In 1919, the New York Yankees acquired a pitcher-turned-outfielder named Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox, a move that forever changed baseball. In Yankee pinstripes, Ruth would become a full-time outfielder and blossom overnight into the greatest power hitter the game had ever seen–and trigger a surge in popularity that would transform baseball into the Great American Pastime.
Ruth’s record-smashing performance in his first year–he hit 54 home runs and achieved an astonishing .847 slugging percentage–took the Yankees to the World Series, and transformed them into a major box-office draw. But it also strained relations between Yankees owners Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston and Jacob Ruppert and their counterpart, New York Giants owner Charles Stoneham. The two teams shared the Giants’ playing field, the old Polo Grounds in northern Manhattan. Stoneham was used to being the top dog, and he didn’t like it when the Yankees doubled their attendance to 1,289,422, about 100,000 more than the Giants. He told the Yankees to find someplace else to play, as soon as possible.
Huston and Ruppert decided to show up Stoneham. They purchased 10 acres in the Bronx from the estate of John Jacob Astor, and then set out to build a park of their own that would not only be much grander than the Polo Grounds, but which would revolutionize baseball itself.
The Yankees owners envisioned a structure that resembled the Yale Bowl, the majestic neo-gothic stadium that served as the home of that university’s football team. They hired the Cleveland-based firm of Osborn Engineering, which also had designed the Polo Grounds, and later built Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. For a fee $3,332, Osborn’s architects drew up a plan in ink on blue linen for the world’s first-ever triple-decked stadium, a massive, fully-enclosed concrete, terra cotta and steel structure capable of seating 80,000 fans. As a 1921 New York Times article breathlessly reported, Huston and Ruppert planned to spend a then-unheard-of sum of $2 million–$24 million in today’s dollars–to erect it. The plan also called for a quarter-mile running track to encircle the baseball field, as part of the owners’ plan to stage other sporting events in the stadium when the Yankees weren’t playing.
The Times also noted that “Especial attention has been given to the arrangement of the exits, which will be plenteous in number and will make possible the emptying of the grounds in a surprisingly short time.”
By the time that construction began in May 1922, however, the price tag for the new ballpark — which at the time was simply called Yankee Field — already had escalated by 50 percent, to $3 million. The plan also changed, with the fully-enclosed oval becoming a horseshoe, and the outside wall of the grandstand shifting from terra cotta to concrete. The Yankees’ owners wanted their contractor, White Construction to finish the stadium by October, an insanely fast pace, so that the Yankees could play the World Series there if they made it. White brashly promised to have the ballpark done even earlier, so that ballgames could be played there during the last month of the Pennant race.
White didn’t quite make that deadline, and the Yankees ended up losing the Series to the Giants that year. But the builders did manage to get the structure done in 284 days — an impressive feat in its own right, considering the project’s scale. According to Mark Vancil’s and Al Santasiere’s 2008 book Yankee Stadium: The Official Retrospective, the ballpark required four million board feet of lumber, 20,000 yards of concrete, 2,300 tons of steel, and 13,000 yards of topsoil. It took one million brass screws to hold it all together.
Amid all of Yankee Stadium’s superlatives, it also included one deliberately less-than-Olympian feature. The right-field foul pole was only 295 feet from home plate, a distance that gave the left-handed Ruth a decided advantage as he re-wrote baseball’s record books.
On April 18, 1923, an official crowd of 74,000 fans jammed into the new stadium, with thousands more still standing in line outside when the first department finally ordered the gates closed. John Phillip Susa and the Seventh Regiment Band led the Yankees and their opponents, the Boston Red Sox, to the flagpole in deep center field, where the Yankees’ 1922 American League pennant was raised. In the game, Ruth broke in the new ballpark by hitting a three-run homer, and the Yankees won, 4-1. That season, the Yankees would win their first-ever World Series, the first of 33 major league championship events to be played in what became known as “The House that Ruth Built.”
And now, it’s the final curtain for the House that Ruth Built, as the last remaining stands of Yankee Stadium are demolished: