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 recognise 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” behaviour. 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 endeavours, 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. You can click here to enjoy an excerpt from the book.