Jacob Ruppert: The Man Who Built the Yankees

By Robert Grayson

Nearly 100 years ago, Jacob Ruppert, a wealthy beer brewer from the East Side of Manhattan, purchased the New York Yankees and built the team into a dynasty. Many thought Ruppert had been enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame long ago, but he wasn’t.

The iconic owner didn’t get a plaque beside some of his great players, which included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri, until 2013. This despite taking the Yankees from an also-ran to a 10-time pennant winner and seven-time World Champion under his reign as owner.

Jacob Ruppert, AP Photo

Jacob Ruppert, AP Photo

Because the Baseball Writers’ Association of America declined to elect anyone to be enshrined this year, Ruppert’s election to Cooperstown by the Hall’s Pre-Integration Era Committee has become more than just a footnote. It’s taken center stage, and that is just how the former Yankee owner would have wanted it.

Ruppert was a colorful part of New York City folklore. He once described a perfect day at Yankee Stadium by saying, “It’s when the Yankees score eight runs in the first inning and then slowly pull away.” A lifelong bachelor, Ruppert loved baseball, show dogs, racehorses, yachts and showgirls. He was daring and raced cars in the early days of automobiles.

A man about town, Ruppert owned one of New York City’s top breweries. Its signature beer was Knickerbocker. The young beer baron dabbled in real estate and politics in addition to making his brew, but his goal was to own a major league baseball team.

Born into a wealthy family in 1867, Ruppert was expected to go into the family’s beer business when he was old enough. That came at age 19, but during his early years at the brewery, Ruppert also served in the New York National Guard, where he reached the rank of colonel. He would be referred to by many as “the Colonel” or “Colonel Ruppert” the rest of his life.

In 1898, Ruppert was tapped by the Democratic Party to run for U.S. Congress in New York’s Silk Stocking District. He won the election and served four terms in Congress. During his first term in office, Ruppert approached the owner of the New York Giants about buying the team. He offered $150,000 for the National League team. A season ticket holder, Ruppert had dreamed of playing for the Giants, New York’s glamour team at the time.

While growing up on New York’s East Side, Ruppert was a sandlot pitcher, but his fastball wasn’t good enough to get him a spot on the Giants’ roster. If he couldn’t play for the Giants, the wealthy brewer felt that owning the team would be the next best thing. But the Giants’ ownership turned Ruppert down, choosing to sell to someone else instead. He had the chance to buy the Chicago Cubs in 1912, but the Colonel wanted a team in New York.

At the urging of some Major League Baseball power brokers in 1914, including American League President Ban Johnson, Ruppert looked into buying the New York Yankees. At the time, the Yankees were a poorly run team in the American League with a bunch of no-name players. The Yankees played their home games in the Polo Grounds but were mere tenants; the Giants owned the ballpark. The American League club was so bad they posed no threat to the Giants in terms of pulling attendance away from them.

Ruppert admitted that he only went to watch the Yankees play when there was a goodknickerbockerbeer player on an opposing team, like Ty Cobb on the Detroit Tigers or Walter Johnson on the Washington Senators. With no other team to his liking available, Ruppert set his sights on purchasing the Yankees. He was joined in the effort by another wealthy investor who was also interested in owning a team – Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston. The men put up $230,000 each in early 1915 to buy what Ruppert called “an orphan ball club, without a home of its own, without players of outstanding ability, without prestige.” But Ruppert was willing to do what the team’s former owners, Frank Farrell and Bill Devery, weren’t: Put real money into the team.

There was no doubt that even though the team had co-owners, Ruppert was running the show. Right from the start he went after some of the day’s big-name players. When Ruppert heard that the Cleveland Indians were trying to trade Shoeless Joe Jackson during the 1915 season, he pursued him. Jackson ended up with the Chicago White Sox, but Ruppert’s efforts to get Jackson in the Yankees lineup showed Major League Baseball that the Yankees were ready to do whatever it took to become a winner.

Determined to acquire an offensive star, Colonel Ruppert invited Connie Mack, the legendary owner and manager of the Philadelphia A’s, to his brewery in New York in February 1916. He convinced Mack to sell the contract of third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker to the Yankees for $25,000. Now the Yankees had a legitimate star. But it would take several more years and some additional noteworthy additions to turn the club around.

One of Ruppert’s boldest moves would fracture his relationship with Huston. Many influential people in baseball liked the managerial skills of pint-sized former second baseman Miller Huggins. Known as “Mighty Mite,” Huggins had managed the St. Louis Cardinals from 1913-17 with some success. At the end of the 1917 season, Huggins could not reach an agreement with the Cardinals on a contract for the 1918 season.

Meanwhile, the Yankees had fired their manager, Wild Bill Donovan, at the end of the 1917 season. Ruppert felt that Donovan had lost control of the team. The Colonel wanted to hire “Mighty Mite” to manage the Yankees, but Huston opposed the move. Huston favored his friend, former major league catcher Wilbert Robinson, for the job of Yankee skipper. Robinson was 55 years old, and Ruppert thought the team would do better with a younger man at the helm.

The Colonel had interviewed the 38-year-old Huggins and felt he was a very knowledgeable baseball man who would teach the Yankees to be a fundamentally sound team. In October 1917, with Huston off in Europe, Ruppert went ahead and hired Huggins. Huston bitterly complained to the media about the move his partner had made without him, but Ruppert stood his ground and the 5-foot, 5-inch Huggins took command.

Mighty Mite was a strict disciplinarian, which didn’t sit well with the players. However, the hard stance was something that Ruppert felt Major League Baseball needed. With Huggins’ input, the Colonel started adding players, including star second baseman Del Pratt and pitcher Eddie Plank from the St. Louis Browns in 1918.

Rebuilding the team was not the only thing on Ruppert’s mind. The Colonel and Huston were always on the lookout for a piece of land in New York City where they could build a stadium of their own. The 1918 season was disappointing, with the Yankees finishing fourth in the American League.

In 1919, Ruppert got more players and started an interesting trend of plucking promising prospects from the Boston Red Sox. In a trade, he brought over Dutch Leonard and Ernie Shore, both winning pitchers, and talented left fielder Duffy Lewis from Beantown. The Red Sox got a group of lesser-known players from the Yankees in return, but, more importantly, Boston also got some badly needed cash.

The Yankees still didn’t have a winning roster. Ruppert, however, would not be denied. He knew Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was shopping Babe Ruth around to see what offers he could get for his prize player. New Yorkers had fallen in love with Ruth during his visits to the Polo Grounds to play the Yankees. They were more amazed by his batting skills than his pitching prowess. By 1918, Ruth had started playing the outfield more and pitching less. Rumor had it that Ruppert had his eye on Ruth ever since he saw him hit a home run in the Polo Grounds in 1918.

After the 1919 season, Ruth went to Frazee and demanded a raise. The Babe was clearly the game’s hitting sensation at the time. In 1919 he hit 29 home runs with 114 RBI and compiled a .322 batting average. He also won nine games as a starting pitcher for the Red Sox in 1919. Though it was widely thought that Frazee was put off by the demand, history proved that he simply did not have the money to meet Ruth’s demands. The Chicago White Sox offered Frazee Shoeless Joe Jackson and $60,000 for Ruth. But Ruppert and Huston opened the vault. They offered the Red Sox an unheard-of $100,000 (roughly $1.4 million in today’s dollars) for Ruth’s contract. More importantly, Ruppert agreed to lend Frazee an additional $300,000. It was an offer Frazee could not refuse.

The deal hinged on Ruth signing a contract with the Yankees, something Ruppert never felt was in doubt. The Yankees signed Ruth to a two-year contract worth about $40,000. Ruppert’s move paid off, as Ruth hit .376 with 137 RBI and 54 home runs in 1920. The Yankees finished third in the American League in 1920, but just three games behind the first-place Cleveland Indians.

Following the 1920 season, Ruppert enticed then-Red Sox manager Ed Barrow to come over to the Yankees as general manager. Barrow brought with him super scout Paul Krichell and convinced Ruppert to start scouring the country for up-and-coming major league talent. This would eventually lead to a crop of some of the greatest stars ever, including Lou Gehrig, Mark Koenig, Bill Dickey and Tony Lazzeri.

In 1921, Ruth had an outstanding season, hitting 59 home runs and batting .378. Ruth led the Yankees to first place in the American League. But Ruppert had to watch his team lose the World Series to the Giants in eight games (the World Series was best of nine in 1921).

Nevertheless, when it came to home games during the regular season, the Yankees were now outdrawing the Giants at the Polo Grounds and getting more press. That didn’t sit well with the Giants. They wanted their upstart tenants out of the Polo Grounds.

Ruppert had been thinking about constructing his own triple-decker stadium anyway. In 1922, he found a piece of land in the Bronx within walking distance of the Polo Grounds. Ruppert and Huston took a tremendous risk building a 70,000-seat ballpark, twice the size of any other baseball park at the time. But they concluded that with Babe Ruth as a draw, the large stadium could be a financial bonanza. They were right.

In 1922, the Yankees won the American League pennant for the second straight year, but once again lost the World Series to their landlord, the New York Giants. Huston blamed Huggins for the defeat, but Ruppert disagreed and a few days after the 1922 World Series ended, announced that “Mighty Mite” would return as manager in 1923. The feud between the two owners was worse than ever.

Time coverWhile Huston was still a Yankee co-owner when the $2.5 million Yankee Stadium opened on April 18, 1923, he was gone a month later. Ruppert bought out his co-owner for $1.5 million – six times what Huston had put up to buy the team. Now Ruppert was in total control of everything. For him, it was a dream come true.

In 1923, the Yankees won their third straight American League pennant and this time defeated the New York Giants for the World Championship. Ruppert set a standard for the Yankees, and all the team’s owners since have tried to live up to that standard. Following the 1923 season, Ruppert kept pushing the team to win. And the Yankees responded in winning style more often than not. In 1927, for instance, the Yankees won a then-record 110 games on the way to a World Championship.

Through Ruppert’s efforts, the Yankees built a dynamic team that captured the excitement of New York, and the franchise never looked back. Ruppert’s Yankees won American League pennants in 1921-23, 1926-28, 1932 and 1936-38. They captured World Championships in 1923, 1927-28, 1932 and 1936-38.

With the Yankees, there was always something going on, both during the season and in the offseason as well. Ruppert had legendary contract disputes with Ruth, but he also guided his best player away from making bad deals with shady businessmen. He cared about his players and built the Yankees into the elite of the sports world.

The Colonel reigned over the famous power-laden Yankee lineup known as Murderers’ Row, made an orderly managerial transition to Joe McCarthy after Huggins died in 1929, built a strong farm system for the Yankees, kept infusing the team with talented players, made the Yankees an extremely profitable franchise and raised the level of play in both the American and National Leagues.

In November 1934, Ruppert bought the contract of Joe DiMaggio from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. That positioned the Yankees to win another string of championships and put the team in good stead well past Ruppert’s lifetime.

On Jan. 13, 1939, Jacob Ruppert died at age 71. He had just witnessed the Yankees win their third straight World Championship in October 1938. He expected nothing less. The Yankees won the World Series in 1939 when the team was being run by Ruppert’s estate, and did the same in 1941 and 1943.

Ruppert’s estate sold the team in January 1945 to Dan Topping, Del Webb and Larry MacPhail for $2.8 million. The sale included Yankee Stadium. Front-office people, like Ed Barrow, George Weiss and scout Paul Krichell, continued with the club after Ruppert’s passing and kept up the winning tradition the Colonel had inspired in them.
Ruppert had hired George Weiss in 1932 to develop the Yankee farm system. As result of Weiss’s work, the Yankees churned out many stars from their minor league system that helped lead the team to World Championships for decades. Weiss eventually moved up to become the Yankees general manager in 1947. Both Barrow and Weiss have plaques in Cooperstown. Ruppert is the first New York Yankees owner to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Other enshrinees
Also voted into the Hall of Fame in 2013 by the Pre-Integration Era Committee were Hank O’Day and Deacon White. O’Day was a National League umpire for 30 years, between 1895 and 1927. He took two years off (1912 and 1914) to manage in the National League, first with the Cincinnati Reds and then with the Chicago Cubs. He umpired 3,986 games and 10 World Series. Prior to his days as an umpire, O’Day was a major league pitcher for seven seasons from 1884-90.

After he retired, O’Day lived in Chicago. One day during the 1895 season, O’Day went to watch a National League baseball game in the Windy City. When the umpire was unable to get to the game because of a train cancellation, O’Day was spotted in the stands and recruited to call the game. He did such a good job that the National League asked him to become a full-time umpire and he accepted. O’Day died in 1935.

Deacon White was an outstanding catcher in the early days of baseball and played behind the plate before there was any protective gear. He caught barehanded.

In a day and age when catching the ball was a tough enough task, White had the ability to throw runners out from behind the dish as well. On May 4, 1871, White was the first player to bat in a game in the National Association, the first professional baseball league. He got a double and would go on to collect 2,067 hits in his career. White could also play third base. He retired in 1890 with a .312 batting average. He stayed in baseball for a while after his playing days were over and managed some minor league teams. One of those teams was the 1912 Buffalo Bisons in the International League. White died in 1939 at the age of 91.

Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at graydrew18@aol.com.

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