Diamond in the Bronx: Yankee Stadium and the Politics of New Yorkby Neil J. Sullivan
Fans have a box-seat at the Stadium's first Opening Day: The stunning visual impact of the baseball's first true
No sport has mattered more to Americans than baseballand no team has had a greater impact on baseball than the New York Yankees. Now Neil Sullivan delivers a narrative worthy of his fabled subject, in this marvelous history of Yankee Stadium.
Fans have a box-seat at the Stadium's first Opening Day: The stunning visual impact of the baseball's first true stadium, the festivities, the players (including Babe Ruth who christened the Stadium with its first home run), and the game in which the Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 4-1. The Stadium was immediately known as "The House That Ruth Built," but Sullivan takes us behind the scenes to meet the politicians, businessmen and fixers who were even more responsible for the Stadium than the Babe was: Colonel Jacob Ruppert, the beer baron and Tammany Hall insider who bought the Yankees and built the Stadium; Mayors like Jimmy Walker who reigned during the Yankees first Golden Age, John Lindsay who fought hard for liberal causes in the 1960s but even harder for a refurbished Stadium, and Rudy Giuliani, who has taken a hard-nosed approach to most welfare but who supports a stadium subsidy for the Yankees. Here too are the great seasons including the cross town World Series rivalries with the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sullivan looks at the legendary players like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as well as lesser lights like Jake Powell to see their impact beyond the diamond. Along the way, Sullivan uses the story of the Stadium to examine issues ranging from racial integration and urban renewal to the reasons why New York City, even during tough times, has come to adopt the Stadium as a public obligation.
Neil Sullivan knows baseball and city politics and the connections between the two. In these pages, he tells how Yankee Stadium is not just the most revered venue in American sports, but also a part of urban history as compelling as the grandest baseball legend.
About the Author:
Neil J. Sullivan is a Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is the author of The Dodgers Move West and The Minors. He lives in Yonkers, New York.
"A prism through which to look at both the history of baseball and of New York City. A rich, lavishly researched book that one need not be a fan to enjoy. But for those of us lucky to be fans, what a treat! I could not put it down."Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball
"Sullivan is a fluent, learned, and impassioned student of the city's baseball affairs, but all of us across the country who are concerned about the connection between the sports business and our love of the game will learn something from the wisdom in this book."Bruce Kuklick, author of To Every Thing a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976
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Read an Excerpt
In a decade that celebrated a mythical America, the opening of Yankee Stadium on April 18, 1923, was a high point of the party. Between noon and the 3:30 start, more than 60,000 fans packed the great structure while another 10,000 were turned away by the fire department.
The day was blusterycloudy with temperatures barely reaching fifty degrees, chilled further by a persistent breeze. Some fans wore straw hats with their overcoats, and that curious mix of fashion captured both the excitement for the summer game and the reality of the raw weather. Babe Ruth cooperated by hitting a home run in the third inning, so shivering fans could leave early without missing a classic moment. Those who stayed were rewarded with a 4-1 Yankee victory over the Boston Red Sox.
The crowd pressing into Yankee Stadium on Opening Day was not drawn to the kind of neighborhood ballpark that has reemerged as an architectural fashion in our own time. The Yankees had built the first true baseball stadiuma structure intended to accommodate massive crowds and make a progressive and confident statement about baseball's future: Big was good; intimate was obsolete; and nostalgia had no warm memories yet to summon.
Fred Lieb, who coined the phrase "The House That Ruth Built," described the scene in the New York Evening Telegram. "Unlike the Polo Grounds, which is built in a hollow, the stadium can be seen for miles, as its triple decks grand stand majestically rises from the banks of theHarlem.Approaching it from the 150th Street viaduct one is impressed with its bigness. It looks only a short walk ahead, but as one approaches from Edgecombe Avenue he soon discovers it to be quite a hike."
The New York Times praised the Stadium as "a skyscraper among baseball parks. Seen from the vantage point of the nearby subway structure, the mere height of the grandstand is tremendous." The interior was equally impressive: "Once inside the grounds, the sweep of the big stand strikes the eye most forcibly. It throws its arms far out to each side, the grandstand ending away over where the bleachers begin. In the center of the vast pile of steel and concrete was the green spread of grass and diamond, and fewer ball fields are greener than that on which the teams played yesterday."
The assembly that day was a snapshot of America in the Roaring Twenties, a country fashioning tranquility after tumultuous years of class, racial, and ethnic violence. By 1923, the turmoil seemed safely enough in the past for the country to enjoy its apparent peace and prosperity. The 1920s were a time to find comfort in American fables: a nation secure in splendid isolation; a land of opportunity for all; a place where heroes could rise from the most unlikely settings. Opening Day was a wonderful opportunity to profess this faith.
The pre-game festivities included a grand military display. The Superintendent of West Point, General F. W. Sladen, was featured, along with his aide, Captain Matthew Ridgway, later a hero of World War II and Korea. Representatives from the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars paraded on the field in a tribute to the doughboys who had recently fought in the Great War.
Music was provided by the Seventh Regiment Band under the baton of John Philip Sousa, "wearing only a few gross of his medals." The March King may have been overwhelmed by the Stadium. Robert F. Kelley of the New York Post wrote that "the best indication of the immensity of the new plant was furnished by the music of the Seventh Regiment Band, working hard in the corner of the left field stands, with only snatches of the tunes reaching the crowd near the home plate. It was like hearing the music of a parade on Fifth Avenue from an office window on a cross street." Sousa led a parade of dignitaries to the center field flagpole where they played the National Anthem and raised the Yankees pennant from the championship season of 1922.
The notables then wound back to the area near home plate where the ceremonial first pitch was thrown. That honor went to Al Smith, New York's governor. The state's chief executive would have been an apt choice under most circumstances; but Smith was also a golden boy of Tammany Hall, and Tammany had played a central role in New York City baseball.
Smith represented the bright side of the notorious Society of St. Tammany, an institution that had been around since the American Revolution. Whether in the hands of thieves or noble Sachems, Tammany reflected the hopes of New York's working class, and Al Smith personified those aspirations. With only a grade school education, Smith fit perfectly the legendary description George Washington Plunkitt's of a Tammany man: "They have all the education they need to whip the dudes who part their names in the middle." No A. Emanuel Smith here. Al Smith was a New York original with a cocked derby, a cigar in the side of his mouth, and a voice like a bugle.
The governor's career is a great American story, but that was not enough to put the ball in his hand on Opening Day. The critical Tammany connection was Colonel Jacob Ruppert, who had bought the Yankees in a partnership in 1915. Ruppert was one of New York's high rollers who had inherited a family beer business and became a national spokesman for the industry. Beyond his wealth and social position, Ruppert had also been a four-term congressman representing the Upper East Side of Manhattan for Tammany.
These political ties were not casual associations. The inside information that a politically connected businessman could get concerning pending transportation routes, housing patterns, and public works could be decisive in securing wealth. Aside from public largesse, other policy issues affecting baseball included Sunday games and the use of the city police force to enforce order at the ballpark.
Success in the baseball business was almost inseparable from influence at City Hall, courtrooms, and the state capital. In New York, the early magnates of the Dodgers, Giants, or Yankees were generally either officeholders themselves or important figures within political clubs like Tammany.
This connection between baseball and politics was one of the great examples of "honest graft." In Plunkitt's classic explanation, "dishonest graft" consisted of "blackmailin' gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people etc." Plunkitt argued that such extortion was unnecessary because of the ample opportunities to get rich from inside information:
I'll tell you of one case. They were goin' to fix up a big park, no matter where. I got on to it, and went lookin' about for land in that neighborhood.
I could get nothin' at a bargain but a big piece of swamp, but I took it fast enough and held on to it. What turned out was just what I counted on. They couldn't make the park complete without Plunkitt's swamp, and they had to pay a good price for it. Anything dishonest in that?"
Ballparks required sizeable lots, located in densely populated neighborhoods or near transportation lines. Insider information gave public officials a great advantage in the baseball business. With an outlook like Plunkitt's, they could sleep the sleep of the just. The sermon on "honest graft" concludes, "If my worst enemy was given the job of writin' my epitaph when I'm gone, he couldn't do more than write: 'George W. Plunkitt. He Seen His Opportunities, and He Took 'Em."
In those days, the purpose of American government was very unsettled. Arguments were advanced for public ownership, management, or regulation of some private enterprise, but fear of radicals and communists seriously complicated the discussion. Through the boisterous debate, Tammany remained focused on helping its friends and punishing its enemies. This crude philosophy failed reformers' tests of efficiency, effectiveness, and equity, but it presented opportunities both to the poor such as Smith and the privileged such as Ruppert.
On Opening Day, at center stage in Ruppert's dream house, Smith threw the first pitch to Yankee catcher Wally Schang. On this day of grand possibilities, Governor Smith enjoyed an ovation that perhaps fueled his own aspirations of being the first Catholic president of the United States.
As the Yankees took the field to start the game, most eyes would have turned to the curious juxtaposition in right field. The minimal grounds were a mere 296 feet down the foul line, but they were occupied by the man who had transformed baseball into a game of brute power.
Al Smith represented the New Yorkers who were born in the city under tough circumstances, then battled to the top. Babe Ruth represented the millions who were born somewhere else, sometimes in unclear circumstances. These people had little reason to preserve the family lineage and every reason to look ahead at what they might accomplish in New York. Ann Douglas, including the Babe in her list of those who came to New York in the 1920s and defined an era, observed "the overwhelming majority of the artists and performers who became identified with what Fitzgerald christened 'the metropolitan spirit' were arrivistes, arrivistes filled with excitement and eager to escape their hometowns, the places F.P.A [journalist Franklin P. Adams] liked to refer to as 'Dullsboro.'"
In New York, Ruth established that if living in the moment is a virtue, then he was a saint. The man was pure appetite, and he was another of the wonderful distractions that assured people that the physical and sensual were sufficient. He "epitomized," Douglas wrote "the 'Watch meI'm a Wow!' ethos." For a nation that had spent itself wrangling over war, civil liberties, Bolshevism, and the Klan, Ruth was both a respite and a tonic.
As Robert Creamer put it,
Ruth was made for New York. It has been said that where youth sees discovery, age sees coincidence, and perhaps the retrospect of years makes Ruth's arrival in Manhattan in 1920 seem only a fortuitous juxtaposition of man and place in time. Nonetheless, Ruth in that place at that time was discovery. And adventure. And excitement. And all the concomitant titillations.
Ruth is sometimes accused of, or applauded for, ending "inside baseball." The game had been played through its first generations by scratching for a single runusing the sacrifice and the stolen base to get a runner around to third base where a single, another sacrifice, or an error could bring him home with the decisive run. The efforts of four or more batters to post that single run could now be matched in an instant by the most powerful swing in baseball.
Ruth's approach was certainly less complicated than Ty Cobb's or John McGraw's. To someone new to the gamechildren, perhaps a recently arrived immigrant, or a casual fan unfamiliar with the intricacies of baseballlearning the hit-and-run play took time and attention that may have been needed elsewhere. But, waiting for the Babe to come to bat, then enjoying either the home run or the strikeoutthat was fairly accessible. Babe Ruth made it easier to be a baseball fan than it had ever been before.
He added something else that was important in the 1920s. He added fun. The change from inside baseball to the home run was more than a switch from a cerebral game to a purely physical one. The game of Cobb and McGraw was brutally physical. Spikes and fists were all part of the tactics to push that precious run across. Cobb and McGraw were also angry men who seemed to take a warlike approach to the ballpark. They reflected the turmoil of the time while Ruth offered an escape. He was quick with a comeback and a smile. He generally could take a joke, even those of opposing players that pushed the most sensitive sexual and racial themes far beyond the bounds of decorum. (Ruth mistakenly was thought, even by some players in the Negro Leagues, to be part African American.)
Ruth seemed to be unburdened by celebrity. He loved the attention that the public and press gave him, and they appreciated simply his presence. On Opening Day in 1923, the veneer of this New York celebrity was showing some cracks. Ruth's first season in New York in 1920 was a sensation. He hit fifty-four home runs (no one before had hit even thirty), led the Yankees to their first pennant, and helped the club set an attendance mark by drawing a million fans to the Polo Groundsall as news of the Black Sox scandal broke. He followed in 1921 by breaking his year-old record with fifty-nine home runs, another pennant, and another million through the gate.
Ruth's 1922 season was relatively disappointing. He had defied Commissioner Kenesaw Landis by going on a barnstorming tour after the previous season, and his offense earned him a six-week suspension in April and May 1922. The Babe started slowly when he returned, and the fans were hard on him. The frustrating slump and the catcalls from the stands provoked Ruth's temper, including one instance in which he went into the seats after a heckler.
He returned to form during the last four months of the season. He wound up with thirty-five home runs, but lost the title to Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns, who hit thirty-nine. The Yankees again won the American League pennant, and again drew over a million; but some of the Babe's luster was gone.
The Yankees got the home runs, the brio, and the attendance, but they also got a self-indulgent young man who battled authority like a petulant adolescent. As long as the battles remained in the front office, the effects could be overlooked, but the 1922 season suggested to some fans and writers that, at the age of twenty-seven, the Babe's best days were behind him. The strong start in the new house allayed some of those fears. W. O. McGeehan of the New York Herald expressed a common concern. "It seems to me that the Babe got his results because he was a joyous and care-free youngster who walked to the plate with a laugh on his lips and a merry song in his heart and just batted the ball against the welkin [sky] with a careless swing." McGeehan was anxious that the fans and press had taken that joy from Ruth with potentially disastrous effects on his career.
After cheering for the Babe, the inaugural crowd would have been delighted to see Yankee shortstop Everett Scott take his position in the field at the top of the first. Scott had recently turned an ankle, but he shook it off to maintain a consecutive game streak that now reached 987. He had a fine Opening Day with a double in two official at bats along with a sacrifice bunt and four infield assists, including the front end of a double play. His streak would continue until it reached 1307, ending in May 1925. And, a couple of weeks later on June 2, Lou Gehrig would begin the run that would eclipse Scott.
We are warned by John Kieran of the New York Tribune that describing the game on Opening Day is "almost as pointless as noticing the bridegroom at a wedding." Nonetheless, Bob Shawkey pitched for the Yankees, and "Bob the Gob," a nickname from his naval service in World War I, was quite a sight wearing a red, long-sleeved undershirt that caught the eye even as the shadows lengthened in the late afternoon. Shawkey allowed only two walks, and he hit a batter. The first hit in the Stadium was a single by George Burns, the Red Sox first baseman. Burns later walked in the seventh inning, and he scored on a triple by Sox second baseman Norman McMillan. That was the only run for Boston as Shawkey gave up but one other hit on his way to a complete game.
The Red Sox countered with Howard Ehmke, who himself pitched well. He got into a jam in the bottom of the third inning that second baseman Aaron Ward began with a single to left field. Scott's sacrifice moved him to second, but he was tagged out at third after Shawkey grounded back to Ehmke. Shawkey advanced to second while Ward was pursued in a rundown. Leadoff hitter Whitey Witt, the center fielder, worked Ehmke for a walk. Shawkey scored on a single by third baseman Joe Dugan.
With two on and two out, Ehmke made the most common mistake of the era. In Grantland Rice's account in the New York Tribune, "A white streak left Babe Ruth's 52 ounce bludgeon in the third inning of yesterday's opening game at the Yankee Stadium. On a low line it sailed, like a silver flame, through the gray, bleak April shadows, and into the right field bleachers, while the great slugger started on his jog around the towpaths for his first home run of the year."
The three-run homer completed the Yankees' scoring for the day, and, with Shawkey's pitching, it secured the win. Before the game, the Babe had declared that he would give a year of his life to hit a home run, and at least part of the bargain was honored.
W. O. McGeehan understood the importance of Ruth's performance even if he saw a maturity that is almost comical to imagine. "[H]ere we have the Babe, a grown up and a person of great seriousness doing what the Peter Pan sort of Ruth used to do.... That home run on the first day means much to the Babe, and consequently much in relation to the prosperity of baseball. When the Babe was hitting them loosely and freely the customers were happy and the clubs were gathering in the profits. If the Babe had started badly it might have tended to discourage him. But on the first day, before the biggest crowd that ever saw a ball game, he sent out his first home run of the year."
McGeehan's faith in the Babe's "great seriousness" would be tested many times in the years ahead, but his grasp of the importance of the home run to the prosperity of baseball was on the mark. The short porch in right field was designed to take advantage of Ruth's power for the fans' enjoyment, and this feature of the Stadium became one of its most distinctive as the right field stands quickly became known as "Ruthville."
Joe Vila of The Sporting News completely missed McGeehan's insight. He characterized the right field design as a flaw. Describing the contours of the field, Vila wrote, "I doubt if a fly ball ever will be driven into the left and center field bleachers, but the right field seats fairly yawn for the home run hitters. In due time, however, when home running becomes a farce, the right foul line may be considerably lengthened by cutting off the extreme lower corner of the grand stand and by tearing down a section of the wooden rookery."
Vila was likely reflecting the purists' opinion that the home run was a cheap contrivance. His expectation that the Yankee owners would push back the right field stands to cut down the number of home runs ignored the explosion of attendance that had accompanied the Babe's home run barrage. Vila had failed to see the obvious: Home runs meant money, and no owner was going to tear down the source of his income.
The commercial significance of Yankee Stadium was evident from day one. Even the accurate count of 60,000 fans in attendance was far greater than any other ballpark drew for Opening Day in 1923. The Philadelphia Athletics hosted the Washington Senators before 21,000. The Cleveland Indians were home to the Chicago White Sox, and 20,372 turned out. The St. Louis Browns drew 20,000 to their opener with the Detroit Tigers. In other words, the first game at Yankee Stadium was roughly equivalent to all the other Opening Day crowds in the rest of the American League together.
The National League was only a little more competitive. Over 33,000 packed Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cincinnati Reds drew more than 30,000 in their opener against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Boston Braves managed to attract 15,000 to see their game with the New York Giants. And 12,000 passed up the festivities in the Bronx to attend Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers played host to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Cubs and Reds were able to draw about half of the Yankees' crowd, but Jake Ruppert's team had staked a position in the baseball business that almost no other franchise could hope to challenge.
Yankee Stadium reflected a conscious decision by Ruppert to take full advantage of being the owner of the most popular team in baseball. For three years, he had outdrawn the Giants in their own house and now he had built his own facility tailor-made to his ball club and its great star, but to call Yankee Stadium The House That Ruth Built is a serious exaggeration. The nickname endures to our own time, but it obscures the other elements that were also critical factors in the construction of this famous American building. If the Babe were the whole story the Red Sox could have taken advantage of their 1918 championship and the Stadium would have risen in Boston. As it was, the grand party of Opening Day was very much of the Bronx, where it reflected both the triumph of a once forlorn franchise as well as a startling transformation of New York City.
Meet the Author
Neil J. Sullivan is a Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is the author of The Dodgers Move West and The Minors. He lives in Yonkers, New York.
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I found the book informative. I learned many things about the Yankees that I did not know. However, at the beginning I had a difficult time retaining the information because there were so many changes in owners and managers, it made for not very interesting reading.