|Book Review: The House That Ruth Built|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on March 09, 2011
While in many ways this is the story of the Yankees, Yankee Stadium and Babe Ruth, and they are central characters to the tale, this is really the story of a moment when baseball changed forever.
New York was always a baseball town, and this story is both a New York story and a baseball story. It's a glimpse at the pivotal moment in the history of the game. And while Babe Ruth, the Yankees and even Yankee Stadium are key characters to the story, the book really isn't just about them but about the moment when the dead ball era truly ended.
The battles in 1922 and 1923 between the Yankees and Giants were battles for the heart of New York, thanks to the rise of the first Yankees dynasty and the construction of the grandest stadium that the game had ever seen. It was also battle of brains versus brawn and change not just between live and dead ball eras, but as to who the real stars of the game were.
No doubt for McGraw that was a big bone of contention. He wasn't ready to be eclipsed as the biggest star of the game, nor did he think any manager should be, especially by a man he often called a big gorilla. McGraw wasn't just the New York "name" of the game but the name nationally. Even his nickname of the Little Napoleon spoke to how well his brains and his ideas dominated the game of baseball before the rise of George Herman Ruth and the term "Ruthian" was coined to describe the brawny hitters who were to take over the game.
To say that McGraw was the champion of the small ball game would be an understatement. He was the final bastion, baseball's greatest general of the game when each and every run had to be manufactured and the game almost never changed with a single swing of the bat. That was a form of baseball he despised, feeling that the game, when it relied too much on power and home run hitter, lost touch with the artistry that made the game great.
Yet the demographics of the game were changing, and so was what the fans expected to see. The home run was exciting, and no one had ever hit the ball like Babe Ruth had.
It didn't hurt that the Yankees were an outstanding team that featured three pitchers with more than 19 wins on the season, or that the Yankees had run away with the AL pennant, while the Giants had limped in. McGraw expected to beat the team that relied so much on brawn by manufacturing runs as he had done so many times.
In the end however 1923 would prove to be McGraw's Waterloo and the game would change forever. The Yankees would win their first championship in the inaugural season at their new stadium, and McGraw's brand of baseball would end up taking a backseat to the slugger's game that still reigns supreme today.
What makes this book so special is not the stories of the games themselves, but of the men involved in the making of these teams, their struggles, demons and driving forces. The book pulls no punches when it comes do discussion of Ruth's debaucheries and frailties, making him out not to be some sort of demigod, but a man with incredible athletic ability, who certainly didn't win the 1923 World Series by himself.
Baseball and its players and owners are seen, warts and all, in connections to gambling, organized crime and the freewheeling gritty times that New York faced in the 1920s. Fans of history (and HBO's Boardwalk Empire) will find familiar names like gangster Arnold Rothstein, writer Henrick Van Loon and dozens of others -- all of whom had some attachment to the game and the players in that day and age.
In truth I'd recommend this book just for the details, but the big picture is one that will leave you thinking for quite a while. Not because of a Yankees win, or a Giants loss in the series, but in terms of what it meant for the game today, and how it relates to the difference between normal baseball and small ball in the modern game.
AHP Rating: 2.5 Balls
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