Books: “The House that Ruth Built”

April 30, 2011

“Jumpin” Joe Dugan, who spent a few seasons as Babe Ruth’s teammate, had this to say: “To understand him, you have to understand this. He wasn’t human.”

I get that. Ruth may not have had it all — he wasn’t much of a base stealer — but he had more of it than anyone else. There’s no point in arguing about it. I love Aaron, Mays, Banks, and Mantle as much as the next fellow, but none of them went 94-46 with a 2.16 ERA before becoming one of the best hitters in history  and a fine outfielder to boot. In addition to that, his bombastic personality and his enormous charity revitalized a flagging game in a way that no one else could have done, making his name familiar to people around the globe — down to our own time — no matter how much or how little they know about baseball.

I get that. John McGraw didn’t get that. McGraw was the manager and a part owner of the New York Giants, and he was by reputation one of the best skippers ever. He believed in “scientific baseball,” which was the only way to play the game successfully in the dead-ball era. McGraw was all about place-hitting, bunting, stealing, studying your opponents and taking advantage of their weaknesses.

McGraw was not about the long ball — especially not the home run — which was coming into vogue at the beginning of the 1920s. As Robert Weintraub explains in this lively and entertaining book, Babe Ruth – the first home run hitter par excellence  – represented to McGraw the ruin of the game. McGraw, by Weintraub’s account, despised Ruth, called him a “baboon” and a “bum,” and predicted that he would hit into a hundred double plays a year.

Weintraub’s book covers the 1923 season, the Yankees’ first season in the original Yankee Stadium – not the knockoff they play in now. The team first appeared in the city when three New York guys bought the minor league Baltimore Orioles franchise and moved it north in 1903. The Highlanders, as they were known for most of the first decade, played in Hilltop Park — the present site of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center — until 1913, when they moved into the Polo Grounds as tenants of the Giants. At the point at which Weintraub picks up the story, McGraw was fed up with the Yankees in general and Ruth in particular.

McGraw, as Weintraub recounts, was accustomed to being the toast of the town, and he became increasingly agitated as the Yankees gained in popularity. By 1921, he engineered the Giants management’s decision to tell the Yankees to move out of the Polo Grounds. This, it turned out, was a serious error, because it spurred Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston — whom McGraw had inspired to buy the Yankees — to build Yankee Stadium just across the Harlem River.

McGraw had a brief period of satisfaction left to him, because the Giants and Yankees won their respective pennants in 1921 and 1922, so that the whole World Series was played in the Polo Grounds, where Giants pitching made a monkey of Ruth. After the ’22 affair, there was widespread talk that the Babe was through.

In the ’23 season, though, Ruth — seriously chastened by his failures — made at least a show of curbing his appetites — sexual and otherwise — and he tore the league apart, winning the Most Valuable Player award. The rest of the Yankees, led by their dour little manager, Miller Huggins, had an outstanding year, and the momentum carried them to a World Series win that finally took the wind out of McGraw. McGraw was so bitter that he made the Giants dress at the Polo Grounds for the away games and cab it over to Yankee Stadium. The manager himself walked across the Macombs Dam Bridge.

The only bright spot for McGraw in that ’23 series was his reserve outfielder, “Casey” Stengel, who hit two game-winning home runs, one of them inside the park. During the off season, McGraw traded the aging Stengel to the Braves. “It’s a good thing I didn’t hit three home runs,” Casey said. “McGraw might have sent me out of the country.”

This is a colorful book, loaded with the characters of the ’20s – Warren G. Harding, Charles Chaplin, Damon Runyon, Fanny Brice. And, of course, all those ballplayers – Frankie Frisch, Bob and “Irish” Meusel, Everett “Iron Man” Scott, George “Highpockets” Kelly.

The real heart of this book, though, is found in the stories of McGraw and Ruth, two low-born, hard drinking, brawlers who clawed their way to the top where their lives intersected at a pivotal time in baseball in general and in New York baseball in particular.

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One Response to “Books: “The House that Ruth Built””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Every time I read one of your baseball posts I shake my head. The baseball “world” is so complex, so large, so filled with people and events I’ve never heard of.

    But of course I’ve heard of Babe Ruth, and it’s amazing to know that there was a time when his acclaim wasn’t unanimous. Perspective is everything, I suppose.

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