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Building the House That Ruth Built

Tue September 30, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Mary Reed

Yankee Stadium is affectionately known as The House That Ruth Built, but in an era when construction relied largely on steam shovels, pile drivers and cranes augmented by muscle power, it was in fact White Construction Company Inc. of 95 Madison Avenue, N.Y., that did the building.

And what’s more, they accomplished the job in only 284 days.

The New York Times reported on May 6, 1922, that White Construction competed against 40 bidders to win the contract, which was signed without fanfare or ceremony on May 5, 1922.

Construction began the next day.

The New York Yankees and the New York Giants had been sharing the Polo Grounds across the Harlem River from the site of the new stadium for some years, but by 1920 the relationship had become strained, particularly when the Yankees drew bigger crowds after their acquisition of slugger Babe Ruth. In August 1920 the New York National League Club refused to extend the Yankee’s Polo Ground rental lease arrangement and as a result, after a special meeting of members of the American League in Philadelphia, it was decided the Yankees would build their own ballpark.

The contract to build the stadium had two important stipulations: White Construction had to complete the job in time for the opening of the 1923 season and the two Yankee owners insisted that the total costs for their new park would not exceed $2.5 million, which would include land, land improvements, legal documents, permits, design, supervision and construction.

“The stadium was supposed to be done in no more than 180 days, and White and Osborn thought it was possible to do it in 150,” said Harry Swanson, author of Ruthless Baseball: Yankees Purified by Fire, Stadium Construction (Authorhouse, 2004) and an authority on the construction of the stadium. “However, the delays were many. Among them were change orders brought about by the owners, a national railroad strike delaying steel shipments, a local labor strike, NYC permit issues, cash flow problems for the Yankees, and a cash crisis at White Construction.”

“These issues were such that the Yankee owners requested American League president Ban Johnson to delay the start of the season a week because the stadium wasn’t ready. Johnson and the league owners agreed,” Swanson added.

Three locations were considered, and the chosen site was a total of 12.25 acres of rural land purchased from William Waldorf Astor for $620,000. A 10-acre parcel would become the stadium site at 161st Street and River Avenue, and 2.25 acres some way down and across 161st Street was set aside for parking.

Clearing and grading of the site was already completed before White’s contract was signed. The unknown local firm that handled the job had been hired by Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston and Jacob Ruppert, co-owners of the team since 1915 and the men who would foot the bill for the new stadium. Site preparation had been accomplished with the aid of horses and wagons, ropes, levers, and similar tools wielded by crews of workers. Clearance work was carried out by steam shovels. The material was removed by truck along pre-made haul roads. In addition, site elevations had to be raised because of flooding issues, given the land was only a few hundred feet from the river separating the Bronx and Manhattan.

Once the contract was signed, all was ready for White to begin surveying and to bring in building supplies for the task ahead.

Despite this promising beginning, there had been legal difficulties right from the start. “Road closings were a major issue,” Swanson said. “They were what’s called paper roads, dirt only. On the day the owners purchased the property they announced that if they could get approval on the road closing, they would build the stadium in time for the Yankees to host the 1921 World Series in their new park.”

It took more than a year for the team owners to get permission to close these streets, as authorization had to be obtained not only from the city but also from the Astor family, which owned most of the nearby property.

Originally known as the White Fireproof Construction Company, the contractor was one of the earliest to use reinforced concrete. The company motto was “Let White Build It Out Of Concrete.”

But this was not White’s only innovation. G. Edward Escher, company president and later chairman, was later involved in developing the inundator, widely used in the 1950s for the measurement of sand for concrete.

Designed by Bernard Green of Osborn Engineering Company, the stadium featured a steel and concrete grandstand boasting a mezzanine. When a game was sold out, about 60,000 fans — including those standing — could watch the game. However, the Yankees played up opening day crowds by telling the press that 74,000 had attended the first game.

“The stadium as designed exceeded the NYC height code requirements, and Osborn’s answer was the smaller, pushed-back mezzanine level,” Swanson observed. “This avoided angering the city and causing more delays. Ruppert corrected all statements about the stadium being three tiered, noting it was in fact a two tier park with a mezzanine level.” Ironically, Osborn Engineering had also been responsible for the design of the Polo Grounds.

Double shifts of workmen were employed to meet the deadline. Approximately 500 worked on the job and no accidents are recorded.

Construction of the stadium involved the removal of 45,000 cu. yd. (34,405 cu m) of earth and the laying of 116,000 sq. ft. (10,777 sq m) of sod. Work crews used 800 tons (726 t) of rebar, 2,300 tons (2,087 t) of steel, 950,000 ft. (289,560 m) of lumber for the bleachers and another 600,000 ft. (182,880 m) for the grandstand — not to mention a million brass screws.

The wooden seating was milled on site, the metal castings used to bolt them down having been manufactured by the Troy Foundry of Troy, N.Y.

“George Cornell was paid $1.50 a seat to complete their installation,” Swanson said. “This involved drilling the metal casting to the concrete floor, installing and screwing the wood slats, and then applying one coat of primer and two coats of paint. Most were replaced in 1945 because of weathering.”

Yankee Stadium’s iconic copper frieze also was manufactured on site and raised into position by the use of electric and gas motors running the cables lifting up the frieze. It was then bolted to the outer edge of the upper deck roofline and painted white by painters on scaffolds hanging from the roof supports.

“The frieze was painted because if it had been left unpainted it would turn green from oxidization. White matched the color scheme for the stadium,” Swanson said.

True to their motto, White Construction poured 20,000 cu. yd. (15,291 cu m) of concrete, utilizing reinforced Edison Portland Cement. It used 180,000 94-lb. (42.6 kg) bags during construction.

A question that puzzles some fans is why the center field is so large. According to Swanson, at that time baseball was designed to keep the ball in play. “They considered it boring if it went over the fence. There would be no plays at any bases,” he explained. “Ruth changed all that. Fans loved watching his long drives over fences.”

Although White Construction met its deadline and kept costs below the required amount, friction developed between the company and the team owners. “By the time the stadium was completed in midsummer 1923, the parties were not talking to each other,” Swanson revealed. “The project had been hammered by NYC right from the beginning. The Yankee owners had enemies. Particularly higher ups in the corrupt political group in Tammany Hall. In fact, White Construction was still submitting paperwork for payment in September of 1923.”

But as all fans will agree, the game is the important thing. It’s said when Babe Ruth first saw the new stadium he rightly observed that it was “Some ball yard!” and it was the legendary Ruth who inaugurated the stadium in fine style on April 18, 1923.

For the first game in the new facility the Yankees played the Boston Red Sox before approximately 60,000 fans, beating the Sox 4-1 with Ruth hitting a three-run home run.

During construction a worker reportedly buried a good luck charm in a water main trench. Swanson confirmed this story is not urban legend. “The worker was an employee of Daily Brothers, who had dug up a water main under change order # 7 and were waiting for NYC approval. On December 26, 1922, the workman involved buried an empty lunch time bottle — it was probably a beer bottle — to bring luck to the club and the struggling construction project.”

The jury is still out on whether the hidden talisman exercised any influence on what is widely regarded as one of the most exciting opening games in baseball, but history records the Yankees won their first World Series championship that season — by beating their bitter rivals, the N.Y. Giants. CEG

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