Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Colonel's Promotion

How stupid is it that the man who built the first 2 Yankee Dynasties... who built the first Yankee Stadium... who built the greatest farm system baseball has ever produced... who brought Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio to the club... is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame?

It's not stupid anymore: Colonel Ruppert was finally elected yesterday.

Jacob Ruppert Jr. was born in Manhattan on August 5, 1867, in the aftermath of the American Civil War.  He was the grandson of immigrants from Bavaria in what is now the southern part of Germany.  (Germany wasn't unified until 1871.)

His father ran the Ruppert Brewery, and young Jake was no "heirhead": He worked 12 hours a day for $10 a week (about $260 in today's money) washing barrels.  He rose to become vice president and general manager under his father.  He served in the New York National Guard, and thus became an adviser to 2 Governors of New York, David B. Hill and Roswell P. Flower.  So his rank of "Colonel" was not completely honorary.

(Hill was Lieutenant Governor in 1884, and succeeded to the big chair when Grover Cleveland was elected President that year.  Speaking of big chairs, he was the first Governor of any State to order a death penalty by electric chair.  He also created the Adirondack Park forest preserve.  He was elected to the Senate, and opposed his former benefactor Cleveland, running against him for the 1892 Presidential nomination, and then blocking 2 of his judicial appointments through "Senatorial courtesy." When asked if he was still a Democrat after the Populist split of 1896, he said, "Yes, I am a Democrat still.  Very still." About all that can be said of Flower is that he succeeded Hill and created the City of Niagara Falls.)

In 1898, with the aid of the Democratic political machine of New York State, known as Tammany Hall, Ruppert was elected to Congress, defeating an incumbent Republican, in spite of Republican Theodore Roosevelt sweeping into office as Governor.  He was re-elected in 1900, '02 and '04, and did not run again in '06.  Like another Democratic businessman elected to Congress from New York in those days, William Randolph Hearst, he was something of a playboy with a spotty attendance record in Congress.

Ruppert always loved baseball, and had tried to buy the New York Giants from John T. Brush.  When Brush died on November 26, 1912 -- the 100th Anniversary just passed -- the franchise passed to Brush's son-in-law, Harry Hempstead, but he wouldn't sell to Ruppert, either.  The Chicago Cubs were for sale, but Ruppert decided that Chicago was too far from home.

In 1914, Ruppert decided to talk to the Giants' manager, the already-legendary John McGraw.  McGraw, who also had an ownership stake in the Giants (rules now prohibit a manager from having one), said the club was still not for sale, but that the owners of the New York Yankees, Frank Farrell and Big Bill Devery, might be interested in selling.  Were they ever: After 12 seasons of no Pennants (they'd finished 2nd in 1904, '06 and '10, but more often than not were mediocre), they'd had enough of baseball, and had enough of each other.

Ruppert and a former Army engineer, with the aristocratic name of Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, made the purchase in January 1915 for $480,000 -- about $11 million in today's money.

In 1917, the Yankees needed a new manager.  With Huston back in the Army for World War I -- he entered with the rank of Captain and rose to that of Colonel, so that the two owners were known as "The Colonels" but "Til" preferred his old nickname of "Cap" for Captain -- and thus unable to stick up for his drinking buddy, Brooklyn Dodger manager (and former McGraw flunky turned enemy) Wilbert Robinson, Ruppert asked American League President Ban Johnson for a suggestion.  Johnson suggested Miller Huggins, a lawyer who'd been a prototypical good-field-no-hit 2nd baseman and a decent manager with the St. Louis Cardinals, but now out of work.

Huston was not happy about it, and it was the beginning of the end of his friendship with Ruppert.  In fact, it was Ruppert's unwillingness to fire Huggins that led Huston, in 1923, to sell Ruppert his shares in the club, just as it was opening the new stadium and heading for its first title.  When Huston died in 1938, none of the current Yankees had even met him.

Ruppert was the original George Steinbrenner, a big blustery German -- and, unlike The Boss, The Colonel had an "old country" accent to match, even though both he and his father had been born in New York.  He did everything big, and wanted what he wanted when he wanted it.  He had big money, and wasn't afraid to spend it, provided his big spending got big results.  He rebuilt the Yankee pitching staff, bringing in All-Stars (or they would have been, had there been an All-Star Game in those days) Bob Shawkey, Carl Mays, Waite Hoyt, Bullet Joe Bush and Sad Sam Jones.

He took advantage of a close friendship with Harry Frazee.  Frazee was a theatrical producer, and his production office was in the same Times Square building as the Yankees' offices.  (In those days, teams rarely had their business office in their ballpark.  Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, with the "tower" at the entrance to Shibe Park, was an exception.) Frazee was also the owner of the Boston Red Sox, and whenever he wanted to sell a player, all he had to do was walk down the hall and tell Ruppert, "Jake, have I got a player for you!"

If you're even mildly familiar with the history of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, you know what happened, but you may not know how it happened.  Babe Ruth, pitcher-turned-slugging outfielder, was behaving like a spoiled child and a greedy adult.  And after Ruth helped the Sox win the World Series in 1915, '16 and '18 (they'd also won it in 1912, before Ruth got there), the 1919 season was a bad one for pretty much the entire Boston team except Ruth.

Frazee had little to lose by letting the Babe go, and a lot to lose by keeping him.  If you're a Red Sox fan, Frazee is not the villain of the story -- Ruth is.  If you're an Arsenal fan, he was acting like a combination of Ashley Cole (but with women) and Emmanuel Adebayor.  With the talent to match.  Frazee had to let him go, and, due to circumstances beyond his control, he could only make deals with 2 teams, the Yankees and the Chicago White Sox.  A deal to trade Ruth to the White Sox for Shoeless Joe Jackson (whose swing was so good that Ruth, a fellow lefty, claimed to have copied it) fell through, and Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000, the biggest sale price in baseball history to that point.  (After which, Ruth stopped being a mixture of Cashley and Greedy-buy-whore, and became his sport's Pele -- though with continued misbehavior.)

With Ruth hitting more, and longer, home runs than anyone had ever seen before, the Yankees began to outdraw their landlords, the Giants -- and it's worth noting that the Giants were still a contending team at the time.  By this point, Hempstead had sold the Giants and the Polo Grounds to Charles Stoneham, who said the Yankees were not welcome to stay beyond their least, which ran out after the 1922 season.  That was fine with Col. Ruppert, who'd been trying to get a new ballpark built anyway.  On April 18, 1923, the original Yankee Stadium opened, a crowd of 62,000 came out (the official figure was 74,218 but that was goosed), Ruth hit The Stadium's first home run, and the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 4-1.

Legend has it that Ruppert redesigned the Yankee uniforms to have Pinstripes, so they would look slimming on Ruth.  That's not true: Pinstripes first appeared on the team's uniform in 1912, before either man arrived, and Ruth wasn't always fat.  In fact, he was in pretty good shape through most of the 1920s, his short-circuited 1925 season being an exception.  It wasn't until the 1930s that he became the fat man we think we remember.

Like Steinbrenner, Ruppert wanted it all, and he wanted it now.  Unlike George, however, the Colonel knew enough to trust "my baseball people" to make things go right, and stay out of their way, and not openly blame them when things went wrong.  He hired Huggins to manage, he hired Red Sox manager Ed Barrow as his business manager (or "general manager," as we would say from World War II onward), and he let Barrow hire George Weiss to run the farm system.  Ruth and the other new acquisitions got him close to the Pennant in 1920, won it in '21 and '22, and took the club's first World Series win in 1923.

The Yankees finished a strong 2nd in 1924, but slipped in '25.  This was a transition year, as Weiss' farm system (developed on the model set by Branch Rickey of the St. Louis Cardinals) began to bear fruit, most notably Lou Gehrig, who arrived in '25, and Tony Lazzeri, in '26.  Three straight Pennants (1926-27-28) and back-to-back World Championships (the Yanks fell 1 run short in Game 7 of '26 of making it 3 straight) were the result.

Connie Mack built his Philadelphia Athletics back into a champion in 1929, and Huggins died late that season.  After Shawkey managed the Yankees in a lackluster 1930 season, Barrow hired Joe McCarthy, who'd managed the Cubs to the 1929 National League Pennant, but had been fired after a downturn.  Ruppert got a manager he liked as much as Huggins, and McCarthy would lead the Yankees to revenge over his ex-Cubs in 1932.  Tough Pennant races left the Yankees behind in 1933, '34 and '35, but another transition was underway.  In 1936, Joe DiMaggio arrived; in '37, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller and Joe Gordon.  The Yankees began a string of 4 straight titles, from 1936 to '39.

Ruppert would not live to see it completed.  He died on January 13, 1939, after suffering from phlebitis for a year.  He was 71 years old.  He was buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, Westchester County, New York -- the same cemetery as Gehrig, Barrow and Frazee.  Also Frazee's producer friend Florenz Ziegfeld; opera singers Robert Merrill (who often sang the National Anthem at Yankee games) and Beverly Sills, musicians Sergei Rachmaninoff and Tommy Dorsey (but not his brother Jimmy Dorsey), actor Danny Kaye, actress Anne Bancroft (presumably, her husband Mel Brooks will also be buried there), RCA boss and NBC founder David Sarnoff; Herbert Lehman, who was Governor of New York when Ruppert died; screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, and a far lesser writer (and human being), Ayn Rand.

Gate of Heaven Cemetery is right next-door, and contains the final remains of Ruth, and of Billy Martin.

On Opening Day, April 16, 1940, the Yankees dedicated a plaque in Ruppert's memory, which now stands in Monument Park at the new Yankee Stadium -- though no longer in the "imposing edifice" that he built.

Yesterday, Ruppert was finally elected to the Hall of Fame, 73 years after his death.  Also elected were old-time umpire Hank O'Day and early professional catcher James "Deacon" White.

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