It’s April 12, 1983. The Yankees are hosting the Tigers for their home opener in front of a capacity crowd settling in and anticipating the game’s first pitch. New York’s star left-hander and former Cy Young Award winner Ron Guidry obliges and throws a strike to Detroit second baseman Lou Whitaker. The resulting raucous roar is almost seismic in its intensity.
The scene on the field is unmistakable: The Yankees, in their pinstriped home white uniforms, are stationed at their defensive positions under a bright sun amid scattered clouds as the baseball comes back to Guidry on the mound. The setting and the subjects combine for an iconic snapshot of vintage Americana — the annual rite of Opening Day for the most storied franchise in baseball history.
Meanwhile, Yankee Stadium is empty.
The only sound that can be heard at the venerable “House That Ruth Built” is the No. 4 train rattling by beyond the upper deck in right field. It’s an eerie sight on Opening Day, with 57,545 royal-blue seats conspicuously vacant.
Why? Because the Yankees aren’t playing in New York on this day. Nor are they playing in any other Major League city. They’re playing 1,800 miles away, in Denver, Colo.
Nearly 40 years later, we can look back knowing that this never actually happened. But it very nearly did.
This is the story of how George Steinbrenner — the most famous owner in the franchise’s long history and one of the most famous and controversial owners in baseball history — tried to take the Yankees “on tour.”
“He had a grand scheme,” said former New York City Parks and Recreation Commissioner Gordon Davis, whose department was essentially the Yankees’ landlord in the Bronx. “His grand scheme was to turn the Yankees into a national team.”
While the Yankees have been known to be called “America’s team” at times, this was something altogether different. The circumstances leading to such a plan arose when the city discovered cracks in concrete stairs and expansion joints along the left- and right-field lines at Yankee Stadium. According to Steinbrenner at the time, the city informed him that the repairs may not be completed before the scheduled home opener for the 1983 season, on April 12.
But that wasn’t the case, according to the Parks Department, which claimed to have notified Steinbrenner that the repairs would be completed by Feb. 28, more than a month before the scheduled home opener.
Meanwhile, Steinbrenner began arranging to play the first home series of the season at an alternate site. In looking at a map of the continental United States, his gaze settled on the Rocky Mountain region, specifically a city which had been attempting to land a Major League franchise for decades, and had a stadium that could seat more than 80,000 fans.
The history of baseball in Denver and the Rocky Mountain region overall is a rich one. In fact, baseball is older than statehood in Colorado. For many years, the Denver Bears had been an affiliated Minor League team — in 1983, they were the Triple-A club for the White Sox, but among many other prior partnerships was one with the Yankees, in 1947 and again from 1955-58.
The city of Denver was still trying to land that MLB franchise, and baseball-starved fans were elated once rumors of the Yankees coming to town began to surface. After all, with the Bears’ former affiliation with the team, there were a lot of Yankees fans in the Mile High City.
“The fans here had an ongoing fondness for the Yankees because we followed a lot of players who went on to play for them after playing here in Denver,” said Roger Kinney, the former director of the Colorado Baseball Commission, which was formed to lead the drive to bring Major League Baseball to the Centennial State.
“Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Marv Throneberry — who won three straight home run titles with the Bears — were all stars here before they moved on to New York. There were some terrific teams in the late ’50s.”
The match made great sense for Denver, but it made a lot of sense for the Yankees, too. Steinbrenner had some friends in Colorado who could help make it happen, including Bob Howsam, a Denver native and Branch Rickey protege who was the architect of the “Big Red Machine” Reds teams that won back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and ’76.
Howsam was the president and general manager of the Bears from 1947-62, when he led the effort to build what was then known as Bears Stadium before being expanded for the American Football League’s Broncos — who were founded by Howsam himself — and renamed Mile High Stadium.
Needless to say, the idea seemed perfect to Steinbrenner: a giant stadium in a city hungry for Major League Baseball, and the potential to revive the old barnstorming days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who actually came to Denver on one such trip in 1927. And Denver may have been just the tip of the iceberg (mountain?) — Steinbrenner was also looking at playing games in New Orleans, according to Davis.
But New York City wasn’t going to let its beloved Yankees get away that easily, even if it was for only a handful of games. The Yankees had signed a contract with the city that included a provision stating the club would play all of its home games at Yankee Stadium through the year 2002.
The city also had an unlikely ally on its side who made things easier as things got serious.
“In a remarkable moment of lawyering, on the night before Steinbrenner was going to execute the contract to play games in Denver and New Orleans, his lawyer called us,” Davis said. “He said, ‘If you’re going to go to court to stop this, you better go now.”
That lawyer was Bill Shea, the man for whom Shea Stadium was named.
“He thought that what George was doing was terrible for the city,” Davis said. “So he gave us a heads-up and we went to court the next day.”
Steinbrenner hired another prominent New York attorney, Roy Cohn. Cohn played a key role in obtaining a conviction of suspected Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951, and was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer during McCarthy’s infamous 1954 hearings regarding suspected communists. He later became a mentor to real estate tycoon and future U.S. president Donald Trump, and represented many other high-profile figures in New York.
“Cohn called me directly, and I said, ‘You can’t call me directly — you need to call my lawyer,’” Davis said. “He said ‘[Forget] your lawyer, I don’t want to deal with opposing counsel; you and I can settle this.’”
There was no settlement, and on Nov. 10, 1982, the Yankees announced they would open the “home” schedule of the ’83 season in Denver.
Ultimately, the case was placed in the hands of acting New York Supreme Court justice Richard S. Lane. Lane, armed with an affidavit from city engineers who inspected the repairs taking place at Yankee Stadium, didn’t mince words in his opinion.
“Viewed as objectively as possible,” Lane wrote, ”it would appear that Mr. Steinbrenner, ignoring the good faith efforts by the city to satisfy his needs, was grabbing a pretext to take his team to greener pastures, i.e., a larger stadium and a populace with an unfulfilled yearning for Major League Baseball.
“ … The Yankee pinstripes belong to New York like Central Park, like the Statue of Liberty, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, like the Metropolitan Opera, like the Stock Exchange, like the lights of Broadway, etc. Collectively they are ‘The Big Apple.’ Any loss represents a diminution of the quality of life here, a blow to the city’s standing at the top, however narcissistic that perception may be.”
Three months after the court decision, the Yankees did, indeed, open their home schedule at Yankee Stadium against the Tigers. In a 13-2 loss, Guidry was hit hard and Detroit’s lineup enjoyed a 16-hit barrage to spoil Opening Day in the Bronx.
How might history be different if the Bronx Bombers had become the “Colorado Yankees” for three days in April 1983?
“If the Yankees would’ve come, that would’ve probably given us another good chance at getting a team earlier than it actually ended up happening,” Kinney said. “But it just didn’t work out.”
Four decades on, Colorado has their long-awaited Major League team. The Rockies have been around for 29 seasons and the fanfare for their arrival was epic, resulting in a Major League record attendance of 4.4 million in the franchise’s inaugural 1993 season.
The Yankees, of course, are still in New York. And they’ve done alright for themselves since 1983 — five World Series championships isn’t too bad. But Denver would ultimately receive some pretty significant contributions from two members of the Yankees organization at the time.
A 22-year-old right fielder at the club’s Low-A affiliate in Oneonta of the New York-Pennsylvania League decided to give up baseball despite hitting .318/.432/.464 in 42 games during the 1982 season. He decided he wanted to play pro football — John Elway led the Denver Broncos to a pair of Super Bowl titles in 1998 and ’99 as part of a 16-year Hall of Fame career.
And the Yankees signed a veteran slugger and former American League MVP to be their designated hitter in 1983. His name was Don Baylor, and a decade later, he would become the first manager in Colorado Rockies history.
The “Colorado Yankees” never happened. Still, it’s fun to think of what might’ve been had a judge not gotten between an irresistible force and an immovable object in the Big Apple. Perhaps no anecdote better sums up the saga than the story of one morning in early 1983 at Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel, where Steinbrenner and Davis happened to be dining for breakfast at different tables.
“He came up to me and wagged his finger in my face and said, ‘The problem with you is you don’t understand business,’” Davis remembers. “And I said, ‘George, the problem with you is you don’t understand contracts.’”