April 18 – Happy Birthday to the original Yankee Stadium

On April 18, 1923, the most famous stadium in baseball history first opened its gates. To die hard Yankee fans like myself, the original Yankee Stadium was a shrine. Two years ago at this same time, the YES Network cameras kept shooting scenes of that shrine during televised Yankee games being played in the new site, showing the once regal “House that Ruth built” in an eerie state of partial demolition. It was upsetting to see it like that.

I’m a bit embarrassed because I’m not exactly sure of the date I attended my first game at Yankee Stadium. It may have been 1961 but it was probably more likely in 1962. I can guarantee you that we left Amsterdam at 4:00 AM that morning and drove down to the Bronx in my Uncle Jim’s 1951 two-door Lincoln coupe. As we drove down the Deegan past the George Washington Bridge I will never forget the exact moment the brown stone facade of the Stadium first became visible.

I know that we were one of the first cars to park in the outdoor lot that used to sit directly across from the old Stadium. I’m sure we went to Jerome’s, a cafeteria-style restaurant that was located kitty corner to the Stadium and that I was able to take perhaps two total sips from the fullest, hottest, and strongest cup of coffee I had ever had in my then short lifetime.

I remember getting in line in one of those old ticket kiosks that used to encircle the Stadium and being startled by the sudden sound of the kiosk’s window opening as tickets for that days game went on sale. I remember wondering how the tallest and fattest ticket agent that I’ve still ever seen managed to get inside the telephone booth sized structure without me seeing him do so. I will never forget my Uncle, who to this day has never been able to make a decision on his own, kept asking the impatient agent question after question about the best places to sit to see the field, be out of the sun, buy a hot dog and get to the bathroom. I remember my Uncle finally buying three field box seats, halfway between first base and the right field foul pole giving the guy a twenty-dollar bill and actually getting change.

I remember how disappointed I was when my Uncle told me we still had a few hours to wait before the Stadium gates actually opened for that day’s double-header with the Senators. I don’t remember if we headed back to Jerome’s to wait or took the subway to downtown Manhattan because we ended up doing one or the other whenever my creature of habit Uncle took us to a game. But what I do still remember, as if it was yesterday morning instead of over 45 years ago, was after finally getting inside running up the ramp to the field-level box seat section behind home plate and for the very first time seeing that beautifully manicured green grass field and that huge Centerfield scoreboard with the Ballantine Beer logo.

The Yanks swept the double header that day. My Uncle bought me a yearbook and I used the money my parents had given me for a souvenir to purchase a package of five by eight glossy photographs of each player on the Yankee team. I remember reading every page of that Yearbook, including the ads, during the long ride home. And as we made our way back upstate and afternoon turned to nighttime, I remember squinting my eyes in the darkness of the backseat of my Uncle Jim’s big Lincoln to stare at my black and white photos of Mantle, Maris, Ford, Skowren, Richardson, Berra, Howard and the rest of the Bronx Bombers. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

Fortunately. I’ve had the chance to relive the magic of that moment quite a few times when both of my sons, my wife and my two daughters each made their first visits to Yankee Stadium. My last of what has been over 100 trips to one of my favorite places in the world took place in June of 2008, when my two sons treated me to a Yankee game as a Fathers Day gift. As usual, I had a blast.

I’ve been to the new place across the street and it certainly is magnificent. But for me, Yankee Stadium will always be the place where Ruth changed the sport forever; where Gehrig considered himself the luckiest man on Earth; where the great DiMaggio roamed center field; where Mantle and Maris chased destiny; where great Yankees like Murcer and Mattingly kept alive the Pinstripe pride during long absences from postseason play; where young kids like Jeter evolved into Hall of Famers and where the Yankees won their first 26 World Series.

April 18th is also the birthday of this former Yankee pitcher and this long-ago Yankee outfielder.

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