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The day the Babe built 'The House That Ruth Built'

New York Yankees' Babe Ruth is seen in

New York Yankees' Babe Ruth is seen in 1923. Credit: AP

The 118th Opening Day game in Yankees franchise history was scheduled to take place on Thursday in Baltimore against the Orioles. Free-agent signee Gerrit Cole was supposed to make his Yankees debut after signing a nine-year, $324 million contract.

It would have been a much-hyped event, with Cole’s presence guaranteeing interest beyond New York and Baltimore. But it would have been nothing compared to Opening Day in 1923, when the Yankees opened a new stadium in the Bronx against the Boston Red Sox.

It was April 18 and the Yankees were debuting their brand-new $2.5-million, triple-deck ballpark, which was called “the Yankee Stadium” in the newspapers.

On that day, it would quickly acquire another name — “The House That Ruth Built,” a moniker that was coined by sportswriter Fred Lieb.

Babe Ruth hit a three-run home run to rightfield in the third inning off Howard Ehmke as the Yankees won, 4-1, before an announced crowd of 74,217.  

A month later, it was revealed that the stadium had only 62,000 seats. But the inflated figure has held over time.

Fact and fiction have always mingled when it comes to the Babe. Did he really say before the game, “I'd give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in the first game in this new park”? Whether he did or didn’t, all eyes were on Ruth, and he came through in a big way.

“There was something about the man that he’d always rise to the occasion and make the fans happy,” Marty Appel, a baseball author and historian and a former Yankees public relations director, said in a telephone interview this week. “He didn’t disappoint anyone when he homered on Opening Day ’23 and just put his seal on this being a game of monumental significance.”

Yankee Stadium was an edifice the likes of which had never been seen. It was built in less than a year after the Yankees were forced to move out of the Polo Grounds — which they shared with the Giants — by the Giants.

Whether in Manhattan’s Polo Grounds or across the Harlem River at Yankee Stadium, fans wanted to see Ruth. And they wanted to see him hit a home run.

As James Crusinberry wrote in the New York Daily News the next day: “If the game had been rehearsed it couldn't have been staged better.”

And the legacy of that day lives on into the current century. The bat Ruth used to hit the historic home run — which he later that year gave to the winner of a Los Angeles high school hitting competition — sold at auction in 2004 for nearly $1.3 million.

“There was so much about the day that was historic that it didn’t even need a Babe Ruth home run to seal it in the history books,” Appel said. “They inflated the attendance. But nevertheless, it was the biggest crowd to ever see a baseball game. The stadium itself had been built in less than a year. It was a remarkable construction achievement.

“Everything about it was magnificent that day, with American flags in prominence all over the place and dignitaries throwing out the first pitch. Even a John Philip Sousa band playing, which I remember thinking when I read that, ‘John Philip Sousa was still around?’ But he was. (The great American composer died in 1932 at age 77.) It had just a sense of dignity and excitement going for it even before the first pitch.”

The first and last pitch was thrown by Bob Shawkey. The righthander threw a three-hitter in a game that took 2:05.

Shawkey returned in 1976 to throw out the ceremonial first pitch when the Yankees opened a refurbished House That Ruth Built. A crowd of 52,613 watched the Yankees beat the Minnesota Twins, 11-4. Dan Ford of the Twins hit the only home run.

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