Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg on 1921 The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York
How did this book come about?
I'd written a couple of books on Yankee history, and I had it in the back of my mind to write one on the 1921 Yanks winning their first pennant. My memory gets a bit hazy there, but I remember casually mentioning it to Steve about five years ago. I knew Steve was a Yankee historian. A year or so later at a Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention, I think it was Toronto in 2005, Steve asked me if I was working on the '21 Yankees book. He said he was thinking of doing one, but if I was doing it, he would move on to something else. I said I really hadn't done anything on it, and if he had started researching it then he should go ahead and write the book. I'm not sure who suggested we work on it together and expand it to include the Giants, but we both agreed that would make a much better book.
I had done a number of articles on the Yankees of this era, inc. the 1922 and 1926 pennant races, but not '21. I was puzzled that—with all the baseball books written on seasons-no one had done one on 1921. I recall joking with Lyle at a couple of SABR conventions, as we graciously went back and forth: "You should do the book on the '21 Yankees," and "No, you do it." In the meantime, neither of us jumped on it, and I became concerned someone else would run with it. At some point I recall looking closely at the National League race of that year and realizing that the pennant race there was as dramatic as that of the American League. If we would combine our efforts on the book, we'd have the time and resources to do justice to the entire 1921 season and both pennant races.
For a number of reasons. First, it was the Yankees' first pennant. Now it's hard to realize that going into the '21 season, they had a sorry history of losing. They were even considered jinxed. Second, a key element of a good story is conflict, and 1921 had it in a big way. John McGraw and his Giants personified the low-scoring Deadball Era; the Yankees, led by Babe Ruth, were fostering an entirely different approach to winning, with the home run. And these men were two of the most colorful personalities in the history of the game. Top it off with the first all-New York World Series. The big city that McGraw had "owned" for so many years was finally "in play." New York fans now had two winners to choose from.
Both of us, independently, had planned a book on the Yankees winning their first pennant and Babe Ruth having perhaps the greatest offensive season ever. But once we agreed to collaborate and add the Giants, we decided to build the book around two major themes: 1) the Yankees and Giants battling for supremacy in New York, and 2) the way the game was changing from dominance by one major character—John McGraw—to another—Babe Ruth. This was a very pivotal year for baseball, and when Steve pointed out that no books had been written on the 1921 season, we decided we would fill that gap.
How did you decide to split the writing? Was it by team, by month, or some other way?
This was an easy decision. Steve had written extensively on this era in Yankee history before, and I was the one more familiar with the National League. So we decided in the first minutes of our chat, that Steve would cover the Yankees and the American League race and I would cover the Giants and the National League race. Steve was more conversant with some topics, like Judge Landis and the Black Sox scandal, while I was a bit more familiar with others, like New York City history and geography. Other areas that cut across both leagues, like the run-up to and the playing of the World Series, we covered together.
Lyle was so gracious to let me focus on the Yankees and the AL. Heck, he had written two books on the Yankees; I had done some articles on them. I've done a lot of work on Yankees' manager Miller Huggins and former and future Yankee pitcher Urban Shocker—a star with the AL's St. Louis Browns in 1921. So I really appreciated being able to focus on that New York team and that league. As we got into the book, I found the Giants and National League race exciting and refreshing. So much was new to me, and there were so many compelling stories over there.
And Lyle is far too modest to say he was "a bit more familiar" with New York history and geography" than I was. He's so well grounded in the primary setting of our story, both the physical location (New York City) and the history of that place and its baseball. He also took the lead on the statistical tables in the book's Appendix. As the Chair of SABR's Baseball Records Committee and a recognized authority on those numbers, Lyle was the logical one to do this.
Another thing I took the lead on was the selection of photos, a particular passion of mine. I wanted the images to be as special as the story itself. We ended up with more than fifty photos from more than a dozen sources, from private collectors to little-known archives. Many of these pictures have not been published since they appeared in Baseball Magazine or New York dailies almost ninety years ago, if ever. I also want to thank our editor at the University of Nebraska Press, Rob Taylor, for letting us include so many images. I know they add to the cost of a book. I kept on nudging that number up, from thirty to forty and then above fifty images, which Rod graciously agreed to.
What were some of the challenges of the collaboration?
At first I thought our geographic separation of 3,000 miles would be a problem. But we quickly realized that with PC's, e-mails and file attachments, distances would not be a problem. We did discuss the book face-to-face, but only at a couple of SABR conventions. We really had to work through a different issue that had nothing to do with geography, and everything to do with the number of authors—one more than one. We wanted to have a real collaboration, a synthesis rather than just dividing up the book into what would be Lyle and Steve sections. That required rewrites of early chapters and slow going and at first, until we figured it out—with the help of a Seattle writing consultant I've known and worked with for a number of years, Jennifer McCord.
Finally, Lyle and I bring different approaches to research and writing. At times I probably exasperated him with my desire to keep digging into stories and issues that we had a pretty good handle on. Lyle's level-headedness was great in keeping me grounded. And he's so good at the craft of writing, the nitty-gritty of how to shape a sentence. I think the keys to this collaboration working—as with any relationship—is mutual respect and flexibility. We challenged each other, sometimes quite forcefully, but we couched such questioning with "Consider this because . . ." and "of course, the final decision is yours." We were able to sense if and when it was appropriate to drop a challenge.
No matter what Steve wrote or I wrote, the copy went back and forth between us many, many times until we were satisfied. Steve lives in the Northwest corner of the country and I live in the Southeast corner, but we were able to email our drafts across this vast distance just as if we lived next door. Well, not exactly. It would have been nice to take some physical copy and be able to discuss it over a cup of coffee, In the early days of our collaboration we floundered a bit on logistics and were aided greatly by Steve's friend, Jennifer McCord, a Seattle-based publishing consultant. After looking at some preliminary chapters, Jennifer convinced us that we could indeed "speak in one voice," a goal we very much wanted to accomplish. She continued to provide guidance and encouragement throughout and we are very grateful to her.
Collaborating on a book with someone you see maybe once a year presents some interesting challenges. In addition to the three-hour time difference, we have much different body clocks. Steve is a night-owl, and I'm an early riser. I believe many days he is going to bed shortly before I am waking up. Although this often caused lag time in our communications, it was not a serious problem.
We also have different personalities. Steve is a Type A and I'm a Type B. This is not a bad thing. Many tasks got done by Steve's dogged persistence that I'd still be ruminating on. Conversely, I hope that from time to time I served as a calming influence. Moreover, we never had a serious disagreement on any phase of the project. We began as acquaintances and ended as friends, something Jennifer has told us doesn't happen very often.
What are some of the book's sub-stories?
In 1921, the Giants were baseball's flagship franchise. They were the most valuable franchise in the game, and also the most hated. Much like the Yankees of today, who, ironically, were in the process of replacing the Giants in both those categories. Hatred for the Giants back then, and to a lesser extent the Yankees, went beyond their success on the field. As the country moved from a mostly rural one to a mostly urban one, New York, America's biggest city, was viewed as the devil incarnate in many Midwestern locales. Both teams were accused of using their wealth and influence with their respective leagues and the commissioner to "buy the pennant."
Another theme that weaves through the book is gambling. Baseball was still in the beginning stages of dealing with the Black Sox scandal. Judge Landis had banned several players from the game, including some who had played for McGraw's Giants. Moreover, the Giants were owned by an unsavory character named Charles Stoneham, a glorified bookmaker, who along with his manager had ties to Arnold Rothstein, the nation's most notorious gambler. Like prohibition, gambling was banned in New York, with about the same amount of successful enforcement.
This book is what I call "New York-centric" because the two winning teams were from the big city. But we look at the season as a whole and how the game and its stars fit into American society in 1921. In the AL, the story of Tris Speaker's Cleveland Indians and how those defending world champions challenged the Yankees for the pennant until the last week of the season despite a wave of injuries. They were in first place for much of the season. Then there's the story of Miller Huggins, the little manager of the Yankees. He had few friends in the Yankees' clubhouse and the city's newsrooms. For much of the season, he was facing an insurrection from a number of his players. Another story involves Brooklyn, whose Dodgers (known as the Robins back then) were the defending NL champions. They weave in and out of the story, but they are not on center stage of this book. In part that's because they were not in the pennant race for most of the season (they would finish fifth) and were at the beginning of two decades of lean, losing years. But it's also because of the complicated relationship between Brooklyn and New York City. Brooklyn has always been a separate entity, a world of it own and not part of New York City, despite the fact that—technically and legally—it was part of the city. Finally there's the controversy over Yankee pitcher Carl Mays's World Series performance, one that has been debated in baseball circles for decades.
In the more than three years you worked on the book, did it evolve or change? If so, how?
I think evolved would be the more accurate description. And it did so as the result of three major shifts in our approach. The first was our decision to move back and forth between the teams in separate, smaller chapters. Our original approach had been to merge the doings of the two teams in fewer, larger chapters. Our second shift in approach was going into more detail on key players at various stages of the season, rather than when we first encountered them. Finally, as the result of advice we received from several of our readers, we greatly reduced much of the superfluous details related to individual games.
It sure did evolve, in large part because of the feedback that we had from our editor, Rob Taylor. Rob knows baseball, but he also knows writing. For example, he suggested ways we could improve the pace of the story—by paraphrasing quotes that were not especially vivid and by suggesting that we bring the reader into the 1921 season earlier in the book. The first section of the book, The Preseason, was probably a hundred pages long, mainly because we fleshed out many of the story's leading characters before the start of the season. Then I took a close look at a couple of David Halberstam's baseball books, Summer of '49 and October 1964. I realized that he developed personalities throughout the books, spreading their emergence throughout the stories and really providing a nice pace. Making that change in 1921 required a major rewrite.
A number of our colleagues also reviewed the manuscript and gave us invaluable feedback, both factual corrections and big-picture comments that we took to heart.
What are you proudest of about this book?
First, the fact that we were able to speak with one voice. After reading the manuscript, one of our colleagues gave the ultimate compliment: he couldn't recognize which chapters were written by whom. Then, we draw upon many newspapers, about a dozen from New York City alone. Why is that significant? For a couple of reasons. Before radio and TV, newspapers were "it." Each one had its own reporters who had their own contacts and sources. Some of the book's most dramatic revelations come from what I'd call secondary papers. Moreover, those writers were so vivid in their columns. One gets a good sense of sports coverage of that bygone era from our quotes of craftsmen such as Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice, Heywood Broun, Hugh Fullerton, and Fred Lieb (to name a few), each writing for a different newspaper. Also, while this is a baseball book, we have tried to convey a sense of what America in general and New York City in particular were like in 1921. I recall baseball historian John Thorn telling me that a good baseball book about 1921 had to be about more than just baseball to be really interesting. As the U.S. emerged from the Great War, different forces were at work in society, some moving in different directions. For example, as Sunday baseball was legalized, Prohibition took hold across the country. Finally, I'm proud that we present many of the story's overlooked personalities and, hopefully, make them come alive. At its most basic level, I am a story teller, and I see my purpose as a writer is to bring back those who have been forgotten. These men were far more than a group of numbers.
Our goal was to produce a book that would bring to life a season that has been overlooked by historians, yet one that has proved to be a turning point in baseball history. But as we delved into the research, our goal expanded. Very few people with clear memories of 1921 remain. Using the baseball season as a focal point, we wanted the book to give the reader a look at life as it was in America that year. Given that framework, I believe we have done so.