Book Review: The House That Ruth Built

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
(Loosely: the more things change, the more they stay the same)
~Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

“He finished…the most completely subdued and overpowered star.” “[He] entered the Series in excellent physical condition and was shown up by…the pitchers in a way that amazed the fans.” “[He] is no longer a youngster, except in disposition and bids…to become a liability to the NY club instead of its best asset.”

Who might such quotes describe? It might be the pre-2009 Alex Rodriguez, or perhaps Dave Winfield, infamously (and unfairly) christened as Mr. May by George Steinbrenner. But hard as it may seem to believe, the quotes—as you might tell by some of the language—were written about Babe Ruth after the 1922 World Series.

Now, it is true that Ruth had a terrible Series, batting just .118 with no home runs and one RBI as the Yankees failed to win a game against John McGraw and the Giants. And Ruth did offer a lame explanation, claiming the time off before the Series had ruined his timing. But these words were written about a man coming off a shortened, but still offensively dominant, season. Ruth played in just 110 games but still led the league in OPS and finished third in home runs, just four off the leader.

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The final game at The House That Ruth Built. (Icon/SMI)

And, of course, the idea that Ruth would “become a liability” to the Yankees was plainly insane.

Ruth was coming into his age-28 season and would have another 517 career home runs, and 2027 additional career hits, before his time in the majors was done.

The accounts of press overreaction are the most interesting takeaway from Robert Weintraub’s The House That Ruth Built, which chronicles the building of the original Yankee Stadium, as well as the inaugural season there in 1923, and across the Harlem River in the Polo Grounds. There the Yankees’ rivals, two-time World Series opponents, and erstwhile landlords were on a drive to win their third consecutive title.

Wisely, Weintraub eschews a day-to-day rundown of each team’s season, interspersing retelling of games of particular import or interest with short biographies of players, managers and other relevant figures. These biographies—which range from longer ones for figures like Ruth and McGraw to relatively brief ones for those like the “mythmakers of the New York press” and even New York mayor Jimmy Walker—are the book’s strongest section.

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Casey Stengel, a Yankee legend, but also a Giant World Series hero. (Icon/SMI)

Of particular interest are the biographies of those figures who might best be described as peripheral in baseball history, but crucially important to the history of the 1923 season.

This is exemplified in the story of Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, who co-owned the Yankees with Jacob Ruppert and was a major figure in the construction of Yankee Stadium before selling out prior to the 1923 season for $1.5 million.

“Cap” Huston is all but a footnote in the Yankees’ franchise history, but he had a vital role in the design of the stadium, perhaps most prominently as one of the driving forces behind the decision to make the stadium a place that could hold a wide range of sporting events.

Indeed, in its inaugural season alone, the stadium would host a championship boxing match and a rodeo.

(Perhaps not surprisingly, players spent much of the period immediately following complaining the rodeo had ruined the outfield grass.)

Weintraub also writes on the relationship between “The Colonels”—as the Yankee ownership was known—which was often frosty.

Huston, though not exactly a veteran of the trenches, was proud of the rank he had earned during World War I and regarded Ruppert with his brief National Guard tenure as something of a poseur. For his part, Ruppert found Huston’s close relationship with players and writers a source of endless frustration and did not appreciate his partner’s slovenly fashion sense.

If the important lesson on the media’s decades-long tendency towards “what have you done for me lately?” style journalism and the biographies are the book’s strength, its weakness is in describing game action.

Weintraub’s background is as a television producer rather than a writer covering the game on a day-to-day basis, and this is the only element of the book where that shows through. The book struggles to create the dramatic tension of the games, although, in fairness, that can be hard to do when describing action from almost a century ago.

But it is weighed down by Weintraub’s tendency towards prose that, if not quite purple, is at least lavender. This is typified by the habit of referring to the teams with nicknames “Clan McGraw” for the Giants, or “the Hugmen” for the Yankees, for example. Weintraub occasionally lets these instincts get the better of him—referring to a bat as “the ash”—but largely keeps it under control.

As a downside, this is not enough to outweigh the compelling story told in the book, and the biographies contained within. On the whole, The House That Ruth Built may not quite be the equal of the dominant season posted by its namesake player, but it is a solid effort and a worthy read.

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Comments

  1. Bruce Markusen said...

    Richard, sounds like a good and fair review of this book. I loved the old Stadium, particularly the original House, before the renovation of 1974 and ‘75.

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