SABR

Jacob Ruppert

This article was written by Daniel R. Levitt.

The New York Yankees dynasty began with Jacob Ruppert Jr. When Ruppert purchased the franchise in January 1915 with his partner, the improbably named Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, it was one of the American League’s most hapless teams. The previous owners, a gambler and a shady ex-police chief with Tammany Hall connections, had run a shoestring operation devoid of any baseball smarts. The Yankees played their home games at the Polo Grounds, the home park of the New York Giants, their intra-city National League rivals who were America’s most popular team. The Giants tolerated the Yankees so long as they paid their rent and remained second-class in the minds of New Yorkers.

Ruppert had grown up in New York, achieved some renown as a wealthy brewer and US congressman, and had no intention of remaining second-class. He spent freely to acquire the best talent, applied business principles to running his team—he was one of the first owners to hire a general manager as we understand the concept today—and next to Branch Rickey was the most important influence on the modern farm system. The Yankees won their first pennant in 1921, and by the time Ruppert died in 1939, the team had won nine more and seven World Championships.

Ruppert came from a brewing family. His father, Jacob Ruppert Sr., had taken over and grown the family beer business from his own father in the 1860s. In 1865 Jacob Sr. married Anna Gillig, also the offspring of a well-known German brewer. The couple had six children, with Jacob Jr., born August 5, 1867, the second child and first son.

A mediocre student, Ruppert graduated from Columbia Grammar School and passed the entrance exam for Columbia College. His parents, however, directed him into the family brewery business, where he started as a barrel washer when he was 19. In business Ruppert rapidly proved himself personable yet determined, and the family promoted Ruppert through the company ranks and his repeated success brought him to the top. A perfectionist who often lapsed into a German accent when agitated (despite the fact that he was a native born New Yorker), he proved a skilled executive.

His perfectionism carried over to his personal life. Of medium height and a stocky 170 pounds, Ruppert cultivated an imperial appearance. He dressed impeccably, once lamenting that men didn’t dress as well as women, wore his hair slicked back and often sported a well-trimmed mustache.i He led an active social life but didn’t drink much beyond beer and remained free of public scandal.

He also had an eccentric side and dabbled in exotic hobbies. Ruppert collected jade and Chinese porcelain, decorative books, and oil paintings. At his country estate in Garrison, New York he kept a menagerie, including a collection of small monkeys and exotic birds. Like many of the upper class at the turn of the last century, he also enjoyed horses. Before he left the hobby, Ruppert had purchased and raced some top horses and ran the Ruppert Stables. Ruppert later became a leading breeder of St. Bernards and was most proud of his champion, Oh Boy.

Ruppert never married and throughout his life remained one of New York's most eligible bachelors. “When I was thirty and perhaps forty,” Ruppert told sportswriter Fred Lieb, “I did not want a wife. It was too much fun being single. Then when I really wanted a wife, I was afraid to get married. I was afraid of what would eventually happen. I was afraid that I would kill her. I would be certain that she had married me for my money and that sooner or later she would take on a young lover. And then I would have no alternative but to kill her.”ii

Over the years he developed deep friendships with several of his subordinates, particularly his secretary, Al Brennan, and Yankees public relations man and business confidant, George Perry. Ruppert was also very close to New York mayor Jimmy Walker, once lending Perry to Walker’s campaign for four months while paying his salary.iii

Ruppert spent several weeks every fall at the resort community of French Lick, Indiana, taking advantage of the spa and springs. Ruppert hated to be alone and traveled to French Lick with his entourage, including Perry and Brennan. Later, his baseball team executives would also become key members of the traveling party and much of the time would be spent analyzing the ball club. In the evenings Ruppert liked to go to the movies, and he would often make one of his friends accompany him.

Other than to French Lick and St. Petersburg for spring training with the Yankees, Ruppert rarely traveled. He made only one journey to Europe, despite tentatively planning to go many times, and an occasional trip to California, mainly in his capacity as head of the Brewers’ Association.iv

During the week Ruppert lived in the city in an apartment, built on the site of his family’s Fifth Avenue mansion; on the weekends he escaped to his expansive estate in Garrison where he pursued his exotic hobbies. When the mansion was torn down Ruppert moved the furnishings from his mother’s room to his Garrison home where he built a room as a shrine to her. He burned the items he didn’t want due to a phobia of auctioning the family’s possessions, lest they end up with the unknown hoi polloi.v

Popular, wealthy, and well-connected within the German-American community, Ruppert was a natural for politics. In 1886 he joined an upper-class regiment of New York’s National Guard. A few years later he was appointed aide de camp to Governor David Hill and given the rank of colonel, a largely ceremonial title. Ruppert took great pleasure in this title and for the rest of his life liked to be addressed by it.

As a large New York manufacturer, the Rupperts could hardly avoid Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that controlled much of New York politics. Late in the 1880s Ruppert Jr. joined the organization. At one point Tammany tapped him to run for city council president but he was forced to withdraw his candidacy due to various political machinations and miscalculations. Instead, in 1898, with Tammany’s support, Ruppert ran for the United States Congress in a generally Republican district. Ruppert won in a mild upset and served a total of four terms. After eight years Ruppert retired from politics and concentrated most of his energies--aside from his hobbies of the moment--on the brewery business.

Ruppert had loved baseball—and exotic animals--since his youth. “When I was a boy, I had a baseball team of my own,” Ruppert remembered. “We played on a vacant lot between Ninetieth and Ninety-second streets. I had a little menagerie of my own, some pigeons, guinea pigs, and so on. On Saturday mornings I had to take my music lesson. Then the members of my team used to come see my menagerie.”vi

Late in the 1890s Ruppert spoke with a couple of major league owners, including Harry Von Der Horst, a fellow brewer who also happened to own the National League’s Baltimore franchise. At the time the National League’s owners were trying to rid themselves of Andrew Freedman, the obnoxious, overbearing owner of the New York Giants. Von Der Horst suggested that Freedman might be willing to sell. The National League’s owners even told Ruppert that if he acquired the team they would give him four additional players. When Ruppert contacted Freedman, the owner feigned surprise at the inquiry but asked how much Ruppert would pay. Ruppert told him $150,000, a pretty good price for the time. Freedman refused, saying the club was not for sale. He added he would follow up if he changed his mind but never did when he sold the team several years later.vii

In 1914 Ruppert was again actively searching for an opportunity to buy a team, and the major leagues were again looking for some new well-heeled owners. Facing fresh competition from the Federal League, which had just declared itself major, Organized Baseball needed an infusion of capital to bolster some of its more poorly capitalized franchises. In particular, the American League owners had for several years wanted to find new ownership for the Yankees. The team was controlled by a couple of New York’s more disreputable characters: Frank Farrell, a notorious operator of gambling venues, and William Devery, a multiple-indicted, ex-police chief. AL president Ban Johnson and an emissary from Boston owner Joseph Lannin approached Ruppert to encourage his interest in buying the Yankees.

Independently, Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, an engineer by training who had made his fortune in Cuba after the Spanish-American War, was also rummaging around baseball’s boardrooms for a team to buy. Ruppert’s friend Bill Fleischmann, a relative of the Cincinnati Fleishmanns that owned the Reds, introduced him to Huston at a dinner and the two agreed to combine forces in their franchise pursuit. Once they settled on the Yankees, the process hiccupped several times as Ruppert’s lawyer, Frank Grant, tried to untangle the team’s disorganized books. As an added inducement, their fellow American League magnates-to-be promised to make some decent players available to the Yankees immediately after the two purchased the club. Finally, in January 1915 Ruppert and Huston formalized their fifty-fifty partnership and closed on the purchase for roughly $460,000 and assumed $20,000 in debt.viii Upon his purchase Ruppert became one of baseball’s first owners from America’s upper-crust society, a circle within which he moved easily and comfortably.

Ruppert and Huston made an interesting tandem. As opposed to the patrician Ruppert, the physically larger Huston was a self-made man who dressed sloppily and craved adventure. Nevertheless, this “odd couple” worked surprisingly well together for eight years.

The two new owners immediately set about trying to acquire talented players. Disappointingly, only Detroit President Frank Navin honored the pledge to make some capable players available, although cash-strapped Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack later sold pitcher Bob Shawkey for only $3,000. They also spent $40,000 buying four players from the disbanding Federal League, but none panned out as hoped. More successfully, they went back to Mack and landed Hall of Fame third baseman Frank "Home Run" Baker for $37,500, ranking with the highest prices paid up to that time.ix

Ruppert and Huston had also grown dissatisfied with manager Bill Donovan, and Huston lobbied to replace him with Brooklyn Dodger manager Wilbert Robinson. In the meantime, however, Huston had joined the war effort and headed off to France (he would return a lieutenant-colonel). Ruppert was less enthusiastic about Robinson and consulted Ban Johnson, who recommended the St. Louis Cardinals' diminutive manager, Miller Huggins, whom he considered the best in the NL behind John McGraw. Ruppert was favorably impressed with Huggins and hired him on October 15, 1917 without consulting Huston. When he learned of the move, Huston was naturally furious that Ruppert had spurned his candidate and signed another. Ruppert's unilateral hiring of Huggins led to the most serious and long-lasting disagreement between the two men. Huston's anger at the hiring ripened into an excessive dislike of Huggins and a hatred of Johnson for his perceived interference with his team's affairs. Until he sold his interest in the Yankees a number of years later, Huston worked unrelentingly to undermine his manager and Johnson.

With their new manager and freshly acquired players, Ruppert and Huston had begun their journey toward respectability. Now often referred to as the “Two Colonels,” at the end of 1919, in baseball’s most famous deal, the duo cemented the Yankees baseball relevancy by purchasing Babe Ruth from Boston. Cash-strapped Boston owner Harry Frazee, a theatrical producer and a social friend of Huston’s, needed money and parted with Ruth for $100,000—the highest price ever paid for a player up to that time--plus a personal loan from Ruppert for $300,000 secured by a mortgage on Fenway Park. With Ruth on board the team finished 95-59 in 1920, a far cry from the 69-83 finish in 1915, their first year of ownership.

In July 1919, Carl Mays, one of the era’s top pitchers now best remembered for throwing a pitch that killed Ray Chapman in 1920, quit and left his Boston team in the middle of a game. Frazee saw an opportunity to cash in and promptly began taking offers from his American League brethren. Ban Johnson was furious. A player who jumped his team should be suspended, not rewarded with a move to another team, and he immediately ordered all teams to cease negotiations with Frazee. Ruppert and Huston ignored Johnson’s edict and eventually prevailed, securing the hurler for two pitchers and $40,000. The teams that withdrew from negotiations at Johnson's request were obviously upset with this result, as was Johnson.

With the announcement of the trade, Johnson promptly suspended Mays indefinitely. Ruppert and Huston took the drastic step of going outside baseball’s normal resolution channels, filing in court to enjoin Johnson from any action that would prevent Mays from playing in New York. By publicly challenging Johnson, the Yankee owners set off a bitter and public feud among the American League owners. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey lined up with the Yankees and Frazee. The other five backed Johnson. On August 6 the court issued a temporary injunction that prevented Johnson from suspending Mays and allowed him to play, and on October 26, the court permanently enjoined Johnson from interfering with Mays.

Not surprisingly, this did not end the battle between the two headstrong sides, and the continuing storm over the next year threatened to destroy the league. Amplifying the American League’s internal clash and leadership crisis, the major and minor leagues were in the midst of acrimoniously revamping their relationship, and the Black Sox scandal had just become public in late September 1920. In order to restore stability and the appearance of normalcy, the major league owners agreed to change their governance and install a commissioner. A delegation of owners including Ruppert offered the position to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, which he accepted after verifying that his authority would be close to absolute.

In late 1920, in the midst of the finale to the boardroom battle, Ruppert redoubled his focus on the ballclub. Business manager Harry Sparrow had passed away in May, and the team's business side had deteriorated. Ruppert, who ran a large brewing organization, knew something about enterprise administration and saw an opportunity to bring in professional management. Along with Huston, he reached out to Ed Barrow, manager of the Boston Red Sox, to be not only the new business manager but also to oversee the front office--what today we would call a general manager but uncommon at the time. Barrow had won the World Series in the war-shortened 1918 season and spent the past 25 years in baseball in virtually every position except player: minor league owner, minor league president, minor league manager, and major league manager.

Through their relationship with the cash-strapped Frazee, Ruppert, Huston and Barrow--his former manager--had a unique pipeline to major league talent. Ruppert was willing to part with his money for top talent, and Frazee was more than happy to sell his remaining stars. That offseason the Yankees sent $50,000 and a couple players to Frazee for four players including Hall of Fame hurler Waite Hoyt and star catcher Wally Schang. With this new talent on board, a historic season from Ruth and a league-leading 27 wins from Mays, in 1921 the Yankees finally won their first pennant. Although they lost the World Series to the Giants, the pennant represented a vindication for all the effort and money expended by the two owners.

Over the next several years Ruppert bought the rest of Frazee’s stars. In one transaction after the 1921 season Ruppert and Huston acquired two of the league's best pitchers, Sam Jones and Joe Bush, along with star shortstop Everett Scott for four players and $150,000--the highest dollar amount ever included in a player transaction up to that point and one that would not be exceeded until the Cubs bought Rogers Hornsby from the Boston Braves near the end of the decade.

In 1922 the Yankees once again captured the pennant, but the team, which consisted of many hardened veterans, often violated team rules, a state of affairs exacerbated by Huston’s disregard of his detested manager’s attempt at discipline. The World Series was a fiasco, the Giants winning 4-0. Bush openly disrespected Huggins during the final game, angering Huston that the manager could not control his players. Back at the Commodore Hotel after the game, Huston let out a wild yell, sending drinks and glasses flying with a wide sweep of his right hand and bellowing: "Miller Huggins has managed his last Yankee ball game. He's through! Through! Through!" When tracked down for his reaction, Ruppert backed Huggins, announcing, "I won't fire a man who has just brought the Yankees two pennants." x

As long as the Yankees were New York's second most popular team, Giants manager John McGraw was happy to allow Huston and Ruppert to lease his home park. And owner Charles Stoneham liked the income generated by the lease. With the arrival of Ruth, however, the Yankees now boasted baseball's biggest attraction, and they were also winning. The death of McGraw's close friend Harry Sparrow had further weakened the ties between the two clubs. Ruppert also suspected that Ban Johnson hoped to see the Yankees evicted—this was at the height of the Johnson-Yankee feud—as a way to revoke their league charter. Stoneham eventually extended the lease for another two years through 1922. He made it clear, though, that this was only a short-term accommodation.

Ruppert and Huston naturally recognized that they needed their own ballpark, and needed it soon—by Opening Day, 1923. They immediately initiated a site search, which proved surprisingly difficult—there were not a lot of reasonably priced, easily accessible stadium sites. The Yankees eventually struggled through six alternatives before finally settling on a site in the Bronx, for which they spent close to $600,000.

Once work began in April 1922, Huston, the engineer, oversaw the 12-month project. The cost to construct Yankee Stadium totaled roughly $1,600,000, bringing the all-in expenditure to $2,200,000. To help defray a portion of the cost, the American League lent the Yankee owners $400,000 on a ten-year term at 7% interest. When it finally opened in 1923, the new stadium was the preeminent and most majestic baseball venue in America, a distinction it would hold for many years.xi

In the wake of the 1922 World Series fiasco, Huston wanted out, and Ruppert was tiring of the partnership as well. Huston was frustrated by his inability to bring in a manager he respected, and perhaps more importantly, Huston, not in the same financial class as his partner, felt nervous having essentially his entire net worth tied up in the team and the new Yankee Stadium. As the partnership deteriorated, the Two Colonels entertained the possibility of selling the franchise, going so far as to negotiate a tentative sale for $2.5 million. When the sale fell through, Huston found a buyer for his half-interest. Ruppert, not interested in a new partner, decided to buy out Huston himself. Using the franchise value established in the prior sale negotiations, in December 1922 the two agreed on a buyout price of $1,250,000 for Huston's interest: $500,000 in cash and $75,000 a year for ten years. Due to several complications, the transaction was not finalized until May 1923.

The Yankees captured a third straight pennant in 1923. Now, as the sole owner of America’s most popular team in America’s preeminent ballpark, Ruppert was further rewarded with the Yankees first World Series victory, all the more satisfying because his squad beat the Giants. Much of the credit belonged to Ruppert for his willingness to spend for Boston’s stars; four of the eight starting position players and four-fifths of their starting rotation had come from the Red Sox. In total, the Yankees paid Frazee around $450,000. The Red Sox finished last in the American League, and their skeletal remains would be the doormat of the league for many years.

Ruppert was a rich man by baseball ownership standards, but he certainly didn’t possess the wealth of the true upper-crust, such as the Vanderbilts or Rockefellers. In 1906 the Washington Post estimated his “worth” at $4 million, almost certainly an exaggeration because the paper credited him with a portion of the Brewery business which at the time was still mostly owned by his father. Moreover, when making these estimates, debt, which was much more private and harder to estimate, was often disregarded. When Ruppert’s father died in 1915, Ruppert inherited a 30% interest in his various assets and businesses, principally the brewing business (the majority of the assets), a real estate company and an ice manufacturing operation, with the remainder being divided among his three surviving siblings. Ruppert also took over as chief executive of the businesses. At the time of Ruppert Senior’s death his estate value was publicly estimated around $20 million but reduced to $6.4 million half a year later when the appraised valuations were filed with the Surrogate Court.xii

Ruppert’s huge investment in the team is all the more remarkable in light of the onset of Prohibition, the banning of the sale of alcoholic beverages in January 1920. To remain in business Ruppert shifted to producing near-beer (essentially non-alcoholic beer), a much less desirable and profitable beverage—the brewery’s annual output fell from 1.25 million barrels to 350,000.xiii Moreover, in 1920 Ruppert sold a collection of rare books, reportedly to help cover roughly $1 million in losses on mortgages he held on bars no longer able to service their debt due to Prohibition.xiv That Ruppert was willing to pay record prices for players and build baseball’s most expensive venue amid uncertainty and declining revenues in his main business testifies to his competitive drive.

Furthermore, Ruppert was not taking distributions from his franchise; he was reinvesting all the profits. From 1920 through 1924, for example, four American League clubs distributed at least $200,000 to their owners, reducing the funds available for investing in minor league talent. In contrast, the Yankees plowed over $1.6 million in profits back into the franchise; no other American League team retained even $700,000.xv

In the aftermath of the 1923 World Series victory, the championship hunger that had held the hard-living, disorderly veterans bearably in check, frayed, and the behavior of several players, most notably Ruth, deteriorated further. Huggins and Barrow desperately wanted to rein in the big slugger. Despite how he is often portrayed today, Ruth was more than an overgrown child. He was a man of real humor and generosity, insecurities, and a sophisticated sense of his own place in America. He also indulged in nearly all of life’s pleasures to excess and presented an enormous challenge to Huggins. In 1925 after several escapades, the manager fined Ruth $5,000, a huge fine for the time. Ruth complained mightily, but Ruppert backed his manager. Nevertheless, Ruppert, paternalistic and somewhat in awe of Ruth in a way that no one who had ever had to actually manage him could understand, was sorely tempted to placate his star.

The Yankees also needed to introduce some younger, hungrier players. With the Boston well finally dry, Ruppert again opened his checkbook and encouraged Barrow and his crack team of scouts to purchase some of the minor leagues best players, requiring record prices. Retooled for the 1926 season, the Yankees again captured three consecutive pennants. Many observers labeled the World Champion 1927 squad, with Ruth hitting his famous 60 home runs and Lou Gehrig having arguably his best season, the greatest of all time.

Tragedy struck the Yankees in 1929 when Miller Huggins passed away. Among the Yankee family, the most obvious choice to replace him was Ruth, who desperately craved the job. Barrow dismissed Ruth's desire to manage, believing him too self-absorbed and immature. Ruppert sidestepped the issue by agreeing to an unprecedented two-year, $80,000 per year contract with his slugger, a huge story nationally that helped soothe Ruth’s oversized ego (with Huggins gone, he also refunded the $5,000 fine).

Barrow and Ruppert eventually compromised on veteran Yankee pitcher Bob Shawkey to manage the team for the 1930 season. Dissatisfied with the team’s third place finish and overall performance, they let Shawkey go after just one season. For 1931 Ruppert and Barrow hired Joe McCarthy, a successful minor league manager, who had recently led the Cubs to the 1929 NL pennant. Except for Ruth, McCarthy quickly gained the respect of the Yankees veteran locker room. Ruth, who had grudgingly acquiesced to the hiring of his longtime teammate Bob Shawkey, actively resented the hiring of an outsider. Ruppert later remarked that if Ruth had been willing to prove his managerial métier in Newark (later a New York farm team) he would have considered hiring him as a manager, though the timing of this observation makes it a little suspect as McCarthy was already on board by the time the Yankees owned the Newark franchise.

Nevertheless, the job of a Yankee skipper was never that secure. When Ruppert inked McCarthy to his original contract, he told his new manager: "I'll stand for finishing second this year, McCarthy. But remember, I do not like to finish second."xvi Fortunately, McCarthy’s squad won the World Series the next year, giving the manager a little breathing room.

Meanwhile, Branch Rickey, general manager of the cash-starved St. Louis Cardinals, believed he had found a way around the unprecedented cost of minor league stars by creating a nascent “farm system,” essentially working relationships with minor league teams to control their players. Ruppert, too, was getting fed up with the high prices he was having to pay for minor leaguers; by late 1929 the purchase of Lyn Lary and Jimmy Reese for $125,000—a huge price for the time—appeared unlikely to pan out. But the intricacies of the roster rules still limited the value of a farm system. At the major league meeting on December 12, 1929 in New York Ruppert vented his frustration:

“I know I am going to be forced into owning minor league clubs and so is every other major league owner in this room, for the simple reason, as was stated before by Mr. Breadon and Mr. Navin [St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers owners, respectively], where are we eventually going to get our ballplayers from? I do not know which club—I don't care which ballclub it is—can afford to pay the prices for the minor league ballplayers that we are paying for them now. The minor leagues have got us just where they want us…I don't know whether any men in the majors cheat or not, nor do I care whether they do, but I do say one thing: that we come here year after year and we all say the same thing.”xvii

This issue simmered over the next two years, until the December 1931 winter meetings, a conference that changed baseball forever. The Depression was crushing the minor leagues financially, and they wanted a cash infusion from the major league owners. Ruppert understood the crux of the dilemma from the major league perspective: any players controlled by a major league club counted against the team’s 40-man player control limit, obviously limiting the value of investing in minor league franchises. The player control limit was capped at 40 no matter how many minor league teams one affiliated with.

“I would like to ask a question,” Ruppert nudged his fellow owners. “In the event of a club lending a man, or giving a club at least $3,000, and he gives you an option on his ballclub, or an option on one or two players, are those players counted in the player list?”xviii At the end of this meeting, despite Commissioner Landis’s concerns, the baseball’s owners passed a new rule, and the modern farm system interpretation came into effect: a major league team could own a minor league team, have full rights to all its players, and subject to several caveats, none would count against its major league roster until the major league team actually designated a player for call-up. Initially limited to class B leagues and below, the new policy was ultimately extended to cover all minor leagues.

With the new operating rules now clearly allowing a farm system, Ruppert moved quickly. In late 1931 Ruppert had paid $250,000 for the Newark franchise in the International League, one step below the majors. Ruppert also understood that at the time fans of minor league teams did not view themselves as farm clubs, and wanted to win just as badly as fans in big league cites. When he bought the club Ruppert told Newark’s citizens that he would not strip the club during the season by bringing up players, “even if it cost the Yankees a pennant.”xix In February 1932 Ruppert announced that the Yankees intended to own or control four minor league franchises in different classifications.xx Now the Yankees needed someone to run the Newark team and to manage the budding farm system.

Barrow recommended his old friend and Yankees scout, Bob Connery, then owner of the St. Paul Saints in the American Association. Connery was only 48, but Ruppert claimed he wanted a younger man; he probably considered this position as an understudy for the 63-year-old Barrow. More important, though, was Ruppert's dissatisfaction with Connery. He had paid St. Paul around $300,000 for players, and other than shortstop Mark Koenig, none developed into more than a passable major leaguer. Furthermore, he suspected he had been treated unfairly in the high priced acquisition of a player whose rights he believed he already controlled.

After his own investigation, Ruppert hired George Weiss, who was running the Baltimore club in the International League. A native of New Haven Connecticut, Weiss was only 36, but had already spent nearly two decades in baseball. Like Barrow, Weiss was a workaholic who had begun his career in baseball promotion while still in his teens. Weiss would prove a brilliant hire and quickly built the best farm system in baseball. He remained with New York for nearly 30 years, including the last 13 running the organization’s baseball side during one of the most dominant periods in American professional sports history.

For all but the first several years Ruppert’s tenure, the Yankees were the league’s most profitable franchise; they also paid the highest salaries. In 1929 when the Yankees finished second to Philadelphia, the Yankees payroll totaled $365,741, well above the second-highest payroll, Philadelphia’s at $255,231.

With the onset of the Depression, profits fell off dramatically for all teams, and several teams suffered staggering losses. At the height of the Depression in 1933, in aggregate, American League teams lost in excess of $1,000,000. On a relative basis, the Yankee revenue advantage slipped as well, as four teams fared better financially that dismal season. Profits declined from $271,028 in 1929 to a loss of $98,126 in 1933, yet the team’s payroll only fell only to $294,982, still the highest in baseball. In fact, in the American League in 1933, no other team had a payroll greater than $188,000. By 1939 Ruppert’s payroll was back up to $361,471, still the highest in the game.xxi

Ruppert generally left contract negotiating and signing to Barrow. Sometimes if a star player could not come to a salary agreement with Barrow, he would encourage them to meet with Ruppert. The players referred to this as getting the "elevated treatment." Of course, Ruppert and Barrow had discussed the player's salary target in advance.

Waite Hoyt remembered his contract negotiations after his stellar 1927 season. When he reached an impasse with Barrow, the general manager told Hoyt to review the matter with Ruppert. After a heated exchange, the owner asked Hoyt to cool down in his outer office. While waiting, Hoyt passed the time by admiring the pictures of buildings hanging on the walls. When Ruppert came out to restart the negotiations, he spotted Hoyt looking at the pictures. Ruppert enthusiastically started discussing all the buildings and proudly announced how much they were worth. Finally, Ruppert asked Hoyt if he was ready to sign at the club's number. When Hoyt still refused, the frustrated Ruppert blurted: "What do you think I am? A millionaire?"xxii

Prior to the 1938 season, catcher Bill Dickey asked for $18,000, while Ruppert was offering $16,000. Finally at spring training Ruppert called Dickey into his office.

“Dickey, you want too much,” Ruppert told him.

“Colonel, let’s have no argument,” Dickey replied. “I have done well with myself by the club. I can rely on your judgment. If you say 16 is all I am worth, 16 it is. Let’s have the contract.”

Ruppert filled in the salary blanks and handed the contract to Dickey; it was for $18,000.xxiii

Ruppert was not always so generous, however. He was surprisingly sensitive, didn’t like flippancy, and didn’t exhibit much of a sense of humor. During a negotiation with Joe Dugan one year, Ruppert was pleading poverty, that the profits from the brewery weren’t as high as reported in the press. “Colonel, if things are that bad I could make you a loan,” Dugan joked. Ruppert reportedly never forgave Dugan for this seemingly innocuous, off-hand remark.xxiv

After a subpar 1936 season in which Lefty Gomez made $20,000, Ruppert demanded his salary be slashed, initially offering only $7,500. When he received this contract, Gomez sent it back to Barrow with a note: "Dear Mr. Ed: I have found the enclosed paper in a letter you sent me. It is very plain that you have mailed me the batboy's contract, by mistake. Please rush the McCoy to me at once."xxv Ruppert was in no mood for Gomez' smart-aleck reactions: "He certainly has plenty of nerve comparing what we have offered to a bat boy's salary."xxvi Gomez eventually wrangled a salary of $13,500.

Ruppert, always the perfectionist, wanted not only to win but to win big. “As everybody knows,” Barrow recalled shortly after his death, “watching the Yankees play was not an unmixed pleasure for him. He wanted them to win every game by a top-heavy score. When the other team threatened he couldn’t sit still. It didn’t make any difference how far ahead the Yankees might be, if the other team got a couple of men on the bases, he would get up and go to the back of the stand or under the stand—if I didn’t grab him first. The last time he was at a game I had to watch him closely in his seat, because we were trailing until the ninth inning.”xxvii

After three straight pennant misses from 1933 to 1935, Ruppert was getting restless with his front office as well. Historically, he did not actively participate in the "trading mart," leaving the baseball deals to Barrow. In Chicago that offseason several sportswriters reported seeing him trolling the floor at the winter meetings to help gin up a deal. A year earlier Boston’s wealthy new owner Tom Yawkey had purchased shortstop Joe Cronin from the Washington Senators for the astounding price of $250,000. At one point Ruppert tried to mimic Yawkey’s success with Washington owner Clark Griffith; this time to pry loose second baseman and 1935 batting champion, Buddy Myer. Griffith had no interest in selling his star, but Ruppert demanded Griffith name a price anyway. Jokingly, Griffith told Ruppert $500,000. "And do you know that Ruppert almost made a deal with me," Griffith recounted. "He actually was going to give the Washington club $400,000 and second baseman Tony Lazzeri for Myer, until Ed Barrow, his business manager stopped him. If Barrow hadn't been around that night, I'd have made a $400,000 sale." xxviii

Fortunately, Ruppert’s dry spell was about over. By 1936 the Yankees scouts and farm system were turning out a new generation of stars. But the greatest new star was acquired the old fashioned way. “Development of our farm system does not mean we are not open for purchases,” Ruppert said. “It was in the open market that we found Joe DiMaggio with the San Francisco Seals. A bad knee had scared everybody else off DiMaggio. But we risked $25,000 in cash and five players, and landed a star whom I would not sell for $250,000.”xxix With DiMaggio on board, from 1936 to 1939 the Yankees won four straight World Championships, the first team ever to win four in a row.

DiMaggio held out prior to the 1938 season for more money in a particularly bitter contract dispute. When he finally signed later that spring, the Yankees arranged the usual photo and publicity event. Ruppert hurried through the affair--which he usually doted on--begging off that he had some important business to attend to. In fact, Ruppert had a doctor's appointment to treat his phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins, in his left leg. Although not thought to be serious at the time, Ruppert was confined to his home for several days. The illness forced him to skip traveling to the Opening Day festivities at his newly-acquired farm club in Kansas City.

Throughout the year Ruppert struggled with the condition and its complications. On January 13, 1939 after dropping in and out of a coma for several days, Ruppert died at the age of 71 at his home. He was buried in Kensico Cemetery in Westchester County. During his final days Ruppert was surrounded by family members, and friends came by to pay their respects. At one point he came out of the coma to see Barrow standing by his bed. "Do you think we will win the pennant again?" he asked. "We'll win again, Colonel," Barrow reassured him.xxx

At the time of his death, Ruppert's estate was optimistically estimated at $40,000,000 or $45,000,000. He left the bulk of his estate in three equal shares to two nieces and Helen Weyant, a long-time acquaintance and daughter of a deceased friend. Her brother Rex had been the Yankee assistant road secretary for the past three years. Ruppert did not, however, leave the actual operation of his two principal businesses, the brewery and ballclub, to the women. He turned the Yankees over to a board, naming Barrow as president and also including Weiss and his brother George Ruppert.

Once all the appraisals came in, the estate turned out to be worth less than originally hoped, totaling closer to $6.5 million.xxxi Prohibition followed by the Depression constrained the value of his holdings. Moreover, Ruppert did not hold a 100% interest in some of his real estate holdings and the brewery. Because there was not enough cash in the estate, it was forced to sell the team during World War II to pay the estate taxes; unfortunate timing because few qualified purchasers emerged in the midst of the country’s full military mobilization.

After the war, the baseball team, under the new ownership, fared much better than the brewery. The front office infrastructure that Ruppert had created remained intact for many more years, and from 1947 through 1960 the team had one of the greatest runs of any team in North American sports history. The brewery, on the other hand, declined quickly. During the 1950s it suffered from labor problems and a physical plant that was worn out and functionally obsolescent. Moreover, the national brands were beginning to make significant inroads in markets once dominated by the locals.xxxii Unlike Gussie Busch, who bought the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953, Ruppert never linked the Yankees with any significant marketing of his beer. Some even suggested that he change the name of the team to the Knickerbockers, the label for his flagship brand.xxxiii For Ruppert, his two businesses were always separate. In 1963 his heirs sold the brewery.

Ruppert may have been eccentric, but he was a near perfect baseball owner. The Baseball Hall of Fame finally recognized his achievements in 2012 when the Veterans Committee elected him by naming him on 15 of the 16 ballots. As a business owner Ruppert understood the importance of professional management, and after a several years of running the team with Huston, he brought in Ed Barrow as one of baseball’s first de facto general managers. He was also willing to spend money. Ruppert took no distributions from the team and paid the highest salaries in baseball. He aggressively pursued the players his trusted baseball executives and scouts recommended, paying top dollar for both major and minor league stars. Ruppert also both recognized and shaped baseball’s trends. When the prices of minor league stars escalated beyond reason, Ruppert lobbied to amend the roster rules and grasped the long range implications of the changes.

But maybe most importantly, Ruppert had an almost unerring eye for hiring key personnel. During his ownership tenure, he hired four managers. Two, Huggins and McCarthy, are in the Hall of Fame. For 20 of the 24 years he owned the Yankees, the team was run by a Hall of Fame manager. Ruppert had similar success with his front office. His two key hires, Barrow and Weiss, are also in the Hall of Fame, a couple of only a handful of general managers who have been elected. Moreover, he had the conviction to hire Huggins and Weiss over the objections of a trusted partner and advisor, respectively.

Once he had a crack team in place, Ruppert supervised them flawlessly. He pushed, he asked questions, and he demanded results, but he rarely interfered with their sphere of authority and backed them when needed. Ruppert had a lot of exotic hobbies, but baseball was not one of them. He crafted and oversaw his team with a passion and commitment that drove those working for him to jell into the greatest baseball organization of his generation.

 

Sources

Much of the material for this profile came out of my research for my biography of Yankees general manager Ed Barrow, Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty (University of Nebraska Press, 2008). I would refer an interested reader to the bibliography in that book (or that in one of the many other excellent books written on the Yankees of the period). Regarding the business operation, two relatively untapped sources exist. The Baseball Hall of Fame possesses a large collection of New York Yankees business and financial records for the years 1913 to 1950. These records include player salaries, player sale price information, trial balance financial statements, and general ledgers. For more comparative and contextual material, the U.S. House of Representatives hearings by the Judiciary Committee in 1951 into baseball's monopoly, chaired by Emanuel Celler, led to two indispensable publications, a 232-page report and a 1643-page transcript and appendix. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Armour, Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg for their comments and suggestions.

 

Notes

i Unidentified article titled “Bachelor Apartment,” Ruppert Baseball Hall of Fame file.

ii Fred Lieb, Baseball as I have Known It (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1976), 228.

iii George Perry, The Sporting News, March 2, 1939.

iv Perry.

v The Sporting News, August 19, 1937; Perry.

vi Jacob Ruppert as told to F.C. Lane, “Baseball’s Master Builder,” Baseball Magazine, November 1936.

vii New York World Telegram, February 14, 1938.

viii Daniel R. Levitt, Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 181. Years later it was occasionally reported that the American League contributed $50,000 towards the purchase by the Two Colonels. I have found no contemporary evidence of this, and given the strained baseball finances of the time, I find it highly unlikely.

ix The purchase prices and Yankee player salaries come from the New York Yankees financial records on file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

x The Sporting News, October 19, 1963.

xi New York Yankees financial records on file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

xii New York Times, June 2, 1915; December 21, 1915.

xiii Jay Maeder, “Jacob Ruppert the Old Ball Game,” New York Daily News, March 2, 1999.

xiv Alva Johnston, “Beer and Baseball,” New Yorker, September, 24, 1932.

xv Levitt, Table 7, 387.

xvi Unidentified newspaper article, Joe McCarthy Baseball Hall Of Fame file, September 20, 1938.

xvii U.S. House of Representatives, Hearings before the Subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power of the Committee of the Judiciary: Organized Baseball (82d Cong., 1st sess., 1952) 1559.

xviii Hearings, 1582.

xix The Sporting News, January 19, 1939.

xx New York Times, February, 13, 1932.

xxi Hearings, 1599, 1610.

xxii Frank Graham, New York Yankees (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002) 139-140.

xxiii The Sporting News, January 19, 1939.

xxiv The Sporting News, January 19, 1939.

xxv The Sporting News, February, 20, 1941.

xxvi New York Times, February 4, 1937.

xxvii Frank Graham, New York Sun, January 13, 1939.

xxviii Washington Post, December, 2, 1937.

xxix New York World-Telegram, February 21, 1938.

xxx The Sporting News, January 19, 1939.

xxxi New York Times, September 25, 1945.

xxxii New York Times, January 1, 1966; February 9, 1974.

xxxiii Sid Mercer, New York Journal and American, January 29, 1939.

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