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October, 1917: Huggins Becomes Yankees Manager

(Excerpt from my manuscript for the upcoming book “The 1927 Yankees: Anatomy of the Greatest”)

With Huston overseas, Ruppert halfheartedly consulted with loop boss Ban Johnson about potential managerial candidates. The American League president, in turn, reputedly solicited the opinion of J.G. Taylor Spink, editor of the St. Louis-based publication The Sporting News, a 31-year-old periodical and self-proclaimed “Baseball Paper of the World”. Spink identified a possibility that was right under his nose, good friend Miller Huggins, the discontented manager of the National League’s Cardinals.

Huggins first broke into the big leagues with the Cincinnati Reds in 1904 as a resourceful, scrappy and aggressive second baseman. Two years later, he honed his skills under the watchful eye of legendary manager Ned Hanlon. Given his size, just 5’6” and 140 pounds, Huggins was an ideal leadoff man, and he twice led the league in walks. Defensively, he was a quick and sure-handed infielder. While with the Reds, Huggins also found time to study law, and after applying himself for three years, earned a law degree from the University of Cincinnati, though he never practiced.

St. Louis had acquired Huggins in ’10. When he was appointed player-manager after the ’12 season, some observers believed the scrawny infielder would have difficulty bossing around players that were much larger. Despite his small stature, Huggins demanded that his players be disciplined both on and off the field, and he combined his leadership abilities with a keen knowledge of the game. But over the next four years, he was unable to bring a nondescript Cardinals team home any higher than a third place finish. Interestingly though, it was their highest since joining the National League in 1892.

After the Cardinals’ last place finish in 1916, the club sank perilously close to bankruptcy. A shrewd and prudent investor in the stock market, Huggins saw his opportunity and attempted to put together a group to purchase the team, and he headed back to Cincinnati to find the necessary financial backing. But while he was gone, a local group of St. Louis businessmen was assembled, and it was their syndicate that successfully purchased the franchise. New ownership then procured Branch Rickey from the cross-town junior circuit’s Browns to run the operation, a former major league catcher that had played with the New York Highlanders back in ’07.

Huggins was again the Cardinals’ manager in 1917, but he was disgruntled most of the season over what he considered underhanded dealings surrounding the transfer of team ownership. By the summer speculation surfaced that he would move on when the campaign was over. On the field, the Cardinals improved to third place, but many local sportswriters gave Rickey equal credit in their surge from the basement, which further soured Huggins’ attitude.

Knowing his friend’s situation, Spink had arranged a meeting between Huggins and Ruppert, and the Yankees’ owner and president came away impressed. There was certainly something he liked about Huggins, a man considered one of the smartest managers in the game despite having compiled a losing record with St. Louis of 346-415, a .455 winning percentage. There are many variations as to the sequence of events, but the cold fact was that Ruppert offered Huggins both the job and a substantial raise, and given the extenuating circumstances, a release was negotiated from the Cardinals.

On October 25, 1917, the 39-year-old Huggins was named the manager of the Yankees, the team’s ninth pilot in just 16 years. He signed a two-year contract at $12,500 per season.

The New York Times on October 26 carried, “Huggins’s appointment did not come as a surprise, as his name has been associated with the position since he had several conversations last Summer with Jacob Ruppert, President of the Yankees, and Ban Johnson, President of the American League.”

But in succeeding the popular Donovan, the appointment of Huggins wasn’t initially very well received by the players, press or fans. Interestingly, none other than McGraw showed support for Huggins.

Still, the appointment caused a huge rift between the two Yankee owners because Huston hit the roof upon hearing the news overseas. His preference had been his drinking and hunting buddy, 54-year-old Brooklyn skipper Wilbert Robinson. “Uncle Robbie” was popular with the New York fans for having led his team to a pennant just a year earlier in ‘16, but he was deemed a little too old and not a right fit by Ruppert. Almost instantly, Huston disliked Huggins, sight unseen.

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