The book: “The House That Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923”
The author: Robert Weintraub
The vital stats: Little, Brown and Company, 432 pages, $26.99
The pitch: As we’re finding out with many of the books reviewed during this month, history has a way of coming alive again when given to the right writer.
Pinpointing the story of a giant like Babe Ruth, the opening of Yankee Stadium in 1923, and going head-to-head with the New York Giants’ John McGraw, who beat the Yankees n the ’21 and ’22 World Series, could just be history warmed over on a lesser man’s keyboard. Slate.com sports columnists Weintraub won’t have any of that.
This is a lesson in how to make baseball’s past become present — and not just with modern-day anologies (although that helps). There’s no daily summaries of games played or research wrought that bog down the flow of this storytelling. Instead, there’s more discussion on things like how Lou Gehrig, once belittled by New York Giants manager John McGraw during a tryout, ended up replacing Wally Pipp, how Yankees GM George Weiss survived a train wreck that ended the life of “Wild Bill” Donovan, and even more nicknames for Ruth that you thought couldn’t be thought up any more.
In also bringing alive the writing of baseball scribes like Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Westbrook Pegler and John Kieran, Weintraub lets it flow as it was back in the day. He’s caught the essence of the era.
Turns out, 1923 was a pretty special season, one definitely worth revisiting. But only, in this case, by Weintraub.
As Frank McCourt considers what kinds of events he can possibly stagehe at Dodger Stadium to make a little extra money, consider page 257:
“While the Yankees were out west, the west came to Yankee Stadium. Long before the start of the baseball season, while icy winds swept across the canyons of Manhattan and the snow piled in drifts and turned brown, visitors to Times Square had seen a strange series of ads. They featured an automobile radiator mounted with a large pair of steer horns. Curious city slickers read the fine print with interest: TEX AUSTIN’S RODEO — COMING IN AUGUST.
“Tex Austin’s piece de resistance came in August of ’23 — hiring the Yankee Stadium for a colossal rodeo. … Pinky Gist, Yakima Canutt, Roy Quick, Ike Rude, Power River Thompson, Bonnie McCarroll, Bonnie Gray and the great Soapy Williams. Fabled broncos such as Mystery, Nose Dive and Peaceful Henry (he wasn’t) were brought in to test the riders’ mettle, not to mention to taste the Yankee Stadium outfield. … Here was Cap Huston’s multisport dream fulfilled. Some four hundred animals were quartered under the Yankee Stadium grandstand. A huge mat made of cocoa was laid down over the infield and part of the outfield in order to protect the ground from so many cloven hooves. The track surrounding the field was used for relay races on horseback. Tickets for the daily events were $2 or $3, depending on how close to the bustin’ one chose to sit. … It was a drama to mach the 1922 World Series, when (John) McGraw had wrestled the bestial Ruth down and hog-tied him.”
As Weintraub adds on page 366: “The Stadium became a cash cow that enabled (owner Jacob) Ruppert to keep the Yankees on top for the rest of his life, and far beyond.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: One tall tale after another, one page turned after another. You’ll reach the end before you know it and still be laughing out loud.
Also: In a piece for Slate.com, Weintraub writes a column comparing Babe Ruth to Alex Rodriguez, and why the “quick-hitting, hyperjudgmental sports media isn’t just a 21st-century phenomenon” (linked here).