New York Giants at the Polo Grounds.
Indeed, the site of the stadium in the West Bronx directly across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan was a sort of payback by the Yankees against the Giants. Thanks to Ruth, the Yankees had outdrawn the Giants in attendance in 1921, his second season in New York. The Giants may have won the 1921 and '22 World Series over the Yankees, but Ruth's presence had made the American League team the stronger one at the gate over the course of the regular seasons.
Yankees co-owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast l'Hommedieu Huston rejected proposals for land on the West Side of Manhattan, Long Island City and Queens, and instead purchased the patch in the Bronx from the estate of William Waldorf Astor for $675,000.
The budget for construction was slated at $2.5 million. The project was completed, astonishingly, in 284 working days, and opened April 18, 1923, for the Yankees' first game of the season against the Red Sox. New York Gov. Al Smith threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Naturally, Ruth hit Yankee Stadium's first home run.
It was the first three-tiered facility for a baseball team, and had a seating capacity of 70,000, although that included standing-room sections. A sellout at the stadium was generally 62,000. The field's dimensions were ideal for Ruth, with the right-field foul line only 296 feet from the plate. The deepest part of the park was left-center field that stretched to 467 feet, earning the area the nickname "Death Valley."
As the Yankees look ahead to a future in a state-of-the-art facility, much of the 2008 unfolded as a year-long celebration of a past that is unsurpassed in featuring events of distinction not only for the most celebrated singular franchise in American professional sports, but also in other major endeavors, athletic or otherwise.
Yankee Stadium was the site of a rally honoring Nelson Mandela, following the end of apartheid in South Africa, and a site where hundreds of thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses gathered annually for more than 20 years at conventions. Three Popes celebrated Catholic Mass there, only helping to foster the notion of the stadium as a sort of cathedral.
Only two of the Yankees' 38 World Series appearances did not include games at Yankee Stadium, where 16 championships were clinched, nine by the Yankees, the most recent in 1999. This year's All-Star Game was the fourth to take place at the stadium. It is also where the New York football Giants won one National Football League championship (1956), and although defeated in another title game (1958) by the Baltimore Colts in overtime, were part of a seminal event that ushered in a new era of prosperity for the NFL.
College football was a staple at the stadium, highlighted by the Army-Notre Dame series from 1925-1947. Some 30 championship prizefights were held at Yankee Stadium, including both bouts in the 1930s between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, among the most famous confrontations in history. Pele, the Brazilian Babe Ruth of soccer, played home games with the New York Cosmos at the stadium in 1976, the year the park reopened after a two-year renovation.
The restructured stadium lost some of its majesty in modernization, but the Yankees' turnaround in the free-agency era, spearheaded by owner George Steinbrenner's aggressive spending, returned the facility to its familiar role as a prime location for postseason baseball.
The stadium has been home to all the championship Yankees teams. The "Murderers' Row" of Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri and Bob Meusel, and the "Bronx Bombers" of Gehrig, Lazzeri, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey began the Yankees' dynasty before World War II.
Casey Stengel, who as the Giants' center fielder in 1923 hit the first World Series home run on an inside-the-parker, during which he lost his right shoe rounding second and scored with a sock-first slide, took the Yankees to even greater heights from 1949-60. In that 12-season span, the Yankees won 10 pennants and seven World Series, including five in a row (1949-53), besting Joe McCarthy's four-year run of 1936-39.
Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra were the cornerstones of those 1950s and '60s teams, then after reaching the World Series five straight seasons through 1964, the bottom fell out the next year. The stadium was as crumbling, as was the franchise, and required renovation. A new era of Yankees success began with the Cathedral's reopening.
The sights and sounds over the decades have included some of the greatest moments in sports. Ruth and Roger Maris hit record-setting home runs. Ruth and Gehrig delivered poignant speeches. Don Larsen, David Wells and David Cone pitched perfect games. Louis inspired a nation, proving an Aryan race was a fallacy.
The Yankees of the late 1970s provided their share of highlights. Reggie Jackson crushed three first-pitch home runs off three pitchers in one game to climax the 1977 World Series. The next year, the Yankees overcame a 14-game deficit in mid-July behind Ron Guidry's 25-3 season to overtake the Red Sox and win another World Series.
Despite being unable to win a World Series during the 1980s, the Yankees won more games that decade than any team, and had new favorites in Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly.
Just as Stengel had done, Joe Torre came to town from the National League in 1996 and manned the dugout for 12 years, overseeing Yankees teams that won 10 American League East titles, six pennants and four World Series, including a record 14 consecutive series games. Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were at the core of those teams and were back in pinstripes this season, the last of their long-time residence.
All of this has been worthy of a place known simply in New York as "The Stadium."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.