The book: “1921: The Yankees, The Giants & The Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York.”
The author: Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg
The vital stats: University of Nebraska Press, 515 pages, $31.95
The pitch: The Great War just ended, the 1919 Black Sox Scandal was moving through the courtroom and Babe Ruth just hit 54 homers for the New York Yankees as the sport was changing from a low-scoring, pitchers’ contest to more of a game of hits, runs and homers.
So, sure, 1921 is as good a place as any to say baseball was having a game-changing experience. Let’s have at it.
The premise here is that New York really became the lynchpin for having baseball taken seriously again, with the Yankees and Giants converging into a best-of-nine World Series that was all played at the Polo Grounds — which the Giants owned but leased to the Yankees, who drew more fans to see the bigger names in the American League.
(As we’ll later learn with another book, the first World Series was played in 1884, also at the Polo Grounds, in a best-of-three series).
Wait, so why doesn’t the Brooklyn Dodgers fit into this New York scenario?
They hardly mattered, the authors contend.
The Brooklyn Dodgers won the NL pennant the year before, “but that World Series (against Cleveland) had not generated much interest or excitement in New York,” it says, according to the text, which also notes that during that time, the Dodgers were often referred to as the Robins in deference to manager Wilbert Robinson, there from 1914-’31.
It also says: “When the Dodger reached that Series … one New York newspaper noted in an editorial that ‘the honor will go to a new city.’ That would be the New York World reporting such a thing.
And “another paper sarcastically editorialized that there would be a World Series ‘in town’ if Brooklyn would concede that ‘Manhattan is part of New York and admit the inhabitants of this inconsiderable suburb to a humble share in their triumph.'” That would be the New York Times.
Don’t be fooled. But if there was a battle for top dog in N.Y., why wouldn’t Brooklyn want a piece of it? The Dodgers have plenty of ink in these pages, if only because of their rivalry against the Giants. To dismiss them from a book that proclaims to document the “supremacy of New York” seems to be a bit of a historical rewrite.
We reluctantly take their words for it. We weren’t there.
Miller Huggins and John McGraw were. And Carl Mays, ace of the Yankees staff a year after he killed Cleveland’s Ray Chapman with a pitch (and based on his stats, it’s kind of curious why Mays isn’t in the Hall of Fame). Casey Stengel was there, a backup outfielder for the Giants. In the pre-Gehrig days of the Yankees (Wally Pipp was the first baseman, batting fifth, behind right fielder Bob Meusel), the left-fielder Ruth would hit 59 homers in ’21, and Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan, Heywood Broun, Robert Ripley (who coined the phrase “Murderer’s Row” before Ruth even joined the Yankees), Fred Lieb and H.G. Salsinger were around to chronicle it for the burgeoning newspaper industry.
(In his forward for the book, Charles Alexander notes that “anybody reading such reportage from that long-ago time may regret what has happened to sports journalism in the age of television.” And the Internet, we may add.)
Aside from having to lean mostly on the sports reporting for that time, the authors do their own tireless research with the help of many experts, and that shows, if only in the volume of material and meticulous notations. As many projects like this that want to distinguish themselves from just another throw-away history book, there’s a full page of notes just on the photography used in the book, 50 pictures that have not been seen in years in some cases.
The book actually ends before page 400, but there are more than 100 pages that follow with appendix, notes, bibliography and index. Which kind of exposes how tedious a job these guys did in trying to comb through to find any morsel of information that could possibly be exposed.
How it goes down in the scorebook: Heavy reading, but if all you get out of it is that 1921 was an important year for the game’s future — and it all came before the Yankees were the dominant team in the game — you’ve learned something of value.