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03.31.11

When Babe Ruth Ruled the Earth

In an excerpt from his new book, The House That Ruth Built, Robert Weintraub travels back in time to 1923, the first season of Yankee Stadium—when New York's team was eyeing their first World Series title.

John McGraw never learned to drive. Baseball’s greatest manager usually got around the city by automobile, driven by his chauffer, James Thompson. But October 10, 1923 was a mild Indian summer morning, pushing 60 degrees just before 11 when the leader of the New York Giants stepped onto the sidewalk outside of the Polo Grounds. McGraw’s destination was only a short stroll away, five or 10 minutes at most, so he waved Thompson away and decided to walk.

McGraw’s players emerged from the ballpark behind him, hauling the tools of their trade—gloves, bats, spikes—and jumped into a fleet of waiting cabs, two or three men to a car. They were ready for action, especially since today’s game was the first game of the 1923 World Series. But it was not a home game. For the first time in three seasons the Fall Classic wasn’t being played entirely on the sporting green of the Polo Grounds.

The park was at the corner of 155th Street and 8th, putting it on the eastern edge of Harlem. Immediately to the west, the posh neighborhood known as Sugar Hill (Duke Ellington’s destination in “Take the A Train”) was just beginning to show the fruits of the epoch known as the Harlem Renaissance, thanks to a boom in black artists, writers, thinkers, and, perhaps most significantly, organized gamblers, known as “bankers,” who had just introduced a craze called “The Numbers” that was sweeping the area like wildfire.

As McGraw walked through Harlem, he would likely have heard the hottest recording of the year, Bessie Smith’s “Downhearted Blues,” from windows and storefronts:

I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand,
I'm gonna hold it until you meet some of my demands.

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 in to view. McGraw scowled. The building in front of him, just across the river in the Bronx, was 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 outer-borough 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 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.

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 400-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 60,000, and it seemed like twice that number were milling outside the Stadium on 161st Street, River Avenue, or 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.

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Robert Weintraub has written for Slate, ESPN.com, Play, the Guardian, Football Outsiders, and many others. The House That Ruth Built is his first book.