The House That Ruth Built

Last month, I was fortunate enough to receive an advanced copy of “The House That Ruth Built” by Robert Weintraub. The book chronicles the Yankees’ 1923 championship season, their crosstown rivalry with the New York Giants and the construction of Yankee Stadium. It’s an excellent book for any Yankees or baseball fan, but beyond that, I really enjoyed the sports business aspects to the story, particularly around the team’s ownership, the local media and the stadium construction.

Robert was kind enough to share some of his time for an email interview to provide additional insights from his research about these sports business topics of the day. In addition, after the interview you can read an excerpt from the book’s preface that helps set the backdrop of his story.

– Robert, most Yankee fans know the name Jacob Ruppert, former team owner when the stadium was built, but not many recognize Cap Huston. Yet, as co-owner of the team in 1922, he was instrumental in the construction of Yankee Stadium. How do you think things would have been different if Cap Huston wasn’t involved and should he have a bigger legacy in Yankee history?

Robert Weintraub: I definitely think Til should be better remembered today. His engineering background and knowledge of ballpark construction and the ways to increase revenue by preparing for multi-sport utility was a key element to the iconic nature of the Stadium through the years. Certainly, had he not been on the scene, Ruppert alone would have found a way to build a Stadium–it was his dream to have a park full of thirsty fans drinking the beer that his brewery churned out–but it wouldn’t have been the epic edifice it became.

– It’s always interesting to see how the media treated athletes differently in earlier eras, almost protecting them from the public and hiding some of their “inappropriate” behavior. What impact did the media’s protection have in shaping Ruth’s legacy?

RW: One of the great surprises I discovered in researching the book was just how hard the press was on Ruth for his on-field failings, contrary to the myth. As for his off-field endeavors, we are accustomed to talking today about a “different era” when stars weren’t dissected like today, and that’s true to a point–many of Ruth’s more notorious scandals were obscured or flat out ignored by writers that didn’t want to endanger their meal ticket in any way. But the idea that Ruth drank, ate, gambled, and whored to excess was certainly a part of the coverage, and his popularity, even at the time. But the fact that there was still some more room to go with the Babe was key in terms of his legacy. Many of the writers wound up writing memoirs or histories that enumerated Ruth’s scandalous adventures that went well beyond what had already been reported, and thus the legend that exists to this day was born.

– What parallels did you see between the construction of Yankee Stadium in 1922 to the construction of new facilities in the past 5-10 years?

RW: Not much, frankly. The trend today is to go smaller, to be sport-specific, and to be built with as much public funding as possible. None of that was true with the Yankee Stadium. Building such a huge, lasting arena in a mere 284 days is another aspect of the construction project that cannot be matched in modern times. Certainly the current trend is to build where the people are, not away from the masses like with the Stadium. The Bronx rose in prominence thanks to the Stadium. That hasn’t happened with modern stadia. No one flocked to live in Auburn Hills, Michigan or Landover, Maryland.

– In covering the 1923 season for the Yankees, the New York Giants played a very visible role as an opponent and business rival. If the Yankees and Yankee Stadium weren’t as immediately successful, do you feel that local popularity would have shifted back to the Giants, and would they have ended up staying in New York?

RW: Yes to the first part–the Giants were negatively impacted by Ruth’s and the Yankees’ success, and were it not for the slugger winning championships in the new Stadium would have remained top dogs in New York–but only if they continued winning as well. Remember, it wasn’t only that the Yankees got good. After 1924, the Giants didn’t win another pennant for a decade (1933). Then, the Giants regained some of their old glory. They get obscured by the mythology that surrounds the glory years of the Yankees and Dodgers, but the Giants with Willie Mays were quite popular in New York. Their move to California was less about declining popularity then following the money (and the Dodgers) out west–it wasn’t a direct line from the time they were supplanted by Ruth’s Yankees.

– What was the most surprising thing you learned about the behind-the-scenes dealings that allowed for Yankee Stadium to be built?

RW: Probably the involvement of Arnold Rothstein, aka “The Big Bankroll,” in the suspicious delays that held up the construction project, so that it wasn’t ready until 1923. Rothstein was an investor in the Giants, his insurance company underwrote the Polo Grounds, and he was tight with John McGraw and Charles Stoneham, the principal owners of the Giants. He was often seen in box seats at Giants games. The Yankees needed two small streets in the South Bronx to be closed in order for building to begin. They expected the city to OK the closings as matter of routine. Instead, thanks most likely to Rothstein’s influence with the Tammany machine that dominated New York politics, the waivers were lost in the bureaucratic haze for months. As a result, the Yanks had to crawl back to the Polo Grounds and play there in 1922, at an increased rent. There was profit in dollars and in the humiliation of the Yankees for Rothstein, McGraw, and Stoneham. The boys in the Bronx had the last laugh, however.

Thanks again to Robert for his insights.  Please click the link below to enjoy some of the book, or visit Amazon.com to pick up a copy!

Excerpt from the Preface of The House That Ruth Build by Robert Weintraub

The center of New York power, then, as now, remained downtown, in the Financial District. But uptown had the Giants, for the past two decades the nation’s most potent sporting brand. These two critical elements of New York’s cultural engine— sports and money—were merging rapidly. The ad salesmen at the big newspapers had taken it as gospel that baseball fans — an unserious rabble with little taste, in their eyes— didn’t constitute the buying public, but that changed in the ‘20s. Literary Digest noticed the new climate: “We have no hesitation in declaring that if an accurate poll were taken of the attendance at any big-?league ball game the ratio would be around 80 per cent of business officials, office employees and men of leisure to 20 per cent of the actual ‘laboring class.’” A little relaxation at the ballpark was expected after a day spent frantically selling or dealing in the rarefied air of high finance.

Stock and real estate speculation was the Big Thing on Wall Street, and the deal making continued in the Polo Grounds grandstand. As one player said, “I’d go to the ballpark and get stock tips from turnstile men and bootblacks and peanut butchers and newspapermen. Everybody was going to be a millionaire. It was a little confusing.” The Giants started home games at three thirty p.m. in order to better allow the moneymen to travel north after a day of wheeling and dealing to watch McGraw and his team dominate the National League.

But today’s contest was starting earlier, at two p.m., and it most certainly wasn’t a home game for the Giants. As McGraw turned toward the water on the 155th Street Viaduct, passing over the Harlem River Speedway, built for horse and carriage but now crammed with automobiles, the enemy’s fortress came into view. McGraw scowled. The building in front of him, just across the river in the Bronx, would be the scene of today’s game and the cause of much of the manager’s agita— the brand-?new Yankee Stadium.

Despite its proximity to Manhattan, the Bronx definitely had an outerborough feel to it (expressed neatly in a headline in that morning’s Daily News: “Bronx Landlords Count Dogs as Added Tenants”). Under ordinary circumstances, a sneering McGraw would have paid as much attention to a Bronx baseball park and its American League occupants, the Yankees, as he would to something stuck to the bottom of his shoe.

But this was no ordinary time. Thanks to the deep pockets of the men who had bought the team in a deal brokered by McGraw himself, the Yankees had emerged as dangerous rivals to the Giants for the hearts and minds of New York baseball fans. And thanks to the team’s superstar— to McGraw, a mighty ape with intellect to match—the Yankees had not only challenged the Giants on the field but outstripped them at their own gate. Since 1912, the two teams had shared the Polo Grounds, with the Yankees as tenant and the Giants as landlord, so this development hit the Giants and McGraw, who owned roughly a quarter of the team, right in the wallet. But it was a situation McGraw and Giants majority owner Charles Stoneham had thought they could rectify— by evicting the Yankees.

They did, kicking the Yanks out of the Polo Grounds and essentially forcing them (daring them) to build a home of their own. So the bickering Yankees owners, Jacob Ruppert and Til “Cap” Huston, responded by going all?in. They put aside their own differences long enough to construct this gigantic palace of sport within shouting distance of the Polo Grounds. It had opened six months earlier on April 18, to enormous fanfare and great critical and popular reception.

Money was at the heart of this competition, and the Yankees suddenly had more of it — and with the Stadium they now had the means to increase revenue exponentially. But McGraw and the Giants could still win where it counted most— on the field.

Separated by a thin slice of the Harlem River, Manhattan and the South Bronx look like jigsaw pieces left slightly apart. At 155th Street, McGraw traversed the gap by means of the four-?hundred-?foot swing span of the Macombs Dam Bridge. And as he made landfall in the Bronx, the boisterous crowds hoping to attend the first World Series game ever at the Yankee Stadium came into view. This new monstrosity held an enormous number of fans, upwards of sixty thousand, and it seemed like twice that number were milling outside the Stadium on 161st Street, on River Avenue, and on the unpaved section of Doughty Street (to be renamed Ruppert Place in 1933) near the Elevated train, hoping to buy tickets. McGraw despaired momentarily, wondering how he would get through the logjam, when a policeman recognized him and organized a flying wedge, leading McGraw to a side entrance.

Once inside, McGraw wrinkled his nose and stepped into the visiting clubhouse. His players were inside, quietly awaiting batting practice. Unused lockers surrounded the team— and they’d remain empty. Such was McGraw’s distaste for the Yankees and their new home that he had refused to allow the Giants to change inside the Stadium. Thus the team had met at the Polo Grounds, put on their uniforms, and headed over the river. McGraw might have to play the World Series here, but he didn’t have to spend any more time as guests of the Yankees than absolutely necessary.

Much has changed on the Manhattan side since the days when McGraw strolled through the area. Next door to the former site of the Giants home field is Rucker Park, where the fabled summertime Rucker Tournament attracts the best playground basketball players in the city and beyond. One Hundred Fifty-?fifth Street abuts the northern edge of another park, one named for a New York baseball player— Jackie Robinson, who played in Brooklyn! Eighth Avenue today in this stretch of Harlem is now called Frederick Douglass Boulevard. But perhaps the greatest change, at least from a baseball perspective, is that the Polo Grounds no longer exists. A large public housing project stands where the diamond and seats once did, and the entire area is in thrall to the great new Yankee Stadium across the river. Everywhere one turns in the summer months, the familiar Yankees “Top Hat and Bat” emblem (which didn’t exist in 1923) winks out from memorabilia stores, makeshift parking lots, and pre-?and postgame watering holes. It is a turn of events that would have eaten at John McGraw.

The New York Yankees are the preeminent sports franchise in the United States, if not the world, and the club’s resume is well known to most fans — twenty-?seven World Championships (as of 2010), by far the most of any team in any sport. But in 1923 this dominance didn’t yet exist. As that year’s World Series opened, the Yankees had yet to win a single championship. And in the previous two seasons, it had lost the Series, decisively, to its mighty rival—the New York Giants.

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