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How New York and Baseball Rose Together

In a probable overstatement, a new volume argues that New York never recovered from the Great Depression.

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The New York Game: Baseball and the Rise of New York City, Kevin Baker, Knopf, 2024, 511 pages

This book is one long love letter to New York City and to the baseball that was played there. What comes across to the reader is the author’s sheer joy in writing about the city, its boroughs, its streets, and its baseball culture.


Baker’s basic argument is that baseball was a New York creation with its origin not in the countryside but in the streets of the city. Something called “base” was played in other parts of the country, New England and Philadelphia in particular, but its consolidation took place in New York in the 1840s and 1850s: Bases were placed 90 feet apart, the diamond shape was adopted, a batting order was created, three outs constituted an inning, and balls had to be caught in the air. He also argues that the role of statistics, batting average, and totaling a pitcher’s wins and losses helped secure the popularity of the game. The box score invented in 1859 by Henry Chadwick, a former fan of cricket who became the first major baseball writer and cheerleader, created what Branch Rickey called “the mortar which held baseball together.” 

Baker sprinkles the text with odd baseball items: In 1883–1884, two New York pitchers took part in every game but one for their team while hurling 206 complete games. Babe Ruth played in over 800 exhibition games during his time with Yankees, enriching the coffers of the team while risking the careers of its players. The brother of Dolph Camilli, Dodger first baseman in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was killed in the ring by the heavyweight champion Max Baer.

Baker builds his argument about the centricity of New York’s importance for baseball around the characters who became the faces of the game: first John McGraw and then Babe Ruth. He argues (correctly, in my view, especially so far as Ruth is concerned) that they were responsible for baseball’s true acceptance as America’s game, a term that dated back to the 1850s and 60s. 

Baker may overdo McGraw’s importance for establishing baseball’s popularity in the early years of the 20th century, if only because Connie Mack played a major role also. The irascible “Muggsy” McGraw and the kindly “Tall Tactician” set the tone for almost all future baseball managers. The line from McGraw to Durocher to Casey Stengel is a straight one, while Mack influenced more quiet and cerebral managers like the Yankees’ Joe McCarthy and Al Lopez, who managed the White Sox and the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s and 60s.

While McGraw is Baker’s first New York hero, it is Babe Ruth whom he idolizes, writing about him with something approaching awe. Ruth commanded sport like no other figure—Mohammed Ali is a distant second. After the Black Sox scandal, about which Baker writes one of the best and clearest sketches this side of Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out, Ruth (with the help of baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s crackdown on gambling) literally saved baseball.


In the words of the baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, Ruth’s “real life accomplishments transcend his myth.” Among Ruth’s 714 home runs 198 were over 450 feet. For comparison, Barry Bonds hit 36 that distance and even Mark McGwire with some chemical help, only did that 74 times. Ruth was also a talented pitcher, winning 94 games with a career 2.28 ERA.

The success of the Yankees, personified by Ruth’s dominance of the game, enabled the Bronx Bombers to build the first modern ballpark, Yankee Stadium with its 70,000-seat capacity—the first ball field to be called a stadium, not a ballpark.

Ruth personified the New York of the 1920s when the city reached its Golden Age, and Baker enjoys nothing more than long disquisitions about the expansion of the city—the growth of its skyscrapers, the development of new neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, the expansion of the subway so that, by 1930, 91 percent of New Yorkers were within a half mile of a station.  

New York teams dominated both leagues in the 1920s, winning 11 pennants among the three teams. Baker argues as many others have that the 1927 Yankees were the greatest team in baseball history, outscoring their opponents by almost 400 runs. Ruth out-homered every other team in the American League, while he and Lou Gehrig hit one less home run than the Giants team that led the National League in circuit clouts.

In what I believe is an overstatement, Baker argues that New York never recovered from the Great Depression. “The city would get rich again,” he writes, “grow again. But the easy confidence in its genius that had existed before the great slump was gone for good.” Surely in the post-war era up to the early 1960s, New York dominated as it had in the ’20s, culturally, financially, and certainly in baseball terms. In the decade and half after World War II, the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers won a collective 19 pennants.

The second half of Baker’s paean of praise to New York is not as lively as the first part, but there are still some wonderful portraits. The passing of the Yankee dynasty from Ruth to Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio is handled well. DiMaggio fascinates him, but Baker cannot humanize the cold, aloof Yankee Clipper.

Also, by stopping at the end of World War II, Baker misses out on one of the last great contributions of New York to baseball and America: Branch Rickey putting an end to baseball’s original sin, the banning of African Americans from America’s game. A chapter on the integration of baseball, which, after all, was a New York phenomenon, is a missed opportunity in my mind, a chance to measure Jackie Robinson’s impact on the sport and nation—the most dramatic change in baseball since Babe Ruth launched the modern game in the 1920s.

Baker’s sheer joy in writing this book comes through almost every page. The reader has almost as much fun reading the book as Baker obviously had in researching and writing it. I found a few minor mistakes, but they do not detract from a book that should be on every baseball (and New York city) fan’s bookshelf.


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