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Big shoes to fill in Stadium's grand opening

Stadium has big shoes to fill

NEW YORK -- There was a certain poetry in the Bronx in 1923, when the Yankees, for the first time, opened a new stadium to the public. It was The House That Ruth Built, and the one that he christened, too. In the first game, Ruth homered. A legend was furthered. A house was built.

"If the game had been rehearsed it couldn't have been staged better," James Crusenberry wrote in the following morning's Daily News.

And it couldn't have. It was a grand opening for a grand new ballpark.

Similar anticipation filled the air 53 years later, when the Yankees, after a two-year absence from the Bronx, reopened their park to an expectant public. Bob Shawkey, the winning pitcher in the 1923 opener, was there to throw out the first pitch. Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio made their returns to the stadium. And the Yankees won again, showcasing their new gem of a home.

"It was a marvel," said Marty Appel, director of public relations for the Yankees in 1976. "It was tremendously received."

Now, another 33 years later, the Yankees are on the brink of another grand opening. After years of planning, months of construction, two exhibition games and some unprecedented anticipation, the new Yankee Stadium will officially open its doors for a regular-season game on Thursday. It will be a spectacle, to be certain. And the Yankees will have two awfully impressive precedents to match.

The first of those occurred in 1923, when a grandstand ticket cost $1.10, an Opening Day program cost 15 cents and the Yankees -- believe it or not -- were not yet legendary. But they were just starting to emerge from their dreadful origins, reaching the World Series in each of the previous two seasons but losing both times to the New York Giants, their landlords at the Polo Grounds.

Little did the roughly 65,000 fans in attendance know that Ruth's blast would trigger an Opening Day win, a first-place season and the first of 26 World Series championships at Yankee Stadium. That one afternoon in April was the beginning of something beyond the grasp of everyone.

But Ruth's blast, the first in Stadium history, was still celebrated for what it was at the time.

"It set 65,000 fans as mad as bedlam," Crusenberry wrote. "It made the opening of the biggest baseball park in the world a tremendous success."

No repeat performance would occur in 1976, when Twins outfielder Dan Ford hit the first homer in the renovated park's history. By this era, loge and box seats cost $5.50. Bleacher seats went for $1.50. The new-look Yankees, featuring newcomers Willie Randolph and Mickey Rivers, won the day and enjoyed a 97-win season that resulted in the American League pennant, their first since 1964.

It was not an opening in the purest sense, as the Yankees were simply displaying the renovations of their old stadium. But for fans, nearly everything was different.

"It felt very new," Appel said. "Really, only the outside concrete was the same."

This time, the concrete and Indiana limestone will be different. The Yankees modeled this new stadium after the old one, replicating the shape of its predecessor -- something even the 1976 renovation did not do. The famous frieze, frequently called the facade, was rebuilt above the upper deck, where it had been until it was relocated in the outfield in the renovation.

But so many other aspects of the stadium, from the luxury boxes to the concession stands to the bleachers, have a decidedly different feel.

How this Opening Day compares to those of 1923 and 1976 remains to be seen. If CC Sabathia, an offseason acquisition as prominent as any in team history, can shut down the Indians and properly christen the park as Ruth did 86 years ago, then perhaps the Yankees can author some similar history across the street.

Either way, the expectations will be just as high.

"I think there's a little more anticipation for this ballpark because it's new from the ground up," Appel said. "It's more than just a modernization job."

Anthony DiComo 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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