Asked to leave the Polo Grounds when his Yankees began outdrawing the Giants in 1920, owner Jacob Ruppert seized the opportunity to build what would become the most famous stadium in all of baseball, a triple-decked wonder called Yankee Stadium. Erected on the site of a Bronx lumberyard just across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium was quickly dubbed "The House That Ruth Built" to honor the Yankee whose home runs were revolutionizing the game (and filling Ruppert's coffers). It was planned for an ultimate capacity of 100,000, and even in its smaller original state, it was the most capacious venue in baseball when it opened. On April 18, 1923 Ruth's
three-run home run led the Yankees to a 4-1 win over the Red Sox in the stadium's first game.
The grandstand was extended around the foul poles by 1928, with wooden bleachers surrounding the rest of the outfield, and the top of the stadium was ringed with a distinctive scalloped copper facade. Like the stadium, the playing field itself was quite remarkable. The left- and right-field corners were initially only 281' and 295' in 1923, but left sloped out dramatically to 460' while center was a near-impossible 490' away. Deep left and center fields became known as Death Valley as many a righthanded slugger watched towering fly balls die there. Eventually, stone monuments to Ruth, Lou Gehrig,
and Miller Huggins were erected in deep left center, and although considered to be in
the field of play they were rarely reached by batted balls. Lights were added in 1946, and the stadium remained virtually unchanged until 1973, when it was closed completely for two years of expensive and near-total rebuilding.
The stadium was reopened in 1976 with major changes. The upper decks had been totally rebuilt further back from the field so that their supporting columns were no longer blocking views in the lower decks below them, and escalators improved access to the upper levels. The foul line dimensions were increased by about a dozen feet, the walls in those areas were made somewhat higher, and the left-center and center-field fences had been drawn in considerably, but were still a hefty 430' and 417' respectively.
The monuments were relocated to Monument Park behind the left-field fence, open to fans before and after games, and numerous plaques have been added to the original trio of Yankee greats. The field remains natural grass, but recently under the direction of George Steinbrenner the left- and center-field fences have been brought even closer, reducing Death Valley to a relatively timid 399'. Yankee Stadium's still-spacious outfield favors pitchers, even though it has little foul territory and a close right-field corner that is extremely inviting to lefthanded sluggers.
Naturally, Yankee Stadium has been the scene of many of baseball's greatest moments. Babe Ruth belted his 60th home run here in 1927, and Roger Maris broke the single-season record with his 61st in 1961. It has hosted far more World Series than any other park. Two especially memorable World Series events took place here; Don Larsen pitched his perfect game October 8, 1956, and on October 18, 1977 Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three consecutive pitches to win the Series in Game Six. Despite the presence of sluggers like Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and Jackson, no major-league batter has ever hit a fair ball completely out of the stadium, although legend says Negro Leaguer Josh Gibson pulled a home run over the left-field roof in 1934.
In recent years there has been much talk of replacing "The Stadium" with a facility in either New Jersey or on Manhattan's West Side, the latter at an estimated cost of a billion dollars. A relatively minor structural accident in 1998 helped fuel the idea of a new stadium, but such a costly and politically complex undertaking is unlikely to occur any time soon. (SCL/JP)
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