Friday, April 18, 2008

This Day in Baseball... Yankee Stadium

Today marks the 85th anniversary of the opening of Yankee Stadium. In the opening game, none other than Babe Ruth hit a 2-run home run off the Red Sox's Howard Ehmke in a 4-1 Yankee victory. Here's a little background on the stadium, which will close after this year.

Today we take for granted the big concrete and steel, 60,000-seat sports facilities. We call them stadiums, of course. But in the 1920s, they didn’t exist. There were 30,000-seat ballparks, yes, but no gigantic stadiums as we know them today. Think of the old-time ballparks: Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, the Polo Grounds, and so on... not a stadium among them (back then, Tiger Stadium was known as Navin Field).

Yankee Stadium—the “House that Ruth Built”—changed all that. It was fitting that the nation’s largest city should serve as home for the most innovative entertainment facility of its time, and even more fitting that the country’s most larger-than-life sports figure should have something to do with it. For it was Ruth who put the Yankees on the baseball map by making them a good enough team to draw more fans than the rival Giants, to whom the Yankees had always played second fiddle. As a reward, the Yankees designed the Stadium for him, building a right field fence just 294 feet down the line so his clouts wouldn’t have to travel too far to go out of the park. Meanwhile, left-center and center field were cavernous—490 to dead center, 395 to left center—dimensions that cost the right-handed-hitting Joe DiMaggio countless home runs.

Yankee Stadium seated more than 70,000 fans when it opened, around twice as much as any other existing ballpark, and enabled the team to become the first club to draw more than two million fans. Like all great ballparks, the Stadium had some pretty amazing quirks. From the 1930s until the extensive remodeling in 1974–75, three marble monuments honoring Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and legendary manager Miller Huggins stood in deep center field—in play. Once, while watching a long fly bounce around out of reach of his fielders, an exasperated Casey Stengel is purported to have shouted, “Ruth, Gehrig, Huggins, someone throw that ball in here NOW!” During the $100 million renovation, builders placed an inner fence in front of the monuments, shortening the outfield distance but also removing one of baseball’s coolest quirks.

The new Yankee Stadium is set to open next year.

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