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The 1923 Yankees Season

(Excerpt from my manuscript for the upcoming book “The 1927 Yankees: Anatomy of the Greatest”)

As the Yankees’ 1922 baseball season played out on the field, Major Thomas H. Birmingham, the club’s engineer, oversaw the task of converting 10 acres of unused land in the Bronx into the largest ballpark in the country. It was an undertaking that few could appreciate.

The excavation of 25,000 cubic yards was required for the foundations to support the big grandstand, then came 30,000 yards of concrete, 2,500 tons of structural steel, 1,000 tons of reinforcing steel, 500 tons of iron and over 2.6 million feet of lumber for the seats. A total of 45,000 cubic yards of earth was used to bring the playing field up to the required grade, and then about 116,000 square feet of sod was transported in from Long Island to cover the diamond and the outfield. An army of nearly 500 men performed the tremendous amount of work, and they did so expeditiously.

Yankee Stadium was completed in 284 working days for an estimated construction cost of $1.9 million, which made the total tab some $2.5 million including the land. Built of concrete and steel, it was baseball’s first three-tired stadium, and its only rival in sports was college football’s Yale Bowl.

Most importantly, Yankee Stadium was ready in time for the opening of the ’23 season on April 18. Its debut could be characterized as nothing less than a huge success.

Yankee Stadium, which stood 75 feet high, redefined what a ballpark was in terms of opulence, glamour, and sheer size. The stadium, the first venue to be labeled as such, had a capacity of 65,000, regarded as immense by baseball standards, and was labeled “a skyscraper among ballparks” by The New York Times.

As for the playing field, it was somewhat lop-sided. The outfield corners were very attractive for pull hitters, both less than 295 feet away, while the walls curved away to form deep power alleys, an incredible 490 feet in left-center, in the most spacious outfield in the major leagues.

After his poor showing in the previous world’s series, and subsequent retreat to his farm to workout throughout the winter, Ruth knew he was going to be watched in his comeback attempt. He had openly stated before the game that he was willing to give a year off his life to hit one out in the first game at Yankee Stadium.

In front of a standing room only crowd, a Hollywood screenwriter could not have scripted a better scenario for the Babe against his former team, the Red Sox, playing their first game under manager Frank Chance, the Yankees’ skipper a decade earlier. With two outs in the third inning and the home team up one run, Ruth carried his 46-ounce Louisville Slugger bat and stepped in opposite Howard Ehmke with teammates Whitey Witt on third and Joe Dugan standing on first. The Babe christened the stadium with a three-run homer, the 198th of his career for those that keep track of such statistics, receiving one of the biggest ovations in his career. It led the Yankees to 4-1 victory behind staff stalwart Bob Shawkey.

Local sportswriter Fred Lieb quickly dubbed Yankee Stadium as “The House that Ruth Built” in that evening’s newspaper. It was an obvious reference to the incredible profits the club had derived since the slugger’s arrival. Moreover, The New York Times estimated that some 74,000 fans had watched the game, a figure that not only exceeded capacity but also was more than the combined total of the other three opening day games in the American League.

Six days later, the Yanks hosted Washington, and President Warren Harding was on hand at Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch and see the game, his first-ever in New York. The Babe, mired in a bit of a slump, stepped up to the occasion and hit a solo home run in the fifth inning, one in which the President clapped vigorously in applause. The blow also put the final touches on the host’s 4-0 victory, and the new venue had its first shutout. As for the Bambino, he was back. “It took a President to jolt Ruth out of his slump,” reported The New York Times on April 25.

Yankee Stadium’s stature and significance was not merely confined to the sporting public. The Literary Digest of April 28 offered, “The Yankee Stadium is indeed the last word in ball parks. But not the least of its merits is its advantage of position. From the plain of the Harlem River it looms up like the great Pyramid of Cheops from the sands of Egypt.”

Though the analogy may have been a bit overstated, Yankee Stadium was extraordinary in its own right. It seemed to dominate the entire Harlem River valley opposite Manhattan Island. Above it was nothing but sky and behind it the various stores, dwellings and the rolling hills of the Bronx were just too far removed to interfere with the impressive perspective. It was an understatement to say that it certainly stood alone to give any and every forthcoming spectator its full due as a grand structure.

Within a month, on May 21, 1923, and with the Yankees riding a nice winning streak and sitting in first place by three games over Philadelphia, Ruppert officially ended a long-standing sour relationship with Huston, who had changed his mind a few times over the past winter about selling his half of the club, but finally agreed. Ruppert bought out Huston’s half for $1.25 million, some in cash and the rest in notes to be paid off later, with the deal to be closed by June 1. The hefty sales figure represented almost 5-˝ times what Huston had originally invested over eight years earlier, amounting to a little better than a 25 percent annual return on his money. He wasn’t leaving completely though, for Huston was going to remain as a director with the Yanks, albeit it without any financial interest.

Ruppert reportedly offered, “I am sincerely sorry to see Colonel Til go. For nine long years (seasons), we built the Yanks from the weakest club in the American League into the strongest. But Huston wanted a rest from baseball, and I think he had it coming to him.”

The ball club was in Chicago when the announcement was made, and they received a telegram from Ruppert. The simple message read, “I am now the sole owner of the Yankees. Miller Huggins is my manager.”

It was a tough situation from the beginning; a field manager operating in an environment with two owners where one employer was an advocate and the other was openly hostile. Fortunately, Ruppert had always stood by Huggins through thick and thin. The Mite Manager had led the Yanks into two world’s series, but he had been shamefully abused by some of his players, and liberally criticized by Huston’s newspaper friends. All of that just came to an end. With Ruppert in complete charge, discipline was going to rule, and it was Huggins who would benefit. At long last he had the authority and the backing he believed he needed.

On the field in ‘23 under Huggins, the Yankees were again the class of the league, and they remained in first place the rest of the season. They posted a 21-6 record in May, opened an enormous 11-˝-game lead by Independence Day, went 23-8 in July, and comfortably cruised home with a star-studded team.

Ruth returned to form and again put up big numbers. He hit 19 home runs in his new home surroundings and led the league with 41 homers, tied for the lead with 130 runs batted in, and collected 205 hits to post his highest batting average yet, .393. But it was still 10 points behind the leader, thus denying the Babe the league’s coveted Triple Crown. He did receive some hardware though. He was unanimously voted the circuit’s Most Valuable Player, an award bestowed even before the season was over by coming on the day after the Yanks officially clinched the pennant, all with over two weeks still remaining on the schedule.

Ruth, who also had a team-high 17 stolen bases, was the centerpiece of a solid veteran club. In addition to the Babe, centerfielder Witt hit .314 and Bob Meusel batted .313 to give the Yankees an all-.300 hitting outfield, two other players scored over 100 runs, Witt (113) and Dugan (111), and first baseman Wally Pipp drove across over 100 runs for the first time and finished with 108 while becoming the fourth regular to hit over .300 (.304). The Yanks also featured a deep pitching staff that amazingly used only eight all season, and predominantly again a six-man staff. Behind 20-game winner “Sad” Sam Jones (21-8) and much-needed southpaw help from newcomer Herb Pennock (19-6), another pre-season acquisition from the Red Sox, New York led the league in earned run average, complete games and strikeouts. Bolstering a balanced offense and good pitching was the loop’s best defense in which four players led their positions in fielding, Dugan at third base, shortstop and team captain Everett Scott, who had played in his landmark 1,000th consecutive game during the season, second baseman Aaron Ward and Witt.

When all was said and done, the Yankees had tied the franchise record with 98 wins en route to their third straight pennant, this time by a league record 16-game margin over Detroit, while third place Cleveland was 16-˝ games off the pace. Augmenting their most successful season on the field, the Yanks had also inaugurated their new home by again enjoying a banner year at the gate, drawing over one million fans for the fourth straight season. But in order to cap the year properly, they had to reverse two earlier setbacks and win the world’s series.

As fate would have it, for the third straight October the Yankees faced the rival Giants. With pretty much the same nucleus of players, John McGraw’s team entered the postseason as the first ever with a chance at a third consecutive world title. But this time around it was going to be a little different, for in New York’s “Harlem River” or “Subway” World Series, the action would alternate daily between the two ballparks, and they were the two largest in baseball.

Coinciding with their tenants vacating the Polo Grounds and moving across the river, the Giants were practically forced to expand their park for greater capacity to keep up. They demolished the old outfield bleachers and the double-decked look was continued around most of the field and veered straight back, taking it from a modified horseshoe shape to more of a bathtub look with peculiar dimensions and more pronouncedly suited for a football field. The revamped Polo Grounds retained the same dimensions and was still short on both foul lines, but the renovation provided distant power alleys and moved dead center field back another 50 feet to measure 483 feet to the clubhouse. It also increased capacity to about 56,000. Unfortunately, the larger venue didn’t attract more fans, for even though the Giants led the National League in attendance for the eighth straight year, they had experienced a decline of more than 125,000, a 13 percent drop.

The opening game was the first World Series to be broadcast on a nationwide radio network, and it was played at Yankee Stadium in front of a postseason record crowd of 55,307. Unfortunately, Giants’ reserve outfielder Casey Stengel circled the bases for a ninth inning interior home run that proved decisive in a 5-4 victory, and by dropping the opener, the Yankees had now gone winless in their last nine blue ribbon games against their Gotham rivals, losing eight and tying the other.

When the scene shifted, 40,402 fans came out to the Polo Grounds, a record world’s series crowd for the venue. Behind Pennock’s pitching, Ruth’s two homers in one series game that tied what had been done three times previously, and Ward’s home run, Huggins’ crew overcame a homer by the Giants’ Irish Meusel and finally ended the spell with a 4-2 win in the second game.

Back at Yankee Stadium, 62,420 fans showed up to set yet another World Series record, thus eclipsing the crowd of just two days earlier. McGraw’s club squeaked out a 1-0 shutout behind the pitching of old Yank nemesis Art Nehf, who limited the Yankees to six hits, and despite the Giants managing only four hits, another solo homer by Stengel in the seventh inning spoiled the day for Jones and provided the margin of victory.

For the fourth game, the cycle continued, as another Polo Grounds record crowd of 46,302 was on hand. They saw both teams’ bats awaken as each collected 13 hits, including a home run by the Giants’ Ross Youngs, but it was the Yanks that made the most of theirs, winning 8-4 to even the series.

Once again for the fifth game, another record crowd filled Yankee Stadium, this time upping the mark to 62,817, and it was in front of them that the home team’s bats continued to pound out hits, 14 in all including a home run by Dugan. The beneficiary was “Bullet” Joe Bush, who yielded just three hits and emerged with a fairly easy 8-1 victory, putting the Yankees on the verge of their first world championship.

At home in front of 34,000 and facing elimination in the sixth game on October 15, Nehf and the Giants used three solo runs in consecutive middle innings to build a 4-1 lead and carried it into the eighth inning. But the Yanks parlayed three singles and three walks into a five-run frame to support the pitching of Pennock, and Jones came on for the final two innings, made the runs stand, and closed out the game. The 6-4 victory avenged the two recent losses to the Giants, and Huggins had finally reached the pinnacle.

After a five-year drought, Ruth was once again a world champ having enjoyed his best series performance yet with a .368 batting average, three homers, a triple, a double and two singles, eight walks and eight runs scored. Pennock also stood out and won two games and saved another, Ward paced all batters with 10 hits and a .417 batting average, and Bob Meusel drove in a series-high eight runs.

More than 300,000 flocked to see the contests, and it was baseball’s first million-dollar series at the gate. Not only were the Yanks champions, their efforts translated into each of the eligible players pocketing a record winner’s share of $6,143.

The title came six years after Huggins had first been hired, two years after winning his first pennant, and just one year after New Yorkers had called for his scalp following the embarrassing sweep. Ruppert had stood by his manager, and his loyalty and patience had been rewarded.

The day after the Yanks’ victory at an informal celebration, the Colonel offered, “Give credit to Miller Huggins. He made the team what it is, and he can have a job with me as long as he wants it. The Yankees played the kind of ball I knew they could play. It took lots of faith to keep a brave front in the last two years, but I always felt that Huggins and the players would justify my confidence in them. When the Yankees did win a world’s series, it was the greatest one that was ever played.”

For Ruppert and the Yanks, it was more than a victory over any one team, or any of the other 15 teams for that matter. By beating the Giants it was a victory for the entire Yankee organization, a victory for their plight on the field and off, for they finally emerged from the underdog role in New York and were on top of the city, and the baseball world. The Colonel had baseball’s biggest and most spectacular ballpark in Yankee Stadium, baseball’s biggest attraction and best player in Ruth, and baseball’s best team, crowned as such as world champions. The Yankees had established themselves as the most valuable franchise in baseball.

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