Owners come and owners go. Some have been hands-on and others have tended to their own affairs and let the teams they owned function led by pros. The Jake, the man who created the New York Yankee empire was so involved that he even took a broom from time to time to sweep up Yankee Stadium.
“For the most part, he was aloof and brusque…. He never used profanity. ‘By gad’ was his only expletive.”- Rud Rennie, New York Herald-Tribune
Born in New York City on August 5, 1867, Jacob Ruppert, Jr. was the son and grandson of beer tycoons. They founded the Ruppert Breweries. Always a big baseball fan, always one in his growing up years who played and watched baseball, he managed a tryout with the New York Giants but did not make much of an impression.
Ruppert was heir to the family millions and his vast resources and connections opened the way for his serving as a four-time member of the House of Representatives from 1899 to 1907. He represented the “Silk Stocking” district of Manhattan. He also served in the National Guard in the 1890s and received an honorary “Colonel” title.
His various roles earned him various appellations. Called “Congressman” by some, “Colonel” by most, “Jake,” was used by his closest friends. A dandy, a man who sat atop of the world, arrogant, aristocratic, there seemed to always be a different beautiful woman on his arm.
Jake Ruppert’s full-time residence was a fashionable 12-room apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan close by the sprawling Ruppert Brewery that he was able to easily walk to. A man with five full-time servants at his beck and call, he changed his clothes several times a day and dressed in the latest and most expensive fashions. His valet was always at the ready. Collecting fine art, raising thoroughbred horses and pedigreed dogs were but a few of the expensive hobbies of the “Colonel.”
Despite being born in New York City, Ruppert spoke with a heavy German accent. He traveled in style in his own private railroad car in the comfort of his own drawing room, slept in a silk brocade nightshirt.
A man who was a lover of good times and many things –baseball among them, he rooted for the New York Giants. He wanted to buy them but was told by his friend manager John McGraw that they were not for sale. “I think the Yankees might be.”
On January 11, 1915, Jake Ruppert teamed with a real Colonel, Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, and purchased the Yankees of New York for $460,000. Making an impression at the time of purchase, Hustson peeled out 230 thousand dollar bills – his share of the money needed to make the purchase. A friend of Ruppert, Hutson was a civil engineer in Cincinnati who during the Spanish-American War made a fortune modernizing Cuba’s sewerage system and harbor.
Now the task at hand for the new owners of the Yankees was to turn around a franchise that had a 12-year record of 861-937, average attendance of just 345,000 each season.
Ruppert, the “Prince of Beer” also sought to re-name the Yankees to “Knickerbockers” – – after his best-selling beer. No deal. The reasoning was the name was too commercial, too long too long for newspaper headlines. It would not be too long, however, decades later for a pro basketball team in New York.
Ruppert said of the team he bought: “I never saw such a mixed up business in my life… There were times when it looked so bad no man would want to put a penny into it. It is an orphan ball club without a home of its own, without players of outstanding ability, without prestige.”
Then he got to work. Early moves included a Wally Pipp purchase from Detroit for $7500. Pitcher Bob Shawkey came from Philadelphia for $18,000.
As a beer baron, Jake Ruppert was hands-on for every aspect of his business. That same behavior pattern came into play with the Yankees. He had a personal and deep interest in each player. He knew them all and was always up to date on their capabilities, shortcomings, foibles, and performances.
In his early ownership years, Ruppert lost almost as much money as was paid to purchase the Yankees. But on the field, there was some progress. The team finished fifth in 1915, fourth in 1916, their first time out of the second division since 1910.
Members of his team received first class treatment. For the Yankees, this showed itself in the sleeping accommodations he mandated on trains. Most other teams had players, dependent on seniority, given berths, upper or lower. The players on the New York Yankees all slept in upper births.
The whole traveling operation generally took up two cars at the end of the train. And there was many a summer day that the players only wearing underwear, lolled about, had extended conversations, played cards, enjoyed each other’s company and the food, rest and recreation that made them perform better on the playing field.
In a move that would change the course of baseball history, Jake Ruppert made the deal of his lifetime the day after Christmas 1919. He purchased George Herman “Babe” Ruth, 25, from Boston. It was a very smart business move. The young Ruth had talent and would become one of the greatest drawing cards in baseball history. In his first season in pinstripes, he blasted 54 homers. The team finished in third place.
Angered and annoyed at the gate success of Babe Ruth & Company, the Giants told the Yankees who played as tenants at the Polo Grounds and now with the “Sultan of Swat” packing them in enabling the renters to outdraw the landlords – to find a new place to play.
Ruppert and Hutson suggested the Polo Grounds be demolished and replaced by a 100,000 seat stadium to be used by both teams and for other sporting events. The Giants were not interested. No matter. The Colonel dreamed big dreams and had the power and money to back them up.
On May 21, 1922, two weeks after construction of a new ballpark for the Yankees was underway, Ruppert bought out Huston for $1.5 million. “I am now the sole owner of the Yankees. Huggins is my manager,” Ruppert’s telegram read. The two had had a conflict over Ruppert’s hiring of Miller Huggins as manager. Ruppert won out as usual.
On April 18, 1923, a massive crowd showed up for the proudest moment in the history of the South Bronx. The Yankee Stadium opened for business. The Colonel’s idea of a sublimely wonderful day at the ballpark was any time the Yankees scored 11 runs in the first inning, and then slowly pulled away. The Colonel was fond of saying, “There is no charity in baseball. I want to win every year. Close games make me nervous.”
During the Great Depression, Colonel Jacob Ruppert was one of the few who prospered big time while the economy of the nation collapsed. He purchased New York City property at depression prices. By 1935, all his property holdings had more than doubled in value. As the decade of the 30s neared its end, his real estate holdings were valued at $30 million, his total estate at double that amount.
Strangely and sadly, the normally vigorous Colonel attended just two games at Yankee Stadium during the 1938 season. He followed his beloved Yankees from a sickbed, listening to games on the radio for the first time. So impressed was he by the medium’s fit with baseball that he arranged for all Bronx Bomber home games to be broadcast on radio. That was his final official act.
On Friday morning January 13, 1939, the master builder of the New York Yankees Empire passed away at his home from complications from phlebitis. He was 71 years old.
On Monday, January 16, 1939, the procession that resembled a state funeral started out from the Ruppert apartment on 93rd Street. More than 4,000 jammed inside the historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral including brewers, public dignitaries, the bosses of the Tammany and Bronx Democratic machines, more than 500 Ruppert employees, fans and family. Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Yankee manager Joe McCarthy, general manager Ed Barrow, farm system director George Weiss, members of the 1939 team including Tommy Henrich and Johnny Murphy, chief scout Paul Krichell, Boston Red Sox manager Joe Cronin and Chicago White Sox manager Jimmie Dykes, and former star players like Honus Wagner and Eddie Collins.
More than 10,000 people were outside the Cathedral. The service ran for about an hour. Dignitaries Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, United States Senator Robert E Wagner and former New York State governor Al Smith sat in the front right pew.
Ruppert’s will left a fortune essentially to three women, twenty million dollars was for two nieces. A third of his estate went to Helen Winthrop Weyant, 37. She was described in newspapers as a “ward,” as “formerly a chorus girl,” and by The Sporting News as “a former showgirl friend.”
Weyant told reporters that that she had “no idea why he left her so much money.”
In two dozen years as the owner of the New York Yankees, the ambitious Jake Ruppert took a rag-tag franchise and transformed it into the most powerful team in all of baseball. He had the goods as an executive. He had the good sense to surround himself with top drawer and determined baseball people Ed Barrow, George Weiss, managers like Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy.
Admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013, 74 years after his death, Jacob Ruppert, Jr. was many things, but especially the man who built the Yankee Empire.
Harvey Frommer is one of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on the New York Yankees and has arguably written more books, articles and reviews on the New York Yankees than anyone. Some of the material in this piece appears in Harvey Frommer’s THE ULTIMATE YANKEE BOOK http://www.frommerbooks.com/ultimate-yankees.html which can be ordered on Amazon or direct from the author.