How a ballpark and Babe Ruth built a dynasty

Book review: "The House That Ruth Built," by Robert Weintraub. Little, Brown, $26.99.

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In 1922, the New York Yankees seemed fated to second place in the hearts of Big Apple baseball fans behind the tough, smart Giants of the "Little Napoleon," John McGraw.

McGraw, a hardened veteran of the violent and bloody years of baseball in the early 20th century, preached the gospel of "scientific baseball," micro-managing every move from the bench including the calling of pitches as he played for one run at a time. He scoffed at the Yankees and their slugging star Babe Ruth for cheapening the game with home runs.

Not only had the Giants defeated the Yanks in two straight World Series, but they were the team's landlord, renting the Polo Grounds to the American League franchise.

Things would change in 1923, as entertainingly told by sports writer Robert Weintraub in his breezy book subtitled "A New Stadium, the First Yankee Championship and the Redemption of 1923."

Owners Jacob Ruppert and the extravagantly named Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston spent $2.5 million to build a baseball palace in the Bronx with a 60,000 capacity. (The replacement stadium cost $2.3 billion).

The Yankee Stadium outshone the shabby cramped Polo Grounds while its short right-field fence favored Ruth's left-handed swing, hence the nickname. The park would attract enough fans to make the Yanks one of the most profitable in the major leagues.

The energized Yankees rolled into the Series that year against McGraw's crew again, but this time dumped the Giants in six games. The "Dynasty" was born.

Mr. Weintraub enlivens his book with a cast of remarkable characters, starting with the Babe himself whose appetites for food, drink and women has worn out the word "gargantuan."

The diminutive McGraw's biography inspired a handful of books on their own, but others proved just as entertaining. His center fielder Charles "Casey" Stengel, a 33-year-old refugee from Pittsburgh, was honing the comedy act he would play years later as Yankee manager.

He almost stole the spotlight in the '23 Series when he won the first game with an inside-the-park home run, "covering the last ninety feet in a limping, shuffling approximation of a run."

It was Ruth, however, who blasted McGraw's "scientific" theory out of the park with three home runs, legitimizing the long ball as the game's chief offensive weapon.

Oddly, Mr. Weintraub skips over the fact that the Giants repeated as National League champs in 1924, losing to the Washington Senators on a bad-hop single in the 12th inning of the seventh game. The Yanks would wait until 1926 to return to the Series.

However, this is a book about New York baseball in the 1920s, a sporting scene ripe with fascinating possibilities that Mr. Weintraub mines thoroughly for his spirited book.


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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