Yankees’ farewell to ‘House Ruth Built’

YANKEE STADIUM, which closed last Saturday night, opened for business on April 18, 1923 with a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

On that spring day the Yankees star player, Babe Ruth, walked out onto the grass and took in the vast crowd, murmuring to those nearby that he’d give anything to hit a home run that afternoon.

He did so, instantly creating a reputation for the stadium as a venue for electrifying sports events and giving the Yankees’ home its name for decades to come: The House That Ruth Built.

In the years since that dramatic opening day, however, not all the sensational sports events that occurred in the big stadium in the Bronx were baseball-related. In 1938 Adolf Hitler himself was patched through to the telephone in Max Schmeling’s dressing-room before the German boxer walked out to take on Joe Louis for the heavyweight title.

After two minutes and four seconds of the first round Schmeling had lost on a TKO.

Thirty-eight years later the last title fight at the same venue featured Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton; Ali won a far less emphatic victory than Louis.

In between, Yankee Stadium hosted such legendary encounters as the middleweight clash of Rocky Graziano and Tony Zale of 1946 and Sugar Ray Robinson’s audacious bid to become the first middleweight to collect the then-vacant heavyweight boxing title.

Robinson collapsed from heat exhaustion in the 14th round on a searing June evening in 1952, giving the title to light-heavyweight champ Joey Maxim, but as he said later, at least he’d outlasted the referee: Rudy Goldstein had fainted four rounds before Robinson.

In 1939 Yankee hero Lou Gehrig made the most famous speech in the history of American sports in the stadium. Diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig disease, the baseball star spoke briefly to a capacity crowd who had filled the stadium to pay tribute to him on his retirement: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” said Gehrig.

“I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

American football had great moments in Yankee Stadium as well: many aficionados rate the Notre Dame-Army clash of 1947 as the greatest college game ever played, though it ended scoreless, while the Baltimore Colts late victory over the New York Giants 11 years later is widely regarded as the watershed game that established American football as a professional sport.

Less bruising was the first Papal mass in the United States, celebrated by Pope Paul VI in 1965. John Paul II (1979) and Benedict XVI (this year) have also filled the stadium, which is more than the Yankees did in 1966, when the smallest recorded crowd showed up for a game with Chicago White Sox, a paltry 413 souls.

Commentator Red Barber instructed the TV cameras to show the empty seats that afternoon, and as a consequence his contract was not renewed at the end of the season.

The new Yankee Stadium is currently under construction across the street, west and north of the 1923 Yankee Stadium, on the present site of Macombs Dam Park. It is set to open on April 16, 2009 with a Yankees game against the Cleveland Indians.

Controversy surrounded the facility earlier in the year when a construction worker who follows the Yankees’ arch-rivals, the Boston Red Sox, confessed to having buried a Sox jersey underneath the dugout in a bid to jinx the Yankees.

Team management took the issue seriously enough to unearth the jersey. However, the last few days have belonged to the old stadium. While even avid supporters accept that its day has passed — a few years ago a 500lb joint dropped out of the stands while the stadium was empty, forcing two games to be postponed — the organisation has managed the send-off carefully.

Though the Yankees are often derided by other baseball teams’ fans for buying their way to success and former owner George Steinbrenner was often lampooned in the media for interfering in team selection and player acquisition, the Yankees showed uncommon sensitivity over the weekend.

They opened the gates seven hours early last Saturday, allowing fans to stroll the warning track for one last walk in the stadium before that last game against the Baltimore Orioles.

Ahead of the game itself, the American League championship flag that was raised on the first opening day, in 1923, was unfurled.

The Yankees won, 7-3, but perhaps more significantly, the ceremonial first pitch last Saturday was thrown by Julia Ruth Stevens, the daughter of Babe Ruth, all of 92 years old.

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