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Reciprocal grandeur: Babe Ruth and Yankee Stadium.

Joe Louis, Pope Paul VI, Robert Merrill, Y. A. Tittle, Billy Graham, Marianne Moore, Johnny Unitas, Josh Gibson, Jackie Gleason, Pele, and Muhammad Ali, not to mention Yankee superstars Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Stengel, Rizzuto, Berra, Jackson, Mattingly, Jeter--these names represent a mere handful of the many notables who have contributed to the history of Yankee Stadium. But however great the stadium's pantheon of stars may be, no one has done as much to build the legacy, legend, and lore of the big ballpark in the Bronx as George Herman Ruth. When on opening day of 1923, Fred Lieb of the New York World baptized the stadium "The House That Ruth Built," he foresaw the reciprocal grandeur between the Babe and Yankee Stadium that would enlarge the reputations of both ballplayer and ballpark and endure beyond the Babe's death and the stadium's renovation.

On opening day of 1920, the Yankees still enjoyed a reasonably cordial relationship with Charles Stoneham's and John McGraw's Giants, New York's premier team and the Yankees' landlord in the Polo Grounds. In fact McGraw, five years earlier, had helped Yankee owners Jacob Rupert and Tillinghast Huston purchase the club. (1) However, when the newly acquired Babe Ruth began blasting home runs at a pace that would give him 54 for the season--25 more than his record 29 for Boston the year before--fans began filling the Polo Grounds in record numbers to see New York's "other team." With Ruth's home run total nearly doubling, the Yankees' attendance did the same as they became the first team to draw over a million fans, 350,000 more than their landlords. (2) In response to the Yankees' success, in what may be a story as apocryphal as it is fitting, it is reported that John McGraw or Charles Stoneham said, "The Yankees will have to build a park in Queens or some other out-of-the-way-place. Let them go away and wither on the vine." (3)

The Yankees, however, did not need an eviction notice from the Giants to see that the Polo Grounds was an inadequate showplace for the talents of their new slugger. As early as August 1920, with the Babe on a pace to hit more homers than most teams, Rupert and Huston met with American League owners who supported their proposal that the team build a new park because the then limited capacity of the Polo Grounds had necessitated turning away thousands of fans on several dates. (4) Evidently, the magnates recognized Ruth's drawing power as a boon to all of the league, not only the Yankees. After working out a two-year extension of their lease with the Giants, Rupert and Huston began to plan the construction of a facility large enough for the game's largest hero.

From 1921 until 1923 when the stadium opened, Ruth's exploits on the diamond and escapades off it launched him to celebrity status as towering as his home runs. In 1921, in likely the best year ever by any player, he swatted 59 into the seats, drove in 170 runs, scored 177 more, powered a slugging average of .846, batted .378, and walked 144 times for an on-base percentage over .500. At a time when even the game's top stars were not earning $20,000, Ruth's statistics won him a contract for $52,000 for 1923--"I always wanted to make a grand a week," he said. (5) Such a phenomena was Ruth that scientists at Columbia University eagerly examined him and declared the coordination between his brain and muscles 30 percent superior to that of the average person. (6) Off the field he was the nocturnal pal of movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the enfant terrible of speakeasies and brothels around the league, a frequent visitor to traffic court, and, despite these antics, the idol and friend of children across the nation. So big was Ruth that he even defied the order of Kenesaw Mountain Landis when the iron-fisted commissioner barred him from playing in a barnstorming tour after the 1921 season. Suspended until May 20, 1922, as a result, and nagged by injuries and suspensions for arguing with umpires, Ruth still went on in his shortened season to lead the league in slugging average at .672 and clout 35 homers in only 110 games, for a league-high average of one per every 8.6 at-bats.

While Ruth was gaining a stature never before accorded an athlete in the circus of celebrity emerging in the early 1920s, the Yankees were preparing a fitting big top for their ringmaster. In covering the preparations for the new stadium, the press emphasized its size and cost, often drawing parallels to Ruth's. The initially proposed location, a large site at 136th Street, near Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, was occupied by an orphan asylum, a fitting locale given Ruth's childhood years in Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. The Times coverage of this site in early 1921 noted how much bigger it was than the Polo Grounds, remarked the $2 million cost of the proposed structure, and extolled the concrete and steel materials from which it would be constructed. (7) When the site was abandoned because the asylum could not arrange another home for itself, Rupert and Huston purchased an equally large plot from the Astor estate. Commending their efforts the Times linked the new stadium and its cost with Ruth: "The same business acumen and the same desire to give their patrons the best as were justified in the record purchase of $135,000 for Babe Ruth have guided the New York club owners in this deal." (8) Similarly, when Osborn Engineering of Cleveland, the firm selected to design the park, unveiled its initial drawing, Yankee Stadium was hailed as commensurate with the stature of its most famous future tenant: "A massive and most attractive structure has been designed to adorn the new playing field of Babe Ruth and his pals." (9)

Although Osborn's drawings show a stadium completely enclosed by triple-decked grandstands with seating for over 80,000, the finished structure extended the grandstands only down the lines short of the foul poles, with a single deck of bleachers in the outfield. Though not quite as grandiose as Osborn's original plans, Yankee Stadium was, nevertheless, a larger and more impressive facility than anything yet built to house a baseball team. Two weeks before opening day the Times marveled at its 30,000 yards of concrete, 3,500 tons of steel, and 2 million board feet of lumber needed to construct the seats. (10) Two months before opening day Ruth himself visited the stadium on a cold, blustery day and though "swatting several drives over the billowing snow ... didn't come anywhere near the fences." (11)

EXALTED

On April 18, 1923, baseball's largest, most expensive, and most ornate arena awaited its first crowd and its greatest hero. The morning edition of the Times exalted the lustrous dignitaries who would grace the opening crowd: Governor Al Smith, Mayor John Hylan, Police Commissioner Richard Enright, Major General Bullard and a contingent of military brass, John Philip Sousa leading a marching band, and, of course, Judge Landis, Ruth's adversary the previous year. In the long article trumpeting the opener, only one player was quoted: "'Looks pretty far out to that right field fence,'" the Babe said modestly, but "after [he] had jostled four into the stand he allowed as how the thing was not exactly beyond human powers." (12)

The opening day crowd, exaggeratedly estimated at 74,200, was, however, expecting more than human powers from the man for whom this monument had been erected. In the suspension-shortened season of 1922, the Babe had produced what for any other player would have been excellent numbers. But in light of his 1921 onslaught and his poor showing in the 1922 World Series, he had disappointed his ever more demanding public and suffered the criticism of a sporting press, which attributed his reduced performance to his drinking and carousing. When he was presented with a large bat in a glass case during the opening ceremonies, the Times reporter could not resist joking that perhaps it was "a delicate hint to the big slugger." (13)

Between seasons, however, Ruth had uncharacteristically curtailed his drinking, worked himself into shape on his farm in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and reported early to spring training in trim condition. On opening day he was ready to christen the house that would long be associated with his name. In the fourth inning, with runners on first and second and the Yankees having just tied the score 1-1, the Babe stepped to the plate. The Times report best describes what followed:
The big slugger is a keen student of the dramatic, in addition to being
the greatest home-run hitter. He was playing a new role yesterday, not
the accustomed one of a renowned slugger, but that of a penitent, trying
to "come back" after a poor season and a poorer world's series. Before
the game he said that he would give a year of his life if he could hit a
home run in his first game in the new stadium. The Babe was on trial,
and he knew it better than anybody else.

The ball came in slowly, but it went out quite rapidly, rising on a line
and then dipping suddenly from the force behind it. It struck well
inside the foul pole about eight or ten rows above the low railing in
front of the bleachers, and as Ruth circled the bases he received
probably the greatest ovation of his career. The biggest crowd in
baseball history rose to its feet and let loose the biggest shout in
baseball history. Ruth, jogging over home plate, grinned broadly, lifted
his cap at arm's length, and waved it at the multitude. (14)


If Yankee Stadium was, as Fred Lieb wrote, the House That Ruth Built, with his clutch home run the Babe dramatically signed his work, and the fans took notice. In the ninth inning, a large group left the bleachers and surrounded Ruth in right field in a gesture of appreciation, almost as if knowing their hero's opening day performance was merely the promise of much more. They were right. In the stadium's inaugural season, the Ruth-led Yankees fulfilled all expectations, winning their first World Series. Following their victory over the rival Giants, Colonel Rupert boasted, "Now I have baseball's greatest park and baseball's greatest team." (15) And in Ruth, he had baseball's greatest player.

While Ruth played the protagonist's part like a Frank Merriwell hero, Yankee Stadium itself met all expectations as the setting for the opening day drama. It was lauded as "a skyscraper among ballparks," and fans sitting in the upper deck were said to "boast that they broke all altitude records short of those attained in an airplane." (16) Although such hyperbole can be attributed to the overwrought journalism of the day, for the contemporary fan and sports-writer, Yankee Stadium, like its leading actor, exceeded anything that had been seen before. Steven Reiss has argued that the designation of the facility as a stadium, rather than a park, field, or grounds, marks a shift to associating baseball with urban rather than rural metaphors because this designation focuses attention on the structure itself. (17) Certainly there is much to be said for this claim. But at the same time, the massive grandeur of the stadium coincides with Ruth's revolutionizing of baseball, his transforming it from a game of small moves--bunts, steals, and singles in a game of one-base-at-a-time--to a game of the big blow, the home run. Likewise, though Ruth was not a sophisticate in any sense of the word, he exemplified the dream of the man of simple background to enjoy, for better and worse, what the modern American city, symbolized by the stadium, had to offer.

MANY ACTS

Ruth's long career on the stadium stage constitutes a drama of many acts, and to recount them all is beyond the scope of this essay. In addition, Ruth's association with the park depends as much on the parallel public stature of both as it does on any on-field heroics. While certainly the Babe often thrilled the hometown fans, he was not very fond of hitting in his home park. In 1927, when he hit his record-breaking 60 homers, 32 were struck on the road. Certainly Ruth benefited from Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch, just 296 feet from home plate to the foul pole, so much so that fans dubbed the right-field grandstand "Ruthville." But during Ruth's playing years the right-field fences jutted out sharply to a distance of 429 feet in the right-center-field power alley and to 490 feet in dead center. These distances were not shortened until 1937, three years after Ruth left New York. (18) In fact, Michael Benson reports that early in 1927, Ruth said he preferred hitting in the Polo Grounds and on the road rather than at home. (19) This is not to say that Ruth did not have a spectacular career at home but to emphasize that his connection with Yankee Stadium also rests upon on the public's perceived grandeur of both. Dan and Kieran Dickinson have written that "in this world in which so few things live up to their billing, Yankee Stadium is one sight that rarely disappoints." (20) If we can believe the press of Ruth's day, the Babe was another. By 1924, his second year at the stadium, Ruth's popularity had reached such proportions that he and Charlie Chaplin were voted America's two most recognizable celebrities in a nationwide poll. (21)

Following his career, as a result of a falling out with the Yankee organization over his desire to manage, Ruth was estranged from his former team and the ballpark associated with his name, making only one appearance there, in 1942. The stadium had become the stage for Gehrig, DiMaggio, and other Yankee stars. But in the last year of his life and upon his death, events took a turn that would ensure that all others, as great as they may be, would always be tenants to Ruth's metaphoric ownership of the stadium. When it became widely known that Ruth was suffering from throat cancer, then-commissioner Happy Chandler declared Sunday, April 27 as Babe Ruth Day. The Yankees, now owned by a group headed by Lee MacPhail, responded in kind, holding a day at the stadium to honor the team's greatest hero. The association of Ruth with the stadium is obvious in the Times reporter's lead the morning of the ceremony:
  Babe Ruth will come home today.
  The mighty Sultan of Swat, still the idol of millions, will be the
center of attraction at the Yankee Stadium--the massive baseball plant
that the power of his bat helped to build. His presence there will be
the focal point of the entire baseball world, for he will be the sole
protagonist of a coast-to-coast celebration that will be called simply
and yet eloquently, "Babe Ruth Day." (22)


This reference to "a coast-to-coast celebration" exceeded Chandler's proclamation of a national day to honor the Babe. At the stadium a special broadcast hookup was arranged so that Ruth's words to the local crowd would be heard in all Major League and many Minor League ballparks throughout the nation. W. P. Kinsella has written that a ballpark theoretically expands infinitely to take in all the world within the sweep of its foul lines. (23) On this day Babe Ruth's appearance at Yankee Stadium metaphorically supported this claim as fans in ballparks everywhere stood to hear his words along with the 58,339 fans packing the grandstands in the Bronx. At center stage Ruth, in his gravelly voiced speech to the nation, fittingly talked not of his plight or the great Yankee teams but of the meaning of baseball to the nation's youth. Ruth would show that his commitment to baseball and youth was more than mere words, appearing again in the stadium on the last day of the 1947 season, when MacPhail staged a second Babe Ruth Day, which included an old-timers game. The Babe could not join his contemporaries--Cobb, Speaker, and other past stars--on the field, but fittingly the day's gate receipts were donated to the Babe Ruth Foundation, a fund for underprivileged kids. (24)

Less than a year later, only two months before his death, Ruth again graced the playing field to which he had contributed so much history. June 13, 1948, was designated to celebrate the silver anniversary of Yankee Stadium. Many Yankee greats were on hand for the festivities, but Ruth stole the show, making it clear that the stadium still remained the House That Ruth Built, even though the big shoulders and barrel chest that had lain the foundation were now slumped and sunken. Though too weak to play in the scheduled old-timers game, Ruth, in a pyrrhic fulfillment of his earlier dream, finally got to manage in the stadium, piloting the inaugural stadium team of 1923 to victory over a team of former Yankee all-stars.

Though the irony of Ruth's managing a team of old-timers was as bitter as the misty, gray weather, the day was nevertheless his as well as the stadium's. The Times headlines the day of the event and the day after read "Ruth Will Don Old Uniform Today in Stadium's Silver Anniversary" and "25 Years of Glorious Deeds in Stadium Revived by Babe Ruth and Host of Other Yankee Stars." Not only did Ruth don his old number 3, but the number was retired that day and his jersey sent to Cooperstown. In addition to featuring Ruth in the headlines, the Times account clearly shows that any celebration of the stadium required Ruth as master of ceremonies. Mel Allen is reported as recounting other players' deeds not in Yankee Stadium but in "the House that Ruth Built," and the discussion of Ruth, himself, notes that "the most vociferous applause was, as expected, reserved for the immortal Ruth ... the man whose personality and reputation built the Yankee Stadium, the man whose personality revolutionized the national pastime with his mighty home runs, the man whom everyone loved then and now." (25)

A MONUMENT

This love, as well as Ruth's bond with the ballpark, was borne out when, following his death on August 16, 1948, he lay in state in the Stadium rotunda on the evening of August 17 and the following day. Originally, the stadium was to be open until 10 P.M. to allow fans to pay their respects, but so great were the crowds that Claire Ruth asked the police to extend the hours until midnight. (26) By midnight more than 25,000 people had passed the bier, and 50,000 followed the next day. (27) Never before or since has a sports hero received the kind of public tribute usually reserved for heads of state. Never before or since has an athletic facility so strongly commemorated an athlete's career. As veteran sports-writer Arthur Daley put it: "If he has left a monument behind him, it's the place where he lay in state yesterday, the trace of a thin and seemingly appreciative smile on his tanned face. That place is the Yankee Stadium, the 'House That Ruth Built.'" (28) In view of Daley's commentary it is not surprising that in Ken Burns's documentary Baseball both Bob Costas and Billy Crystal tell of thinking, as youngsters, that the Babe was buried beneath the monument erected to him in center field the year after his death. This common myth, believed by numerous New York children, marks the extent to which fans identify Ruth with the stadium.

When the fiftieth anniversary of the stadium was celebrated on opening day of 1973, the Babe, of course, could not be there in the flesh, but if the Times coverage is any indication, his spirit loomed over the proceedings. The opener marked not only the stadium's anniversary but also its last year before it was to be renovated. Although literally the new edition of Yankee Stadium was to be the house that New York taxpayers built, metaphorically it still belonged to Ruth. Claire Ruth was given special notice in Red Smith's column, and Smith called Pearl Bailey, on hand to sing the national anthem, "the Babe Ruth of anthem singers." (29) A weak Yankee team nipped the Red Sox 7-6, causing Murray Chass to write: "The Yankees had enough runs to duplicate the 1923 Yankees' victory over the Red Sox in the first game played at the Stadium. They didn't have some of the ingredients such as Babe Ruth, but that's another problem." (30)

At the close of the golden anniversary season, Ruth's presence was equally evident. A Times story on the demolition that would begin the day after the last game reports that the demolition company head was father to a little leaguer who "treasures an old baseball autographed by Ruth," and that seats sold to collectors would be fitted with a plate inscribed, "A Chair from the House that Ruth Built." (31) Though Ruth's house was to undergo a renovation that would render it almost a new ballpark, there was no doubt in the public mind as to who remained the proprietor.

When Arthur Daley, upon Ruth's death, called the stadium Ruth's monument, he went on to ask that the new Yankee owners, Dan Topping and Del Webb, rename the ballpark Babe Ruth Stadium "to make it official." (32) Daley's request was perhaps appropriate, but he did not realize that it was unnecessary, for Yankee Stadium will always be the House That Ruth Built, and this metaphor, in the collective memory of baseball fans everywhere, carries more weight than any official designation ever could. In 1973, when Joe Durso asked former New York politician and lifelong Yankee fan James A. Farley why the stadium had become such a hallowed place, Farley answered: "'It was partly the city: New York's the place. It was partly the team playing there: the Yankees. Mostly' he said, clinching the point historically, 'It was Babe Ruth.'" (33)

NOTES

1. Joseph Durso, Yankee Stadium: Fifty Years of Drama (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1972), p. 25.

2. Kal Wagenheim, Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend (New York: Henry Holt, 1992), p. 78.

3. Durso, Yankee Stadium, p. 6.

4. "League Says Yanks Shall Have a Park," New York Times, August 25, 1920, sec. 10, p. 2.

5. Robert W. Creamer, Babe Ruth: The Legend Comes to Life, First Fireside Edition (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 254.

6. Wagenheim, Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend, p. 92.

7. "Yankees Pick Site for New Ball Park," New York Times, January 30, 1921, sec. 1, p. 1.

8. "Comment on Current Sports," New York Times, February 6, 1921, sec. 1, p. 12.

9. "Yankees to Build Stadium in Bronx," New York Times, February 6, 1921, sec. 1, p. 20.

10. "Yanks' Stadium Big Engineering Task," New York Times, April 1, 1923, sec. 2, p. 1.

11. "Ruth Will Start for South Today," New York Times, February 15, 1923, sec. 1, p. 15.

12. "Yanks New Stadium to Be Opened Today," New York Times, April 18, 1923, sec. 1, p. 17.

13. "74,200 See Yanks Open New Stadium; Ruth Hits Home Run," New York Times, April 19, 1923, sec. 1, pp. 1, 15.

14. Ibid, p. 1.

15. Wagenheim, Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend, p. 125.

16. "74,200 See Yankees," sec. 1, p. 13.

17. Steven A. Reiss, Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era (Westport CT: Greenwich Press, 1980), p. 108.

18. Philip Lowry, Green Cathedrals (Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992), p. 81.

19. Michael Benson, Ballparks of North America (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1989), p. 271.

20. Dan and Kieran Dickinson, Major League Stadiums: A Vacation Planning Reference (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1991), p. 184.

21. Wagenheim, Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend, p. 127.

22. "Baseball Honors Babe Ruth Today," New York Times, April 27, 1947, sec. 5, p. 2.

23. W. P. Kinsella, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (New York: Ballantine, 1986), pp. 44-45.

24. Creamer, Babe Ruth: The Legend Comes to Life, p. 420.

25. "25 Years of Glorious Deeds in Stadium Revived by Babe Ruth and Host of Other Yankee Stars," New York Times, June 14, 1948, sec. 1, p. 26.

26. "Ruth Lies in State in Stadium; Throngs Continue into Night," New York Times, August 18, 1948, sec. 1, pp. 1, 20.

27. Creamer, Babe Ruth: The Legend Comes to Life, p. 271.

28. Arthur Daley, "Sports of the Times: Still More on the Babe," New York Times, August 19, 1948, sec. 1, p. 29.

29. Red Smith, "Happy Birthday," New York Times, April 16, 1973, sec. 2, p. 53.

30. Murray Chass, "Yankees Triumph over Red Sox, 6-2," New York Times, April 16, 1973, sec. 2, pp. 53, 56.

31. Steve Cady, "Demolition Teams Take Yanks' Place at Stadium," New York Times, September 10, 1973, sec. 5, p. 2.

32. Daley, "Sports of the Times," p. 29.

33. Durso, Yankee Stadium, p. 1.
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Author:Carino, Peter
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Date:Sep 22, 2004
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