- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

The crowd was announced as a record 74,217, though the actual attendance was less than 60,000. Outside, more than 20,000 fans were turned away on a raw, spring day when the temperature did not reach 50 degrees.

Shortly before game time, club owners Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees and Harry Frazee of the Red Sox marched to the flagpole in center field, where Old Glory and the 1922 American League pennant were hoisted. Ruppert then settled himself in a box next to New York Gov. Al Smith and New York City Mayor John Hylan.

At 3:25 p.m., Babe Ruth, the game’s greatest slugger, was presented with an oversized bat in a glass case. At 3:30, Smith tossed the ceremonial first pitch to Yankees catcher Wally Schang. At 3:35, home plate umpire Tommy Connolly barked “Play ball!” and Yankee Stadium was officially dedicated as New York pitcher Bob Shawkey fired his first pitch.

The date was April 18, 1923. Eighty-five years, five months and three days after that first game, Yankee Stadium will hold its last when the Yankees play the Orioles on national television Sunday night. In the years between, it has become the most famous and familiar sporting venue in America, partly because the Yankees have won 37 pennants and 26 World Series while playing there.

To most New Yorkers and many older fans elsewhere, it is not necessary to identify the huge park in the Bronx by its full name. All you have to say is “The Stadium” - always with a capital “S” - and they will know what you mean.

Next season the Yankees will open a glittering new ballpark across the street, also to be known as “Yankee Stadium.” But it might be quite a while before folks refer to this facility as “The Stadium.” An awful lot of history, sporting and otherwise, will have to unfold there first.

From 1913 to 1922, the Yankees shared the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants. When the American Leaguers bought Ruth from the Red Sox in 1920 and won their first pennant in 1921, they swiftly eclipsed their hosts in popularity. So Giants owner Charles Stoneham and legendary manager John McGraw kicked the Yankees out - arguably one of the worst decisions in sports history.

The two also used their political clout to see that most available parcels of land in Manhattan were unavailable to Ruppert. Eventually, he had to settle for a site known as “Goatville” in the Bronx at 161st Street and River Avenue.

“Nobody will go that far uptown to see them play, and they’ll be forgotten,” said McGraw, who had managed the Giants since 1902. “A New York team should be based on Manhattan Island.”

It was a terrible guess. Yankee Stadium arose in just 284 days at a cost of $2.5 million ($29 million in today’s dollars). In an era when most parks seated 15,000 or 20,000, nobody had seen anything like it.

On first sight, the triple-deck stands from foul pole to foul pole seemed enormous. The copper frieze that lined the upper-deck facade was unique. And the shadows that crept across the playing field in late afternoon bedeviled opposing fielders for years. As Yankees icon Yogi Berra put it decades later, “It gets dark early out there.”

Gazing out of the dugout before the first game, Ruth told reporters, “I’d give a year of my life if I could hit a home run today.” And so he did, thus christening the place much more memorably than Gov. Smith had with his ceremonial first pitch.

In the third inning, Red Sox pitcher Howard Ehmke fed him a slow curve. The Babe lined it far up into the right-field bleachers, an area swiftly to be known as “Ruthville.”

The 7-foot fence in right was a mere 297 feet from the plate, a design intended to help Ruth hit the homers that were changing baseball strategy around the majors. Of course, he didn’t need any help. As New York sportswriter Heywood Broun noted, “It would have been a home run in the Sahara Desert.”

Many classic sporting moments would follow in the Bronx. Ruth and Lou Gehrig, both dying, said farewell. Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, one of 11 no-hitters thrown there by Yankees. Roger Maris hit his record-breaking 61st homer of 1961. Joe Louis needed only 124 seconds to K.O. Max Schmeling in the biggest of many big fights. The 1958 Baltimore Colts won their first championship in the NFL’s first overtime game.

Now, in a few days, the original Yankee Stadium will be dark and deserted until the wrecking ball arrives. Many old ballparks are gone now, but this one was something special.

It was, simply, “The Stadium.”

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