Robert Weintraub's celebration of baseball in the Roaring Twenties places the spotlight on Babe Ruth, the most famous player of them all, as he struggles with his form at the newly built Yankee Stadium.
The House that Ruth Built: The rise of Yankee Stadium, and the Babe
To the millions of baseball fans who trek to America's ballparks every season, the legends of the game are as fixed and immutable as the architecture of those great venues. Player stats are recited to the last decimal point, legendary games are recounted to the last detail, and the game's outsize personalities are fixed points in a moral universe, like the graven saints of Notre Dame.
One of the many strong points of Robert Weintraub's new book, The House that Ruth Built, is the light-hearted and expert way it reminds readers just how contemporary their gospel is, just how human and fleeting the whims on which it's all based. The decisions were monetary; the legends were men; it might all have gone very differently.
The biggest of those legends is George Herman "Babe" Ruth, by many measures the greatest player the game has ever seen. He was a star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, and even early in his career there had been inklings of what a hitter he could be.
And yet, Ruth is also a perfect example of the fragility of those sports legends: after he was traded to the New York Yankees in 1919, the lustre went out of his game. In 1921 and 1922 he had failed to bring home a World Series for his team, and in 1923 when Weintraub's book opens, some of the foremost sports writers in the country are calling him a washed-up overrated disappointment.
In 1922 Ruth's manager, Miller Huggins, told him, "You might be through as a player, George." As Weintraub tells it, "Great athletes throughout history have taken any slight, real or imagined, and used it as a motivational force. Ruth had already had his legs taken out from under him in 1922. Now this little doorstop of a manager was telling the greatest slugger the sport had ever seen that he was a sack of tomatoes."
Ruth spent the winter of 1922-23 at his farmhouse in rural Sudbury, Massachusetts, far from the distractions of New York City. There was no such thing as off-season training in the Roaring Twenties, but Ruth's self-imposed exile must have helped him to focus. As the 1923 season commenced, he returned to the Yankees determined to change his own luck.
He would have a grand stage on which to accomplish that. The centrepiece of Weintraub's book is the then-new Yankee Stadium, built tauntingly close to the Polo Grounds, the team's old home, which it had shared with its bitter rival the New York Giants. When the Giants evicted the Yankees, team owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston paid to construct "this gigantic palace of sport within shouting distance" of their old home, much to the chagrin of Giants manager John McGraw, one of the huge cast of characters that populates Weintraub's book.
The new stadium was pristine and immense, with a right-field centre fence at 429 feet, left-centre at 460 feet, and dead centre a yawning 490 feet. There's irony in those dimensions, as Weintraub notices: "The distance to right field seemed to undermine the common conceit that this was truly a house built for Ruth. If anything, the Polo Grounds, with its lefty-friendly dimensions, was the park that best suited the Babe" ("I cried when they took me out of the Polo Grounds," Ruth later said).
The vast stretches of the new stadium's horizontal planes accentuated the shift in the game itself, from strategy and hustle to power-hitting. That tectonic shift - Ruth both drove it and epitomised it - is always working in the background of The House That Ruth Built, even while all those colourful characters are cavorting in the foreground, taking things game by game.
Avid baseball fan President Warren Harding makes an appearance, attending a game at Yankee Stadium and cheering long and loud when Ruth lived up to expectations: "It seemed like a prearranged part of the programme," wrote The New York Times. "The president wanted to see Ruth hit a home run, and Ruth hit one."
Ruth's fellow legends also make their appearances, most notably Lou Gehrig, a "timid man in general, a loner, born to similar poverty as Ruth ... depressive, with painfully low self-esteem."
Less well-known figures get the full, delightful treatment from Weintraub, who seems to take great joy in fleshing out such characters as Leslie Ambrose "Bullet Joe" Bush from Brainerd, Minnesota, who was the youngest pitcher ever to appear in a World Series. As Weintraub relates, "On one of his visits home to Brainerd, the locals presented him with a car to honour his exploits. The young hero got into the roadster and proceeded to accidentally run down and kill a seventy-five-year-old man named Louis Miller." (As our author helpfully informs us, "Bush's career went on without interruption.")
But predictably, the main star here is the Babe himself. He was very much an oversized public figure even in his own lifetime, a childlike star as prone to temper tantrums as to open-handed generosity, and that legend has only grown through constant retelling.
Leigh Montville's fantastic 2006 Ruth biography Big Bam did a studiously thorough job of sorting myth from fact; Weintraub's extensive bibliography covers the same raw material as Montville, but The House that Ruth Built is slyly comfortable with the legends - and with the sportswriters who helped to create them.
Baseball great Ty Cobb disparaged Ruth as little more than a dumb brute; "Given the proper physical equipment - which consists solely in the physical strength to knock a ball 40 feet further than the average man can do it - anybody can play big-league ball today," he griped.
But those contemporary writers and reporters saw more than mere force - they saw finesse, even poetry, in the Babe's homers. "Writer Heywood Braun," Weintraub tells us, "mused that if new baseballs could talk to one another, they'd say, 'Join Ruth and see the world'" and Weintraub himself gets in on the act, gushing, "When normal mortals hit homers, fans fought to catch the ball. When the Babe clubbed one, people were reported to have scurried as if from an incoming mortar shell."
All that high-powered hitting changed the game forever. Not only did Ruth's style of playing iron some of the subtlety out of baseball, but his celebrity blazed a trail other ballplayers would follow, demanding higher salaries. Yankee Stadium and the Yankees themselves - came to symbolise everything many fans found wrong with the new baseball: the commercialisation, the heartless management, the rule of money.
Ruth's own part in all this, though generative, was unwitting, and when he was rebuffed in his bid to become manager of the Yankees, he found the ball-playing world a far colder place than it had been when it first welcomed him. "It appeared that the bill was coming due," Weintraub writes, "after years of Ruth behaving as though he were bigger than the game, he was now being painfully made aware that once the home runs stopped he was just another ex-jock." Ruth ended his playing days in a humiliating two-month stint with the Boston Braves in 1935, and died in 1948, age 53.
The main text of Weintraub's book comes to a close once its titanic subject has moved offstage, although there remain several close-typed pages of wonderfully detailed and opinionated notes (these are not merely scholarly underpinning; readers are urged not to miss them).
By that point readers have experienced a great deal more than simply one year in the life of one sports stadium: Weintraub has successfully brought an entire era back to life. Bleacher seats for that opening day at Yankee Stadium in on April 18, 1923 cost $1, and there wasn't an empty seat in the place for that first game. The House that Ruth Built supplies everything of the magic of that time, except the hot dogs.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.