The Dynasty. The Evil Empire. The Bronx Bombers (and, at times, Zoo). Valued at $2.5 billion. Winner of 18 division titles, 40 American League pennants, and 27 World Series. No sports franchise in America approaches the orbit of the New York Yankees.
Marty Appel, who worked for George Steinbrenner for years, notes in his foreward to this volume that owning the Yankees is like possessing the Mona Lisa. But, Appel stresses, the genius who painted the masterpiece—the Leonardo da Vinci, so to speak—was not Steinbrenner but Jacob Ruppert. It was Ruppert who, with Til Huston, invested in the shabby American League New York team in 1915, a club without even a ballpark of its own, the drab sister to the city’s adored National League Giants. With the help of a brilliant little manager he hired named Miller Huggins, Ruppert turned the Yankees into baseball’s richest and mightiest franchise.
The Colonel and Hug explores that remarkably fruitful relationship in a meticulous account brimming with quotes from the period. Some believe the Yankees’ acquisition of Babe Ruth—arguably the greatest player of all time—was what transformed the Yankees. Ruppert declared in 1931 that “getting him was the first and most important step we took toward making the Yankees champion.” But the “him” he was referring to was Miller Huggins, not Babe Ruth.
Before Huggins arrived, the Yankees’ player acquisition strategies left much to be desired. Frank Chance, lured from Chicago, where he had won four pennants and two world championships as player-manager of the Cubs, threw up his hands in New York: “I know there are boneheads in baseball,” he said in 1914, “but I didn’t believe so many could get on one club. Mine.” The team’s horrific past led one writer to suggest, in 1916, that the perfect historian for the franchise would have been Edgar Allan Poe.
Ruppert, a former congressman and influential brewery owner who proudly bore the honorary title of “colonel,” could not gain traction with his acquisition until he took the advice of the American League president Ban Johnson to meet with Huggins, the scrappy, wily player-manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Though Huggins had a law degree, the gnome-like creature who showed up with a cap tugged over his eyes did not initially impress Ruppert as a leader of men. As the Sporting News recounted, “[T]he cap accentuated his midget stature and made Huggins look like an unemployed jockey. And Colonel Ruppert, an immaculate dresser, instinctively shied away from a cap-wearing job applicant.”
As Ruppert came to know him better, though, he set aside his qualms. And Huggins, digging into Ruppert’s pocketbook, began assembling highly competitive teams, most notably acquiring a troublemaking pitcher-turned-slugger from the Boston Red Sox. Initially, Ruppert balked at Boston owner Harry Frazee’s $100,000 asking price for Babe Ruth: “Huggins, you are crazy and this man Frazee is even crazier. Who ever heard of a ballplayer being worth $100,000 in cash?”
“Colonel,” Huggins replied, “take my advice. Buy Ruth. Frazee is crazy, yes. He’s crazy to let you have Babe for so little.” And he was right. The authors aptly call Ruth’s sale “the most significant player transaction in American sports history.”
Of course, Huggins would age considerably worrying about the manchild Ruth’s sneering at rules. “Look at ya! Too fat and too old to have any fun!” Ruth told co-owner Til Huston. “That goes for him, too,” he said, turning to Ruppert. “As for that little shrimp,” he added, indicating Huggins, “he’s half-dead right now.”
Many players shared the Bambino’s disdain. Carl Mays, a superb pitcher obtained from the Red Sox (most famous for killing Ray Chapman with a pitch), openly defied Huggins’s order to intentionally walk a batter, costing the Yankees a game. In a later game, Mays threw a tantrum when Huggins pulled him, heaving the baseball into the stands. In another contest, Huggins called for a sacrifice by Ruth, who ignored him and clubbed a home run instead. Pitcher Waite Hoyte took a swing at Huggins in the dugout after losing a 14-inning game. Later, Ruth and his teammates reportedly dangled the manager from a moving train, a stunt that easily could have killed him. Yet Huggins seemed to hold the key to the Babe: “To be at his best, he must be a happy, carefree boy.”