SABR

Dan Topping

This article was written by Daniel R. Levitt and Mark Armour.

Dan Topping enjoyed a “sportsman” lifestyle we seldom see anymore in America, one founded on inherited wealth, some athletic ability, and active involvement in professional or other sports. The life also often entailed a playboy youth and multiple attractive socialite wives. Topping fit the mold perfectly. Unlike many who lived this lifestyle, however, Topping was highly successful in his final sports endeavor as co-owner of the New York Yankees from 1945 to 1964. He had help, of course, in the front office: general manager George Weiss was one of baseball’s best and co-owner Del Webb was a brilliant businessman, but Topping deserves his share of the credit. Under his oversight the team remained a dynasty in America’s largest market for two decades.

Daniel Reid Topping was born on June 11, 1912, in Greenwich, Connecticut, to Henry Junkins Topping and Rhea (Reid) Topping. Rhea’s father, Daniel G. Reid, amassed a fortune in the tin-plate business, started the American Can Company and had interests in railroads, tobacco, and banks. He left virtually his entire fortune of $40 million to $50 million to Rhea. Henry’s father, industrialist John A. Topping, was a longtime president of the Republic Iron and Steel Company.

Dan Topping’s parents gave him the education befitting a young aristocrat. He attended the Hun School, an expensive boarding school in New Jersey, where he starred in football, baseball, and hockey. He next attended the University of Pennsylvania and played both baseball and football. Topping took up golf and became a top-notch amateur, winning several tournaments. After finishing school Topping spent three years working at a bank, but quickly realized that the life of toiling for a dollar wasn’t for him.

In 1934 the twenty-two-year-old Topping purchased a partial interest in the Brooklyn Dodgers of the fledgling National Football League. Topping soon acquired a majority ownership and spent some money to improve his club. By 1940 he had assembled a decent squad, but with the coming of World War II, most of the Dodgers best players entered the military and the team fell back in the standings. Topping joined the Marines and served for forty-two months, twenty-six of them out of the country.

Because Topping’s Dodgers played in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, he became friendly with Larry MacPhail, president of the baseball Dodgers in the late 1930s and early 1940s. When Topping ran into MacPhail in California during the war, MacPhail told him of his interest in buying the New York Yankees and invited Topping to join his syndicate.

The Yankees were owned by the Jacob Ruppert estate, which needed money to pay estate taxes. Team president Ed Barrow despised MacPhail, whom he considered a showboat. But Barrow had to sell, and by late 1944 the partnership Topping had formed with MacPhail and construction tycoon Del Webb was the only available option. Topping eased Barrow’s concerns enough that he bowed to the inevitable.

In late January 1945, in one of the greatest sports business deals ever, MacPhail, Webb, and Topping purchased 96.88 percent of the Yankees for just $2.8 million. They purchased the final 3.12 percent in March, giving them complete ownership of the team. Topping and Webb supplied the bulk of the capital, lending MacPhail much of his share so he could become an equal one-third partner. MacPhail also received a ten-year contract as team president.

With his partial interest in the Yankees, Topping hoped to move his football Dodgers to Yankee Stadium. New York football Giants owner Tim Mara, holder of the NFL’s rights to New York, vetoed the move. The Giants played their home games at the Polo Grounds; nevertheless, Mara argued that “New York is too small to support professional football eleven Sundays each year.”1 At the end of 1945 a new rival football league, the All America Football Conference (AAFC), had just formed and was scheduled to begin play in 1946. The league’s owners offered Topping $100,000 to switch his franchise to the new league and play his games in Yankee Stadium. Topping jumped to the AAFC, renaming his football team the New York Yankees. After four years of competing with the NFL, in 1950 the AAFC reached a peace settlement with the NFL. Topping, by this time concentrating on baseball, happily accepted a settlement offer and rented Yankee Stadium to the NFL’s New York Bulldogs for Sundays in the fall.

After three years running the baseball Yankees, the pressure and constant limelight began to tell on Larry MacPhail, who was becoming increasingly agitated and erratic. His maniacal behavior culminated with a drunken breakdown at the celebration dinner in the Biltmore hotel after the Yankees won the 1947 World Series. [See "The Yankees’ Ownership."] After firing MacPhail as team president and buying him out for two million dollars, Topping and Webb now owned the Yankees equally. Both were independent, wealthy men who were not used to sharing authority. Furthermore, they were an original odd couple: Topping, educated in an East Coast boarding school and expensive college, had little in common with Webb, a Californian who grew up in the construction business, playing semipro ball.

Nevertheless, the two arranged a surprisingly smooth working relationship. Topping oversaw the operations of the ballclub while Webb assumed a more active role in league affairs.

The Yankees could not repeat in 1948, and Weiss, elevated to general manager after the buyout of MacPhail, jettisoned manager Bucky Harris, with the blessing of Webb and Topping. Weiss wanted to hire Casey Stengel, a somewhat quixotic choice, and Topping had some misgivings. Webb, however, had known Stengel for many years and vouched for him. Topping acquiesced, and Stengel became one of baseball’s most successful managers.

Topping generally let Weiss run the show, but he occasionally interfered on personnel matters and often in player disciplinary issues. When Weiss wanted slugging first baseman Johnny Mize from the Giants in 1949 he asked Topping to negotiate with Giants owner Horace Stoneham, a friend of Topping’s. In 1951 Topping tired of pitcher Tommy Byrne’s wildness on the mound and directed Weiss to trade him. In 1954 Topping tried to bring Joe DiMaggio back as a coach, with the expectation he would take over as manager when Stengel retired, but DiMaggio declined.

On the disciplinary front Topping occasionally sided with a player, once interceding on behalf of Whitey Ford who believed he was about to be unfairly fined. But he could also be arbitrary when he felt the aura of the Yankees had been tarnished. After an incident between several players and patrons at the Copacabana nightclub in 1957, Topping fined several players based on initial press reports before the full story came out.

Topping also continually fine-tuned his front office. In 1954 when Roy Hamey, Weiss’s top assistant, was hired by the Phillies as general manager, Topping brought in Bill DeWitt, one-time co-owner of the St. Louis Browns and a notorious peddler of players for cash. DeWitt was a surprisingly senior baseball executive to take an assistant general manager position, and Topping considered him a worthy successor to Weiss. “If George were hit by a truck, Bill would take over,” Topping stated.2 After the 1955 season Topping gave Weiss a new five-year contract. DeWitt realized his chances at the top job were slim without the truck and moved on to a job in the commissioner’s office. To fill the vacancy, Topping brought in Lee MacPhail, Larry’s son and a future general manager and American League president.

When the team fell to 79-75 in 1959, stories raged about what was wrong with the Yankees. It turned out to be just a one-year blip and the Yankees returned to the top the following year. Nevertheless, the difficulties of 1959 caused Topping and Webb to reconsider their commitments to Weiss and Stengel.

In the aftermath of the seven-game loss to the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series, Topping eased both Stengel and Weiss out of their positions. “A contract with Casey didn’t mean anything,” Topping complained. “Casey was always talking about quitting. For a couple of months there [late in the 1958 season] we didn’t know whether we had a manager or not. We decided right then that we would never be put in that position again.”3

Topping and Webb were also concerned about losing manager-in-waiting Ralph Houk to another opportunity. “He’s been leading men all his life,” Topping said of Houk. “That war record, which was a hell of war record, had us thinking about him from the time he came back. And then during the Denver period, he showed he was a good organization man. He not only developed the players, he kept the New York office informed. He sent back the best reports I’ve ever seen.”4 Another factor was that Topping wanted to get more directly involved in the operation of the franchise, something that would have been much trickier with the imperial Weiss still in charge.

To fill their spots Topping elevated Roy Hamey, who had returned as Weiss’s assistant, to Weiss’s spot and Houk to manager. Hamey had much less authority than Weiss, leaving Topping with some of the higher level functions. Topping quickly took to his activist role. When the Yankees won the World Series in 1961 after a two-year drought, The Sporting News named Topping its Executive of the Year for making “a radical change in the leadership of the Yankee club.” The Sporting News further touted his “courage,” and emphasized that he had become the key man running the franchise. “Had this bold move failed,” opined the paper, “Topping’s own position could conceivably have become untenable.”5

Over the next several years the Yankees continued their winning ways. In 1962 Topping hired his son, twenty-four-year-old Dan Jr., to be the general manager at a Yankees Class D farm team. The next season Topping promoted him to assistant general manager with the Yankees, right below Hamey. Hamey retired after the 1963 season, and Topping and Webb promoted Houk to general manager and named Yogi Berra manager. The players generally liked and respected Houk, and his transfer to the front office frustrated the players. It also put Houk in a position for which he had little experience or training. Webb was not in favor of the shuffle, but Topping talked him into it.

The Yankees were behind their usual pace for much of the 1964 season, and Topping and Webb resolved to let Berra go when it ended. Berra’s club rallied in September, however, to win the pennant, putting the owners in an awkward position. Nevertheless, after the Yankees lost the World Series they fired Berra and hired Johnny Keane, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, their Series opponent. Berra may have been in over his head as manager—he had no managerial experience and was criticized for his handling of pitchers—but he had just won the pennant and was a long venerated and beloved Yankee.

This public-relations disaster was overshadowed by the sale of the Yankees to CBS, announced in August 1964, but dragged out by additional revelations and commentary throughout the off-season. Webb and Topping first seriously considered selling the team a couple of years earlier when Topping went through some health problems. Topping felt he could no longer run the team and sounded out Webb about buying him out. Topping eventually rebounded but needed the money a sale could bring, and the two owners agreed to explore selling the team. With his many ex-wives and children to support, the proceeds from the sale of the team would ease Topping’s financial burdens.

The two initially reached an agreement with Lehman Brothers, then a large investment house, to purchase the team. The sale was dependent on some complex tax angles, and while the lawyers and accountants were working them out, CBS chairman William Paley called his friend Topping to see if the team was available for sale. Topping told him they were already committed in another direction, but that if something changed, he would get back to him. When the sale fell through, Topping called Paley on July 1, 1964 to see if he was still interested. Paley was, and the two began negotiations. On August 14 Topping and Webb agreed to the final deal, selling 80 percent of the Yankees to CBS for $11.2 million. Additionally, Topping would stay on as the operating partner. Topping later testified that he had received offers as high as sixteen million dollars, “but they wanted to run the whole show, and I preferred a deal where I could remain active.”6

It is hard to overestimate the outcry generated by the sale of the Yankees. Up to this point baseball teams rarely had true corporate ownership. More importantly, in 1964 television was rightly seen as a large and growing phenomenon in American life, and its ultimate impact was not yet fully understood. The sale of America’s number one baseball team to its number one television network foreshadowed all sorts of grave consequences.

Many criticized the process as much as the substance. Fearing just this sort of reaction, Webb and Topping persuaded American League President Joe Cronin to get league approval by telephoning the league owners rather than calling a meeting. The owners approved the sale 8-2, but the two dissidents, Charles Finley of the Kansas City Athletics and Arthur Allyn of the Chicago White Sox, went public with their opposition. Eventually Cronin felt compelled to call a league meeting to confirm the sale, but the vote remained the same, and the sale was finalized on November 2, 1964. Webb had little desire to remain in a ceremonial position; in March he sold his remaining share for $1.4 million. Topping stayed on as team president.

Topping was soon overmatched without a strong baseball executive as general manager. Houk knew baseball but had spent the bulk of his career on the field as a manager and coach. On the field Keane could not continue the run of pennants and the Yankees fell to sixth place in 1965. After a slow start in 1966, with encouragement from CBS, Topping jettisoned Keane, reinstated Houk as manager, and made Dan Jr. the interim general manager. “Houk is the best manager we ever had in the years I’ve been with the Yankees,” Topping said when he made the switch.7 Unfortunately not even Houk could help in 1966, as the team finished last. Topping resigned on September 19, selling his remaining ten percent share to CBS. Topping publicly stated that he had resigned for personal reasons, but there can be little doubt that CBS wanted little to do with the men who had sold them a now struggling club for a record price.

Topping did his best to uphold the playboy image of a sportsman. He was married six times: in 1932 to Theodora Boettger, in 1937 to actress Arline Judge (the mother of Dan Jr.), in 1940 to Norwegian Olympic gold medal figure skater Sonja Henie, in 1946 to actress Kay Sutton, in 1952 to New York model Alice Meade Lowthers, and in 1957 to Charlotte Ann Lillard. After his last marriage, Topping seemed to settle down, and the marriage with Lillard lasted until his death seventeen years later. After Topping’s death, Lillard married Rankin Smith, owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Topping’s brother Harry J. (Bob) Topping, a sportsman in his own right, also married Arline Judge several years after she and Dan divorced. Among his marriages, Bob Topping was also wed for several years to actress Lana Turner. Dan Topping was survived by nine children, including five from his marriage to Lillard.

In addition to the Yankees’ stellar on-field record, the team that Topping and his partners purchased in 1945 for $2.89 million was resold nineteen years later based on a valuation of fourteen million dollars. And along the way the Yankees were consistently baseball’s most profitable franchise. As the operating partner during the dynasty, Topping deserves his fair share of the credit. He smartly sided with Weiss after MacPhail’s meltdown and acquiesced to the unorthodox decision to bring in Stengel as manager. In partnership with Del Webb, Dan Topping presided over one of the greatest runs ever in professional team sports.

 

Sources

Books

Armour, Mark. Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball. Lincoln: University of Nebraska. 2010.

Bashe, Philip. Dog Days: The New York Yankees’ Fall from Grace and Return to Glory, 1964 - 1976. San Jose: Authors Choice Press. 2000.

Coenen, Craig C. From Sandlots to the Super Bowl. Knoxville: University of Tennessee. 2005.

Creamer, Robert W. Stengel, His Life and Times. New York: Fireside. 1990.

Golenbock, Peter. Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949 - 1964. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. 1975.

Levitt, Daniel R. Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty. Lincoln: University of Nebraska. 2008.

Meany, Tom. The Yankee Story. New York: E.P. Dutton. 1960.

Peterson, Robert W. Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1997.

Surdam, David G. The Postwar Yankees: Baseball’s Golden Age Revisited. Lincoln: University of Nebraska. 2008.

Veeck, Bill, with Ed Linn. The Hustlers Handbook. New York: Fireside. 1989.

Veeck, Bill with Ed Linn. Veeck as in Wreck. New York: Fireside. 1989.

Articles

Burns, Jimmy. " ’Houk Best Pilot Yanks Have Had In My Years with Club’ -- Topping," Sporting News, May 21, 1966.

Carroll, Bob. "How to Get from Dayton to Indianapolis by Way of Brooklyn, Boston, New York, Dallas, Hershey, and Baltimore," The Coffin Corner, Vol 17, No. 5 (Professional Football Researchers Association), 1995.

“Dan Topping Dead at 61; Yankee Owner 22 Years,” New York Times, May 20, 1974.

Daniel, Dan. "DeWitt, as Aid to Weiss, in Line for the ‘Big Job,’" The Sporting News, May 5, 1954.

“Experienced Youth Yankees’ Key to Success, Says Lopat,” Sporting News, October 3, 1963.

Gross, Milton. "Why Yanks Fired Bucky Harris," Baseball Digest, August 1951.

Grosshandler, Stan. "The Brooklyn Dodgers," The Coffin Corner, Vol 12, No. 3 (Professional Football Researchers Association), 1990.

“Harry J. (Bob) Topping Dies; Was Heir to Tin Plate Fortune,” New York Times, April 24, 1968

Koppett, Leonard. “C.B.S. Was Outbid, Topping Reveals,” New York Times, February 19, 1965.

Linn, Ed. “The Man in the Pin-Striped Suit: Ralph Houk,” Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1963.

Lipsyte, Robert. “Yankees’ Most Promising Rookie,” New York Times, May 19, 1963.

Ray, Ralph. "Bomber Sale Stirs Bees’ Nest of Boos," The Sporting News, August 29, 1964.

Spink, J.G. Taylor. "Battle of Biltmore - Victory Brawl," Sporting News, October 15, 1947.

Spink, C.C. Johnson. "Yanks Cop Trio of ‘Bible’ Prizes," Sporting News, January 3, 1962.

Susskind, Arthur Jr. "Topping, the Tycoon Who Makes Yankees Tick," Sporting News, January 3, 1962.

Williams, Roger. "Goodby, Casey, Goodby!" Sports Illustrated, October 31, 1960.

Websites

AAFC Chronology. www.profootballresearchers.org/AAFC/AAFC_Chronology.pdf

  • 1. Craig C. Coenen, From Sandlots to the Super Bowl. Knoxville: University of Tennessee. 2005. p. 120.Honig, Baseball Between the Lines, 173.
  • 2. Dan Daniel, Sporting News, May 5, 1954.
  • 3. Ed Linn, Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1963.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. J.G. Taylor Spink, Sporting News, January 3, 1962.
  • 6. Leonard Koppett, New York Times, February 19, 1965.
  • 7. Jimmy Burns, Sporting News, May 21, 1966.
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