A century ago on Tuesday, the New York Yankees came out of the shadow of their Manhattan landlords to christen the ballpark that would be known as “The House That Ruth Built” in the Bronx.
On 18 April 1923, 60,000 fans jammed into “The Yankee Stadium,” as it was originally called, to see the American League defending champions take on their rival Boston Red Sox. Batting third for the Yankees and playing right field on the historic Opening Day was their star slugger, Babe Ruth, just a few years after New York had acquired him from Boston in December 1919.
“I’d give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in the first game in this new park,” Ruth said before the game. Anyone familiar with Ruth’s career will have a fair idea of what happened next.
The Yankees had started out as the New York Highlanders in 1903, and played most of their first decade of mediocre baseball at Hilltop Park in upper Manhattan. In 1913, the team, now called the Yankees, became tenants of the much more successful New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, also in Manhattan.
The two teams weren’t really rivals when the Yankees arrived at the Polo Grounds. For one thing, the Giants played in the National League and the Yankees in the American League, at a time before interleague play. That meant the only potential clash (other than exhibition games) would take place in the World Series. More importantly, the Giants had just won their second consecutive pennant in 1912, and they had little to fear from a Yankees team that finished in last place that same year. The Giants drew 638,000 fans in 1912, more than double the Yankees’ 242,000.
But things changed drastically after the Yankees acquired Ruth, a larger-than-life personality and the sport’s first true superstar. In his first year in pinstripes, 1920, Ruth hit a record 54 home runs, and became an instant New York fan favorite. That season, the Yankees drew nearly 1.3 million fans – a colossal number for that era – eclipsing their landlords, the Giants, who pulled in around 930,000. The next two years, 1921 and 1922, the teams met in the World Series, with the Giants winning both times. But the Yankees continued to win at the gate, easily outdrawing the Giants both seasons.
The Giants manager, John McGraw, was one of the most influential figures of the Deadball Era, which Ruth helped shatter with his prolific home runs. McGraw was furious to see the American League upstarts attracting more fans than his ballclub, and he successfully lobbied Giants owner Charles Stoneham to evict the Yankees. They considered locations such as Long Island and Manhattan’s West Side near 32nd Street, before choosing a 10-acre plot in the south Bronx in 1921. The club spent $2.5m constructing the new ballpark (about $44m in today’s money, a little over Yankees star Aaron Judge’s annual salary of $40m). The stadium was nearly twice as big as any other baseball park at the time.
But when he heard the Yankees were moving across the Harlem River, McGraw was giddy.
“They are going up to Goatville,” he crowed. “And before long they will be lost sight of. A New York team should be based on Manhattan Island.” Back then, the Bronx was considered the hinterlands.
But the New York Times realized the Yankees had something special, writing in a preview story:
“Down on the Potomac, close by the National Capitol, they are thinking about erecting an impressive monument to the national game of baseball. But in the busy borough of the Bronx, close to the shore of Manhattan Island, the real monument to baseball will be unveiled this afternoon – the new Yankee Stadium, erected at a cost of $2,500,000, seating about 70,000 people and comprising in its broad reaches of concrete and steel the last word in baseball arenas.”
The paper added that the Yankees “have been waiting for this day ever since the American Leaguers packed bags and baggage and moved out of that antiquated wooden home of theirs on Washington Heights back in 1912.”
Among those on hand for the opener were baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, New York City mayor John Hylan, and New York governor Al Smith, who threw out the first pitch. The game started at 3.35pm. The home team initially claimed a crowd of more than 74,000 fans, but that was later revised down to 60,000, with many wearing heavy sweaters, coats and hats in the cold and windy conditions. Police arrested a couple of fans for trying to scalp their $1.10 tickets.
Ruth came to bat in the bottom of the first inning with two outs and nobody on base, and flew out to right field. But his next time up, the third inning, he fulfilled his pregame wish. With the Yankees up 1-0, he crushed an off-speed pitch into the right field bleachers for a three-run homer – the first one in the ballpark’s history.
He waved his cap to the roaring fans after he crossed home plate. That was enough offense for the home team, which held on for a 4-1 win.
“Governors, generals, colonels, politicians and baseball officials gathered together solemnly yesterday to dedicate the biggest stadium in baseball, but it was a ball player who did the real dedicating,” the New York Times observed on the front page of the next day’s paper. “In the third inning, with two teammates on the base lines, Babe Ruth smashed a savage home run into the right field bleachers, and that was the real baptism of the new Yankee Stadium.”
The Associated Press reported that Ruth’s homer “added the one touch needed to complete the most picturesque drama in diamond annals.”
“A super-world’s series atmosphere pervaded the formal dedication of the huge new home of the Yankees,” AP added. “The record crowd, which jammed every nook and corner of the huge triple-decked grandstand, and packed all but a few corners of the bleacher section, far exceeds expectations.”
The Yankees would coast to their third straight pennant, and this time, finally beat the Giants in the World Series, four games to two. Ruth hit .368 with a series-best three home runs. The final victory came in the Polo Grounds, this time with the Yankees as visitors, rather than tenants.
By winning their first World Series title in the first year in their new ballpark, the Yankees made an impressive statement about who was top dog in New York – and by extension, all of baseball, as the Yankees and Giants had strangled the sport with their duopoly in the early 1920s. Just four years later, the Yankees assembled arguably the best team in history, the 1927 Murderers’ Row, when Ruth broke his own home run record with 60 round-trippers, and teammate Lou Gehrig chipped in with 47. They finished with a .714 winning percentage and swept the Pittsburgh Pirates for their second World Series title.
The Yankees have won 25 since then – by far the most in baseball history (in second place, baseball light years away, are the St Louis Cardinals with 11). The move out of Manhattan helped the Yankees create their own identity, complete with their geographic nickname, the Bronx Bombers. A process had started: where they once fell short of even being the most famous team in their own city, they are now the fourth-most valuable sports team in the world and their logo is seen on baseball caps from Brooklyn to Brunei.
In the mid-1970s, Yankee Stadium underwent a major renovation, and in 2009, the team moved into a new Yankee Stadium, across the site from the old ballpark. They won the World Series in their first season there but have not reached the Fall Classic since.
Meanwhile, the Giants would leave Manhattan for San Francisco in 1958, their presence in New York just a distant memory. But nobody has lost sight of the team that decamped to “Goatville” a century ago.
Frederic J Frommer’s books include Red Sox vs Yankees: The Great Rivalry and You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals