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Babe christens Stadium he 'built'

Babe christens Stadium he 'built'

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NEW YORK -- Considering the dense urban landscape that the Bronx became by the middle of the 20th century, it may be difficult to imagine how spectacular was the view of Yankee Stadium on the banks of the Harlem River to those who emerged from subway stations, trolley cars, buses and taxis to attend the first game played there in 1923.

There were still sizeable portions of the borough that had open ground 85 years ago, so the three-tiered Stadium, the first of its kind, could be seen for literally miles, rather than get gobbled up by the surroundings, which would have been the case if the Yankees had settled on the West Side of Manhattan, one of their options.

The Stadium's opening on April 18, 1923, was an event of the first order. Although President Calvin Coolidge was not in attendance, scores of politicians and military figures were on hand for the first glimpse of the structure dubbed by New York Evening Telegram sportswriter Fred Lieb as "The House That Ruth Built."

Not surprisingly, Babe Ruth himself was the center of attention. The Sultan of Swat appropriately christened the facility that his tremendous box-office appeal helped finance with a three-run home run in the third inning that proved the margin of victory as the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 4-1.

That Boston, the club that sold Ruth's contract to the Yankees after the 1919 season, was the first visiting team to the Stadium was also appropriate. The musical "No, No, Nanette," which was produced by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, allegedly but perhaps mythically with funds from the Ruth sale, was still nearly 2 1/2 years away from its Broadway opening. The original production ran for 321 performances. Ruth's run for the Yankees totaled 2,084 performances.

Another reason the Babe was the focus of the game was that he was coming back from a 1922 season that was viewed as an "off year" for him. Injuries reduced his playing time to 110 games, during which he hit .315 with 35 home runs and 99 RBIs. Some off year. Ruth had also told some friends that he was not all that happy to be leaving the Polo Grounds, the park across the Harlem River where, for the previous 10 seasons, the Yankees had been tenants of the Giants. He preferred the hitting background at the Polo Grounds.

As it turned out, Ruth's first season at Yankee Stadium was one of his best. His home run total of 41 was relatively low, considering he hit 54 in 1920 and 59 in 1921, but he had the best batting average of his career at .393 with 205 hits, including 45 doubles and 13 triples. Ruth scored 151 runs, drove in 131, received 170 walks and reached base safely 379 times, still a record.

But all of that came later. The first day was filled with ceremony, the sort of ritual that the Yankees have specialized in over the years. The Seventh Regiment Band, conducted by the legendary John Philip Souza, performed in front of the Yankees dugout, which was then on the third-base side. It was the largest audience the maestro would play for.

Newspaper accounts of the day reported the Opening Day crowd at 74,200, but that is believed exaggerated. A more accurate attendance figure was 60,000, which was still the most people to view a Major League game. The previous record was 47,373, for Game 2 of the 1916 World Series at Fenway Park, a 2-1, 14-inning Red Sox victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. The winning pitcher that day, going the distance, was Ruth.

Farewell Yankee Stadium

One explanation for the discrepancy in attendance figures is that an estimated 15,000 additional people had come to the park but couldn't score tickets. The game-time start in those days was 3 p.m. According to the New York Times, the ticket windows opened at noon, but it would be another hour before long lines formed. By 2:15 p.m., however, the 50,000 unreserved and grandstand seats were sold out, and the ticket windows closed.

Inside, fans got a glimpse at the playing field, according to the Times, "a green spread of grass and diamond, and fewer ball fields are greener than that on which the teams played yesterday." They also saw a scoreboard big enough to feature the nine-inning scores of every other game in the majors.

The list of VIPs in the pre-game ceremonies included New York Gov. Al Smith and his wife, Catherine, baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, police commissioner Richard Enright, Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast l'Hommedieu Huston, Giants owner Charles Stoneham and Frazee.

The Yankees, in new white uniforms, took to the third-base side of the field with manager Miller Huggins, and the Red Sox, decked out in red-trimmed uniform grays, stood on the first-base side with manager Frank Chance, who had managed the Yankees in 1913 and '14.

Landis walked out to center field for the Yankees' raising of the American League pennant of 1922 (they lost to the Giants in the World Series). The Seventh Regiment Band played the "Star Spangled Banner," but it was drowned out by the cheers from the fans as the pennant was hoisted up the flag pole.

A horseshoe floral arrangement for the Yankees was accepted at the plate by Col. Ruppert, and Ruth received a large bat encased in a glass box. Gov. Smith then scored a hit with the crowd, even Republicans, when his ceremonial first pitch was a perfect strike to Yankees catcher Wally Schang.

The Yankees took the field with Bob Shawkey, a 20-game winner in 1922, on the mound. The first batter was Red Sox shortstop Chick Fewster. Boston first baseman George Burns got the Stadium's first hit, a second-inning single, one of only three hits for the Red Sox in the game.

The Yankees' first hit at the Stadium was a leadoff single by second baseman Aaron Ward that started the four-run third inning, punctuated by Ruth's blow. Shortstop Everett Scott, playing in his 987th consecutive game, bunted Ward to second, but pitcher Howard Ehmke fielded a grounder by Shawkey and got Ward trying to advance to third.

Shawkey took second on the play and, after a walk to center fielder Whitey Witt, scored the first run at the Stadium on a single to center by third baseman Joe Dugan. Next up was Ruth, whose cut at a 2-2 changeup resulted in a fierce line drive that landed 10 rows up into the right-field stands, which would become a familiar destination for many of his future home runs.

The Stadium was officially "baptized," as the Times put it, with that swing by Ruth. It was not a perfect day for the Bambino, however. In the fifth inning, he bobbled a fly ball to right field for an error that got a rally started for the Red Sox, but Shawkey pitched out of trouble. The only run Shawkey yielded came in the seventh on a walk to Burns and a triple by second baseman Norm McMillan, whom the Yankees had traded to Boston the previous offseason.

Scott's consecutive-game streak continued throughout the season and reached 1,307 when it ended May 6, 1925 when he was with the Washington Senators. That was the Major League record that Lou Gehrig, a rookie on the '25 Yankees, broke on the way to 2,130 consecutive games, which was surpassed by Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995.

Something else continued for the Yankees from Opening Day to the end of the 1923 season. The Yankees were tied with the Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Athletics atop the AL after winning the first game at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees remained in first place all year, and topped it off by beating their former landlords, the Giants, in the World Series.

Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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