Old Yankee Stadium 1923 - 2008


 From 1923 to 2008, Yankee Stadium featured 6,581 regular-season games.  Four other ballparks served as home for more contests (Boston's Fenway Park, Chicago's Wrigley Field, Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, and Tiger Stadium in Detroit).  But the success the Yankees experienced over the course of those 86 years enabled Yankee Stadium to host more postseason (161) and World Series (100) games than any other ballpark.


     Yankee Stadium also hosted four All-Star Games, including the 1939, 1960, 1977, and 2008 tilts (two All-Star Games were played in 1960), and many other extremely significant sporting events took place at this historical ballpark through the years.  The New York Football Giants began playing their home games at Yankee Stadium in 1956, and they continued to do so for most of the next two decades.  The Stadium also served as the site for several memorable college football contests and boxing matches.  Professional soccer's New York Cosmos played many of their home games there.  In addition, Yankee Stadium served as the stage for three papal masses, a Billy Graham revival, a Nelson Mandela rally, and a memorial service following the tragedy of September 11, 2001.


     While the Yankees failed to win a World Series title until they moved across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds after the 1922 season, they captured their first world championship in Yankee Stadium's inaugural year.  Twenty-five more championships followed after they began playing their home games in the building constructed on the site of a former Bronx lumberyard.   


     The triple-decked, 58,000-seat park was nicknamed The House That Ruth Built because Babe Ruth’s drawing power not only forced the Yankees out of the Polo Grounds, but also provided owners Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston and Jacob Ruppert with the capital to pay for the $2.5 million project.


     After initially calling Hilltop Park home after first entering the American League as the New York Highlanders at the turn of the last century, the Yankees began sharing the Polo Grounds with its owners, the New York Giants, in 1913.  However, after the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth from Boston in 1920, they began to attract more fans to the ballpark than the Giants.  Envious of his tenants, Giants boss Charles Stoneham asked the Yankees in 1921 to find another place to play after the 1922 season.  The two teams faced each other in the World Series in both 1921 and 1922, with all the games being played at the Polo Grounds.  The Giants prevailed both times.  The two New York teams captured their respective pennants for a third consecutive time after the Yankees moved into their new ballpark in 1923.  This time, though, the Yankees defeated their former landlords in the Fall Classic.  


     Before Yankee Stadium opened on April 18, 1923, Babe Ruth was presented with a case containing an absurdly large bat.  He then hit the first home run in the stadium’s history, a three-run shot into the right field stands, to give the Yankees a 4-1 victory over his former team, the Boston Red Sox.  When asked about the new ballpark after the game, Ruth commented, “Some ball yard.”


     Excluding executives, 20 members of the Yankees who spent a significant portion of their careers either playing or managing for the team in the old Yankee Stadium gained induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Right fielder Ruth, who was among the first five honorees, gained admittance in 1936.  He was followed by first baseman Lou Gehrig (1939), pitcher Herb Pennock (1948), catcher Bill Dickey (1954), center fielder Joe DiMaggio (1955), manager Joe McCarthy (1957), manager Miller Huggins (1964), manager Casey Stengel (1966), pitcher Red Ruffing (1967), pitcher Waite Hoyt (1969), center fielder Earle Combs (1970), catcher Yogi Berra (1972), pitcher Lefty Gomez (1972), center fielder Mickey Mantle (1974), pitcher Whitey Ford (1974), second baseman Tony Lazzeri (1991), shortstop Phil Rizzuto (1994), right fielder Dave Winfield (2001), pitcher Rich Gossage (2008), and outfielder Rickey Henderson (2009).


     There were actually two incarnations of Yankee Stadium.  The ballpark's first life lasted 51 years, from 1923 to 1973.  After closing for two years at the conclusion of the 1973 campaign to allow renovations to be made to the original structure, the stadium reopened for business in 1976.  The Yankees then captured the next three American League pennants, winning the World Series in both 1977 and 1978. 


     The dimensions of the ballpark changed considerably over time.  When the stadium first opened in 1923, the stands down the right field foul line stood only 295 feet from home plate, while the left field foul pole was marked off at just 285 feet.  The fence in straightaway right field bore a welcome 350-foot sign to lefthanded batters, before increasing greatly in distance to the power alleys and straightaway centerfield.  Intially, the centerfield wall stood 490 feet from home plate.  However, it later was adjusted to 461 feet.  The deepest part of the left-center field wall required a blast of more than 457 feet to clear, while the bullpen in left field stood 402 feet from the batter's box.  The unusually distant fences in left-center and centerfield eventually caused those sections of the outfield to take on the name Death Valley.  The strangely configured quarter-mile track situated immediately in front of the entire oufield wall served as baseball's first warning track.  Meanwhile, one of the ballpark's most unique features was the presence of two monuments on the playing field, just in front of the distant centerfield wall.  The stadium also featured three scoreboards – one in front of the bleachers in rightcenter field, one in front of the leftcenter field bleachers, and a larger structure well beyond the left field wall that brought fans up to date on the scores of other contests being played in both major leagues.  Giving Yankee Stadium much of its classic charm was the 15-foot facade that stood atop the third deck, surrounding the ballpark on all sides.  The triple-decked grandstand extended from behind home plate down both foul lines, while the lower deck continued until it met wooden bleachers in the outfield.  The triple deck moved into left field in 1928, and expanded into right field in 1937.  Concrete bleachers eventually replaced the original wooden seats, shrinking Death Valley somewhat.  The only other changes that were made to the ballpark's configuration prior to the renovation that began at the conclusion of the 1973 campaign involved the addition of lights in 1946 and the sale of the original scoreboard to the Phillies in 1955.  In addition, the exterior and the facade were later painted white, while the interior of the ballpark was coated with a shade of blue. 


     Yankee Stadium took on a somewhat different appearance after it reopened in 1976.  To insure that all fans in attendance had a clear line of vision to the playing field, the 118 columns that previously supported each tier of the grandstand were removed.  New lights and a new roof were installed.  The portion of the stadium's famous facade that encircled the bleachers was replaced by a concrete replica, although the part that surrounded the rest of the stadium remained intact.  Seats were widened, reducing the stadium's seating capacity somewhat.  In addition, luxury suites were added, restrooms and press boxes were remodeled, elevators and escalators were added to ease the trip to the upper levels of the ballpark, a batter's eye replaced one-third of the bleachers, a new wall was built beyond the outfield to insure that only those fans who purchased a ticket had the ability to view the action taking place on the field, and an instant replay feature was added to the huge new scoreboard that stood beyond the rightcenter field bleachers.  Furthermore, a 138-foot tall replica of a Louisville Slugger bat was placed near the main entrance to the stadium, providing a convenient meeting place for fans before games.  Additionally,    Monument Park, a collection of plaques and monuments that honored past Yankee greats, was inserted beyond the leftcenter field wall.  


     Yankee Stadium's playing field also appeared somewhat different following its facelift.  Although the foul poles in left and right field stood slightly farther from home plate, the playing surface as a whole was smaller.  The new distance down the left field line measured 318 feet, while the right field foul pole stood 314 feet from home plate.  The wall in rightcenter field stood 385 feet from home plate, the leftcenter field wall measured 430 feet, and the distance to straightaway center was 417 feet.  The expansion of Monument Park during the 1990s caused the leftcenter and centerfield walls to be brought in even more, leaving the deepest part of the ballpark a mere 408 feet from home plate and essentially doing away with Death Valley.  Nevertheless, Yankee Stadium retained its defining facade, signature triple-deck configuration, and historic charm after undergoing its facelift.   


     Something else Yankee Stadium retained after it reopened in 1976 was its penchant for producing magical moments.  The original ballpark had served as the backdrop for some of baseball's most historical events.  In addition to serving as home to some of the greatest players in the history of the game, old Yankee Stadium hosted Don Larsen's perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series.  Lou Gehrig made his famous farewell speech before a standing-room only crowd on July 4, 1939.  Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record by stroking his 61st home run on the final day of the 1961 campaign.  Mickey Mantle became only the sixth player in baseball history to reach the 500-home run plateau when he hit his 500th homer against Baltimore's Stu Miller in 1967.  Two years later, Mantle bid adieu to the fans of New York during an emotional ceremony held at Yankee Stadium on Mickey Mantle Day.  And the Dodgers won their only world championship in Brooklyn when they defeated the Yankees in Game Seven of the 1955 World Series.


     Meanwhile, the renovated ballpark hosted one of the most memorable moments in 

team history in its very first season.  Chris Chambliss sent the Yankees to their first World Series since 1964 when he led off the bottom of the ninth inning of the decisive fifth game of the 1976 ALCS with a home run off Kansas City reliever Mark Littell.  One year later, Reggie Jackson gave the team its first world championship in 15 years when he hit three home runs, on three consecutive pitches, against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Six of the World Series.  In 1979, after delivering the eulogy at fallen Yankee captain Thurman Munson's funeral earlier in the day, Bobby Murcer drove in all five runs for the team during its come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the pennant-bound Baltimore Orioles.  Yankee hurlers David Wells and David Cone threw perfect games in the Bronx just 14 months apart – Wells, in May of 1998, and Cone, in July of 1999.  Cone's performance carried with it special significance since he threw his perfecto with both Don Larsen and Yogi Berra in attendance (Berra was Larsen's batterymate when he threw his perfect game in the 1956 World Series).  Tom Seaver (1985) and Roger Clemens (2003) each won their 300th game at Yankee Stadium.


     Other magical postseason moments included memorable home runs hit by Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius on consecutive nights during the 2001 World Series, less than two months after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.  The two-run blows by Martinez and Brosius were both struck with two men out in the bottom of the ninth inning, tying Games Four and Five, and eventually leading to New York victories in both contests.  Although the Yankees ended up losing the Series to Arizona in seven games, the late inning heroics helped the fans of New York temporarily forget their troubles, albeit for only two nights.  


     Another memorable home run was struck by light-hitting third baseman Aaron Boone in the 11th inning of Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox.  The blow sent the Yankees to that year's World Series. 


     Several bizarre moments also took place at the renovated ballpark.  Kansas City's George Brett hit an apparent game-changing home run against New York closer Goose Gossage in a 1983 contest.  However, when the Yankees subsequently claimed that Brett used an inappropriate amount of pine tar on his bat, the umpires called him out.  Brett's maniacal sprint towards the home plate umpire remains one of baseball's most vivid images, even though the decision was later reversed.  The contest was later dubbed The Pine Tar Game.  


     Another unusual set of circumstances presented itself in Game One of the 1996 ALCS, when 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reached over the right field wall to catch an eighth-inning Derek Jeter flyball.  Although instant replay clearly revealed that Maier interfered with the Baltimore rightfielder's attempt to field the ball, the umpires awarded a home run to Jeter, enabling the Yankees to tie the game.  New York later won the contest on an 11th inning walk-off home run by Bernie Williams.


     As the first so-called "stadium" designed for multi-venue use, Yankee Stadium also hosted a plethora of historical events from other sports.  The ballpark served as the site for the 1958 NFL Championship Game, played between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants.  Later referred to as The Greatest Game Ever Played due to its historical 

significance, the championship contest, which the Colts won in overtime by a score of 

23-17, helped put the National Football League on the map.  Previously overshadowed by baseball, college football, boxing, and horse racing, the NFL leaped into prominence after this nationally televised event became the first league contest ever to be decided in sudden-death overtime. 


     Perhaps even more significant was the 1938 heavyweight championship boxing match held between German challenger Max Schmeling and American champion Joe Louis.  With the Nazi war machine revving up in Europe, Hitler planned to use a victory by Schmeling as proof of his theory of Aryan supremacy.  However, Louis, the first black man viewed in a heroic light in this country, squelched Hitler's plans when he knocked out Schmeling in just two minutes and four seconds of the first round in the much anticipated battle held at Yankee Stadium.  


     The final game at the old Yankee Stadium, played in 2008, also provided a bit of history.  The pre-game ceremonies included appearances by noted former Yankees such as Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, and Roy White, each of whom took their positions on the field before Babe Ruth's daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.  The Yankees then closed out the stadium in style, winning the game 7-3.  Afterward, shortstop and captain Derek Jeter made a heartfelt speech, before leading the team on one final excursion around the warning track, during which the Yankee players waved to the many fans in attendance.   


     Although a new version of the ballpark opened the following year, the memories from the old Yankee Stadium will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of everyone who ever attended a game in the grand old ballpark.

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