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Books | Sports

May 28, 2011

Babe Ruth's New Digs

Robert Weintraub looks back at a pivotal moment in New York baseball history, when the Bambino and the Giants did battle each fall for world supremacy.

Joseph Ax

Here's the thing: We Yankees fans, deep inside our pinstriped hearts, know we're kind of insufferable. That's what nearly 90 years of virtually uninterrupted success will produce in a baseball fan base. (And yes, I'm aware that the latter sentence only serves to reinforce the former.)

Robert Weintraub. Photo by <a href=''>Liz Stubbs</a>.
"This city wasn't big enough for Babe Ruth and John McGraw. The Polo Grounds wasn't big enough for both of them."

Robert Weintraub. Photo by Liz Stubbs.

That state of affairs—the Yankees as baseball royalty, and their fans as snooty subjects—would have been unimaginable to New Yorkers at the conclusion of the 1922 season. The Yanks had just lost their second straight World Series to their Polo Grounds landlords, the Giants, in humiliating fashion; their so-called savior, Babe Ruth, was viewed as a colossal choker; the construction of the mammoth Yankee Stadium was falling hopelessly behind; and the team's co-owners, Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston, could barely stand each other.

But, as Robert Weintraub argues persuasively in his colorful book, The House That Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923, the 1923 season might be the most momentous in Yankee history. The franchise moved into its new home, the team went on to beat the Giants to win its first championship, and in the process Ruth established his primacy, once and for all.

The very soul of New York baseball was at stake, personified by the battle between Ruth and the irascible John McGraw, the manager of the Giants and the undisputed king of New York City before 1923. McGraw emerges from Weintraub's account as a study in contrasts: a revolutionary figure who was the first manager to sit in the dugout (as opposed to the sidelines), chart pitches, use game film, and alternate lefties and righties in his lineup; and yet a stubborn adherent to the dead-ball-era style of play that relied on stolen bases and sacrifices. The home run, in McGraw's eyes, was an "abasement—a cheap, undignified method of scoring runs," Weintraub writes.

In that sense, there was far more at stake in 1923 than the future of the Yankees franchise. Indeed, the sport itself was being redefined, both on and off the field. As Ruth's home runs changed the way teams approached winning, the Yankees' new home represented the monetization of the sport.

In the following interview, which took place over a plate of fish and chips and has been edited for space and clarity, Weintraub remembers forgotten characters such as Til Huston and Pep Youngs, dissects John McGraw's managerial style, and wonders how things could have turned out differently.

Gelf Magazine: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

Robert Weintraub: I was sort of casting about for a subject to write about. I had about 20 interesting ideas, tending towards the obscure. I said, "Before I send this to my agent, let me take one last look at Baseball Encyclopedia, to make sure I didn't miss anything." I noticed that the Yankees and the Giants played three World Series in a row—1921, '22, and '23. I looked at it a little more, and I realized these were the years when the Giants and their "dead-ball era" style got phased out by Babe Ruth, when the Yankees won in 1923.

The Giants fought off the Yankees and their power game for a couple of years, and those years were really important to John McGraw. When the Yankees beat the Giants in '23 and took it away from him, that was his lowest day. I'm a huge Yankees fan, I grew up in New York, I know a lot of baseball history, and I didn't know that. So I just kind of threw it in at the end, and my agent said, "Yeah, that's the one." And it wasn't until later that I realized, the year the Yankees won, that was their first World Series and the first year in Yankee Stadium. And then when I realized that Babe Ruth had such a terrible Series in '22, and how the press climbed all over him, and how he was kind of the A-Rod of the Prohibition era, that was fascinating to me—you think of Babe Ruth, and you think he never had a bad moment on the field. Off the field, he had plenty, but on the field, he just went from brilliant moment to brilliant moment.

Gelf Magazine: The book starts out focusing on Ruth's poor performance in the World Series in 1922 and the frenzied reaction from sportswriters, and I immediately thought of A-Rod as well. And since you write for Football Outsiders, I know you must be a sabermetrics guy, so…

Robert Weintraub: Small sample size, right? But when you're Babe Ruth and A-Rod, and you're the highest paid player in the game, and you're putting up all these stats—in the case of the Babe, unheard-of stats that literally changed the game—you're expected to perform at a World Series level. That's why they're paying you the most money.

Gelf Magazine: The prevailing wisdom is that the press today is much crazier, because you've got blogs, sports talk radio, and so on. But you show that the press was just as fickle then.

Robert Weintraub: There's more of it now, but they were just as quick to criticize. After every single game in 1923, the whipsawing that goes back and forth—the Giants win, John McGraw is a genius, and the Yankees can't do anything about it. Then Babe Ruth hits a couple of home runs, flips the script around—and the Yankees are great. It's something in the nature of media.

Gelf Magazine: Some things never change. And then again, the world that baseball inhabited in 1923 was obviously very different than today's world. But there are some aspects—like media coverage—that share a lot of similarities.

Robert Weintraub: I was looking for that, too. You want a modern reader to relate, and the media is a big part of it. They were the only eyes on the game. Most fans couldn't make their own judgment on the games. They didn't even have radio until that series, basically. So the guys who were covering it almost covered it more as theater, as a dramatic performance, and they wrote to match. For me—some people might not like it, but I love it—that overarching, lavender, purplish prose, it's just great and adds so much.

Gelf Magazine: You quoted a lot of the writers: Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Fred Lieb.

Robert Weintraub: If I'm going to go to the New York Public Library for seven days straight and almost go blind looking at microfilm, I'm going to put in the good stuff. And letting the reader know how they described it is part of the story. This is how they felt about the action, and they had outsize importance, because they were the only ones to record history. When they gave a nickname to Irish Meusel, even though he was German, he became Irish. The power of the press was incredible back then.

Gelf Magazine: You uncovered just an endless stream of wonderful anecdotes and compelling characters that will be new to almost any fan. What were some of your favorites?

Robert Weintraub: That's a tough one, because there are a lot of good ones. The story of Pep Youngs—he was kind of like the Giants' Lou Gehrig. Lou Gehrig joined the Yankees that year, in 1923, and obviously was the Yankee's tragic figure. He died of this terrible disease. The Giants had a player, very similar but almost unknown now, a Hall of Fame-caliber player, one of John McGraw's favorite players, and a guy who in his time was considered the equal of Babe Ruth or Tris Speaker. And he was struck down by this disease out of nowhere that nobody understood. It was interesting to find out how he was viewed at the time.
I also really enjoyed counting all of the fistfights that took place: player-player, player-manager, player-fan. Maybe it's the bloodlust in me, but I thought it was so fun to count them all. The fact that McGraw got into so many of them—he got into a million of them but he never won one.

Gelf Magazine: McGraw really comes to life in your book.

Robert Weintraub: Today he'd fit right in—he's a classic Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, control-everything, Type A, detail-oriented kind of guy. At the turn of the century in the dead-ball era, when he first came to prominence, that was unheard of. He was light years ahead of everybody.
He's a really complex character. He's easy to write off as an old-school martinet who could only see things one way. But away from the field, he was a really caring guy. He had a whole bunch of old cronies, old fighters and gamblers down on their luck, whom he carried financially and gave jobs to. He was always the life of the party, a big drinker even through Prohibition. He was well-spoken and an educated guy—even though he didn't go to college until later, he made a point of getting an education. He was 180 degrees different than his on-field personality.

Gelf Magazine: Despite the title, your book is really not a Ruth book, or even a Yankees book—the narrative is really the clash between McGraw and Ruth, the Giants and the Yankees, with Yankee Stadium as the backdrop.

Robert Weintraub: The whole story is really about the two men clashing—their ways of life, their styles of play, the way they viewed the world. It was basically a gang fight between the two of them. This city wasn't big enough for the two of them. The Polo Grounds wasn't big enough for both of them. McGraw kicked out the Yankees and Ruth because he was so popular. So they built their own place and bested them, and that really ate at McGraw's liver. It's a personality story, first and foremost. I open the book with McGraw and the Giants refusing to dress at Yankee Stadium. They dress at the Polo Grounds, walk across the river, play, and then walk back. That's insane. Who would do that? But that's how much the two franchises hated each other and how much the personalities hated each other. Ruth is the bigger name, because that's how history went. But it could easily have been McGraw.

Gelf Magazine: How do you expect readers to feel about Ruth and McGraw after reading the book?

Robert Weintraub: I think they'll come away with a new appreciation and a liking for John McGraw. At first, I was thinking, what a dick this guy is. But I really found out just how complicated and interested a guy he was.
I think everybody has an opinion on Ruth and his basic back story. Whether they'll like him more or less, I think they'll come away with a greater appreciation for him. He had a huge amount of pressure on him. I think that gets lost a bit, because he was so great, it came so naturally to him, and he went through life doing whatever he felt like doing at all times, damn the consequences. That's true in a macro sense, but in a micro sense, when he walked into Yankee Stadium for the very first game, that was a huge amount of pressure on him. Coming off that terrible World Series—with everyone writing him off, a lot of people hoping that he would fail, and a huge new stadium built on his back—he delivered. There's something to be said for that. I don't know if people will like him more, but they might respect him more, if that's possible.

Gelf Magazine: And you make the argument that the advent of Yankee Stadium was a reflection of New York's own emergence as the country's foremost city.

Robert Weintraub: You're talking about a period of explosive growth. Wall Street and the financial district were running the show. John McGraw really introduced that part of society to baseball, and then when Ruth came in, you're talking about baseball becoming incredibly popular for the first time ever. When Yankee Stadium was built, the owners, Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston, they had an eye on the long view, not just the Babe Ruth era. They could see the money that baseball could bring in, and they followed the New York credo—the bigger, the better. There's no shame in buying your way to fame and fortune, and they did that. But Yankee Stadium was a big risk. And the Bronx was a nothing place. "Goatville" was what McGraw called it. The Bronx grew because Yankee Stadium was built, not the other way around.

Gelf Magazine: Huston—there's a name I did not know. You're a Yankees fan—

Robert Weintraub: Never heard of him.

Gelf Magazine: Never heard of him, right?

Robert Weintraub: Jacob Ruppert—most Yankees fans have heard of him. There's a monument. There's Ruppert Place. He's got it all. And Til Huston? He sold out just in time for the dynasty to begin. I think I compare him in the book to the fifth Beatle. I feel bad for him, because he's such a fascinating guy, and in a lot of ways the driving force behind Yankee Stadium. It's not really fair to say that Yankee Stadium wouldn't have existed without him, because it would have been built in some way or form, but the Yankee Stadium that we know owes a great deal to Til Huston.
There's no official memory of him, there's no plaque in his name, and no one remembers him. He basically just disappeared off the face of the earth.

Gelf Magazine: The project itself was astonishing in scope, right?

Robert Weintraub: Just the fact of how it came to be is so interesting, because the Giants made it happen by kicking the Yankees out. The Yankees would have eventually built their own stadium. But it wouldn't have happened the way it did, with the Yankees having a stadium right across the river from the Giants and sticking it in their eye for 30 years.
It proceeded in fits and starts. Arnold Rothstein got involved and delayed it for a year. The biggest gangster in New York screws them with Tammany Hall and forces them to go back and pay rent to the Giants for another year. Then they finally build the stadium, and it dwarfs the Polo Grounds.

Gelf Magazine: Did you find yourself wondering how things could have turned out differently?

Robert Weintraub: As with most history, a counterfactual is easy to come up with. Inevitably, the Yankees would have been successful—they had money, they had Babe Ruth. But the fact that Yankee Stadium got built right then, not only in the prime of Babe Ruth's career, but when baseball and sports were exploding in the public consciousness, when people had money for the first time, just before the war—you had this grand figure married to this great ballpark, and that's a powerful connection.
If the Giants had been a little more patient, and the Yankees had been a little bit worse, it could have turned out a lot differently, and the Yankees dynasty might not have been what it was. The stadium gave the Yankees a lot of resources. They were able to scout players that other teams couldn't. If the Yankees don't have that kind of money, maybe they don't go to California to sign Joe DiMaggio and the other guys who formed the next dynasty. It could easily not have happened.

Gelf Magazine: How do you feel about the new Yankee Stadium?

Robert Weintraub: I understand why it was done, but I certainly didn't like the fact that it happened, and of course I hate the fact that you have to take out a second mortgage to go there. There's expensive, and there's Yankee Stadium expensive. It's really a shame, because when I was in high school I could go with the money in my pocket. A whole generation of fans could go and experience it for themselves, and I think that could be lost.

Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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Article by Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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