This annotated week in baseball history: Jan. 9-Jan. 15, 1939

On January 13, 1939 Jacob Ruppert died. Ruppert was a National Guard colonel, a four-term Congressman and a Brewery owner, but his real fame came from ownership of the New York Yankees.

One of the columns I’ve long considered writing, but never actually have, is listing the ten most influential figures in baseball history. The main factor that has kept me from writing such a column is my inability to narrow down a list to anything even close to ten names.

And in any case, the comparisons are inherent subjective. Who has been more influential in baseball history, Bud Selig or Kennesaw Mountain Landis? Jackie Robinson’s influence in American history cannot be overstated, but in baseball, does he rank as more influential than Branch Rickey? There are an endless number of such debates, almost all without a “right” answer.

I don’t know if Jacob Ruppert would earn a place in baseball’s ten most influential, but he would merit serious consideration. Ruppert bought the Yankees in 1915—along with the brilliantly-named Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston—purchasing one of the league’s worst franchises. The Yankees had finished above .500 just three times in their first 12 seasons in New York, as many times as they had lost 94 or more games.

The team shared the Polo Grounds with the Giants, but they were clearly second-class citizens: their first two seasons in northern Manhattan, the Yankees averaged fewer than 4,700 fans per game while the Giants drew almost 6,200.

By the time Ruppert—as sole owner of the franchise—died, the Yankees had won seven World Series titles and played their home games in front of more than a million fans a season at their own ballpark, Yankee Stadium, the premier baseball venue in the country.

Ruppert’s fortune bankrolled much of his success with the Yankees, which we will return to shortly. That fortune came from an inheritance from his father, a brewing magnate. At its peak, the Ruppert Brewery operated a complex of more than two dozen buildings spread across a stretch of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

(Like the Lou Gehrig birthplace, the former Ruppert Brewery is located within blocks of where I grew up. My mother, who also grew up in the area, remembers seeing the brewery itself. Today the site is occupied by a massive complex of apartment buildings that bear the Ruppert name.)

The Jacob Ruppert plaque in Monument Park (Icon/SMI)

Prior to his time running the brewery, Ruppert had briefly served as a colonel in the National Guard. Despite a short—and, in all candor, undistinguished—tenure, he was commonly known as Colonel Ruppert throughout the rest of his life. He also served as a Congressman, representing Manhattan’s Upper East Side—and no doubt protecting his brewery interests—as a Democrat. (As part of Ruppert’s efforts to dot his life story with fabulous names, he succeeded Representative Cornelius A. Pugsley as the Congressman for Manhattan’s Sixteenth District.)

But while Ruppert’s other accomplishments are notable, it is his tenure in charge of the Yankees that earned him a major place in history. Ruppert’s fame far exceeded that of most other baseball owners, even most other baseball players; he graced the cover of Time magazine in 1932.

While Ruppert cannot, of course, single-handedly claim credit for the Yankees’ success during his ownership, he does deserve much praise. It was Ruppert—reportedly on the advice of American League President Ban Johnson—who hired Miller Huggins to run the Yankees prior to the 1918 season. Before he left the team due to illness, “The Mighty Mite” won six pennants and three World Series. He was replaced in 1931 by Joe McCarthy, who then won four titles during Ruppert’s lifetime, and another three thereafter.

It was also Ruppert who, in perhaps his most astute move, hired Ed Barrow to run the franchise’s field operations. Using a combination of savvy trades, astute signings of young players and the budget allotted him by Ruppert, Barrow put together the Yankee teams that won his owner seven World Series.

In 1932 Barrow, with Ruppert now the sole owner of the team, hired George Weiss to construct a farm system for the Yankees. This was yet another incredibly successful endeavor, helping to produce the core of great Yankee teams well into the 1960s.

Arguably Ruppert’s greatest contribution to the Yankees was his willingness to spend his brewery dollars. This is most famously reflected in the Yankees’ purchasing of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox and owner Harry Frazee, for a record $125,000 outright, plus a series of notes and loans. Without Ruppert’s fortune backing such a move, it seems likely Ruth would have ended up with the White Sox, who were offering Joe Jackson along with cash.

Ruth and Ruppert did not always see eye-to-eye, especially when it came to salary. Rumors circulated that Ruppert did not support Ruth’s “carousing” lifestyle, and the contract disputes between the two often dragged throughout the winter. Nonetheless, it appears they were able to separate their professional differences from their personal interactions.

Finally, while it was no doubt the success of the team—aided by players like Ruth and Lou Gehrig—that allowed such an idea to take hold, it was under Ruppert’s stewardship that Yankee Stadium was constructed. Ruppert and Huston bore the entire $2.5 million cost themselves.

Yankee Stadium was groundbreaking for American sport. It was the first stadium with three-tiers, and it’s opening day (with a reported, if perhaps exaggerated, 74,217 in attendance) easily set the record for largest attendance at a single game. The Yankees’ average attendance in 1923 was the highest in the league, so much so that half their average would have topped the attendance of six other teams.

Ruppert died in 1939. One of the last people to see him alive was Ruth, who would later report that their final meeting was the only occasion his longtime owner referred to him as “Babe.” Ruppert was buried in Kensico Cemetery in Westchester. Appropriately, Kensico also holds many of the figures who were vital to Ruppert’s success with the Yankees: Gehrig, Barrow and Frazee are all also interred there.

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  1. Bob Rittner said...

    Here is a start on your 10:
    Alexander Cartwright
    Henry Chadwick
    Harry Wright
    Ban Johnson
    Babe Ruth
    Branch Rickey
    Jackie Robinson
    Marvin Miller
    Bill James

    You figure out #10

  2. Richard Barbieri said...

    I won’t get too much into the list—I might someday write the column (or a series)—but that’s hardly a bad jumping off point. My only criticism might be that it leans very heavily towards early baseball. That was an important time for the game, but even if #10 is Bud Selig—I think he has to be there—there’s no one on the list born after 1950.

    Leaving that aside for a moment, others I’d consider include Walter O’Malley, Landis, Horace Wilson, Ted Turner, Steinbrenner, Scott Boras and probably even more.

  3. kds said...

    Richard, Thanks for reminding people of an important historical figure.  Gehrig did not play for the Yankees until after Yankee Stadium was opened.

    On the most influential list; there is always a problem telling someone who was around for important events from someone who was really involved.  It seems to me that Selig, for example, has often been most noted for doing little or nothing, as in the ‘94-‘95 strike and much of the steroid controversy. 

    Landis has to be on the short list.  While I love Jackie Robinson, as a player and a person, his influence in baseball is not close to Branch Rickey’s.  Setting aside who was more important in integration; Rickey was central to the process that changed the minor leagues from independent entities like the majors but in smaller cities, to a farm system where the minors are completely under the thumbs of the majors.  A huge change in the sport.  Rickey was also importantly involved in actions in 1959 and 1960 that lead to expansion in ‘61 and ‘62, and thus every expansion since.  He was not quite the first to hold the title, GM, but was a leader in moving personnel decisions from the manager and owner to a separate, professional front office.  And Jackie Robinson as a player is underrated.

  4. Bob Rittner said...

    Fair point, Richard, but the influence of the last two has been significant primarily since 1970 and 1980, so 1/5 of the list really relates to contemporary baseball.

    I think Robinson’s influence is close to Rickey’s. If he had failed in Brooklyn, the “great experiment” might have been set back a generation. And while Rickey was instrumental in at least two major elements of baseball, the integration of the game is certainly as important a development as any other, and Robinson was crucial to it happening as perhaps nobody else might have been able to be.

  5. Michael Caragliano said...

    It’s a shame that Ruppert isn’t in the Hall of Fame already. When I ask people to name the Yankees owner who presided over seven World Championships, the building of Yankee Stadium, and the signing of the premier talent in the game at the time, everyone responds “Steinbrenner’, then looks stunned when I say “wrong”. Yet, if the count of the recent Veterans Committee meetings is to be believed, John Fetzer stands a much better chance of being elected to Cooperstown than either Yankee owner. But Ruppert’s omission is a shame. Ridiculous.

  6. Mr. Fox said...

    I would have to put Larry MacPhail on any list of the 10 most influential baseball people, and maybe even at the top of the list.
    the SABR Baseball biography project credits him with at least 11 major innovations including 1st night baseball game in the majors, developing the batting helmet,1st to use airplanes for team travel, first season ticket plan, 1st televised game and more.
    He also turned perennial losers like Cincinnati and then Brooklyn into formidable teams by savvy dealing and signing players

  7. Cliff Blau said...

    Ruth’s sale price to the Yankees was $100,000, not $125,000.  It was payable @$25,000 down and $25,000 a year for three years with interest of 6%.

    It is notable that not only did Ruppert spend his money on the team, but he didn’t get any back.  He reinvested the team’s profits instead of pocketing them.

  8. afc said...

    One interesting item I found from Ruppert talking to the L.A. Times after the 1935 season was him saying that Babe Ruth is “dead” as far as baseball and the Yankees are concerned. I suppose that applied to coaching as well as playing.

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