Remembering the First Opening Day at Four Iconic Ballparks
As another baseball season gets underway, let's look back at the Opening Day at four of the most storied stadiums to ever host America's Pastime.
1. Fenway Park, opened in April 1912
Fenway Park will celebrate its 102nd birthday this season, making it the oldest extant home of America's Pastime. It's included in the National Register of Historic Places, has seen countless renovations (and survived one near-demolition), and has basically become synonymous with the sport's longstanding tradition. But there was a time when Fenway was the hot new thing in both Boston and the larger baseball world.
The Red Sox moved to Fenway from their first-ever home, the Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds. That park was only a decade old at the end of the 1911 season, but featured a number of abnormalities—like a distance of 635 feet to straightaway center—and could seat only 11,500 fans.
Then-owner John I. Taylor purchased the land in the Fenway neighborhood in 1911, but he'd sold the team for $650,000 by the time the park opened the following year.
Over a month before the first game would be played at Fenway, new owner Jimmy McAleer and the Red Sox business manager took friends and sportswriters on a tour of the nearly-completed park. In a March 3, 1912 Boston Daily Globe article, one of those journalists, T H Murnane, admired what he had seen:
The best points of other ballparks were taken into consideration when the plans were drawn for the Boston Park and the fans will point to Fenway Park as really the finest there is today given up to baseball. Pres McAleer says there is not a single out about the new park, and that he longs for the opening day when the public will have a chance to see a monument to baseball in Boston.
Two weeks later, the Globe ran a seating chart that advertised a deal of $250 to secure one of the 95 new boxes for all 77 home games. A long list of prominent Bostonians who had already purchased their seats was included.
Before the Red Sox's run at the American League Championship could get underway, Fenway hosted an exhibition game between the home team and the boys from Harvard on April 9, 1912. An unusually cold spring meant that the college team had yet to even practice outside, but they held their own, falling 2-0 to the Red Sox in the flurry-filled game. But fans, their numbers limited by the snow and incompleted stands, got a first look at the new stadium. In the next day's Live Tips and Topics column, the "Sportsman" recorded a few observations:
How did you like the grandstand? It is a great thing to have an unobstructed view. You have to sit way back to have a post in your way, and then it is never more than one.
In the early era of the "bullpen" (though it wasn't yet called that), the author marveled at the fact that:
There is a splendid place for pitchers to warm up at the Brooklyn-av end of the grandstand, if the umpires do not consider it an infraction of the rules...Two or three home plates could be placed in this nook so that batters could warm up before a game, and then there would be no risk to spectators.
That was April 10. Four days later, shortly before midnight on the 14th, the Titanic sunk en route to New York. The news stole the front pages of newspapers across the country for days, including the Boston Daily Globe as the Red Sox's April 18th home opener at Fenway approached. But still, excitement for the park broke through. An April 17th article touting "All Ready For Opening" gushed over the scoreboard:
The scoreboard people have promised to have the electronic scoreboard in operation for the opening game. This is the most improved board made, Detroit being the only other club to have one of the same type.
And the next day the headlines practically screamed with excitement:
All Aboard for Fenway Park! Red Sox Home Today to Open New Field. Game Begins at 3 But There Will Be Plenty Doing Before That. Governor and Mayor to be There – Diamond Covers Used and Rain Must be Heavy to Interfere with Program – Highlanders the Opposing Team.
But uncontrollable factors were not yet done interfering with the grand plans for a celebratory opening of Fenway Park. Rain erased any hope of playing baseball on April 18, 1912, and it did so the following day as well, despite a tepidly hopeful headline: "Red Sox Will Try Again Today to Pry Lid Off New Park if Weatherman is Kind."
By the time the Red Sox and Highlanders—who would become the Yankees the following year—were able to bring Major League Baseball to Fenway, fanfare was scrapped in favor of expediency and continuing respect for the Titanic tragedy.
"There was no time wasted on childish parades," Murnane wrote on April 21. But even scheduled solemnity couldn't dull the spirits of the 24,000 fans who turned out.
The day was ideal. The bright sun brought out the bright colors of the flags and bunting that decorated the big grandstand and gave the new uniforms of the players a natty look. Before the game started, the crowd broke into the outfield and remained behind the ropes, forcing the teams to make ground rules, all hits going for two bases.
Days of rain had rendered the playing surface uneven and the game was filled with errors and miscues. But in the end, 11 innings after Mayor Fitzgerald threw out the first pitch, the Red Sox topped the Highlanders, 7-6.
A dedication ceremony for the new park was held the following month, on May 17, but by then Fenway had already opened—with a series of bad luck that belied the vibrant century of baseball played there to come.
2. Ebbets Field, opened April 1913, closed September 1957
Almost no trace remains of Ebbets Field. It's been demolished for over half a century and the baseball team that played there moved clear across the country. It lives on in legacy, but there was a time when Ebbets Field was a brick and mortar ballpark, and one worth marveling at.
The Dodgers, who were originally formed as the Brooklyn Grays in 1883, were practically an old team by the time Ebbets Field became their fourth home in 1913. Owner Charlie Ebbets had been buying up parcels of land in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood since 1908 until he owned the entire block on which the stadium would be built. On March 5, 1912 Ebbets broke ground in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 500 while Borough President Alfred E. Speers proclaimed that "Mr. Ebbets is doing a fine thing for Brooklyn in giving the city one of the greatest ballparks in the world."
Work began on Ebbets Field immediately and at the laying of the first cornerstone in mid-summer, the team planned to make use of it later that same season.
A July 7, 1912 New York Times article bore the bold headline: "Cornerstone Laid At Ebbets Field: New Baseball Park for Brooklyn, in Flatbush, to be Ready on Sept. 1." By August, the newspapers still promised an imminent opening. On August 14, the Times speculated that the Dodgers, or "Superbas" as they were often known in print, had played their last game at Washington Park, albeit with some skepticism:
Although the work on Ebbets Field has not progressed enough to make it a certainty that it will be ready for baseball on Sept. 4, President Ebbets declared yesterday that he feels confident that everything will be in readiness.
Everything was not in readiness. The Dodgers finished out the season at Washington Park, with their sights set on the 1913 season for Ebbets Field's grand opening.
Brooklyn was scheduled to start the 1913 season on the road, playing their opening series in Philly and not returning to New York until April 17. But President Ebbets was determined to get his new ballpark the opening day it deserved. That winter, the Times told of a battle waging between Ebbets and National League President Thomas J. Lynch. The Dodgers' President wanted his club to debut their new stadium with a unique opening day in advance of the rest of the league "so that all the club owners in the circuit could be present on the gala occasion and also attend the celebration which is sure to follow and wake up quiet, dignified Flatbush."
For his part, Lynch called the idea "absurd" and "ridiculous." But in the end, Ebbets got his way—his eponymous ballpark would open April 9, 1913, one day before the rest of the league.
Even before then, fans got a taste of Ebbets Field at an exhibition game against the Yankees on April 5 and the next day, the newspapers captured their rapturous reactions.
“Ebbets Field Has No Rival: New Home of Brooklyn Superbas Combines Every Idea for Comfort of Patrons," the New York Tribune headline proclaimed in an article that heaped praise upon the stadium:
Charles H. Ebbets, president and chief owner of the Brooklyn Club, has spared neither money nor constant care to add to the comfort and convenience of the ‘fans’ and players. Nothing has been overlooked.
Ebbets himself was the subject of much admiration for his hands-on role in the design of the park:
Erected as the cost of $750,000, the park includes everything that could be thought out by the fertile brain of a master in baseball. The grandstand is the pride of Mr. Ebbets, and of it he has good reason to be proud, as he practically designed it himself.
What was so great about the grandstand? The entrance was more like one of a theater than a ballpark —resplendent with marble, plate glass and brass railings and practical with ramps instead of stairs to accommodate the masses. The Tribune bemoaned that it was, in fact, too perfect:
Only one point is lacking to add to the comfort of all. There is not a single knothole in the whole blooming fence, for what with the great steel girders and solid concrete, the small boy will have to draw his own conclusions from the volume of noise that will arise from the inner battlements.
Although with ticket prices ranging from a scant 25 cents to $1.50, it's hard to imagine these days how one might be stuck on the outside. In addition to the enviable ticket prices, there was one particular feature that would strike modern baseball fans as peculiar:
Among the conveniences which will be found at the new park are a ladies suite, which is located on the lower tier of the main grandstand, consisting of a parlor, private retiring room, with maid, telephone and writing desk; a checkroom, where all articles will be checked free of charge, incoming telephone messages received and umbrellas loaned at the nominal charge of 10 cents.
That first game was so well-received, in fact, that it nearly negated Ebbets' hard work to secure a solo opening day. A Tribune article on the morning of the 9th commented with unfortunate accuracy that the day's game would be a "second grand opening for Ebbets Field as no bigger crowd could jam its way into the spacious stands than turned out to see the Yankees and Superbas play an exhibition game last Saturday."
As with Fenway, weather was to blame when a noticeably smaller crowd turned out for the official opening of Ebbets Field. The headline in the Tribune on the 10th declared, "Biting Wind and Error Spoil Brooklyn Opener."
Charlie Ebbets, who can spot a holiday in the distance quicker than any man living, must have been somewhat disappointed at the size of the crowd, which did not begin to fill the grandstand. There were ten or twelve thousand ‘fans’ on hand but the weather kept many of those away who had not purchased their seats in advance for the opening.
The fans that did make it suffered through a Dodgers' loss, with the Phillies error-produced run in the first comprising the only offense of the dreary day. But Ebbets Field was officially open for baseball and there would be plenty of opportunities for fans to cheer the Dodgers to victory before the park was relegated to fond memories.
3. Wrigley Field, originally Weeghman Park, opened in April 1914
When the Cubs take to the field at Wrigley on April 23 this season, it will mark the historic stadium's centennial. But 100 years ago, it was not Wrigley Field and it was not home to the Cubs.
On January 22, 1914, Charlie Weeghman, President of the Federal League Chicago Federals —better know as the "Chifeds"— leased land to build a ballpark at Clark and Addison streets. The one-year-old minor league had Major League aspirations for which the Chifeds would need a better home than the baseball grounds at DePaul University. However, the existing Major Leagues resented the attempted upstart and did everything they could to prevent building of the new stadium, including trying to buy parcels of the land for themselves. When that failed, an petition was circulated among nearby shop owners and residents to oppose the park. On February 22, the Chicago Examiner reported:
In the petition, the property owners complain that the opening of the park will cause a 25 to 50 per cent deprecation in the value of real estate and that Sabbath influences will be destroyed by Sunday baseball games. They also declare the park will be a nuisance.
Ignoring the petition, work began on the park the very next day, exactly two months before the Chifeds were scheduled to play their first game at Weeghman's eponymous stadium. And despite an early April construction workers' strike, everything was ready for the April 23 home opener—the Chifeds having started their season on the road to allow for the stadium's completeion. The Chicago Tribune article that day relayed the sense of curiosity:
A new ballpark, up to date in every particular, a new team, and a new league are ready for the first inspection of local fandom.
But there was one more roadblock. In response to the earlier petition, the team's officials had been tasked with securing approval for the park from surrounding property owners. And with the opening day upon them, they had fallen unintentionally short:
It was reported last night that the consent of nearly 1,000 more property owners of the neighborhood must be obtained before the Feds will be secure in their new park. Apparently everyone within 1,000 feet, or nearly three blocks, of the park must have his say in the matter, whereas the Feds have believed that only property owners immediately across from the four sides of the park need be consulted. It was said the Chifed agents were canvassing the district last night for the needed signatures. A permit for today’s game has been procured from the city officials, but the necessary consent of two-thirds of the neighbors must be obtained by Monday, so the rumor goes.
But it was just Thursday (the petition would eventually receive the necessary signatures—but you knew that) and there was a new ballpark opening that very day to celebrate. Among the festivities scheduled, the "Bravo El Toro" club of the north side had the most unusual plan:
Prior to the start of the contest the Bravo club will stage a bull fight on the ball field, provided a cow sufficiently meek and a “toreador” willing to brave the risk of being taken for a Mexican can be found.
The next morning, the Tribune reported that the intended bullfight had "fizzled" because the “fatted steer refused to get mad,” but everything else went off without a hitch:
Chicago took the Federal League to its bosom yesterday and claimed it as a mother would claim a long lost child. With more frills and enthusiasm than ever prevailed at a baseball opening here Joe Tinker and his Chifeds made their debut before a throng of fans that filled the new north side park to capacity…All Chicago cheered and the north side was maddened with delight.
The estimated attendance was 21,000 but many more clamored for a glimpse of the new park:
The windows and roofs of flat buildings across the way from the park were crowded with spectators…There was little doubt that it was an epochal day in the history of the national game.
Over 100 years later, it's a marvel what little hyperbole that statement contains. Weeghman Park became Wrigley and, soon after, an institution, but not without a few immediate improvements. All ballparks, especially if they survive the building of newer complexes around the country, undergo numerous renovations. But perhaps none so quickly as Chicago's north side stadium. Just four days after the first game the Chifeds played there, and a series in which an unusually high number of home runs was hit, the Tribune reported that while the team was away:
A squad of laborers with hammers and saws is expected to be at work today at the new north side park and the work is intended to prevent a lot of home runs tomorrow when the Baltimore club comes here for a series of three games. The laborers will be instructed to move the left field fence of the Chifed park back about eighteen or twenty feet and then put a wire screen on top of it so that any fellow who hits a ball over it in games hereafter will be deserving of a homer.
The fellows hitting homers in Weeghman Park would no longer wear Chifeds jerseys after that first year. For their second year at Weeghman, the team was renamed the Whales and despite clawing their way to a pennant, with the stadium earning a reputation as the best place in Chicago to watch baseball in the process, the Federal League disbanded after the 1915 season.
For his part, Charlie Weeghman fared well in the league's failure. He purchased the Cubs for $500,000, took his best players with him to the National League, and moved the team into his celebrated stadium for the 1916 season. The Cubs played their first game at Weeghman Park on April 20:
With every box seat sold and thousands turned away, and a gang of carpenters constructing a row of seats on the field in front of the stand, it looks as if Chicago’s Cubs are to experience the greatest opening they ever had in Chicago. Indications are that the north side park will be packed to the limit of its capacity on its very first day as the home of the Cubs.
4. Old Yankee Stadium, opened April 1923, closed September 2008
For ten years before they built their own stadium, the Yankees played as tenants at the Polo Grounds, which was owned by the older and more established New York Giants. But during that decade, the relationship between the not-even-across-town rivals festered. When the Yankees' new star, Babe Ruth, drew enough fans in his first year with his new team for the Yankees to outstrip their landlords in attendance for the first time in 1920, the Giants decided they had had enough.
Owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L. Houston considered several Manhattan locations as well as Queens before deciding on a Bronx plot, close to their current home. A New York Times article from February 6, 1921 detailed the news, complete with a prospective sketch and map. With the Yankees poised to start a new era —characterized by unprecedented attendance and with Babe Ruth at the forefront—it was hard to contain the hopeful excitement a new home for the team represented:
On this terrain will be erected a huge stadium, which will surpass in seating capacity any structure hitherto built for the accommodation of lovers of baseball.
The triple-decker effect is to be attained by the installation of a mezzanine floor, in addition to the upper and lower stands. This is a novelty in baseball parks, but is made necessary by the expectation of even greater patronage than that of the last season to be accorded to the Yankees in seasons to come. There will not be, it is promised, a single seat in the entire structure from which the whole playing field cannot be clearly seen.
The article touted the great lengths the Yankees' owners went to in an effort to expedite the building, such as having "engineers, architects and builders at work on the various problems that would have to be solved for each of the several plots that have been under consideration for many months." The hope at the time was that the stadium would be ready if not to start the 1922 season then at some point during the pennant race. As is often the case, however, the project took longer than expected and it would be another two years before the Times reported on the final dimensions of the massive stadium.
"Comparisons Show Yanks’ Park Larger: Will Have 20,000 Square Feet More Playing Surface Than Polo Grounds," read the headline on February 4, 1923. Bigger was not always better when your best hitter is famous for his home runs. But the article spared no time assuaging fans' fears about the Babe's prospective displays of power:
Judging from a profound study of a chart showing the comparative size of the Yankee and Giant playing fields, Babe Ruth is not going to be unduly embarrassed by the length of the fences at the new American League stadium in the Bronx. The Yankee park — that is, the fair ground part of it — will be some 20,000 square feet larger than its rival across the river in Manhattan, but the big bulk of this increase will be found in left field, left centre and right centre, — where the Bambino rarely directs his gunfire.
Besides, even with the extra square footage, Ruth remained confident as ever:
"I don’t see any fences there that I can’t hit over," remarked the Babe as he inspected the chart last week.
That same day, the Times published an article detailing how changes around baseball had increased the total capacity for fans, with much of this coming from the many new Yankee Stadium seats. When the park was complete, there would 15 baseball stadiums:
Of the fifteen parks the Yankees’ is by far the largest with a seating capacity of 65,000 which can be increased if the occasion, such as a world series, warrants the move.
Two months later, the Yankees played their first game at a stadium that would become synonymous with their incredible baseball dynasty on April 18. 1923. The Times captured the emotions of the day:
Down on the Potomac, close by the National Capitol, they are thinking about erecting an impressive monument to the national game of baseball. But in the busy borough of the Bronx, close to the shore of Manhattan Island, the real monument to baseball will unveiled this afternoon — the new Yankee Stadium, erected at a cost of $2,500,000, seating some 70,000 people and comprising in its broad reaches of concrete and steel the last word in baseball arenas.
No amount of fanfare could match how great that first game at Yankee Stadium actually was. The Times headline the next morning told a triumphant story:
74,200 See Yankees Open New Stadium; Ruth Hits Home Run. Record Baseball Crowd Cheers as Slugger’s Drive Beats Red Sox, 4 to 1. 25,000 Are Turned Away. Gates to $2,500,000 Arena Are Closed Half An Hour Before Start of Game.
The park's size was striking:
First impressions —and also last impressions— are of the vastness of the arena. The stadium is big. It towers high in the air, three tiers piled one on the other. It is a skyscraper among ballparks.
And the efficiency was remarkable, but it was the game itself that made the occasion such a celebratory one:
Governors, generals, colonels, politicians and baseball officials gathered together solemnly yesterday to dedicate the biggest stadium in baseball, but it was a ball player who did the real dedicating. In the third inning, with two teammates on the base lines, Babe Ruth smashed a savage home run into the right field bleachers, and that was the real baptism of the new Yankee Stadium.
It was reported that Babe Ruth said before the game "he would give a year of his life if he could hit a home run in his first game in the new stadium." Fortunately for him, he didn't make that same deal every game: It was the first of 259 home runs he would hit at The House That Ruth Built.