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This Old House
William Nack
June 07, 1999
Babe Ruth may have built Yankee Stadium, but the foundations of its legacy are the battles waged there and the great athletes who called it home
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June 07, 1999

This Old House

Babe Ruth may have built Yankee Stadium, but the foundations of its legacy are the battles waged there and the great athletes who called it home

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The Yankee Stadium, as it was called then, had its grand opening on April 18, 1923, and more than 70,000 people—at the time the largest crowd ever to watch a baseball game—made their pilgrimage to see the Yankees play the Boston Red Sox. The roads around the Stadium were unpaved, and flivver dust choked the patrons massed at the turnstiles. The impatient crowd pressed forward, and it took a cordon of 200 policemen to keep it back. Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis arrived via the Inter-borough subway, promptly got caught in the crush of bodies outside the gates and had to be rescued by the cops. Inside, as John Phillip Sousa struck up the Seventh Regiment Band for The Star-Spangled Banner, the two rival managers, Huggins and Boston's Frank Chance, pulled the rope that raised the flag just inside the centerfield wall. The Yanks won the opener 4-1, on a homer by Ruth.

Grantland Rice, in the next day's New York Tribune, rolled up his sleeves and let fly with this lead: "A white streak left Babe Ruth's 52-ounce bludgeon in the third inning of yesterday's opening game at the Yankee Stadium. On a low line it sailed, like a silver flame, through the gray, bleak April shadows, and into the right field bleachers. And as the crash sounded, and the white flash followed, fans arose en masse...in the greatest vocal cataclysm baseball has ever known."

The saga of Yankee Stadium had begun, and it wasn't three innings old when Ruth claimed the place as his own. Because of its short porch in right, the House That Ruth Built was also known as the House Built for Ruth. While placing the centerfield fence at the outer limits—or beyond—of most righthanded hitters, the mischievous Ruppert then took an even greater edge. He made the cracking of home runs a relatively facile exercise for lefthanded pull-hitting sluggers, of whom he had the greatest ever. Ruth's 54 homers in 1920 and his 59 in 1921—many of them over the Polo Grounds' short porch in right—had established the fan appeal of the home run and had launched me Babe as America's most charismatic athlete. Ruppert designed for Ruth a porch of his own.

Over the next 20 years, first through the power of Murderers' Row and then through the teams of DiMaggio, the Stadium became a land of secular church in the Bronx. The Grand Concourse, two blocks north of the Stadium, was the main thoroughfare for an upscale neighborhood of handsome apartment buildings that had elevators and doormen. Many of the players lived up the hill in the Concourse Plaza, and kids used to meet them coming out the door and trail them to the Stadium.

John McNamara grew up there in the 1920s, and he recalls the day the bronze door of the players' exit burst open and out swept the Babe himself, wearing his signature raccoon coat. "He looked like a bear," says McNamara. "He was trying to get into this little roadster, but he was so big he couldn't. He took off his coat, handed it to me and said, 'Here, kid, hold the coat.' I took it like the pope was handing me his cloak. When he got in, I handed it back to him. 'Thanks, kid,' he said, and drove off. What a thrill!"

In those days visiting teams often stayed at the New Yorker Hotel at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and came to the ballpark on the C-line subway. "When I was a kid, I used to wait by the subway station at the Stadium and meet the players when they got off," says Arthur Richman, a senior adviser for the Yankees, who grew up in the Bronx. "I met the old St. Louis Browns there. They used to get me in."

As those championship pennants multiplied along the the Stadium's facade—10 were fluttering there by the end of World War II—old Goatville became a national shrine. "If you'd never been to Yankee Stadium, you'd never been to the big leagues," says former big league pitcher Bill Fischer, who first played there with the White Sox in 1957. "It was like you had never lived until you played ball in that town."

Fischer's first trip there came near the end of the longest orgy of winning in Yankees history and in the history of baseball—the dozen years from 1947 through 1958—and at a time when major events in three sports had lifted the place to the zenith of athletic venues. There have been 30 world championship fights contested as main events at the Stadium. It was there that Rocky Marciano twice whipped Ezzard Charles in '54—the second time after Charles had butterflied Marciano's nose like it was a shrimp and opened a cut over his left eye; Marciano was bleeding so much by the eighth round that his corner feared the fight would be stopped. Bulling forward, increasingly desperate as the seconds ticked away, Marciano caught Charles in the eighth, dropping him with a long right hand for a count of four, and then chasing him across the ring and knocking him out with a left hook and a right cross.

Sugar Ray Robinson, pounding for pounding the greatest of all fighters, lost only 19 times in his 25-year career, but two of his most memorable losses came in that little ring set up over second base. On June 25, 1952, giving away almost 16 pounds to light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim, Robinson was hitting Maxim at will for 11 rounds, winning easily on all cards and about to take his third world title before deliquescing in the 104° heat. It was so hot that night that the referee, Ruby Goldstein, nearly keeled over and had to be replaced following the 10th round. Robinson's collapse began in the 12th, when he staggered around as Maxim pursued him and pounded his body. Robinson fell to the canvas in the 13th after missing Maxim with a wild right, and the crowd of 47,983 gasped as Robinson, slumped on his stool, was unable to answer the bell for the 14th. Thus he suffered the only knockout of his career, but it was the heat, not Maxim, that beat him.

And it was in Yankee Stadium in '57 that middleweight champion Robinson and welterweight titleholder Carmen Basilio, an onion farmer from upstate New York, skinned and peeled each other for 45 long minutes in what The New York Times called, "fifteen rounds of the most savage fighting at the Yankee Stadium." In a dramatic climax, ring announcer Johnny Addie called out a split decision and declared Basilio the new middleweight champ.

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