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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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It was a balmy morning in the Harlem River valley that separates the Bronx from the island of Manhattan, and in the distance you could hear the clack and rumble of the elevated trains as they passed just outside the centerfield wall of Yankee Stadium. Inside the Stadium—as workers in yellow hard hats scurried about the scaffolding and pigeons pecked at the freshly planted sod—there was a sense of renewal in the air. It was Feb. 17, and George Steinbrenner's ballpark was undergoing its makeover for the 1999 baseball season, its final facial of the millennium. Only Monument Park, that brick-lined haven tucked behind the wall in left center, was untouched by the pneumatic drills and hammers.

For decades the Stadium has been one of New York's most popular tourist attractions, the Bronx's answer to the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty; on this sparkling Tuesday morning, tour guide Tony Morante was leading 20 visitors up the walkway into Monument Park when they all seemed to stop at once. There before them, rising like tombstones in the corner of a churchyard, were four marble slabs bearing bronze plaques depicting in bas-relief the merry visages of Yankees legends Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Miller Huggins and Mickey Mantle. Deirdre Weldon had brought nine boys from Yorktown, N.Y., to celebrate the birthday of her son, Terry; as they all gathered reverently around, staring at the faces on the monuments staring back at them, 10-year-old Chris Raiano said aloud what all his friends were wondering.

"Are they all buried here?" he asked.

"No, they are not," Weldon replied. "Only the memories are...."

Back in 1921, not long after the New York Giants' baseball team moved to evict the Yankees from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan—the Giants were sore that Babe Ruth's Yankees were outdrawing them—the Yankees' owners, beer baron Jake Ruppert and Til Huston, announced that they had purchased a 10-acre lot across the river, in the Bronx, and that they planned to build a ballyard of their own. The Giants' manager, John McGraw, scoffed at the scheme. "This is a big mistake," said Little Napoleon. "They are going up to Goatville, and before long they will be lost sight of."

Today, nearly 80 years later, old Goatville is the richest repository of memories in American sports. It was way up there, in the wilds of the Bronx, that the New York Yankees won 33 American League pennants and 24 world championships. Close your eyes, and you can see, on the grainy film of memory, Lou Gehrig listening to the echoes of his farewell speech in 1939...Al Gionfriddo twice looking over his shoulder and then reaching out for Joe DiMaggio's 415-foot drive in the '47 Series...Mickey Mantle's thunderous shot denting the copper frieze lining the upper deck in right...Reggie Jackson driving a knuckleball into the black tarp covering the seats in center for his third home run in the final game of the '77 Series...Yogi Berra leaping into Don Larsen's arms at the end of the Perfect Game...the dying Ruth, bracing himself on a bat, waving that last, long goodbye.

It was there, in 1928, in the very bowels of the place, that Notre Dame's Knute Rockne, at halftime of a scoreless tie against Army, exhorted his players to "win just one for the Gipper." It was there that Doc Blanchard ran with Glenn Davis in '44, when Army whipped the Irish 59-0, and it was there that Jack Dempsey flattened Jack Sharkey in '27, first scrambling his eggs with a low blow and then shaving his stubble with a short, sharp hook to the chin. Joe Louis fought in Yankee Stadium 11 times, and it was there in '38, in the most politically charged prizefight in history, that he knocked out Hitler's model of Aryan supremacy, Max Schmeling, at 2:04 of the first round. And it was there, too, that the New York football Giants waged all those wintery wars against the Bears, the Browns and the Baltimore Colts.

Of course, neither Ruppert nor Huston foresaw any of this when they bought the land from the estate of William Waldorf Astor for $675,000 and then shelled out $2.5 million for construction of the park. All they really had in mind, by way of mooning the Giants just across the river, was to build the largest, grandest ballpark in America. In the remarkably brief course of 284 working days, beginning on May 5, 1922, some 500 men turned 45,000 barrels of cement into 35,000 cubic yards of concrete. They made bleachers out of 950,000 board feet of Pacific Coast fir that came to New York by boat through the Panama Canal. They secured the grandstand seats with 135,000 steel castings and a million brass screws. They rolled out 16,000 square feet of sod.

When it was finished, the park had 36 ticket booths and 40 turnstiles that ticked like clocks as they counted the house. And what a house it was—a colossus, in fact, a three-tiered horseshoe that seated 70,000. F.C. Lane, in a 1923 issue of The Literary Digest, called it "the last word in ball parks. But not the least of its merits is its advantage of position. From the plain of the Harlem River it looms up like the great Pyramid of Cheops from the sands of Egypt."

It was the first ballpark in America to be called a stadium, which traces back to the ancient Greek and Roman word for a track for footraces, and the place had nothing if not room to run. When Ruth stepped out of the Yankees' dugout and onto the field for the first time, he looked around and declared, "Some ballyard!" It was short down the lines, 281 feet to left and 295 to right, but the fence flared out sharply in left and seemed to disappear at the 490-foot mark in dead center, creating an alley in left center that righthanded power hitters dubbed Death Valley. Wrote one bug-eyed scribbler in the New York Sun, "The flag pole seems almost beyond the range of a siege gun as it rears its height in distant center field."

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