The New York Yankees played their first game at the original Yankee Stadium 100 years ago today, beating the Boston Red Sox 4 to 1, a game that would only heighten a long enduring sports rivalry.
But of course the Bronx Bombers didn’t actually get their start in the Bronx.
First Base: Hilltop Park
The team was formed in 1903 by William S. Devery and Frank J. Farrell and originally named the Highlanders in honor of their first home Hilltop Park.
A large but spare field located in Washington Heights on Broadway between 165th and 168th streets, Hilltop Park could accommodate 15,000 to 16,000 spectators comfortably, though more exciting match-ups would draw clusters of almost 10,000 standing room only crowds.
In fact, in the rather lax early days of formalized sports, fans were allowed to stand around, almost virtually on the playing field! (In 1914, Hilltop Park was demolished and became Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.)
Second base: Polo Grounds
In 1913, the Highlanders moved into New York’s most famous baseball park of the era — the Polo Grounds, which was actually home to their rivals the New York Giants.
In a way, it was a returned favor as the Giants were hosted at Hilltop Park while the Polo Grounds, which had been devastated by a fire in 1912, was being rebuilt. (The Giants even played the Worlds Series against Boston there.)
But the Highlanders stayed at the Polo Grounds for ten years. And since they were below Coogan’s Bluff in Washington Heights and very obviously not on a hilltop, they changed their name — to the Yankees.
A patriotic name was apt. They were, after all, in Washington Heights and now located very close to the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a former headquarters for Washington during the war.
But the team, by any name, really stunk up the place, becoming one of the least successful team in the American League.
Eventually in 1915, the team was sold to an unlikely pair — the beer brewer Jacob Ruppert (who hoped to use the team to sell bear) and war engineer Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston.
In 1919 the wealthy Yankees owners bought the contract of Boston Red Sox star Babe Ruth, allegedly because Sox owner Harry Frazee was looking to finance his Broadway musical offering No No Nanette. (That’s the popular legend, although many believe the trade was to finance another, equally ridiculous production called My Lady Friends.)
It would be a shocking transfer of power in the sports world, conjuring the so-called ‘Curse of the Bambino’. Boston, once the league’s most successful squad, didn’t win another World Series until 2004, while the Yankees, well, they changed sports history.
But not at the Polo Grounds. Ruppert knew that the Yankees — and Ruth — now needed their own home.
Third base: Yankee Stadium I
By 1923 Ruppert owned the team outright, Huston selling him his shares at $1.5 million. By then plans were in motion to build the Yankees a new home — thanks to the Astor family.
In the early spring of 1922 Ruppert bought a ten-acre lumberyard in the West Bronx, across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds.
“One of the reasons the site was chosen by Ruppert was to irritate his former landlord,” writes Harvey Frommer. “Another reason was that the IRT Jerome Avenue subway line [today the 4 and 5 train] snaked its way virtually atop the Stadium’s right-field wall and provided ease of transportation for fans.”
Work began in May of 1922. Although some saw the field as a boondoggle — “Rupert’s Folly,” some claimed — many in the sports world anxiously awaited its completion. Tex Rickard, years before he would build his own Madison Square Garden, even considered the new Yankee Stadium for the staging of world-class boxing matches. It was also eyed for the ancient Army-Navy rivalry.
But mostly people anticipated that the field would be a proper showcase for Rupert’s star player. In fact the stadium, “the greatest collection of concrete and steel that baseball has ever known,” would very quickly earn the nickname The House That Ruth Built.
Its opening was heralded with a tidal wave of sports hyperbole from every American newspaper. The Times declared “[I]n 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 $2,500,00, seating some 70,000* people and comprising in its broad reaches of concrete and steel the last word in baseball arenas.”
*Its capacity was actually around 58,000
The Yankees first game here was on Wednesday, April 18, 1923, and appropriately, it was against the Boston Red Sox. New York governor Al Smith threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Ruth naturally rose the occasion. “It was an opening game without a flaw. The Yankees easily defeated the Boston Red Sox, 4 to 1. In the third inning, with two team mates 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.” [New York Times, April 19]
Home: Yankee Stadium II
Many teams — from many sports — would play at Yankee Stadium. So would popes, evangelists and rock stars (Simon and Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd). But this was the home of the Yankees and they would make sports history here, winning 26 of its 27 World Series titles here.
By the 1990s, it was very obvious that the stadium was in a state of disrepair. And what had once been great and mighty now paled in comparison to the modern sports arena and the demands of the modern baseball fan.
Construction began on a new Yankee Stadium — across the street from the old one — in the summer of 2006. The final game at the old stadium was on September 21, 2008, with the Yankees beating another old team and rival (the Baltimore Orioles) 7 to 3.
It took over a year to demolish the old stadium with the final vestige dismantled on May 13, 2010. The site of the former Yankee Stadium is now a park called Heritage Field which contains several memorials to the great teams who once played here.
And on April 16, 2009, the Yankees played their first game at their new stadium. The team was destroyed by the Cleveland Indians, 10-2. (They could have used the Bambino.)
Regardless they shook it off and, in early November, ended up winning the World Series for the 27th time — the first and (so far) only time the title has made its way at the new stadium.