Author: Robert Weintraub

2011, Little, Brown and Company

Filed Under: Nonfiction, Historical.

Here’s a good reading choice for the start of the baseball season (although I can’t help think that I’m partially to blame for the Red Sox’s abysmal stumbling out the gate by reading a book about the Yankees’ first world series win. Oh well, at least we took 2 out of 3 in the NY series.). Ostensibly about the creation of Yankee Stadium, this is a book about a changing of the guard in baseball, when small ball National League play fell second-fiddle to the power-hitting American League. Weintraub writes like a Yanks fan, but I can’t begrudge him that, since the team is the star of his show. This is a fun and accessible book that takes a look at a just a few years in the long history of baseball.

Weintraub writes in an casual, often jocular style, which was at first a turn-off for me, but quickly became what endeared me most to this book. Lines like this are common:

Never before had two in-crowd announcers worked a game, but them this place was too damn big for just one man, no matter how loud.

At first I found it off-putting, and decidedly unliterary. But as the book went on I grew to appreciate it, as I noticed myself really being sucked in. Even when he made occasional interpolations that take creative license fairly far:

[Yankee’s co-owner Lt. Colonel Cap] Huston had always sneered at [co-owner Colonel Jacob] Ruppert’s honorific title, and now the experience of coming under fire exacerbated his contempt. How dare that fop! Running around calling himself “colonel” while the real thing was dodging artillery in the War to End All Wars! [emphasis Weintraub’s]

Still, he does include notes and references to his sources. And in the end, the style makes for a fast, readable, and friendly book that entertained me a lot more than a dry historical record would have.

This book is about one third Babe Ruth biography, one third a history of the building of Yankee Stadium and the exploits of the 1923 Yankees, and one third a biography of John J. McGraw, legendary coach of the Giants and legendary Babe Ruth hater. McGraw was old school when old school was new school. He is said to have pioneered spiking. He was into sloped fields and small ball and micromanagement. He thought home runs that weren’t inside the park were for sissies. The Sultan of Swat, as we all know, was the very embodiment of the long ball, not to mention the stately four-base trot.

The history of the tensions between the Giants and Yankees is certainly fascinating. They weren’t the only teams in New York in the earlier 1920s, but they were the two that mattered. The AL was still fledgling, and the NL New York Giants were cock-of-the-Big-Apple-walk. They even shared a stadium, the famed Polo Grounds, which the Giants rented to the Yankee brass. After defeating the Yanks in the 1921 World Series, the Giants evicted their tenants, forcing the AL team’s hand in building a stadium of their own. Then they messed with them and tried to stymie the new stadium’s construction, somewhat successfully.

I think this was my favorite part of the book: the Yankees trying to build a stadium, the Giants trying to make things miserable for their nemeses. There was bad blood, sure, but they also wanted to wring another year of rent out the wealthy AL owners with an unfinished stadium, with a new lease at inflated prices–which they did in 1922, a year in which the Giants again defeated the Yanks in the World Series. A Tammany Hall tug-of-war ensued, with each side exercising influence with all the corrupt politicians they could muster. The stadium was eventually finished, in time for the 1923 season.

While the political stuff is intriguing, but this is at its heart a baseball book. Recognizable characters abound (Casey Stengel, Ban Johnson, Judge Landis, Christy Mathewson, Rogers Hornsby, etc., etc.) and the book is brimming with anecdotes and antics. For the most part these concern The Babe, and how the turning point of his career coincided with the new stadium. He was a superstar then, but plagued by struggles and yet to become the player who is legend today. This book occurs all before the Murderers’ Row team came about, and in fact, though he came to ascendancy there and as much success as Ruth had in Yankee Stadium, it wasn’t all that suited for him (being a lefty). He’d probably have been better off staying in the Polo Grounds (or Fenway…) all those years.

The House That Ruth Built portrays The Bambino in a tender light. Sure he’s the loud-mouthed, womanizing drunk we’ve all heard about, but here he’s also portrayed as incredibly kind-hearted, loyal, and generous. Weintraub’s Ruth is an affable teammate, and perfectly attuned to his fans and their importance, specifically the younger ones. He also had his moments of humility, and donated lots of time and money to charities.

In sum, House is a very successful piece of nonfiction, and an enjoyable baseball book. Weintraub juggles a lot of names and facts and yarns and consistently manages to keep everything balanced nicely. Baseball fans should give it a shot, even if they hate the damn Yankees (like they should).

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[A review copy of this book was provided]