(Bloomberg) -- No one took advantage of being famous like Babe Ruth. Arguably the most recognizable athlete in American history roamed Manhattan in the early part of the 20th century satisfying his massive appetites—for clothes (custom-made silk underwear), food (six hot dogs for just a pregame snack), booze and sex. New York was probably the only place in the world that could satiate him.

The symbiotic relationship that Ruth created with his adopted home would be replicated time and again. Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter all would thrive there—and that relationship extended well beyond individual players, or even teams. It was about the most American of cities and the most American of sports.

In The New York Game: Baseball and the Rise of a New City (Knopf, March 5), Kevin Baker makes the case that America’s financial, media and cultural capital and its national pastime grew not in parallel, but were inextricably intertwined. Baker painstakingly chronicles the formation and dissolution of leagues and teams, stretching back to what was going on in the city from the end of the 19th century through World War II, explaining how everything from New York’s seemingly never-ending real estate boom and technology advances such as film and radio were critical growth drivers. Across almost 500 pages, the book ultimately succeeds because it weaves together class, race, fame and rivalry to create a survey of the city and the sport’s overlapping interests. 

Baker, a novelist, journalist and historian who co-authored Reggie Jackson’s Becoming Mr. October, walks us into the early 1900s, as New York comes of age. Skyscrapers begin to blossom (just two years into the new century, there are 66 in Lower Manhattan), along with landmark developments such as Columbia University, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This wasn’t just the home of robber barons, it was the locus of America’s nascent and influential middle class. 

The game, still in its infancy (the first professional team was formed in the late 1860s), was perfectly suited to entertain its seething masses. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, shopkeepers and secretaries had disposable income and leisure hours, and they needed somewhere to spend them both, either by watching in person or, eventually, listening to the play-by-play. 

Baseball fit the bill, played across nine innings and a long season where teams or individual players could go through winning streaks or slumps. Drama came in the form of single contests, as well as rivalries stretched across months, hurtling toward an eventual championship. The sport was “episodic and discrete, with every contest adding to the ongoing narrative of the pennant race,” Baker writes. 

This would become especially evident in the 20th century, when baseball formed another critical partnership, with the radio. Millions in New York followed the travails of seasons with the likes of Red Barber, the legendary voice of first the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the New York Yankees. His ability to connect with his listeners and expand the audience beyond those in the stadium foretold the billions that would ultimately be spent for sports media rights in baseball and beyond. 

Machine politics was one of the most powerful forces in the formation of the game and the city. The influence of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall feature prominently in the early New York game, dictating which teams survived simply by controlling access to the ballparks. Eventual Yankee owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert made a smart decision, at least for his business, by associating with Tammany Hall—his family supplied beer to Tammany saloons, and he in return served the machine’s interest as a four-term congressman. His money and his power helped him buy and build the Yankees, arguably the most influential franchise in the history of American sports. 

It’s always about money—specifically, who’s spending it and who’s taking it. “Baseball, like everything else in New York, came down to that double-headed hydra: real estate and politics,” Baker writes.

We learn about the micro economies that build up around the ballparks and the roots of well-known rituals, including what was likely the nation’s first sports bar. Back in 1890, the Home Plate Saloon was where the athletes mingled with the stars of the day. Mark Twain and Maurice Barrymore were among those who’d knock back pints with the New York Giants (the baseball team that ultimately decamped for San Francisco, not the gridiron team that would eventually play in the New Jersey Meadowlands). Almost a century before Spike Lee starting sitting courtside to watch the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, actors would take in an afternoon Giants game, then perform in the theater district that evening.

The big money didn’t just watch baseball, it invested in it—turning the game into the high-stakes revenue generator we know today. We’re introduced to some of its pioneers, like Ruppert, who reinvested his profits into the Yankees instead of looting the team’s earnings for his own benefit or blowing it all on superstars. That move guaranteed that the Yankees would endure as a franchise, not dependent on any individual. The team’s status is reinforced by the iconic pinstripe uniforms lacking players’ last names. Such long-term thinking, and lots of championships, helped the Yankees become among the handful of the most valuable franchises in the world.

Baker makes the case that some of the best baseball at the turn of the century was played in all-Black New York games whose scores were never reported in a newspaper. Repeatedly rejected by all-White teams, Black players’ attempt to create a literal league of their own failed in 1886, forcing them into traveling teams without permanent fields to play on. The Negro National League would form in 1920, with other regional leagues following. But it was a New York team, the Dodgers, with whom Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier in pro baseball. His start in 1947 was the first by a Black player in the majors since 1884.

Baker’s book picks up steam about halfway through, when it addresses legendary figures like Robinson who still play in our collective imagination. Ruth’s outsize personality and performance bring notoriety, but, more importantly, championships. Baker, unabashedly pro-New York, can’t help but take a swipe at Ruth’s former home in Boston: “The onetime intellectual hub of the nation had become a backwater, an often provincial, narrow-minded city.”

Can you blame him? Ruth overlaps with Gehrig, a man so prominent in popular culture that the illness that cuts his career short now bears his name. Then there’s Joe DiMaggio, who sets records on the field and (briefly) marries Marilyn Monroe off of it. Baker contends that no athlete—not Patrick Ewing or Joe Namath, or even Ruth himself—arrived in New York with higher expectations placed on him than Joltin’ Joe. He delivers, and even is immortalized by another New York team, Simon & Garfunkel, in the song Mrs. Robinson.

Some of the most fun elements of Baker’s book are “call-forwards,” where big personalities, or personality clashes, presage a latter-day manager or player. John Joseph McGraw, the profane and rowdy manager of the New York Giants from 1902 to 1932, sets a template for Yankee manager Joe Torre decades later, “providing cover for his team from the city’s vast and often hostile tribe of sportswriters.”

Baker also writes that in the mid-1930s Yankee legends Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth “had reached an impasse in their relationship that would make Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez look like bosom buddies.” (Full disclosure: I’m hosting a new show with Rodriguez for Bloomberg called The Deal, and in an upcoming episode we sit down with Jeter to discuss, among other things, that very famous relationship—its origins, its rough spots and its rehabilitation.)

The New York Game wraps up with World War II overshadowing just about everything. Baseball is a salve and a distraction, especially DiMaggio’s gripping 56-game hitting streak in 1941, just before the US entered the conflict. “For many Americans, helpless before the sight of such colossal slaughter, baseball—and the streak—were what they preferred to talk about when the day was over.”

The war’s gravity literally throws the city into darkness. New York’s lights dim to make it theoretically harder for enemy planes to bomb Manhattan. While that destruction never comes, postwar New York and postwar baseball inhabit an America redefining itself in all sorts of ways, including geographically and racially. The Giants and the Dodgers ultimately leave for the West Coast.

New York, Baker writes, is left to deal with even bigger issues, especially around issues of race. He concludes The New York Game hinting at the decades to come, filled with strife and opportunity—with sports, especially baseball, playing a key role in a city that continues to reinvent itself. 

While baseball has flagged in popularity in recent years, ceding the center of the sports conversation to the NFL and the NBA, recent rule changes to speed up the game, along with some spring optimism for both the Yankees and the New York Mets, may help boost America’s pastime. Because baseball simply feels bigger and more important when New York is at the center of the conversation.

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