A Look Back

Home Opener memories

The most celebrated team in sports history has had many historical home openers. The New York Yankees opened the original Yankee Stadium in front of a reported 74,000 people. Yankee Stadium 2.0 opened in 1976 after a two-year exile at Shea Stadium while the Yankees building was renovated. And, of course, there is the brand new Yankee Stadium, which opened for baseball business in 2009.

Through all of the versions and locations that the Yankees have played, including the Polo Grounds (home of the NY Giants) and Hilltop Field (when they were the Highlanders), the Yankees have had numerous memorable home openers.

The House that Ruth built

What could be more memorable than the very first game played at the brand new Yankee Stadium? Babe Ruth hit the first home run in the new place and the “House that Ruth Built” was born (and was given the nickname by the New York Evening Telegram’s Fred Lieb). The three-run shot helped beat Ruth’s old team, the Boston Red Sox, 4-1.

The day started with all of the pomp and circumstance that you would imagine. Composer/Conductor John Philip Sousa led the renowned Seventh Regiment Band in playing “The Star Spangled Banner”. New York Governor Al Smith threw out the first pitch and future Hall of Fame honoree Bob Shawkey got the win with a three-hit complete game.

Godzilla invades New York

In 1934, Ruth led a group of Major League All-Stars to Japan to play a number of Japanese teams. (The book,
“Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan” by Robert K. Fitts is a great read). Nearly 70 years later, one of  Japan’s greatest ball players, Hideki Matsui, made his Yankee Stadium debut.

“Godzilla” had been a prodigious slugger as a member of the Yomiuri Giants before he signed a free agent contract with the Bronx Bombers prior to the 2003 season. The Yankees won five of their first six games they played before their first home game on April 8 against the Minnesota Twins.

The Yankees and Andy Pettitte held a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the 5th inning when Matsui stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. Twins’ starter Joe Mays probably wanted his pitch back after watching his 3-2 delivery sail into the right-center field bleachers. It was Matsui’s first home run as a Yankee.

It’s Great to be Back in the Bronx

With Yankee Stadium badly in need of renovations, the Yankees ventured out to Flushing Queens for two seasons at Shea Stadium. In 1976, the Yankees returned to their home in the Bronx with high expectations. In the time in between, the team had signed free agent starter Jim Hunter, dealt for second baseman Willie Randolph from the Pirates, traded for outfielder Mickey Rivers and starter Ed Figueroa from the Angels and hired Billy Martin as their manager.

The home opener on Tax Day, April 15, 1976, saw dozens of dignitaries in attendance. Among them were politicos – Governors Hugh Carey (NY) and Brendan Byrne (NJ), “Happy” Rockefeller, the wife of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Senator James Buckley and former Postmaster General James Farley, who had been in attendance at the 1923 opening. Of course, there were Yankees greats in attendance including Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra. Former Boxer Joe Louis and ex-NY Giant footballer Frank Gifford were also at the game.

First pitch honors went to the 85-year old Shawkey, who won the first opener 53 years earlier. He brought good luck to the refurbished Stadium. After being down 3-0, the Yankees rallied to an 11-4 win. Twins outfielder “Disco” Dan Ford hit the first home run in the new park but Oscar Gamble, Chris Chambliss, and Rivers knocked in two runs each and Dick Tidrow tossed five scoreless innings in relief for the win.

What’s With the Snow?

You might expect snow to postpone an April game in the midwest or Colorado but it’s less likely in NYC. In 1982, the tri-state area got pelted with a blizzard and the Yankees April 6 opener was postponed. Two days later, the rescheduled opener was called off as well.

The Yankees had to settle for a sparse Opening Day crowd and began the season with a doubleheader loss to the White Sox on Easter Sunday.

In 1996, it began snowing hard as the opener was being played. Then 23-year old Pettitte got the start, backed up by a rookie shortstop named Jeter. First year Yankee, Joe Girardi, was behind the plate. The Yankees won 7-3 over the Royals as Paul O’Neill, Jim Leyritz, and Mariano Duncan drove in two runs apiece.

The team went on to win their first World Series in 18 years in what was manager Joe Torre‘s first World Series appearance of any kind.

The 2003 opener was also canceled due to pending snow. That just delayed Hideki Matsui’s grand entrance in the Bronx.

A Split Season

1981 was not the best season for baseball. A player’s strike hit in mid-season causing a split-season playoff structure. The Yankees made it back to the World Series for the first time since 1978 but the Dodgers exacted some revenge by winning the Series in six games after being down 2-0.By doing so, they replicated the feat the Yankees performed against them in 1978.

But, before that all came to pass, there was excitement in the Bronx. All-Star Dave Winfield had joined the Bronx Bombers in what would be Reggie Jackson’s last season in New York. Hot pitching prospect Dave Righetti won the Rookie of the Year Award. Former Yankees shortstop Gene Michael got his first shot at managing.

Opening Day fell on April 9 against the Texas Rangers. Bucky Dent hit a thee-run home run early and Bobby Murcer blasted a pinch-hit grand slam late in a 10-3 Yankees rout.

The Yankees Went That Away

In 2009, the Yankees made the move across the street to the new Yankee Stadium. In the final game of the 2008 season, team captain Derek Jeter talked about how the great memories and traditions would be moving to the new ballpark. Bernie Williams performed on his guitar and Yogi Berra threw out the first pitch. New Yankee CC Sabathia made his Yankee Stadium debut against his former teammate and fellow Cy Young winner Cliff Lee.

While the day itself was glorious, the outcome of the game was not. Cleveland scored nine runs in the 7th inning in a 10-2 win. But, it was one game in a long season and the last game meant much more than the first one. The Yankees captured their 27th World Championship and first since 2000 with a six-game World Series victory over Lee (who had been traded at the deadline) and the Phillies.

The home opener a year later was made doubly special since the opponent that day was the Anaheim Angels. Matsui, who had won the 2009 World Series MVP Award had signed a free agent contract with the west coast team. The Yankees received their World Series rings and got to share the ceremony with their former teammate and friend.

The Yankees open at home this coming Monday, hoping to build new memories.

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