TWO DOTTY OLD women shuffled along, their heads bobbing slightly, their eyes a little glazed. One wore a plain black shift, the other a camel suit and wool hat. No one recognized them, but they were led to a dugout box. The two never exchanged a word, never even a glance, and that fit neatly into the legend: everyone knew that years ago Mrs. Babe Ruth and Mrs. Lou Gehrig had had a feud which split their husbands' friendship. And, the old story continued, it wasn't healed until 1939 when Ruth, in an open-necked shirt and blindingly white double breasted suit, threw his arms around the dimpled, still-uniformed, dying Gehrig before a packed Yankee Stadium.
Regularly clicking open her compact, rolling more lipstick onto each sufficient coat of it, clicking it closed, Mrs. Ruth gazed around the park. Out on the field, not far from her stood Joe DiMaggio, walled in by adoring reporters. Joe Louis stood close. Strolling around the new grass, having a swell time like college kids in Fort Lauderdale, were Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. Clutching a black cane Toots Shor watched the men on the field. It must have seemed impossible to Toots that DiMaggio was 61, or that Mantle and Ford were entering middle age: they were kids when Shor was a legend. Now that they were legends, and Dan Topping wasn't even remotely related to the Yankees, what was Toots? An old man.
In the upper decks, dozens of old men claimed that they had been in the park the day the Babe housebroke it with a home run, April 18, 1923. Younger men claimed that they watched the day Mantle hit the ball that almost was the only one to clear the stadium, still rising when it smashed against the third deck tier, 565 feet from home plate.
Shuttling into the ballpark, New York Democratic State Chairman Patrick J. Cunningham strode quickly, hoping after weeks of indictments and political tightrope-walking, to be lost in the crowd. He had built the new stadium as much as anyone, profited more than most. Cunningham was general counsel to the Yankees as well as party chairman, and there were those (most cogently, Jack Newfield of the Village Voice) who said maybe he had mixed his functions, more than a little. "The stadium is going to cost the city $24 million and six judgeships," New York's city council president had said in 1971. On opening day, 1976, Cunningham had been indicted by the New York Special Prosecutor for involvement in the sale of judgeships, but the $24 million figure had been shortsighted. The estimated cost for the renovation of the stadium was now $101 million.
CUNNINGHAM SKIMMED BY a mob which had collected in the freakish April heat and packed itself against the gates of the ballpark, pounding on the walls and demanding to be let in. The ticket-takers had not negotiated their contract in time for the scheduled opening and when the management begged them, they said nothing doing. No one was moving and the thousands of privileged fans who had waited two years to see the redecorated ballpark weren't getting to their seats. From high above, a thirteen year old boy looked down from a ramp. Obviously he had connections, for he had gotten in early, and was waving his arms at the crowd like a dauphin who thought that the storming of the Bastille was a celebration of his coming coronation. He yelled and took snapshots.
The crowd was not happy with the situation. They began to shout and ram the gates, demanding entrance. Teenaged boys scratched their initials and some dirty words into the new paint on the closed gates. This upset a woman in a powder blue pantsuit so that she began to yell, "Stop defacing the beautiful new stadium! Stop it; do you hear!" Pat Cunningham scurried into the V.I.P. entrance to the ballpark. The woman in the pantsuit began to demand that her husband do something about the vandals, whose activity grew more impassioned. Her husband shrugged his shoulders, and as his jacket lifted with his body a revolver showed itself on his hip. "What could I do?" he asked.
The short, charismatic television newsman Gabe Pressman moved in to interview fans. Soon after, the gates opened and the crowd began to seep in. The ticket-takers had agreed to work but clearly had conspired a slowdown--they were reading the small print on each ticket before tearing the stub. Some waiting ticketholders tried to appeal to Pressman but he had gone around to interview the short, charismatic city councilman, Father Louis Gigante. Father Gigante contended that if the city had not wasted so much money rebuilding the stadium, it might have stopped several schools and hospitals from closing down.
FROM AN EXECUTIVE box in the stadium, George Steinbrenner's despotic eyes roamed his realm as the president of the Yankees watched the heroes on the field. Steinbrenner had been for-bidden by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to run his own club for two years after a conviction for giving illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. During spring training, Steinbrenner had for-bidden his players to grow their hair too long or bushy so that they could learn to appreciate the tradition of playing in pinstripes--some wise guy commented that he'd like to see Steinbrenner in horizontal pinstripes. Steinbrenner's most recent indiscretion was in trying to foist an illegal contract on a pitcher he wanted named Andy Messersmith. Messersmith caught on and signed with the Atlanta Braves.
Down below, in the open-air boxes, the governor of New York, sat with ten of his twelve children. Within a week he would allow Patrick Cunningham to proceed with his quest to get himself re-elected state Democratic chairman, legal problems aside. There were those who implied that Governor Carey's decision was affected by the fact that Cunningham's counsel in a key legal fight was Edward Bennett Williams, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and close friend of Democratic National Committee chairman Robert Strauss.
Sitting alone with a single friend, a couple of dozen rows behind the governor was Congressman Mario Biaggi who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1973. His raincoat was folded neatly over his knees. "So many happy days for me here," he said looking lonely. "So many great memories and smiles. It's a wonderful park."
Just then Whitey Ford was introduced. Everybody cheered. Then Yogi Berra and everybody laughed and yelled. Then Mickey Mantle and the Stadium stood and made that noise thousands of people make when they greet a hero. Finally, Joe DiMaggio's name came over the expensive new sound system, paid for by money that had gone through George Steinbrenner's fingers and Pat Cunningham's. The small enclosed city stood as a unit for the great DiMaggio. Governor Carey, Cunningham, all of them stood.
Robert Merrill, the Metropolitan Opera singer did the national anthem, and Bobby Richardson, the nimble second baseman of the early sixties talked about Jesus Christ. Next the new Yankees took the field against the Minnesota Twins. They hit the ball all over the new park, beat back a 4-0 deficit and won the game 11-4. George Steinbrenner told the newspapers that he wanted to see 100,000 people in his new park by the end of the three game series. He got his wish.