Last Updated 11 Feb 2020

The Yankee Stadium’s History

Category Baseball
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Any discussion of the history of New York City without a history of the New York Yankees would be like describing Pavarotti without mentioning his voice. And any discussion of the Yankees without including Yankee Stadium would be farcical. And when you get right down to the nitty-gritty of historical realities encompassing the Yankees and Yankee Stadium you have to include Babe Ruth. The Babe, the "Bambino," the "Sultan of Swat," was the reason the Yankees built Yankee Stadium, and that is why they call it "The House That Ruth Built."

The Yankees are beyond any reasonable doubt the premier team in Major League Baseball. They have been in the World Series 39 times since the American League was fashioned in 1900 - and they have won 26 of them. The teams tied for second most World Series Championships are the Cardinals and Athletics with 9.

The Yankees have been in New York since 1903; previously they were in Baltimore known as the Baltimore Orioles. They started out in New York as the Highlanders, playing at Hilltop Park (today, the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center sits where Hilltop Park was located). They played in the Polo Grounds (sharing it with its home team, the National League New York Giants) from 1913 to 1920.

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The Yankees became popularly known as the "Yankees" around 1904; and when the New York Herald reported on April 15, 1906, "Yankees win opening game from Boston, 2-1," it was more or less official they were no longer the Highlanders.

Meanwhile, tracing the origins of Yankee Stadium properly includes a brief recounting of how Babe Ruth got to the Yankees; he was the spark that lit the fire that put Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. By 1919, a strong rivalry had existed between the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees for several years. A young Boston pitcher who was also an unbelievable slugger, Babe Ruth, hammered the Yankees on many occasions, including Opening Day at the Polo Grounds on April 23, 1919. According to The New York Times (4/24/1919), "Babe Ruth won the game for the Red Sox in the first inning when, with Jack Berry on first base, he slammed out a lucky home run..." Final score, Red Sox 10, Yanks 0.

There had been some doubt as to whether the phenomenal Ruth would even play for Boston in 1919; Ruth had been a hold-out in the spring, following a sensational season as a pitcher and slugger, and a magnificent World Series for Boston in 1918, in which he won two games (hurling 13 scoreless innings in one game) and gave Boston power at the plate. It was to be Boston's last World Series victory until 2004. In the spring of 1919, Ruth was holding out for $15,000 a year, according to a New York Times story (3/19/1919): "Ruth...wants $15,000 for one year or will sign a contract calling for $10,000 a year for three years."

The headline in The New York Times on December 27, 1919 read, "Ruth Talks Of Retiring"; the story said Ruth is "'through with major league baseball' unless the management of the Boston American league Club is prepared to meet his demand for $20,000 a year."

The New York Times reported on March 22, 1919, that "Babe Ruth Finally Signs with Boston," for a reported $27,000 for three years. Boston owner Harry H. Frazee's previous best offer had been $8,500, the Times reported. Contrasted with today's dollar value $27,000 would be worth around $540,000; and even though $27,000 doesn't sound like much compared to the $2.5 million original cost of building Yankee Stadium - or to the salaries today's players draw. (To wit, Derek Jeter's 2003 salary was around $15,000,000; he came to the plate 482 times; do the math and see Jeter earned around $30,000 per at-bat).

But to the average New Yorker in 1920, Ruth's salary was a huge quantity of money. Hundreds of thousands of American boys were fighting in Europe in WWI (thousands of them dying), and 650,000 Americans had died recently due the influenza epidemic. Times were rough, to say the least.

Meantime, after Ruth clubbed 29 homers in 1919, an October 12th Times article hailed him as the "mastodonic mauler"; New York obviously was in awe of this superstar. And then, to the great surprise of Gotham, the one of the biggest sports events of the century hit the headlines of The New York Times with the clout of a Ruthian grand slam (1/6/1920): "Ruth Bought by New York Americans For $125,000, Highest Price in Baseball Annals."

The story reported that Ruth's acquisition gave the Yankees "the hard-hitting outfielder long desired." After coming to terms with the Yankees, for $40,000 on a two-year deal, the Yankee owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert soon took out a $150,000 insurance policy on the Babe, unprecedented at that time.

And interestingly exactly one year to the day after the Times story hailing Ruth's arrival in New York, the Times headline (2/6/1921) rang: "Yankees To Build Stadium In Bronx." In the article, Yankee owners Colonels Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L. Huston announced they had purchased 10 acres "on the east bank of the Harlem River," between 157th and 101st Streets, from the estate of the late William Waldorf Astor.

"On this terrain there will be erected a huge stadium, which will surpass in seating capacity any structure hitherto built for the accommodation of lovers of baseball," the Times' article continued, in typical dramatic style, albeit there was no byline so the author was unknown.

Excavation was to begin "in a few weeks and building will be expedited by every means known to human effort," the article explained. The Yankees did not announce what they paid for the ten acres, but the Times had it "on good authority" the tab was $500,000, and the estimated cost of the projected stadium was $2 million. The "running time from Forth-second Street by subway is only about 16 minutes," the story continued, and by "elevated train it will take about 2 minutes more to reach the Yankee's stadium than is necessary to get to the Polo Grounds."

The process of street-closings "will offer no obstacles," the Times explained; and the stadium was projected to be "triple-decked," which was made necessary "by the expectation of even greater patronage than that of the last season." The obvious reference was to the fact that Babe Ruth is not only the greatest home run hitter in the game, but he was the biggest box office draw in all entertainment venues at that time. Prior to the decision to build the stadium on its present site, the Times (2/6/1921) reported that "until a few days" prior to February 5, 1921, Yankee owners "were inclined to favor the site of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, between 136th and 138th streets, near Broadway."

The stadium was to hold 75,000 fans eventually, though at first it would only hold 50,000 (5,000 of them bleacher benches); yet "when the cost of building materials becomes more nearly normal," the Times explained, the capacity will be increased to the higher figure. This "massive and most attractive structure has been designed to adorn the new playing field of Babe Ruth and his pals," the story went on. "Concrete and steel of the finest quality available will be used..."

Before any building could begin, and before contractors were to be hired to do the building, the approval from City Hall had to be obtained. And while New York City Mayor John F. Hylan first hedged on the decision for the city to "release its interest in the bed of Cromwell Avenue" in the Bronx, which ran directly through the site, he eventually signed off on the deal. However, the sub-headline on March 18, 1923, in the Times badgered the mayor a bit by shouting that "Mayor Hylan Holds Up Decision on closing of Street Running Through Site."

"I am not going to put my signature on the official document," the mayor said in the Times, "until I find out whether everything is regular." The "Sinking Fund Commission" had already signed off on the street's demolishment, and worried that the mayor's delay "might prevent the Yankees from playing in their new stadium in 1923," the article indicated.

Meantime, within a couple weeks, the mayor did sign off on the closing of two streets, which "came as a personal triumph for colonel Jacob Ruppert, President of the Yankees, who had labored for more than a year to obtain the necessary permission for the closing of the streets," the Times reported in late March, 1922. [Note: the dates on the New York Times' archival documents do not always reflect the precise date of publication.] Not only did New York political bureaucracies have to be hurdled by Ruppert, the Astor family lived in England, and since it was their property that was the site used for the stadium, their consent was imperative.

After official approval, the Times' headline "Yankees Call For Bids on Stadium" had a little editorial slant in the sub-headline, "If Contractor Are Rational In Prices Work Will Begin at Earliest Possible Date." The date on this article can't be correct (it is 1/4/1922), so it must have been in late February. "Excavation, grading, masonry, sewers and downspouts, reinforced concrete, lathing and plastering, ornamental metal work, tile work, terrazzo floors, carpentry, toilets, roofing, sheet metal, steel sash, painting and wood bleachers" all went out to bid, the Times reported.

And it did seem like there was a limited amount of capital available for the huge project, because the newspaper article mentioned that bids "for the steel work have already been obtained," and "they were fairly satisfactory...ranging from much below the prices of a year or two ago, but rather higher than had been hoped by the men who have to put up the money for this project." The colonel did not plan to "get what they considered the worst of it financially" in case the bids "proved to be beyond the bounds of reason," the story explained. Ground was to be broken around the first of March.

The White Construction Company of 95 Madison Avenue was selected as contractor of the stadium, the Times reported shortly after receiving city permission to go ahead. Work was to begin "on what will be the greatest baseball plant in the world" within a week, and the Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland was chosen as overseer of general construction; the stadium was projected to be completed by September first, at that time. The number of seats available for fans, which had changed several times, in this article ("Yanks Pick Firm To Build Stadium") it was listed at 60,000. A "double shift of workmen" will be employed, and the Osborn company predicted in the Times that "it will smash all records in the matter of speed."

The actual construction of the stadium of course received a great deal of coverage in The New York Times. One story (4/1/1923) - headlined, "Yanks' Stadium Big Engineering Task," pointed to the massive construction effort being put forth, in order to meet an incredibly tight deadline, and listed the materials that would go into the stadium.

To wit: Thirty-thousand yards of concrete (from 45,000 barrels of cement, 30,000 yards of gravel and 15,000 yards of sand); 2,500 tons of structural steel and 1,000 tons of reinforced steel; 2 million board feet of lumber for bleachers and forms; 600,000 "linear feet" of lumber for the grandstand seats; 4 miles of pipe for railings in box seats, reserved seats and bleachers; 500 tons of iron for stadium seats; and about 500 workmen were brought in to put it all together.

In a story in the archival Times dated May 4, the cost of the stadium changed again, this time to $3 million, and the attendance capacity became 85,000. But all the inconsistencies notwithstanding, the Times' story with the most pizzazz of all the archival coverage of Yankee Stadium was published April 19, 1923: "74,200 See Yankees Open New Stadium; Ruth Hits Home Run." While 25,000 were turned away from the sold-out house, those in attendance were treated to this: "In the third inning, with two teammates on the base lines, Babe Ruth smashed a savage home run into the right field bleachers." This shot by Ruth was made all the more dramatic because he had been quoted as saying he would give "a year of my life" to smack a round-tripper on opening day in the new stadium.

The 74,200 attendance figure that was reported by the stadium was, Times' readers learned on the 20th, "merely an estimate" by Yankees business manager Edward Barrow. In fact, only around 52,000 paid to see the game, plus several thousand were admitted with passes. But the Times - obviously feeling somewhat duped - reported that the 74,200 figures "were accepted without question and were published in hundreds of newspapers in this country and in various places around the world."

In addition to baseball, many sporting events have taken place in Yankee Stadium over the years, including: boxing matches with stars like Jack Dempsey (Muhammad Ali defeated Ken Norton on July 24, 1923); indeed over 30 championship fights have taken place at the stadium, according to the Yankees' Web site; NFL games with the New York football Giants between 1956 and 1973; Army-Navy football games, religious conventions (including two visits by Popes).

Lights were installed at the stadium in 1946, and in the winter of 1966-67, the stadium got a $1.5 million update, consisting mostly of fresh paint. Starting in 1973, the stadium was torn down almost totally, and rebuilt; during that period, the Yankees moved to Shea Stadium for two seasons. The stadium has been the playground for American sporting icons like Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, and many more.

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