Thursday, May 26, 2011

#28: The House that Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the first Yankees Championship and the Redemption of 1923 by Robert Weintraub

Hatchette Books, 432 pp 2010

Robert Weintraub does an excellent job in this text of exposing what many people (non-baseball history types, or, 97% of the population) do not know about the NY Yankees. Babe Ruth arrived in NY in 1920, in a trade looked at by several writers as a mistake (Read Rob Neyer's great book Big Book of Baseball Legends for several nice articles about the Babe).  Between 1920 and 1922, the Yankees won the AL pennant in 1921 and 1922, only to lose in the World Series to the NY Giants. Before Ruth's arrival, the Yankees (AKA the Highlanders) posted 5 winning records in 17 years. When Yankee Stadium was built, it was immense, larger than any other baseball stadium. It pissed off a lot of people, including a lot of folks in baseball. Why? It was a gold mine with 60,000 seats. Weintraub tells us that Waite Hoyt, a teammate of Ruth's and longtime Cincinnati Reds radio announcer, told his kids to thank God and Babe Ruth. Ruth was the attraction, and only a stadium as large as Yankee Stadium could accommodate him

More, and this is where Weintraub's book excels, is the battle of style and will between Ruth and John McGraw, manager of the Giants. Ruth fundamentally changed baseball. In 1920, Ruth hit 54 home runs. The second, third and fourth highest totals for a player that year (George Sisler, Tillie Walker and Happy Felsch) combined to hit...50. In 1921, Ruth hit 59, with the next highest players tied at 24. This was anathema to McGraw.

John McGraw came to the majors in the 1890s and played third base with the old Baltimore Orioles. The 1890s were a time period of downright thuggery in baseball, and McGraw was one of the chief thugs. Not that we wasn't a good player, he was. He could hit a little and excelled at getting on base and scoring runs. McGraw was small (5'7 and 155 pounds) but never met a fight "he didn't like or could win" according to his teammate Wee Willie Keeler. When McGraw managed, he was the Bobby Knight of his time: foul mouthed, pugnacious, irascible, intensely loyal to old players who played hard and merciless to those who he thought did not give everything they had. But, he won. McGraw took over the Giants in 1902, and by 1920 won 5 NL pennants and the 1905 World Series. In truth, his world series losses in 1911 and 1912 could be chalked up to some bad luck and errors.

McGraw's teams stole bases and played "scientific baseball", what now would be called "small ball". Before Ruth began to hit home runs and a lot of games were decided by scores of 3-2 or 2-1, this made sense. As McGraw's teams won the series in 1921 and 1922, two things happened:

1. Ruth wasn't Ruth. In 1921 and 1922, he hit 94 homers in 262 regular season games. He hit only 1 in 11 world series games and hit .212. "Throw him slow stuff and the big idiot falls all over himself," McGraw said. Weintraub's description of McGraw baiting Ruth is first rate.

2. In 1921 the Giants had two player (first baseman High Pockets Kelly and catcher Oil Smith) hit more than 10 home runs. The Yankees had only two as well...but Ruth and Bob Meusel outhomered the entire Giants team.

This was the direction the game was going. When the Yankees won the world series in 1923 (Ruth played well, and it was a redemption for him), more people started looking for power in the lineup. One common trap that Weintraub tends to avoid in this text is using the 1923 series as an example of how baseball passed McGraw by. It didn't; McGraw's health began to fail in 1924. He hung around until 1932 and he adapted. Between 1924 and 1932, his Giants teams led the National League in home runs 5 times, with Ed Ott using the short right field porch in the Polo Grounds to tremendous advantage. This book is a great introduction to the importance of Babe Ruth not only in baseball history, but also within a pop culture context.

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