The House That Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923by Robert Weintraub
The untold story of Babe Ruth's Yankees, John McGraw's Giants, and the extraordinary baseball season of 1923
Before the 27 World Series titlesbefore Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter-the Yankees were New York's shadow franchise. They hadn't won a championship, and they didn't even have their own field, renting the Polo Grounds from their/i>… See more details below
The untold story of Babe Ruth's Yankees, John McGraw's Giants, and the extraordinary baseball season of 1923
Before the 27 World Series titlesbefore Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter-the Yankees were New York's shadow franchise. They hadn't won a championship, and they didn't even have their own field, renting the Polo Grounds from their cross-town rivals the New York Giants. In 1921 and 1922, they lost to the Giants when it mattered most: in October.
But in 1923, the Yankees played their first season on their own field, the newly-built, state of the art baseball palace in the Bronx called "the Yankee Stadium." The stadium was a gamble, erected in relative outerborough obscurity, and Babe Ruth was coming off the most disappointing season of his career, a season that saw his struggles on and off the field threaten his standing as a bona fide superstar.
It only took Ruth two at-bats to signal a new era. He stepped up to the plate in the 1923 season opener and cracked a home run to deep right field, the first homer in his park, and a sign of what lay ahead. It was the initial blow in a season that saw the new stadium christened "The House That Ruth Built," signaled the triumph of the power game, and established the Yankees as New York's-and the sport's-team to beat.
From that first home run of 1923 to the storybook World Series matchup that pitted the Yankees against their nemesis from across the Harlem River-one so acrimonious that John McGraw forced his Giants to get to the Bronx in uniform rather than suit up at the Stadium-Robert Weintraub vividly illuminates the singular year that built a classic stadium, catalyzed a franchise, cemented Ruth's legend, and forever changed the sport of baseball.
The whole baseball year of 1923 is the frame for Weintraub's elegantly constructed narrative...There is no nickname ever used for a player that Weintraub overlooks nor any colorful phrase now common in baseball that he doesn't cite...a treasure for the fan who cannot get enough.Booklist
Weintraub is a very lively writer: he makes it all fresh and newly intriguing, adding in a whiff of Damon Runyon's saltiness and introducing readers to some of the idioms of the era. Bracing and fun for all baseball buffs, whether or not fans of today's Bombers.Library Journal
Just when you thought there were no great seasons left uncovered or anything new left to say about Babe Ruth here comes The House that Ruth Built. Robert Weintraub has resurrected the 1923 season and showed us how it changed baseball that season and every season that has followed it. A perfect match of the team, the year, and the writer.Allen Barra, author of Yogi Berra and The Last Coach
Weintraub nicely infuses modern references...into his 1920s descriptions. The book is comprehensive, and Weintraub details everything from the construction of the stadium and the careers of Ruth and McGraw to a detailed season overview and deconstruction of the 1923 World Series.Publisher's Weekly
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The House That Ruth BuiltA New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923
By Weintraub, Robert
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Weintraub, Robert
All right reserved.
EARLY ON THE morning of Tuesday, December 26, 1922, a plain truck with DAILY BROTHERS stenciled on the side pulled up to a vast work site at 161st and River Avenue in the South Bronx. A man stepped out into the frosty air. He worked for a subcontractor of White Construction Company, the firm building the giant new Yankee Stadium. And the project was behind schedule.
The subcontractor’s job that chilly morning was to reopen a pit to expose a water main for inspection by the city. It was a typically frustrating delay in what was proving to be a winter of discontent for the builders. Visible breath spewed from the workman’s mouth as he huffed away, digging out the water main. He worked quickly, keen to escape the bitter cold and icy wind. He finished with his labor and was about to leave when he surreptitiously tossed something into the pit, hiding it under some loose dirt. The next day, the city inspector okayed the main, and the pit was closed, sealing the item inside.
What, exactly, the man threw into the open pit that would soon be filled by the most famous sporting ground in the country isn’t known. But, as noted in Harry Swanson’s informative work Ruthless Baseball, the worker did write, in the margins of records he submitted to White Construction, that he had buried something in order to bring luck to the Yankees. He didn’t elucidate on what it was. A horseshoe? A religious amulet? A Baby Ruth candy bar?
Whatever it was, it worked.
A few years before the anonymous worker dropped his totem into the pit, baseball had undergone a tectonic shift. The time before Babe Ruth became a New York Yankee in 1920 is known in retrospect as the dead-ball era. Practitioners and press at the time called the prevalent style Scientific Baseball. Runs came at a premium, earned with difficulty through cunning, aggression, and patience. They weren’t so much scored as crafted. The sacrifice hit, the stolen base, and the hit-and-run play were the pillars on which the game rested. So too the spitball, taking the extra base, and sliding with spikes raised. It was the baseball equivalent of the trench warfare going on in France. Nothing came easily.
Then along came the Babe. Ruth’s power at the plate combined with new rules that emphasized offense. After the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, which left eight Chicago White Sox players suspended permanently from baseball for conspiring to fix the World Series, the sport moved quickly to offset the bad press by enacting fundamental changes, with an eye toward attracting fans with a punchier, gaudier show. New, more tightly wound baseballs were produced. Smudged, dirty balls were tossed out immediately in favor of whiter balls that were easier for the hitter to see. Trick pitches that required foreign substances, like the spitball, the emery ball, and the mud ball, were banned. Fans were no longer required to throw balls back from the stands to be reused.
Taken cumulatively, the effect was explosive. As with the introduction of the forward pass in football or the twenty-four-second shot clock in basketball, baseball’s changes altered the game utterly. In 1918, the eight American League teams combined to hit ninety-eight home runs. Two seasons later, in 1920, Ruth alone hit fifty-four, more than all but one other major-league team. Ruth hit fifty-nine home runs in 1921, a display heretofore incomprehensible. But by now the long ball wasn’t solely a Ruthian phenomenon—seven other teams hit more than the Babe, and while no single player approached Ruth, five hit more than twenty. In 1922 the league topped one thousand combined homers for the first time. “The home run fever is in the air,” wrote prominent baseball chronicler F. C. Lane. “It is infectious.” With one big wallop, sluggers like Ruth could plate enough runs to win a game in a single blow.
And the crowds followed. The style of play embraced by the likes of McGraw, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and the other big stars of Scientific Baseball had excited few but the most hard-core fans. And after World War I and its trench-warfare horrors that included modern “advances” such as the machine gun and mustard gas, the very concept of “science” had taken on a negative connotation.
And, of course, the fans dug the long ball. In 1919 the Giants easily outdrew the Yankees at the park they shared, the Polo Grounds. But once Ruth arrived in New York in 1920, the crowds streamed through the turnstiles when the Yankees were in town, eager to witness the slugging sensation in person. The Yanks drew nearly 1.3 million fans in 1920, about 350,000 more than the Giants. In 1921 and 1922, the Yankees easily topped one million fans, while the Giants were drawing 973,477 and 945,809, respectively. The Babe was “as much a tourist attraction in New York City as the Statue of Liberty, Grant’s Tomb, and the Fulton Fish Market,” wrote baseball historian Lee Allen. “The sightseeing Pilgrims who daily flock into Manhattan are as anxious to rest eyes on him as they are to see the Woolworth Building,” the Times noted.
This was an intolerable situation for the prideful Mr. John McGraw, who not only managed the Giants but held an ownership stake. Sometime late in September 1920, McGraw and Charles Stoneham huddled in the owner’s suite at the Polo Grounds. It was at this meeting that the two men decided to evict their uppity tenants. One of them said, “The Yankees will have to build a park in Queens or some other out-of-the-way place. Let them go away and wither on the vine.” Most sources agree that McGraw is the one who said it, and it does sound like the crusty John J. But there is no definitive proof that it wasn’t Stoneham.
Having a home to call their own was always the agenda of the co-owners of the Yankees. As soon as the pair bought the club in 1915, they tried to buy the Polo Grounds in order to raze it and build a monster, 100,000-seat stadium at the site. The plan was scotched. Nevertheless, the dream lived on, and the eviction notice was the prod to fulfill it.
Due to Prohibition, it was a difficult time for Ruppert—one of the biggest beer makers in the country, the purveyor of the popular Knickerbocker Beer and other fine concoctions—to plow enormous funds into any project. The temperance codes ate steadily at Ruppert’s core business. The idea of a Yankee Stadium, a House That Beer Built, filled with fans drinking Jacob Ruppert Brewery products, had long been the colonel’s fondest wish. Now he had the means and the impetus to actually build his dream palace—and no one could buy his beer. It was a maddening turn of events.
To his credit, Ruppert refused to let Prohibition alter his stadium dreams. He decided the long-term profits from building a successful new ballpark would outweigh immediate losses caused by construction costs. At the same time he fought against Prohibition as fiercely as anyone in the country. He wanted beer, at least, to be kept legal; if liquor had to be sacrificed, so be it. Real beer, that is—the new laws did allow beer to be sold, but at such a weak alcoholic content that it scarcely resembled what Ruppert considered a worthy product. In 1921 he sued the U.S. government in order to raise the alcoholic minimum in the near beer and was unsuccessful. In 1922 he made waves accusing federal agents of accepting bribes to allow several of his rivals to sell real beer. For the length of Prohibition, he lobbied intensely to be able to sell a decent bottle of brew—and by all accounts obeyed the letter of the law. Meanwhile, the brewery switched gears to crank out syrup, soda bottles, and various other sundries in order to stay afloat during the length of the Volstead Act.
While Ruppert fought the Man, he and Huston scoured the boroughs for an ideal spot to build their dream home. One site north of the Polo Grounds at 225th Street in Inwood was “in the family,” having been purchased by previous Yankees owner Frank Farrell as a possible future home for the franchise. The land could be bought from Farrell—who was in ill health and in need of money—easily enough. But Ruppert thought the area too far a journey from the moneyed fan base on Wall Street and in midtown.
The owners looked at Queens next, surveying a site under the Queensboro Bridge (at 59th Street). This too was found wanting, leaving the borough baseball-free until the Metropolitans came to town in 1962. A downtown spot on disused Pennsylvania Railroad tracks was perfect—indeed, it would be discussed as a possible location for arena construction for decades to come. But before plans to build there got under way, the War Department nixed them. The site was to be used for antiaircraft emplacements to defend the city against the hard-to-figure possibility of aerial bombardment (the War Department was a bit dark about just who was threatening the United States by air in the early 1920s). Huston, a veteran of two wars and a man of influence in military affairs, burned up the telegraph lines lobbying his numerous military contacts in Washington, but he couldn’t sway the generals. Downtown was out.
The closest the colonels came to building in Manhattan was at Amsterdam Avenue, between 136th and 138th (near the current location of P.S. 325 and its playground), on a lot owned by the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. The orphanage was a century-old home that held nearly two thousand Jewish children in a massive self-sufficient building. But it was steadily losing ground to orphanages that housed kids in small, rural cottages rather than urban monoliths. Selling the lot to the Yankees would enable the orphanage to regroup for the foreseeable future and build more up-to-date homes.
A contract was drawn up to secure the site. But the execs at the orphanage wanted to build on land in the North Bronx and couldn’t get plans in order soon enough to guarantee a sale date to the colonels, who were eager to proceed. So the deal fell through, and Cap and Jake kept looking.
Time was running out on Huston and Ruppert. They needed to get the construction process started, or they’d be forced to beg the Giants to allow them to rent the Polo Grounds for another year—at no doubt usurious rates. Despair began to set in after the Hebrew Orphan Asylum deal fell through—Huston admitted to the American that he was “frustrated.” Then, from out of the blue, their perserverance paid off. A large lumberyard in the South Bronx, almost directly across the water from the Polo Grounds, became available. Ruppert and Huston couldn’t believe their luck. The land was an ideal spot to build a grand palace, right under the nose of John McGraw. McGraw scoffed at the project. “They are going up to Goatville,” he snapped. “And before long they will be lost sight of. A New York team should be based on Manhattan Island.”
Excerpted from The House That Ruth Built by Weintraub, Robert Copyright © 2011 by Weintraub, Robert. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Robert Weintraub is a frequent contributor to The New York Times sports pages. He is a sports columnist for Slate, and his writing has also aired on ESPN, ABC Sports, CBS Sports, and dozens of other outlets. His second book is The Victory Season, about baseball in 1946 and the end of World War II. He lives in Decatur, Georgia.
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