Entrance to Yankee Stadium, New York, Haberman’s, New York, 1920s.
There is no bigger name in baseball than Babe Ruth, and during his time, there was no bigger stage in the sport than the playing field at East 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, the original Yankee Stadium, The House That Ruth Built.
Constructed in 11 months after Yankee owners Colonels Jacob Ruppert and the equally-ranked but more aristocratically-named Tillinghast (Til) L’Hommedieu Huston finally grew bone-tired of being second-class tenants at the New York Giants home at the Polo Grounds, the stadium opened on April 18, 1923. Costing $2.5 million, the park was the most expensive ball ground built to date. With three decks it was also the largest, and the first in the United States to carry the weighty designation of stadium. The opener drew more fans than had ever before seen a game, besting the headcount set at Braves Field in Game Five of the 1916 World Series by more than 20,000 fedoras.
Somewhere north of 62,000 devotees mobbed the new home of the Yankees, packing the aisles and corridors for 90 minutes during the pre-game festivities. It was like “a subway crush hour” one witness testified, mellowed only by the consumption of Volstead lager at 15 cents a stein by the Prohibition crowd.
The New York Evening Telegram noted the scents of “fresh paint, fresh plaster and fresh grass” in the air on a cloudy, windy spring day when the temperature struggled to reach 50.
Shortly after 3 pm, John Philip Sousa and the Seventh Regiment Band led a battalion of baseball barons and civic potentates into center field and played the national anthem to the raising of the Stars and Stripes. Witnessed by “pretty much everybody who was anybody” in the city, the American League pennant won by the Yankees in 1922 followed Old Glory up the pole. The pennant gathered the loudest cheer.
After a round of pre-game pleasantries, Umpire Tommy Connolly called “Play Ball” at 3:35.
The late afternoon start to the game didn’t sit well with one observer. “Some day New York will be convinced that 3 o’clock is the proper hour with the fans for a ball game to begin, but as yet owners persist in holding off for those half dozen fans from Wall Street who can’t make it so early.”
Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, running late to the ceremonies after choosing a proletarian train to the park, had to be plucked from the ticket lines and escorted into the stadium by the police.
Not everyone was lucky enough to get through one of the 40 turnstiles open for the event. The Fire Department ordered the gates closed with 25,000 hopeful patrons still outside the grounds. One latecomer, trying in vain to recover from a poorly-chosen subway connection, couldn’t get into the park for “money, marbles or chalk.”
Ruth hit two balls into the bleachers off Sam Jones during batting practice. The first landed harmlessly. The second splintered a wooden plank, scattering a group of young boys in one direction to escape the explosion, and then in another to capture the projectile.
In the third inning, he hit one that counted, smashing a slow, waist-high offering from opposing pitcher Howard Ehmke into the right field bleachers to drive in a pair of teammates and lead Yankees to a 4 to 1 win over his former team, the Boston Red Sox. A columnist for the New York Daily News depicted the scene:
From high noon on there had been a sound of revelry in the Bronx for Baseball’s Capital had gathered there its beauty and chivalry. But when the “Babe” tore into the ball the revelry became riot. The beauty and chivalry leaped to its feet and behaved unlike true beauty and chivalry should, tearing up programs, breaking canes, smashing neighboring hats and shrieking, shouting and howling. It was a notable ovation, or, as they say on some copy desks, demonstration.
A reporter described the homer, 325 feet or so into the right field bleachers, as one of Ruth’s best, a “terrific drive” that never rose more than 30 feet above the field. “And above all,” added the scribe, “it probably restored the old-time confidence of the ‘Babe.’ He hadn’t been going so good on the spring training trip. He was in great condition but he wasn’t smacking them.”
The Boston Globe wasn’t impressed. Ungenerously measuring the blow at 275 feet, the paper more accurately calculated the swing would have been nothing more than an out at Fenway Park.
It would have been a homer in the Sahara, retorted a Yankee partisan.
Ruth’s second wife Claire believed the round-tripper was her husband’s proudest moment. “He definitely talked about it more than any other homerun he ever hit,” she told one interviewer.
Ruth admitted he wanted to be the first to hit one into the stands in the new home of the Yankees. “I lost sight of the ball when the fans all jumped to their feet but I recognized the yell they let out,” Ruth explained. “I feel that I have been rewarded in part for all the hard work I put in preparing myself for the training season,” the New York outfielder concluded. “I guess there must be something in that old gag about virtue being its own reward.”
The Opening Day crowd couldn’t contain its admiration for the Babe. In the bottom of the ninth, fans hopped out of the bleachers and surrounded Ruth in right field until the game ended.
It all inspired New York Evening Telegram sportswriter Fred Lieb to name the park “The House That Ruth Built,” forever tying the man and the stadium together in the nation’s memory.
Entrance to Yankee Stadium, New York, Manhattan Post Card Publishing Co., New York, 1920s. An alternate view of the stadium’s entrance in the 1920s. Postcard manufacturers were not above retouching and colorizing a scene from the same stock black and white photograph.
It took years for the temple of baseball along the Harlem River to become formally known as Yankee Stadium. During all of the 1920s, the Associated Press attached an honorific article to the park’s name and lower-cased the Roman half of the sobriquet—“the Yankee stadium.” Other stylists upper-cased both halves of the title—“the Yankee Stadium.” The Great Depression leavened the label to simply “Yankee Stadium.”
Four particular collections of baseball cards connect Ruth to Yankee Stadium:
- Megacards, The Babe Ruth Collection, 1992 (165 cards)
- Megacards, Babe Ruth 100th Anniversary, 1995 (25 cards)
- Upper Deck, Yankee Stadium Legacy Box Set, 2008 (100 cards)
- Upper Deck, Inserts, The House That Ruth Built, 2008 (25 cards).
Megacards, 1992, The Babe Ruth Collection
Sharing a common origin, it is no surprise that the cards in The Babe Ruth Collection closely resemble The Sporting News Conlon issues of 1991—1994. Top, Megacards, The Babe Ruth Collection, 1992, Card 105; Sultan of Swat; bottom, The Sporting News Conlon Collection, 1992, Card 663, promotional, Game of the Century.
Babe Ruth led an expensive, excessive and extravagant life that sometimes crossed the border into alcoholic debauchery.
Frank Lieb tells stories of a detective reporting Ruth having trysts with six women in one night, being run out of a hotel at gunpoint by an irate husband, and being chased through Pullman cars on a train one night by the knife-wielding bride of a Louisiana legislator. The press kept quiet. “If she had carved up the Babe, we would have had a hell of a story,” said one scribe who witnessed the race.
His salary demands were an annual source of amusement and debate among the sporting press.
Colonel Til Huston tried to rein in the Babe in 1922. “We know you’ve been drinking and whoring all hours of the night, and paying no attention to training rules. As we are giving you a quarter-million for the next five years, we want you to act with more responsibility. You can drink beer and enjoy cards and be in your room by eleven o’clock, the same as the other players. It still gives you a lot of time to have a good time.”
“Colonel, I’ll promise to go easier on drinking, and get to bed earlier,” Ruth promised. “But not for you, fifty thousand dollars, or two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, will I give up women. They’re too much fun.”
The high life caught up with Ruth in the spring of 1925. An ulcer put the slugger into the hospital for five weeks. It didn’t slow him down much. In August, he was suspended and fined $5,000 for showing up late to batting practice after a night on the town.
That fall, Ruth admitted he had been “the sappiest of saps” in an interview with Joe Winkworth of Collier’s magazine.
“I am through with the pests and the good-time guys,” Ruth declared. “Between them and a few crooks I have thrown away more than a quarter million dollars.”
Ruth listed a partial toll. $125,000 on gambling, $100,000 on bad business investments, $25,000 in lawyer fees to fight blackmail. General high living cost another quarter million.
“But I don’t regret those things,” Ruth said. “I was the home run king, and I was just living up to the title.”
Megacards, The Babe Ruth Collection, 1992. Card 103, Babe and his 54-ounce bat.
Four dozen bats waited for Ruth at the Yankees St. Petersburg training camp in 1928, some of the dark green “Betsy” color that powered many of Ruth’s 60 homers in 1927 and the rest the slugger’s favored gold. The bats averaged 48 ounces, 6 ounces less than Ruth had formerly swung.
“At last I’ve got some sense,” Ruth told sportswriter and cartoonist Robert Edgren that year. “I used to think Jack Dempsey was foolish to train all the time—but Jack never got fat, did he?
“So this winter I’ve been keeping up a mild course of training most of the time. I’ve done a lot of hunting and on top I spend my spare time playing handball, wrestling and boxing in Artie McGovern’s gym. But the diet is the big thing.”
“You can’t be a hog and an athlete at the same time,” McGovern admonished the Babe. “You eat enough to kill a horse.”
Ruth followed McGovern’s advice that spring, slashing his meat consumption and loading up on fruits and vegetables.
“More important,” said Edgren, “he still has a boy’s enthusiasm for baseball.”
McGovern’s watchful eye and the lighter lumber kept Ruth at the top of his game. So did his marriage to the ever-vigilant Claire Merritt Hodgson. Between 1928 and 1931, Ruth homered 195 times and drove in 612 runs.
Megacards, The Babe Ruth Collection, 1992. Card 121, Claire Hodgson.
The well-curated and comprehensive 1992 Megacards set traces Babe Ruth’s career in 165 cards. The set is divided into specific sections, among them year-by-year summaries of his baseball career, the records he established, his career highlights and anecdotes and remembrances by family members and teammates.
Megacards, The Babe Ruth Collection, 1992. Clockwise from upper left: Card 9, Ruth pitches Red Sox to 24 wins in 1917; Card 16, wins batting title in 1924 with a .378 average; Card 22, knocks nine home runs in a week during 1930, including the longest ever hit at Shibe Park; Card 25, drives in 100 or more runs his 13th and last time in 1933.
Megacards, The Babe Ruth Collection, 1992. Top to bottom: Card 108, Ruth was the first player to hit 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 home runs in a season; Card 92, in 1934, Ruth led a group of American League players on a 17-game exhibition tour of Japan. A half-a-million or more fans watched the players parade through the Ginza on the second day of the expedition; Card 94, inducted into the hall of fame, 1939.
Megacards, The Babe Ruth Collection, 1992. The home runs. Clockwise from upper left: Card 72, First Home Run; Card 77, First Home Run in Yankee Stadium; Card 81, Babe and Lou combine for 107 homers; Card 93, Last Major League Homers.
Megacards, 1995, Babe Ruth 100th Anniversary
Megacards followed up its biography of Ruth with a 25-card set in 1995 to mark the 100th anniversary of the legend’s birth.
Megacards, Babe Ruth 100th Anniversary, 1995. Top to bottom: Card 5, 177 Runs Scored in 1921, Card 5; Card 12, Fishing with Lou Gehrig in Sheepshead Bay, 1927 ; Card 3, .847 Slugging Average in 1920. The Babe is pictured here with fellow sluggers Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Al Simmons in 1929.
Megacards, Babe Ruth 100th Anniversary, 1995. Card 11, the Red Sox pitching prospect threw nine shutouts in 1916.
Upper Deck, 2008, Yankee Stadium Legacy
In 2008 and 2009, Upper Deck marked the last season of the original Yankee Stadium by issuing an enormous 6,742 insert set, one card for every game played at the park or other historic sporting event that occurred on the grounds. Ruth is featured on many of the cards, either as a representative player for the day or because of a game highlight. The final card in the set documents Andy Pettitte’s win over the Baltimore Orioles on September 21, 2008.
Upper Deck, Yankee Stadium Legacy, 2008. Card 6742, Andy Pettitte.
The company also issued a more accessible 100-card boxed stadium legacy set. During his time with the Yankees, Ruth overshadowed all his teammates. Only Lou Gehrig pulled some of the spotlight away from the home run king. Still, it was a big shadow. “There was plenty of room to spread out,” said the Yankee first baseman.
Upper Deck, Yankee Stadium Box Set, 2008. Some of the Babe’s teammates.
Clockwise from upper left: Card 10, George Pipgrass; Card 5, Waite Hoyt; Card 9, Urban Shocker; Card 8, Earle Combs. Pipgrass led the American League with 24 wins in 1928. Hoyt won 23. Shocker won 49 games for the Yankees between 1925 and 1927. The speedy Combs scored 143 runs in 1932, one of eight straight seasons the centerfielder scored 100 or more runs. Most of the cards in the boxed set picture later members of the Yankee fraternity.
Upper Deck, 2008, Inserts, The House That Ruth Built
Upper Deck also distributed a separate insert set of 25 cards in 2008 under the title The House That Ruth Built. The first three cards highlight the 1923 season.
Later in the set, an eight-card sequence including numbers 8, 10 and 13, below, chronicles Ruth’s 60-home run 1927 season.
In a time of cellphone cameras and Instagram, it’s hard to remember that postcards were once the quick and inexpensive way to connect with friends and family.
Yankee Stadium’s early decades coincided with the postcard industry’s Linen Age. The cards were not actually cloth—a manufacturing process increased the amount of cotton fiber in the paper stock and created a canvas texture during printing. The ridges gave a soft focus to the cards and the higher rag count allowed deeper saturation of inks. Bright and vivid scenes with a wide palette of colors resulted. Yankee Stadium was a natural draw for the postcard manufacturers of the era.
Yankee Stadium, New York City. The Union News Co., 1937. Babe Ruth’s Opening Day home run would have landed in the lower left-center of this view.
Unattributed. Early view of outfield at Yankee Stadium in 1920s with flagpole in play.
“The Yankee Stadium is indeed the last word in ball parks,” wrote F.C. Lane of Baseball Magazine. “But not the least of its merits is its advantage of position. From the plain of the Harlem River it looms up like the great Pyramid of Cheops from the sands of Egypt.
“There is nothing behind it but blue sky,” Lane continued. “Stores and dwellings and the rolling hills of the Bronx are too far removed to interfere with this perspective…The Yankee Stadium stands out in bold relief and the measuring eye gives it full credit for every ounce of cement and every foot of structural steel that went into its huge frame. As an anonymous spectator remarked, viewing the new park from the bridge that spans the Harlem, ‘As big as it is, it looks even bigger.’”
Manhattan Post Card Publishing Co., New York City, Yankee Stadium, New York City, 1942.
The 1923 Yankee opener outdrew the rest of the American League openers, combined. More than one million fans passed through the turnstiles in the Bronx during the year. The count led the major leagues, but by a lesser margin than might be expected—the Detroit Tigers drew 911,000.
Acacia Card Company, New York, New York. Lights were installed in 1946.
The Yankees were one of the last teams in the American League to light their field. Only Boston and Detroit waited longer. “It’s not really baseball,” Lou Gehrig said of the nocturnal version of the game. “Real baseball should be played in the daytime, in the sunshine.”
Alfred Mainzer, New York City. A flag bedecked and sold-out stadium, 1951.
Upper Deck, The House That Ruth Built, 2008. The Last Appearances at Yankee Stadium. Top: HRB-24, Babe Ruth Day; bottom: HRB-25, Jersey Retired.
On April 27, 1947, Major League Baseball celebrated Babe Ruth Day at each of the seven games played that day (Detroit at Cleveland was postponed). 58,000 fans attended the event at Yankee Stadium. The other parks drew a total of 190,000 and the ceremonies were broadcast on radio around the world. Francis Cardinal Spellman delivered the invocation, describing Ruth as a sports hero and a champion of fair play. On the secular plane, Ford Motor Company gave the Babe a $5,00 Lincoln Continental.
The presidents of the National and American League presented Ruth a medal on which was inscribed the message “To Babe Ruth, whose tremendous batting average over the years is exceeded only by the size of his heart.”
Suffering from throat cancer, Ruth was able to muster a short farewell speech barely audible into the microphone. “There’s been so many lovely things said about me,” Ruth concluded. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to thank everybody.”
The New York Times said the ovation for the slugger was the greatest in the history of the national pastime.
Almost as an anti-climax, the Yankees retired Babe Ruth’s number 14 months later on June 13, 1948. But the cheers were still there. “He never received a finer reception,” wrote Oscar Fraley of the United Press. “It was a roar that sounded as if the 50,000 fans were trying to tear down The House That Ruth Built.”
The Sultan of Swat died an old man at the young age of 53 on August 16, 1948. His body lay in state for two days after his death at the main entrance of Yankee Stadium. Tens of thousands of fans paid their last respects to the slugger.
Megacards, The Babe Ruth Collection, 1992. Card 163, Game Called.
All images from the author’s collections.