NEW YORK – Roy White remembered when he got called up to the major leagues in 1965 and walked out to Yankee Stadium’s 463-foot sign, to the left of the monuments.
“It was like three blocks away. You needed two relays to get it back to the infield,” the former All-Star outfielder said.
The original stadium opened April 18, 1923, with Babe Ruth hitting the first home run in a 4-1 win over Boston before 74,200, at the time called the largest crowd to see a baseball game.
“Ruth's circuit,” The Associated Press wrote, “added the one touch needed to complete the most picturesque drama in diamond annals.”
The original stadium will be celebrated before Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Angels at the modern version across 161st St. that replaced it in 2009.
Eleven no-hitters were pitched at the original stadium, including three perfect games. At the time of its closing, it hosted 100 of 601 World Series games. The black-and-white images of memorable moments are still seen, the feats of Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra marveled at along with the more modern color video of Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
Yankee Stadium was built at a cost of $2.5 million, astronomical then but the salary of a backup middle infielder these days. Even after a 1974-75 renovation eliminated obstructed seats but caused the loss of many original elements, a game there remained an aspiration for many players and fans.
“A lot of people there, a lot of energy. They make their presence known, they don’t sit on their hands,” former right fielder Dave Winfield said. “If you played there and you played for that team and you played for the pinstripes and played for New York City, that you were part of a long tradition. High expectations.”
Built on land purchased from the William Waldorf Astor estate for $675,000, the ballpark was designed by Osborn Engineering and took just 284 working days to construct. The Yankees moved across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds, their home since 1913, into America’s first three-deck ballpark and became baseball’s attendance leader.
When fans filled the stadium for the first game, preceded by John Philip Sousa leading a band, they saw a short porch in right field with its low fence and the vast expanse of grass in left-center that became known as Death Valley. The famous facade topped the upper deck, which would become known around the country for the shadows it cast as it crept from foul territory on the first-base side and across the infield during many a World Series.
The monuments, red granite with bronze plaques affixed, came later: in 1932 for Miller Huggins, in 1941 for Lou Gehrig and 1949 for Babe Ruth. They were erected in center field and fans were allowed to walk by them on the field as they exited.
Plaques followed, affixed to the center-field wall, and all were moved to a new Monument Park during the renovation in which dimensions were reduced to less gargantuan proportions.
“Majesty — it sort of made you feel like you’re in one of those great European cathedrals. We’re just not used to ancient architecture in New York and had that feel,” said Marty Appel, a former Yankees media executive and author of several books about the team.
New York won 26 World Series titles while in the original stadium and several support staff became fixtures known throughout MLB: Bob Sheppard, revered for his elegant introductions, gave the ballpark its own voice as public address announcer from 1951-2007. Pete Sheehy became its face for players, starting work in 1926 and spending 59 seasons as clubhouse attendant and equipment manager.
It also had a feel. In big moments, the fans made the ballpark tremble.
Paul O’Neill thought back to scoring the first run in Game 6 of the 1996 World Series.
“Joe Girardi hit a triple,” O’Neill said, “and I remember stepping on home plate and the ground was actually shaking.”
New York’s new stadium is 62% larger than its predecessor. Several original elements were recreated.
“The stadium was truly a baseball cathedral,” current owner Hal Steinbrenner said. “The facade was clearly a priority in the new stadium, as was the outside, Gate 4. We wanted it to look as it did when it opened in ’23, as much as possible anyways. I think the new stadium, at some level, brings the old stadium to life.”