Book Review: The House That Ruth Built
The House That Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923
By Robert Weintraub
Little, Brown, 2011
List Price: $26.99
In an era when it can take two years to pave a 10-mile stretch of highway, it's hard to imagine one of sports' iconic venues going up so fast that you wouldn't need time-lapse photography to monitor its progress. Despite all of the technological advances of the past nine decades, we still have nothing on the crew that erected Yankee Stadium in 284 days, in time for Opening Day 1923.
When Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston purchased the site in the Bronx in May 1921, they actually hoped their club would play there the following season. But construction couldn't begin until they got through the red tape of New York's corrupt Tammany Hall leadership. The chief sticking point was approval for a street closing that may have been delayed by Giants manager John McGraw and his associate Arnold Rothstein, better known for his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. McGraw's interest? Aside from his distaste for the way the Yankees were changing baseball, he and the Giants stood to gain an extra year's rent from New York's American League entry, who had rented time at the Polo Grounds since 1912.
On April 18, 1923, however, the Yankees had a ballpark of their own, christening the stadium with a 4-1 victory in front of an estimated crowd of 62,200. Babe Ruth, the toast of the town outside of McGraw's quarters, washed away memories of his disappointing 1922 campaign by homering into the right-field bleachers.
Though Ruppert and Huston's dreams of a new stadium predated their acquisition of Ruth, his impact made their investment a no-brainer. In 1920, his first year with the Yankees, attendance nearly doubled to 1,289,422. New York Telegram writer Fred Lieb was the first to offer up the term "The House That Ruth Built," the day before the 1923 opener. It lasted as long as the park did, and was appropriated by Robert Weintraub for his book on Yankee Stadium's birth and first season.
Weintraub devotes quite a bit of space to Ruth, for obvious reasons, exploring his 1921 and '22 postseason struggles that had many wondering if he was unable to perform when it counted most (and others actually writing him off as washed up). Ruth took his club's two straight World Series defeats by the Giants hard, dedicating himself to a life of clean living. Something worked, as he rebounded with a season more in line with his first two in New York.
McGraw, one of Ruth's most persistent critics, is also covered in great detail. The Little Napoleon owned New York before Ruth appeared on the scene, and he wasn't about to hand over the key to the city to a man he frequently referred to as a baboon, or worse. McGraw played an unwitting hand in bringing the Babe to town by helping to arrange Ruppert and Huston's purchase of the Yankees in 1915.
Ruppert and Huston were a mismatch from the start, often working at cross purposes, with Huston frequently undermining field manager Miller Huggins' efforts to discipline Ruth, one of Huston's many drinking partners. Huston was forced out in May 1923, less than a month into the season. Though he walked away with $1.25 million for his half of the team, it was a bitter pill for the longtime engineer who had done so much to keep the stadium project on schedule.
Weintraub alternates the chapters in the season recap portion of the book between the Giants and the Yankees, covering events in both leagues leading up to the third consecutive Big Apple World Series. While these pennant-race capsules are well written, the real strength of the book lies in the assiduously researched sketches of the chief players in the 1923 drama, and later in the retelling of the Yankees' first-ever World Series victory.
The era featured some of America's greatest sportswriters, and Weintraub taps the archives for contributions from Lieb, Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Heywood Broun and Ring Lardner, among others. Even McGraw and Ruth had (ghost written) newspaper columns back then, and these treasures allow Weintraub to bring the 1923 season vividly to life.
The Yankees have been a dominant force in the major leagues for so long that they rarely get cast in the role of the underdog. In the early 1920s, however, that was their lot, at least until a new stadium and a rejuvenated Ruth stirred up the order in New York.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org