- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

“I’d give a year of my life if I could hit a home run today.”

— Babe Ruth, April 18, 1923

And, of course, he did. Eighty-two years ago today, the Bambino won the inaugural game at Yankee Stadium with a three-run swat — a most fitting christening for what became immediately and remains today the most famous U.S. sporting site.

Practically before the Babe got his bat off his shoulder, sportswriters were calling the stadium “the House That Ruth Built.” It was not an exaggeration.

His unprecedented slugging feats — 29 homers for Boston in 1919, 54 for New York in 1920, 59 more in 1921 — enabled the Yankees to shatter the rival Giants’ supremacy in New York and restored baseball’s popularity after the disgraceful Black Sox scandal of 1919.

“The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail,” New York columnist Heywood Broun wrote after the Babe’s homer beat the Red Sox, his former employers, on Opening Day. It is not recorded that anyone anywhere disagreed.

That was a marvelous year for the Yankees, 1923. On the field, they won their first World Series by defeating the Giants in six games after losing the previous two Subway Series. In the front office, owner Jacob Ruppert bought out partner Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston (for $1million), ending years of feuding between the two.

All that was far in the future on April18, when the largest crowd in baseball history — announced by the Yankees as 74,217 but changed later to 60,000 — filed into the glittering new structure in the upper Bronx, across the Harlem River from the Giants’ Polo Grounds digs. Reportedly, 25,000 more were turned away.

The Yankees had been tenants of the Giants since 1913, but after they began winning pennants in 1921 and 1922 and outdrawing their landlords, Giants owner Charles Stoneham and legendary manager John McGraw evicted them.

Using their well-honed political connections, Stoneham and McGraw squashed the Yankees’ efforts to buy land for a ballpark at several locations. When Ruppert and Huston finally spent $675,000 to buy 10 acres owned by the estate of William Astor from 158th Street to 161st Street at River Avenue, McGraw chortled.

“They’ll die up there,” he told Stoneham. “Nobody will go that far uptown to see them.”

Call it one of baseball’s all-time worst guesses.

Construction began in the first week of May 1922. A mere 284 days later, Yankee Stadium was a reality, built at a cost of $2.5million that boggled the mind then and does today — for opposite reasons.

More numbers: Nearly a million feet of Pacific fir, transported via the Panama Canal, was needed to construct the wooden bleachers. More than 2,300 tons of structural steel, plus a million brass screws, also were used. More than 16,000 square feet of sod were laid.

Finally, on a chilly spring day when the temperature never exceeded 49 degrees, Yankee Stadium was ready for a ballgame. A strong wind blew up clouds of dust along the dirt roads that led to the park. John Philip Sousa, the March King himself, directed the Seventh Regiment Band. Among those shivering in the box seats were Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s stern-visaged commissioner, and Gov. Al Smith, soon to be dubbed “the Happy Warrior” by fellow Democrat Franklin Roosevelt.

At 3:25 p.m., Ruth was presented with an oversized bat displayed in a glass case — an ominous portent for the Red Sox. Then Smith made the ceremonial first pitch, and umpire Tommy Connolly yowled, “Play ball!”

The starting pitchers were two veterans, Bob Shawkey for the Yankees and Howard Ehmke for the Red Sox. Six years later, Ehmke would set a World Series strikeout record with 13 as a surprise Game1 starter for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. But on this day, he was strictly a victim.

When Ruth came up in the third inning for the second time, two Yankees were dancing on the basepaths. Ehmke was too smart to try and get a fastball past the Babe, so he offered his best changeup. The ball streaked on a line toward the right-field stands, far over the 7-foot barrier erected for Ruth’s convenience just 296 feet from the plate. But as Broun put it, “It would have been a homer in the Sahara Desert.”

The huge crowd, its fondest wish gratified, roared its collective head off as Ruth crossed the plate. Then the Babe, who had what today would be called a fine sense of P.R., removed his cap, extended it to arm’s length and waved to the multitudes.

Bedlam, we may be sure, ensued.

Everything else that day was anticlimactic — but the great, triple-decked horseshoe in the Bronx was on its way to becoming a shrine.

Over the years and decades, triumph and tragedy would unfold there. The two greatest Yankees ever shared in the latter. On July4, 1939, diagnosed with terminal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, slugging first baseman Lou Gehrig gave his heartrending “I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth” valedictory. He died two years later just short of age 38.

A mere nine years after Gehrig’s speech, the Babe himself — gaunt and gray from throat cancer — leaned on a bat for support and gazed toward the outfield as many of his former teammates observed the stadium’s 25th anniversary in June 1948. Two months later, on Aug.16, he was gone, too.

But there have been many happier occasions for the team and its fans. On the green, green grass of home and elsewhere, the Yankees have won 26 World Series. On Sept.30, 1927, Ruth set a record with his 60th home run; on Oct.1, 1961, Roger Maris broke it with his 61st; on Oct.8, 1956, Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in Series history.

Other sports, too, have produced epic events. On Dec.28, 1958, Johnny Unitas handed a football to Alan Ameche on the 1-yard line, and the Baltimore Colts defeated the football Giants 23-17 in the NFL’s first sudden-death championship game. Notre Dame and Army, the two best college football teams in the land, played a memorable scoreless tie Nov.9, 1946.

There have been dozens of title bouts; in perhaps the most memorable, Joe Louis sent Max Schmeling to dreamland in 2:04 of the first round in their heavyweight championship nonfight June22, 1938.

If these and other sporting contests loomed large, so did their setting. Its seating capacity for baseball was reduced to a piddling 54,000 when the renovated ballpark was reopened in 1976, but to most sports fans Yankee Stadium always will be the biggest and classiest venue around for the games people play.

Phil Rizzuto, who spent six decades as a shortstop and broadcaster for the Yankees, perhaps best described his home away from home.

“I was a kid of 10 when I first went to Yankee Stadium,” the Scooter said. “When a batter hit the ball, he seemed to be halfway to first before you heard the crack of the bat in the bleachers. … And years later when I played for the Yankees, it seemed even bigger to me, if you can imagine that.”

For many older fans today, it’s not necessary to use the full name when talking about the hallowed ballyard. If you just say “the Stadium,” they’ll know what you mean.

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