- 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York
Once upon a time, the vast majority of baseball fans rooted for the underdog New York Yankees to claim a World Series title. Authors Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg immerse readers in this bizarre reality in their admirable 1921. Spatz and Steinberg’s study of a single season in New York captures baseball’s transition from the deadball tactics of Giants manager John McGraw to the big-inning style epitomized by the Yankees’ larger-than-life left fielder, Babe Ruth. The writers further claim 1921 as a watershed year because it saw the ascension of Kennesaw Mountain Landis to the commissioner’s throne and marked the moment when New York City emerged as the heart of the diamond world—an unashamedly parochial argument reminiscent of Ken Burns’s 1994 Baseball series.
Part one sets the stage for the upcoming campaign and establishes 1921’s focus on the Giants and the Yankees, the only teams any real New Yorker deigned to follow (Brooklynites could keep the Dodgers to themselves). Baseball historians will find much that is familiar as the authors evaluate the fallout from the 1919 Black Sox scandal and introduce the book’s flawed yet compelling protagonists: the pugnacious McGraw, the flamboyant Ruth, and the dour Yankees skipper, Miller Huggins.
The book’s middle, and longest, section tackles the season itself. Here the authors’ research shines as they present scores of brief game summaries, culled primarily from contemporary newspapers. Their encyclopedic approach can cause the text to resemble the season itself, grinding its way from town to town in a seemingly never-ending string of contests. Their method also carries the advantage of placing individual games within the broader ebb and flow of a pennant chase. Spatz and Steinberg revel in small events that make or break a season, whether it be McGraw’s mid-season acquisition of Phillies’ malcontent Irish Meusel, the alcoholic binges of Giants pitcher Phil Douglas, or the freak knee injury Indians’ player-manager Tris Speaker suffered rounding first base. Minor details add up to a rich panorama, a fully realized portrait of six months of intense athletic competition. Even so, one wishes that the authors had provided more thorough examinations of the players’ off-field lives, an admittedly difficult task in this era of restricted news coverage, and of the teams’ relationships with their fans and with the city of New York.
The narrative perks up once the Yankees and Giants clinch spots in the World Series. The final section’s more luxurious pace frees the authors to delve deeper into both teams’ strengths and weaknesses, evaluate press coverage of the event, and examine the series’ electrifying impact on New York. Babe Ruth and his fifty-nine regular-season home runs were, of course, at the center of the media whirlwind. An infected elbow, however, reduced the Babe to a supporting role in the series. The sport’s most popular player sat out the final three contests after collapsing from exhaustion in the clubhouse. Tension mounts as momentum in the nine-game series shifts from the Yankees, who won the first two games using the same smallball techniques McGraw perfected, to the Giants, who took five of the next six games to capture their first championship flag since 1905. [End Page 169]
Like its main characters, 1921 has both strengths and flaws. Its game-by-game approach can grow tedious, and the book misses opportunities to extend its horizons beyond the on-field action. A brief appearance from Pirates pitcher Chief Yellow Horse, for example, raises the question of why a full-blooded Pawnee could play in the majors but an African American could not. In fact, the book never mentions the various all-Negro teams existing at the time. Neither does 1921 do much to examine the major leagues’s evolving relationship with the minors, a key factor for the...