Memories & Dreams: Plaque Check/Jacob Ruppert

By Marty Appel

If Jacob Ruppert was able to attend his induction ceremony in Cooperstown this year, it’s possible that his thoughts might drift back to a ceremony filled with pomp and ceremony in 1892, on the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America 1892.

The scene was Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan and the occasion was the dedication of the Columbus statue, resting on a 70 feet column that still marks the plaza today. Either he, at 25, or his father made the keynote speech that day (news accounts just said “Jacob Ruppert” without adding a Sr or a Jr to the name).

Jake was an up-and-coming man-about-town back then, the son of the prosperous second-generation brewer on the upper east side who turned out barrels of Ruppert Beer and other brands. By 1892, Jake was aide-de-camp on the staff of New York Governor David Hill, and held the lofty title of Colonel. The title, largely honorary, would be his for the rest of his life. It would be six more years before he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He would win four elections before retiring undefeated, representing Manhattan’s so-called “Silk-Stocking Districts”.

When he was selected for Hall of Fame honors this year, even baseball scholars were a bit surprised – not for his worthiness, but that he wasn’t already in. Indeed, his general manager Ed Barrow was in, his managers Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy were in, and his players, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, Bill Dickey, Joe Sewell, Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing and others were in. What took so long?

After all, if his plaque was limited to ten words, it could say, “Bought Babe Ruth, Built Yankee Stadium, Created the Yankee Dynasty.”

Not bad.

If there was a reason for the delay, it was probably the pattern in which the old Veterans Committee tended to exclude owners, for back in the day, general managers made the big decisions while owners, well, owned. But after talk of George Steinbrenner being considered for inclusion, there was suddenly the realization that you could hardly have one without the other. For it was George Steinbrenner who liked to say, “buying the Yankees was like buying the Mona Lisa.” And if that was true, then Jake Ruppert was Leonardo Da Vinci – the man who created it.

It was in 1915, the year Jake’s father died, that he not only became head of the brewery (one of the largest in America), but decided to buy the Yankees along with a partner, Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston (who sold his half to Ruppert in 1923). The cost was $480,000. In truth, Ruppert had hoped for some time to buy the New York Giants, the more popular team in town. But settling for the Yankees, a pennantless team through its first 12 seasons, he set out to make them greater than the Giants. And his big move was of course, the purchase of Ruth prior to the 1920 season.

Not everyone thought this a brilliant idea. While no doubt “box office” magic, many derided his style of long-ball play, which almost mocked the traditional deadball style of moving runners along a base at a time. The game of Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner was good enough for them.

Ruppert knew that Ruth, while often a disciplinary problem, would bring enormous attention and box office power to his franchise. In Babe’s second year with the team, the Yankees won their first American League pennant and first of three in a row. It had taken them 19 seasons to hoist a flag, and by then they were outdrawing the Giants in the park they shared, the Polo Grounds. The Giants suggested they find their own place.

So Ruppert acquired land across the Harlem River in the Bronx, and proceeded to build Yankee Stadium, choosing to ignore the obvious advertising advantage that his own name on the park would yield for his brewery. While it wasn’t the first ballpark in the US to be called a “stadium” (many football fields, starting with Harvard, were already stadiums, Griffith Park in Washington had become Griffith Stadium a year earlier, and Giants owner John Brush had unsuccessfully tried to rename the Polo Grounds Brush Stadium), it was the first in baseball that truly merited the title. It was majestic, magnificent, and signaled the start of new era for baseball, one which would allow 60,000 seat facilities because the ability to draw that many at one time now existed. It was also the first triple-decked stadium in the country, although the Yankees had to insist it was really double-decked with a mezzanine in between, to accommodate building codes.

That Ruppert achieved such great success in his baseball career was especially admirable because of the odds he had to overcome. As the owner of the team from 1915 until he died in 1939, he first had to endure prejudice against German-Americans at the time of World War I, then prohibition, which cut to the heart of his income from the brewery, and then the Great Depression, which kept the baseball industry from growing, no matter how much Ruppert was elevating the value of his Yankee franchise.

While Barrow deservedly gets credit for the great moves that built the Yankee dynasty, it was Ruppert who hired Miller Huggins to manager the team before Barrow arrived. The Colonel overcame the objections of Huston, who preferred Wilbert Robinson. Huggins turned out to be just fine, winning six pennants in the 1920s, handling Ruth (as best as he could), and developing Lou Gehrig from a raw college player into a star nearly equal to the Babe.

Ruppert brought Barrow to New York as his general manager (business manager), the very man who had managed Ruth in Boston and converted him into an outfielder after a great pitching career. Another fine hire. Barrow proved to be a baseball genius, whose oversight allowed Ruppert to focus on the big ticket items – like Ruth’s annual contract, or his major part in the hiring of a Commissioner (Judge Landis), or his oversight of the construction of Yankee Stadium. He signed off on the hiring of McCarthy and on the signing of DiMaggio when other teams backed off.

Eventually, he liked to say, a good day at the ballpark was seeing his Yankees score 10 runs in the first inning and then slowly pull away.

Ruppert lived the life of a wealthy baron of his time. He had his mansion on Fifth Avenue, a country estate in Garrison, New York, exotic hobbies, real estate holdings, and the financing of adventures like Admiral Perry’s exploration of the South Pole. He collected rare books, raised show dogs and monkeys, belonged to all the best yacht clubs, and took annual sabbaticals in French Lick, Indiana for spa getaways. He never married, but would leave a third of his team to his frequent companion, Helen “Winnie” Wyant, who served as hostess when guests were accommodated at one of his homes. He had an on-again, off-again German accept despite being born in New York, and the seriousness of the accent would rise and fall depending on whether there was any temper behind it.

Ruppert died the year the Hall of Fame was dedicated in Cooperstown, 1939. Ruth, whom he always called “Root” with the accent, visited him on his deathbed at his Fifth Avenue home on his last day. It had been five years since Babe played for him, and their parting had not been pleasant, over the matter of Ruth wishing to manage the team. But on the last tearful deathbed scene, Ruppert’s oxygen tank removed, he looked up at the big fellow and whispered, “Babe….”

For a soap opera finish to a life well led, it was an apt farewell.