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Forty years ago this spring—on Wednesday, April 18, 1923—I sat in the stands at the Yankee Stadium and saw the first game ever played there. It was a great day, this double opening of the Stadium and the season. It was the biggest one-day show baseball had ever staged, including World Series games. The Yankee tradition of bigness and power began, perhaps, right there that afternoon. Everything was big. The game (against the no-account Red Sox) drew the largest crowd in baseball history—74,200, the papers said the next day. The Stadium was the biggest, grandest and tallest baseball park in the world and the most costly ($2,500,000), and on the field in his brand-new white-and-pin-striped uniform was Babe Ruth, the game's biggest star. Tall, broad-shouldered and flat-bellied—it was before he became heavy and pear-shaped—the Babe swung a 52-ounce bat, said to be the biggest one in baseball, and handled it like a wand.
The Yankees put on a good show before the game started. Governor Al Smith threw out the first ball, a surprisingly fast one, which plopped right in the center of Catcher Wally Schang's mitt, and drew tumultuous cheers. There were at least two bands, one of which was directed by John Philip Sousa. There were floral wreaths all over the infield and a lot of handshaking by the opposing managers, Miller Huggins and Frank Chance; by the white-thatched baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis; and the two chunky colonels who were co-owners of the Yankees, Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Colonel T. L. Huston.
It was big-league stuff, all of it: the overwhelming crowd, the triple-deck Stadium, the bands, Sousa, the governor, the Babe. It outclassed the Dodgers' opening the day before. In Ebbets Field they had drawn barely 14,000, and the man who tossed out the ball was someone named John F. Tanguey, who was the Exalted Ruler of the Brooklyn Elks. Big deal.
I was in my sophomore year at Yale and very close to probation in marks. Taking a Wednesday off meant cutting three classes and a lot of work that would have to be made up. It also meant the end of my cut allowance for the year. Worse yet, though, would be my skipping the track workout on Wednesday afternoon.
I ran the hurdles and had a good chance to make the combined Yale-Harvard team that would be sent to England that summer to run against Oxford-Cambridge. There were time trials scheduled for Wednesday, and if I didn't show up Johnny Mack would want to know why. He was our coach, a hard-bitten oldtime professional sprinter, and he took no nonsense from anyone. If he had ever found out that I had skipped track for a ball game, he would have thrown my track shoes into New Haven Harbor and me after them.
But I wanted to see that opener more than anything. Track was all right. It was great to break a tape with everybody behind you, but it wasn't a game—like baseball. You ran your race, got dressed, and that was that. I used to walk across the field and watch the ball game when I was through, but maybe that was only because my older brother played first base for Yale. Our father had once owned the Waterbury, Conn. ball club of the old Eastern Association. We were brought up on the game and always loved it.
Bill Comins, our crack broad jumper and sprinter, helped me work the dodge that got me out of the track workout. It was easy. I faked a pulled muscle after taking a couple of hurdles at Tuesday's practice and limped off the track. Comins grabbed me and supported me on the way to the field house. Johnny Mack came in while the trainer was taping me up and told me not to come out for a few days. I limped back to my room and tried to remember to keep limping until I was out of New Haven.
The next morning I joined the bunch going down to the game on the 11:30 train. There were five of us and we all carried books, supposedly to read in preparation for next day's classes, but nobody opened one. We talked about Ruth and how badly he had fallen off last season—from 59 homers and a batting average of .378 to 35 homers and .315 in one year—and how awful he had looked last fall in the World Series against the Giants, when he hit only .118 and the Yankees didn't win a game. The talk was that he was boozing it up a lot and couldn't be managed, and maybe he was through.
Some newspapers had said that the Babe was penitent and knew he was on trial this season. He was in shape and was going to stage a comeback. Ruth himself had said that he would give a year of his life if he could hit a home run in his first game in the new Yankee Stadium.
Major league games started at 3:30 in those days and we had almost two hours to spare when we got into the 125th Street Station and took a cab to the Stadium. It was a Checker cab, a square-top, boxlike affair that would seem odd today, but there was plenty of headroom inside and you could get into it without being a contortionist. It got us there all right, but none too soon.