For baseball fans, opening day is always a cause for celebration.
But for the 74,200 cheering from the stands at Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923, it was nothing shy of a coronation. Until that year, the New York Yankees—a middling team in an upstart league—had been tenants at the aged, anachronistic Polo Grounds, home of the Giants, a baseball team with a much longer history in the city.
But here at the ambitious and bold new Yankee Stadium, the pageantry bordered on ostentatious. “The greatest crowd that ever saw a baseball game sat and stood in this biggest of all baseball stadia,” gushed the New York Times of the home-team match against the Boston Red Sox, as what would become a longtime rivalry blossomed between the two teams.
Game time was set for 3:30 p.m., but opening festivities had begun two hours earlier. Everyone who was anyone was in attendance—from Governor Al Smith to New York City Mayor John F. Hylan, to Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to John Philip Sousa, who would conduct the Seventh Regiment Band to open the game.
The stadium, constructed by Cleveland’s Osborn Engineering, distinguished for designing many of the sport’s other steel-and-concrete venues, was built with the idea that it would also host football games, track meets and boxing matches. Although night baseball was still more than a decade away, Yankee Stadium was fully lit upon its opening in anticipation of nighttime events by “a battery of 30 1,000-watt Cahill Flood-Light Projectors,” according to a review in the American Architect.
On the field that day, wearing his brand-new pinstripe uniform, was the player who would arguably become baseball’s greatest: Babe Ruth. Prior to the 1920 season, the Yankees had purchased Ruth’s contract from the Red Sox for $125,000—the largest price ever paid for a single ballplayer at the time. Around the league, the move was viewed as nothing short of folly. No player could be worth that sum, the pundits said.
But he was. Fans had filled the stands at the Polo Grounds and on the road. The Yankees won their first two pennants in 1921 and 1922. With Ruth’s slugging leading the way, Yankee owners started making plans for nothing less than the greatest venue in all of sports—the House that Ruth Built.
“Yankee Stadium was built with grandeur in mind,” says Brian Richards, the senior museum curator for the official New York Yankees Museum. It was constructed in the Bronx because there was not enough land available in Manhattan to fit the scope of its purpose.
“It was intended to showcase the greatest drawing card in baseball,” says Richards. “But really it was intended to be the grandest stage for sports excellence.”
The new venue had a cinder track around it to accommodate a football field comfortably. And it was surprisingly modern, with its wide concourses and ramps, and a total of 16 bathrooms, each with an adjoining lounge—including six for women. Accessible by multiple subway lines, it was the first stadium with three decks of seating.
Terra-cotta carvings of eagles over crossed baseball bats adorned the exterior, and inside, along the upper deck, copper friezes lent the stadium what Yankee owners described as “an air of dignity.”
Outside the stadium, 18 free-standing ticket pagodas sped up the business of getting fans inside for what was the start of not only an era of unparalleled success for the Yankees, but also a golden era of sports in New York City, as well as across the United States.
“Spectator sports started to explode around the turn of the century, and venues were starting to accommodate bigger crowds, but there wasn’t a sense they were important,” says Eric Jentsch, an entertainment and sports curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Yankee Stadium signified this assent from the community that this was important.”
Eventually, one of those ticket booths found its way into the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. When it is put on display, the ticket booth is a favorite of museum visitors and baseball fans eager to reminisce about those days when Babe Ruth first made the sport an enduring summer pastime.
Dawn Wallace, an objects conservator for the Smithsonian, recently had the occasion to study the charming bright red artifact when it came off view recently and underwent some structural and surface work in the museum’s conservation lab. “It really gave us a chance to get inside to see how it was constructed,” she says.
The octagonal building was all wood, with its tongue-in-groove peaked roof constructed of wooden struts.
“It’s really a beautiful piece of architecture,” Wallace notes. “You can tell it was heavily used, but it’s beautiful construction.”
The roof was covered in copper—a sign, Wallace says, of how the stadium project, built at a cost of $2.5 million, was spared no expense.
Very low-tech by modern standards, with no lights on it, the ticket booth was state of the art for its day. Wallace says the structure could accommodate two ticket sellers—“you can probably even fit a third, for conversation,” she says, adding that it was likely they worked without the use of cash registers. Computations marked in pencil on the walls scaled up the cost of entry by increments of $1.50, the price of a single ticket.
“I’m kind of fascinated by the idea that you could get into a baseball game for $1.50,” Wallace says, laughing.
That April 18 a century ago at Yankee Stadium, the home team beat the Red Sox. The first home run was hit by—who else—Babe Ruth.
The stadium was packed, Richards says, “numbers that were beyond comprehension in those days.” At the gates, another 25,000 fans were turned away.
Leading off for the Red Sox was Chick Fewster; the first pitch from the Yankees’ Bob Shawkey was a called ball. It would be a sleeper first two innings, with Red Sox pitcher Howard Ehmke blowing through the Yankee batting order.
Interestingly, Richards notes, the new ballpark lacked an electric public address system; given the stadium’s size, he says, that was probably a factor in the Yankees becoming the first team to regularly wear uniform numbers, which initially corresponded to the batting order. Ruth wore number 3. Lou Gehrig, batting behind him, wore number 4.
In the third inning, the Yankees scored their first run on a single following an earlier single, a sacrifice bunt, an out at third and a walk. With two outs and two players on, Ruth stepped up to the plate. The crowd was filled with anticipation. He’d flied out in the first, so the Great Bambino was due. “A showman to the core,” wrote an observer, “Ruth was almost always at his best in a situation like this, and everyone in the park knew it and felt it.”
The count was two and two, Ehmke’s slow high pitch met Ruth’s bat. “The ball streaked over the infield on a line and kept on going, hardly rising at all, it seemed, and landed in the right field bleachers,” according to the account. The Yankees beat the Red Sox, 4-1, in their new stadium, the House that Ruth Built.
Eventually, Yankee Stadium became what Richards calls “secular sacred ground.” Lou Gehrig, dying of the disease that would informally be named for him, proclaimed himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” at Yankee Stadium. Babe Ruth made his final public appearance there in pinstripes, leaning on a baseball bat, suffering from the cancer that would kill him months later. And boxer Joe Louis would take on and knock out Max Schmeling there in 1938, becoming the era’s hero for Black pride.
“In these big sprawling communities, this was a place you could go to focus on a goal or idea, and share that whole experience with the rest of the city,” Jentsch says. “It was identity-building. It was culturally putting people together.”
The stadium’s popularity was almost instantaneous. In its first year, in addition to hosting the Yankees, who won their first World Series that fall, against the Giants, it played venue to college football, boxing matches, track meets and a rodeo.
Two years later, the Manhattan Opera Company presented Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at Yankee Stadium. “They actually had horses and camels on the field,” Richards says. “They drew the line at elephants.”
The Christian evangelist Billy Graham held a crusade there in 1957, and three popes—Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI—each celebrated Mass there. Less than four months after his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela spoke there, proclaiming, “I am a Yankee.”
Following World War II, professional football rose in popularity, as well—aided by what was then called “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the Baltimore Colts’ overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship. That game was played at Yankee Stadium.
At the same time, baseball’s footprint, previously limited to just 10 cities, with none farther west than St. Louis or farther south than Washington, D.C., started to expand. Soon, a stadium-building boom was at hand—centered on multipurpose stadiums that could accommodate football and baseball.
By the mid-1960s, the pinstripe empire was fading. CBS, which at the time owned the Yankees, gave the stadium a facelift. Oxidation had turned the copper friezes green, and they were painted white. The seats were painted blue, and Richards theorizes that this was when the ticket booths, which had been a pale green, were repainted red—a patriotic motif for a team called the Yankees. Eventually, the ticket booths got a different kind of paint on them: graffiti from local artists, in both spray paint and marker. Wallace says the graffiti, writing and symbols on the Smithsonian artifact have historic value and have been maintained on the booth.
Yankee Stadium was renovated in the 1970s, torn down to its buff concrete exterior walls and retrofitted with what was essentially a new stadium inside. The Yankees completed the 1973 season in the Bronx, then spent the next two years once again as tenants of New York’s National League team, the Mets. The rebuild would take two years and costs would soar to as much as $100 million—ten times what shipping magnate George Steinbrenner had spent just two years earlier to buy from CBS the team, which was sold at a loss.
Before the 1970s remodel, stadium-souvenir hunters came out in full force at Yankee Stadium, scooping up bits of dirt or sod from the field or even taking their seats with them. For a week or so after the final game, Richards says, the team could clear out anything they wanted. After that, the demolition company would start selling or disposing of the old stadium. Richards notes ruefully that the copper friezes were sold for scrap; when the stadium reopened, there would be concrete friezes on the scoreboard above the bleachers.
It was at that time that the Smithsonian took possession of much-loved Yankee Stadium artifact, and some other items, including a bat rack. Jentsch notes that the ticket booth was actually a composite of two ticket booths. “No one booth was in good enough shape at that point,” he says. Another ticket booth went to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was restored and repainted its original color, a pale green, and remains on display at the museum.
In the 1990s, another stadium-building boom began. NFL teams started getting their own football-only stadiums, and baseball teams looked to retro charm. Steinbrenner rattled the saber about a potential move across the river to New Jersey. Ultimately, another Yankee Stadium was built right next to the old one, opening in 2009. And the flourishes that made the original Yankee Stadium a sporting palace strongly influenced the new stadium.
“We tried to make the architecture of this stadium look like the iconic Yankee Stadium,” Richards says. “In fact, it probably looks more like Yankee Stadium from the 1920s to the ’60s than probably the old stadium did after the renovation.”
But there are no free-standing ticket booths. Today, you can’t buy paper tickets to a Yankee game at all.
“It’s kind of a lost industry,” Jentsch says.