The House That Ruth Built

A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923


By Robert Weintraub

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The untold story of Babe Ruth’s Yankees, John McGraw’s Giants, and the extraordinary baseball season of 1923.

Before the 27 World Series titles — before Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter — the Yankees were New York’s shadow franchise. They hadn’t won a championship, and they didn’t even have their own field, renting the Polo Grounds from their cross-town rivals the New York Giants. In 1921 and 1922, they lost to the Giants when it mattered most: in October.

But in 1923, the Yankees played their first season on their own field, the newly-built, state of the art baseball palace in the Bronx called “the Yankee Stadium.” The stadium was a gamble, erected in relative outerborough obscurity, and Babe Ruth was coming off the most disappointing season of his career, a season that saw his struggles on and off the field threaten his standing as a bona fide superstar.

It only took Ruth two at-bats to signal a new era. He stepped up to the plate in the 1923 season opener and cracked a home run to deep right field, the first homer in his park, and a sign of what lay ahead. It was the initial blow in a season that saw the new stadium christened “The House That Ruth Built,” signaled the triumph of the power game, and established the Yankees as New York’s — and the sport’s — team to beat.

From that first home run of 1923 to the storybook World Series matchup that pitted the Yankees against their nemesis from across the Harlem River — one so acrimonious that John McGraw forced his Giants to get to the Bronx in uniform rather than suit up at the Stadium — Robert Weintraub vividly illuminates the singular year that built a classic stadium, catalyzed a franchise, cemented Ruth’s legend, and forever changed the sport of baseball.


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Preface: The Ungrateful Houseguest

JOHN MCGRAW NEVER learned to drive. Baseball's greatest manager usually got around the city by automobile, driven by his chauffer, James Thompson. But October 10, 1923, was a mild Indian summer morning, pushing sixty degrees just before eleven when the leader of the New York Giants stepped onto the sidewalk outside the Polo Grounds. McGraw's destination was only a short stroll from here, five or ten minutes at most, so he waved Thompson away and decided to walk.

McGraw's players emerged from the ballpark behind him, hauling the tools of their trade—gloves, bats, spikes—and jumped into a fleet of waiting cabs, two or three men to a car. They were ready for action, especially since today's matchup was the first game of the 1923 World Series. But it was not a home game. For the first time in three seasons the Fall Classic wasn't being played entirely on the sporting green of the Polo Grounds.

McGraw wore a tailored suit rather than his uniform. All summer he had worn the flannel togs, but come fall he switched to civvies. He was quite warm as he walked the short, steep distance up to Eighth Avenue. The cabs bearing his players sped past. The Polo Grounds sat in Coogan's Hollow, a swale of land under Coogan's Bluff, a ridge overlooking the Harlem River and named for James J. Coogan, the onetime Manhattan borough president who owned the land until his death in 1915. The park was at the corner of West 155th Street and Eighth, putting it on the northeastern edge of Harlem. Immediately to the west, the posh neighborhood known as Sugar Hill (Duke Ellington's destination in "Take the A Train") was just beginning to show the fruits of the epoch known as the Harlem Renaissance, thanks to a boom in black artists, writers, thinkers, and (perhaps most significantly) organized gamblers. Known as "bankers," they had just introduced a craze called the "Numbers" that was sweeping the area like wildfire.

As McGraw walked through Harlem, he would likely have heard from windows and storefronts the hottest recording of the year, Bessie Smith's "Downhearted Blues":

I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand,

I'm gonna hold it until you meet some of my demands.

As McGraw walked toward the 155th Street Viaduct, he encountered a bustling city swept up in the ethos of the day: making money and enjoying life. The Great War was over, as was the postwar recession that had hamstrung the national economy. Salaries had caught up to cost-of-living increases that had grown exponentially after the war, and New York's (and the rest of America's) mood grew more joyous as a result. The '20s had just begun to roar. Earlier in the year, the Sporting News called it "a fast age, and we're doing time in jazz, not goose step," and French psychologist Émile Coué had recently introduced an affirmation that was sweeping the United States: "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better!" It appealed to a nation that fairly leapt out of bed each morning, eager to attack the day.

New York City, as ever, was at the forefront of that attack, setting the tempo for the rest of the country. Prohibition was the law of the land, but it was merely a fanciful notion in New York—the saloons, speakeasies, and corner delis were full of drinkers of both sexes, a new and welcome development. The capital of fashion, media, shipping, and entertainment, New York was emerging as the foremost city in the world, especially with Europe still prostrate from the previous decade's destruction.

The center of New York power, then, as now, remained downtown, in the Financial District. But uptown had the Giants, for the past two decades the nation's most potent sporting brand. These two critical elements of New York's cultural engine—sports and money—were merging rapidly. The ad salesmen at the big newspapers had taken it as gospel that baseball fans—an unserious rabble with little taste, in their eyes—didn't constitute the buying public, but that changed in the '20s. Literary Digest noticed the new climate: "We have no hesitation in declaring that if an accurate poll were taken of the attendance at any big-league ball game the ratio would be around 80 per cent of business officials, office employees and men of leisure to 20 per cent of the actual 'laboring class.' " A little relaxation at the ballpark was expected after a day spent frantically selling or dealing in the rarefied air of high finance.

Stock and real estate speculation was the Big Thing on Wall Street, and the deal making continued in the Polo Grounds grandstand. As one player said, "I'd go to the ballpark and get stock tips from turnstile men and bootblacks and peanut butchers and newspapermen. Everybody was going to be a millionaire. It was a little confusing." The Giants started home games at three thirty p.m. in order to better allow the moneymen to travel north after a day of wheeling and dealing to watch McGraw and his team dominate the National League.

But today's contest was starting earlier, at two p.m., and it most certainly wasn't a home game for the Giants. As McGraw turned toward the water on the 155th Street Viaduct, passing over the Harlem River Speedway, built for horse and carriage but now crammed with automobiles, the enemy's fortress came into view. McGraw scowled. The building in front of him, just across the river in the Bronx, would be the scene of today's game and the cause of much of the manager's agita—the brand-new Yankee Stadium.

Despite its proximity to Manhattan, the Bronx definitely had an outerborough feel to it (expressed neatly in a headline in that morning's Daily News: "Bronx Landlords Count Dogs as Added Tenants"). Under ordinary circumstances, a sneering McGraw would have paid as much attention to a Bronx baseball park and its American League occupants, the Yankees, as he would to something stuck to the bottom of his shoe.

But this was no ordinary time. Thanks to the deep pockets of the men who had bought the team in a deal brokered by McGraw himself, the Yankees had emerged as dangerous rivals to the Giants for the hearts and minds of New York baseball fans. And thanks to the team's superstar—to McGraw, a mighty ape with intellect to match—the Yankees had not only challenged the Giants on the field but outstripped them at their own gate. Since 1912, the two teams had shared the Polo Grounds, with the Yankees as tenant and the Giants as landlord, so this development hit the Giants and McGraw, who owned roughly a quarter of the team, right in the wallet. But it was a situation McGraw and Giants majority owner Charles Stoneham had thought they could rectify—by evicting the Yankees.

They did, kicking the Yanks out of the Polo Grounds and essentially forcing them (daring them) to build a home of their own. So the bickering Yankees owners, Jacob Ruppert and Til "Cap" Huston, responded by going all-in. They put aside their own differences long enough to construct this gigantic palace of sport within shouting distance of the Polo Grounds. It had opened six months earlier on April 18, to enormous fanfare and great critical and popular reception.

Money was at the heart of this competition, and the Yankees suddenly had more of it—and with the Stadium they now had the means to increase revenue exponentially. But McGraw and the Giants could still win where it counted most—on the field.

Separated by a thin slice of the Harlem River, Manhattan and the South Bronx look like jigsaw pieces left slightly apart. At 155th Street, McGraw traversed the gap by means of the four-hundred-foot swing span of the Macombs Dam Bridge. And as he made landfall in the Bronx, the boisterous crowds hoping to attend the first World Series game ever at the Yankee Stadium came into view. This new monstrosity held an enormous number of fans, upwards of sixty thousand, and it seemed like twice that number were milling outside the Stadium on 161st Street, on River Avenue, and on the unpaved section of Doughty Street (to be renamed Ruppert Place in 1933) near the Elevated train, hoping to buy tickets. McGraw despaired momentarily, wondering how he would get through the logjam, when a policeman recognized him and organized a flying wedge, leading McGraw to a side entrance.

Once inside, McGraw wrinkled his nose and stepped into the visiting clubhouse. His players were inside, quietly awaiting batting practice. Unused lockers surrounded the team—and they'd remain empty. Such was McGraw's distaste for the Yankees and their new home that he had refused to allow the Giants to change inside the Stadium. Thus the team had met at the Polo Grounds, put on their uniforms, and headed over the river. McGraw might have to play the World Series here, but he didn't have to spend any more time as guests of the Yankees than absolutely necessary.

Much has changed on the Manhattan side since the days when McGraw strolled through the area. Next door to the former site of the Giants home field is Rucker Park, where the fabled summertime Rucker Tournament attracts the best playground basketball players in the city and beyond. One Hundred Fifty-fifth Street abuts the northern edge of another park, one named for a New York baseball player—Jackie Robinson, who played in Brooklyn! Eighth Avenue today in this stretch of Harlem is now called Frederick Douglass Boulevard. But perhaps the greatest change, at least from a baseball perspective, is that the Polo Grounds no longer exists. A large public housing project stands where the diamond and seats once did, and the entire area is in thrall to the great new Yankee Stadium across the river. Everywhere one turns in the summer months, the familiar Yankees "Top Hat and Bat" emblem (which didn't exist in 1923) winks out from memorabilia stores, makeshift parking lots, and pre- and postgame watering holes. It is a turn of events that would have eaten at John McGraw.

The New York Yankees are the preeminent sports franchise in the United States, if not the world, and the club's résumé is well known to most fans—twenty-seven World Championships (as of 2010), by far the most of any team in any sport. But in 1923 this dominance didn't yet exist. As that year's World Series opened, the Yankees had yet to win a single championship. And in the previous two seasons, it had lost the Series, decisively, to its mighty rival—the New York Giants.

The Yankees rose to prominence on the broad slugging shoulders of Babe Ruth. He is by general consensus the most important and greatest player in the game's history. As we look back from the perspective of nearly a century, the Babe's extraordinary career appears to be an unchecked litany of achievement and triumph. But in 1921 and 1922, Ruth had failed to deliver a World Series to New York. He had been an important component of three championship teams in Boston, but as a pitcher, not an everyday player expected to carry the team on his back (Ruth was one of many stars in Beantown). Since switching to the outfield and moving to the biggest city in the country in 1920, Ruth had come up short in the Fall Classic.

In the spring of 1919, while Ruth was still in Boston, the Sox played a traveling series of exhibitions with the New York Giants, and during an early game at Plant Field in Tampa, Florida, Ruth gave a glimpse of the immediate future of the National Pastime. Newly a full-time outfielder, the Babe launched a stupendous blast, later estimated at 587 feet, carrying far past a cordon of automobiles that surrounded the playing field. Players on both sides watched slack-jawed, as though an alien vessel had just appeared from the sky and landed at home plate. In contrast, Ruth stayed casual. "I don't think anyone went to shake his hand, they were so dumbfounded," recalled teammate Harry Hooper. "Babe? He didn't think he had done anything wonderful. To him it was just another wallop."

But one witness to the colossal home run remained unimpressed—John McGraw, who sneered, "If he plays every day, that bum will hit into a hundred double plays." Since then, the enmity between Ruth and McGraw had only grown. The Babe may have stolen the hearts of New York baseball fans with his unprecedented slugging, but McGraw had gotten his last laughs in the World Series, when it mattered most.

He designed a strategy used to attack Ruth's hitting style and called every pitch from the dugout, baffling the slugger and rendering him the "Swatless Sultan." "A man of a thousand successes, the Babe has since his ascendancy as a home run hitter been a World Series jest," wrote Arthur Robinson in the New York American following Ruth's collapse in the 1922 Series, where he was held to a measly two hits in seventeen at bats, and such was the prevailing wisdom. Ruth was labeled "an exploded phenomenon" in the New York Sun and a "flat failure" by the Associated Press. The Babe's homers were great for the box office, but when it came to winning, the Scientific Baseball perfected by John J. McGraw still ruled.

Ruth suffered through a miserable 1922 even before the Series. A new contract was paying him, in his matchless phrase, "a grand a week," $52,000, but the giant salary was hardly earned. Ruth was suspended for the first six weeks of the season for taking part in an illegal barnstorming tour, and he fought with umpires, fans, and teammates. "Your conduct… was reprehensible to a great degree—shocking to every American mother who permits her boy to go to a game," said AL president Ban Johnson after Ruth viciously cursed an umpire. "A man of your stamp bodes no good in the profession…. It seems the period has arrived when you should allow some intelligence to creep into a mind that has plainly been warped."

Drink played an outsize role in Ruth's troubles. He had started the epic elbow-bending in spring training, which the Yankees perhaps unwisely held in New Orleans. The Babe guzzled cocktails every night at the Little Club, right across the street from the team's hotel, joined by many of his teammates. "Yankees Training on Scotch" accused one newspaper headline. He had other poor habits. Joe Vila, a sportswriter who worshipped McGraw and reviled the Babe, gleefully wrote about Ruth spending too much time at the racetrack and refusing to take morning batting practice while suspended.

Ruth also warred with his manager, Miller Huggins, whom the Babe loathed. At one point, exhausted by his star's behavior, Huggins yelled at Ruth, "If you don't want to play ball, why don't you go home?" Ruth responded, "You go home! If you don't like the way I play ball, why don't you fire me?" Huggins didn't, but given Ruth's puny 1922 World Series batting average of .118, he might as well have.

The opprobrium from the heretofore worshipful sporting press, particularly the New York writers, blindsided Ruth, rendering him a "stunned hippopotamus." He confessed (admittedly in a ghostwritten column) to "lying awake, thinking about his problems." So in a little-known subplot to his sprawling career, Ruth spent the winter of 1922–23 in isolation on his Massachusetts farm, working out and, at least publicly, swearing off the destructive distractions that had caused his tumble. "Nothing but ice water for me," he told astounded newsmen one evening the following spring. "I haven't had a drink all winter."

Ruth responded with his greatest overall season, one well shy of his most prodigious home-run totals but compensated for with outstanding all-around play—at the plate, in the field, on the base paths, and in the locker room. He was rewarded with his first and only MVP Award, and the Yankees followed him all the way to an easy pennant.

A redemptive World Series victory would cap a season that had started on a forbidding yet glorious April day in the Yankees' new home. But defeating the rest of the American League was the easy part. Ruth and the Yankees still had to best their bitter rival, John McGraw and his two-time-defending-champion Giants. The manager held the world in a jug and was demanding a third consecutive championship, his most desired and elusive goal.

Introduction: Opening the House—April 18, 1923

IT WAS A Wednesday morning, overcast and blustery. In retrospect, the opening of the Yankee Stadium, as everyone was calling it, seemed to demand a sun-splashed afternoon, but early spring in New York is fickle, and the baseball gods hadn't yet made up their minds about the new palace in the South Bronx.

The night before the first game at the Stadium, Babe Ruth stayed at his Upper West Side apartment in the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway, between 73rd and 74th. The seventeen-story, fourteen-hundred-room residential hotel had dominated the West Side skyline since its opening in 1904, and it featured Beaux Arts decorations, rounded corner towers, and a healthy supply of gargoyles, which earned the Ansonia the nickname "the Wedding Cake." Built to resemble a nineteenth-century French resort, the Ansonia was the latest word in customized comforts, with Turkish baths, the world's largest indoor swimming pool, expensive basement shops, and several in-house restaurants, serving mainly French cuisine. A garden on the roof provided fresh flowers and vegetables. It was a fitting home for New York's foremost sporting superstar. Among the tenants were Enrico Caruso, Flo Ziegfeld, Igor Stravinsky, and, for a short while, well before Ruth arrived, Arnold Rothstein. The gambling kingpin known as "A.R." would later meet in the lobby with other conspirators to discuss how best to profit from the coming World Series fix of 1919.

Ruth was awoken at nine that morning by a phone call from Bill Slocum, a reporter for the New York American. The paper paid Ruth $1,500 for the exclusive rights to his "column," which Slocum was charged with ghostwriting, and now the reporter needed some material from the Babe for the afternoon edition. Ruth would later say Slocum "knew how he thought" better than anyone. Slocum asked if anything unusual had happened in the last couple of days that could be worked into the column, and Ruth mentioned that his business manager Christy Walsh's friend "Van Looneytune," or whatever it was, had given him a lucky silver dollar. "You mean Hendrik van Loon?" asked Slocum. The Dutch historian had written a bestselling book for children, The Story of Mankind, in 1921. Ruth confirmed that was who he meant.

That worked for Slocum—he passed along the tale to the readers, who breathlessly followed the Babe's every deed. Ruth was so popular that papers across the country printed his stats—not his team's but his alone. Before hanging up, Slocum told Ruth that huge crowds were likely to gather at the Stadium, and he should leave for the Bronx early.

The Babe wasn't too worried. They weren't going to start without him.

When Ruth looked into the bathroom mirror that morning at the Ansonia, he saw a tall, broad, strapping man with a burly torso stuck on top of famously thin ankles. His head was enormous, making him easy to pick out even from the farthest reaches of the ballpark. In contrast, his bright brown eyes were small, deeply sunk into his skull. His eyebrows were extremely bushy. Ruth's nose was flat, pushed in as though he had been in one fight too many. His hair was deep brown, practically black, with crisp curls. He wasn't classically handsome, surely, but he exuded an unmistakable charisma that lured the opposite sex like deer to a salt lick.

His backstory was well known to the sports fans of the day. "If it wasn't for baseball, I'd be in either the penitentiary or the cemetery," he once said. Ruth didn't even know his date of birth until years later. The Babe was born George Herman Ruth in Baltimore, Maryland, but it wasn't until he applied for a passport after he became a famous ballplayer that he discovered he'd been born on February 6, 1895, making him a shade past twenty-eight on the morning of April 18, 1923.

There wasn't much birthday cake in the Ruth home. It was a life of squalor and neglect. His father, also named George, and his mother, Catherine, struggled to control their wild son almost immediately. George Ruth Sr. was a taciturn saloonkeeper in the southwestern part of the city, and he showed little patience with his namesake. Little George stole from the saloon till, chewed tobacco, and drank unfinished beer from patrons' glasses—all at the tender age of six.

He was tough, and a bully. When a knock was heard at the door in the Ruth home, it was often the parent of a classmate of George's, there to show Mr. and Mrs. Ruth "what your George has done to my son." "I have the same violent temper my father and older brother had," Ruth said from the distance of adulthood. "Both died of injuries from street fights in Baltimore, fights begun by flare-ups of their tempers." Once, he stole a dollar from the saloon and bought ice cream for the neighborhood kids. His father found out and horsewhipped him silly. The next day, George did it again—just to show his father he wouldn't give in.

A short time later, just after turning seven, George was declared "incorrigible" and shipped off to St. Mary's Industrial School, a home for orphans and wayward boys. Over the next couple of years, George Sr. and Catherine repeatedly retrieved their son from the school and tried to make him a part of their home. All attempts at domesticating little George failed, and he was permanently returned to St. Mary's in 1905, just as he turned ten years old.

At the school, Ruth met his father figure and baseball tutor, a Xaverian priest from Canada named Brother Matthias. Matthias taught George how to read and write, and how to be a part of decent society. Over the years he put Ruth to work building cabinets, rolling cigars, and making shirts. Mostly he taught George the game of baseball. He did it so well that at the age of eight Ruth was playing on the team for twelve-year-olds.

Aping Matthias's huge uppercut swing, the strapping teenage Ruth was an obvious prospect for area teams. He could hit farther than anyone else on his squad, and he showed excellent control and speed as a left-handed pitcher. He starred for local semipro and sandlot teams when he wasn't playing for St. Mary's. In February 1914, Jack Dunn of the Baltimore Orioles, then a top minor-league team, signed Ruth to his first professional contract. "Who's the big fella?" someone asked early in Ruth's time with the Orioles. "He's Jack Dunn's baby" came the reply, and thus was George Ruth forever renamed "Babe."

At noon, the gates were opened at the Yankee Stadium for the first time. A smallish crowd, perhaps five hundred souls, gathered around the still-shuttered ticket windows. But in less than an hour, that changed dramatically. By one o'clock, a churning sea of humanity had formed around the new Stadium, descending on the thirty-six ticket booths that ringed the Stadium, even though the first pitch wasn't until three thirty. About fifteen thousand tickets had been presold, leaving the majority up for grabs at one p.m., when the shutters opened on the booths with a loud clatter.

Reserved seats for this first game in the Yankees' new home sold for $3.50, grandstand seats for $1.10, bleacher seats for $1.00. A pair of scalpers—Abe Cohen of Brooklyn and Sebastian Calabrese of East 27th Street—were arrested by Inspector Andrew O'Connor for selling $1 seats for $1.10. They were unable to post $500 bail, and so spent the evening in night-court jail. Most of the huge throng had walked or come by train, including Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who took the Interborough subway to the Bronx. "No ball fan rides to the game in a cab," said the commissioner, though he was caught up in the crowd, necessitating a police rescue. Still, the two thousand parking spaces for automobiles were full long before game time, despite the fact that gasoline distillate was an outrageous sixteen cents per gallon. Cars were up on curbs, parked haphazardly on nearby streets, and many drivers got out and started walking from at least a mile away. The Boston Globe estimated that 8,500 cars were parked in the vicinity.

At 2:10, all the ticket windows slammed shut, except for the bleacher seat windows—and at about 3:05, the last ticket was sold. It was left to the New York Police Department to inform the disappointed crowds that they should go home. Somewhat surprisingly, there was no violence, no shoving, just some grumbling. In all, an estimated 25,000 fans had been turned away.

As for the lucky fans who got a seat, the team's co-owner, Colonel Jacob Ruppert, bet sportswriter Damon Runyon a suit of clothes that there were more than 71,000 paying customers. The Yankees officially reported an astonishing 74,217, a record number the papers faithfully passed along. It wasn't until May that the true number of fans who clicked through the forty turnstiles was discovered. A boxing match was staged for the Milk Fund charity, and ten thousand extra seats were put in place on the field. The total number of tickets printed was seventy thousand—thus, some alert reporters deduced, the Stadium could hold only about sixty thousand for baseball. When confronted, the Yankees' business manager Ed Barrow admitted he had added standing-room-only fans to the original estimate, and was forced to amend the number to about 62,200, probably still exaggerated, but nevertheless by far the largest crowd in the sport's history.

Damon Runyon never did collect his new suit from Colonel Ruppert.

There were a few snafus, as would be expected on a new stadium's opening day. Yale basketball coach Joe Fogarty had reserved a box for himself and several other minor dignitaries, but when they showed at 1:15, Fogarty found his seats had been sold. He demanded an audience with Barrow, who was harried with a thousand last-minute details. "There's nothing doing," roared Bulldog Ed, and a nearby cop ushered the coach out of the Stadium.

Peanuts and Cracker Jacks cost a nickel; soda pop, fifteen cents. The game program, with team owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston on the cover, not Ruth, cost fifteen cents. Ushers wearing tuxedos and bow ties welcomed fans to a park that the New York Evening-Telegram said smelled of "fresh paint, fresh plaster and fresh grass," and the large breezeways allowed for the masses to find their proper sections with little difficulty. A pair of announcers, one down each line, took up their positions, megaphones in hand. Never before had two in-crowd announcers worked a game, but then this place was too damn big for just one man, no matter how loud. Jack Lenz wore his hallmark derby on the first-base line. George Levy, a regular announcer at the Polo Grounds, worked the third-base side. His megaphone was noticeably smaller than Lenz's.

A heavy tarp had protected the field for the past week, but early in the morning Yankees groundskeeper Phil Schenck ordered it removed, revealing a perfect, gleaming green. New ballparks traditionally had poor fields for months until the combination of sun and regular usage alchemized them into playing condition. Not so this field. Schenck had been the original keeper at Hilltop Park, the Yankees' home when they were known as the Highlanders, or, to some, the Hilltoppers. But when the team moved into the Polo Grounds, Schenck was made redundant. For ten years he was the "groundless groundskeeper," a jolly, beloved figure among team officials but one with no field of his own to seed, sod, and mow.


On Sale
Apr 4, 2011
Page Count
432 pages

Robert Weintraub

About the Author

Robert Weintraub is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Slate and the author of the acclaimed books The House That Ruth Built, The Victory Season, and No Better Friend.

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