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December, 1915: Huston and Ruppert buy the Yankees

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

Forty-seven-year-old Jacob Ruppert Jr. entered the American League scene. He served in the Seventh Infantry Regiment of the New York State National Guard, started working in his father’s brewery at the age of 19, and four years later became general manager. He was elected to the first of four terms in Congress in 1898, where his service eventually earned him the honorary title of Colonel, appointed as such by New York governor David Hill.

Ruppert was a shrewd and sophisticated businessman in charge of a new enormous and modern brewery just built in 1913, one of the finest in the world, which was producing over 1,000,000 barrels of beer in a year. As the oldest of three sons and first in line as heir to the Ruppert Brewery fortune, “Jake” was also a lifelong bachelor who lived well in the family’s mansion on Fifth Avenue. He always dressed in the finest clothes, was listed on the New York social register, owned racehorses and a yacht, and despite being born and raised in New York, spoke with a pronounced German accent and called most everyone by their last name.

At the turn of the century, Ruppert had unsuccessfully tried to purchase the Giants, but instead they were sold to John Brush and manager McGraw quickly built them into the most popular team in baseball. A dozen years later, Ruppert had an opportunity to buy the Cubs, but he wasn’t interested in something that far from his Manhattan brewery.

Ruppert continued to frequent games at the Polo Grounds, and it was through McGraw that he met another big baseball fan named Captain Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston. He was a 47-year-old civil engineer who made his fortune after the Spanish-American War of 1898 when he remained in Cuba and obtained concessions to dredge, improve, and construct harbors and ports, Havana included. Cuban port duties were to be paid to concessionaires over 30 years, the value of the grant was placed at $25 million, bonds were issued in London and Havana, and “Cap” Huston reportedly received more than $825,000.

Huston and Ruppert became friends, and together, they soon tried to buy into the Giants. But the most popular team in New York definitely wasn’t for sale, so McGraw suggested to them that the Yankees could possibly be purchased. They were a club that had finished tied for sixth place in ’14 with a 70-84 record and no real stars, and whose best player was pitcher Ray Caldwell, who went 17-9 with a stellar 1.94 ERA.

It was a well-known fact that the Yanks’ two owners, Devery and Farrell, had been quarreling rather frequently. Devery was frustrated with the team’s performance and rising salaries while Farrell, his plans to move forward with a new ballpark faltering for a multitude of reasons, was being pressed financially by other business ventures. Together, despite their best efforts to field a winning team, they were commonly viewed as owners who were driving the club into the ground and really couldn’t build a franchise. Given inadequate financial resources, the Yankees were a team that had finished in the top half of the league only four times in a dozen years, while losing money regularly.

American League boss Ban Johnson, Mack, and Lannin were all interested in luring Ruppert into the circuit. The four reportedly met in November 1914, and they received strong support from a curious place, McGraw, who wanted the two arguing renters and their Yankees out of his ballpark.

In early December, Huston and Ruppert, each boasting strong personal balance sheets respectively, met with Johnson and the two Yankee owners, and purchase talks began. Devery and Farrell valued the club at $500,000, while Huston and Ruppert reportedly offered $400,000. Privately though, Johnson was regretting the withdrawal of Farrell from the circuit, for the latter had been among the league president’s strongest supporters.

Ruppert knew full well how to make money in business and undoubtedly was looking for another outlet to sell his brewery’s two flagship beers, “Knickerbocker” and “Ruppert’s Extra Pale”. A meticulous and detail-oriented owner, he looked into the Yankees’ finances and did a double take. The accounting books the Yanks kept were not only in disarray but were also incomplete, and the lines of red ink actually made Ruppert consider buying the Indianapolis minor league franchise and moving it to New York. Johnson advised against that idea and promised to help the Colonel and Captain acquire satisfactory baseball talent. A deal to buy the Yankees was announced several times, one being to make it clear that Ruppert wasn’t interested in any rival upstart Federal League proposition, but each time the purchase seemed to hit a snag.

At the same time, one of the American League’s four premier players was available, Philadelphia second baseman Eddie Collins. He was the reigning Chalmers Award winner, nearly unanimously recognized in voting as the junior circuit’s most valuable player in 1914, and a vital part of the Athletics’ machine that won four pennants in five years, unquestionably the loop’s best-ever club. But given Mack’s financial pressure from the fledgling Federal League, Collins was caught up in the club’s dismantling and he was sold on December 8 to Charles Comiskey and the Chicago White Sox for a record price of $50,000.

Unfortunately, a possible Collins transaction would have been a bit premature for the Yanks during a transitional period in ownership. But interestingly, in The New York Times on December 9, 1914 it was reported that Mack was frustrated in Philadelphia, that he was “willing to field new endeavors”, and that “diplomatic overtures will result in the engagement of Mack to lead the Yankees.”

Finally, after much quibbling, bargaining and premature announcements, Huston and Ruppert finally signed with attorneys present to buy the struggling Yankees for $460,000 on January 11, 1915. The official transfer took place 19 days later.

For Devery and Farrell, the transaction was an amount 25 times greater than they had paid for the team a dozen years earlier, computing out to an average annual rate of return of 31 percent on their original investment, all very healthy numbers for a clearly mediocre baseball team. However, it was also an indication of just how popular the game had become, for management as well as fans.

The two new owners were about as different as two men could be. Ruppert came from elite social circles and remained there in just about every facet, which included the way he dressed and separated business from social life, while Huston, just 19 days older than his partner, practically cared nothing for social standing and maybe even less for how he looked, and preferred to hobnob with ballplayers and sportswriters, drinking and hunting. But despite their apparent differences, they both had a common desire to be successful as baseball owners.

Ruppert declared that the two new owners intended to spend freely to build a winner, and fans welcomed the news. Fortunately though, the owners’ collective wealth didn’t mislead the two men into thinking that they completely understood the game of baseball.

Ruppert was installed as the Yankees’ president, and Huston was the vice president. Knowing how to run a company, which included putting his personnel in key positions, the Colonel wiped the front office clean. Ruppert installed Harry Sparrow as business manager, one of McGraw’s oldest friends and a man that had arranged a Giants-White Sox world tour, and William Fleischman, who reportedly had introduced the Colonel to Johnson, was named secretary.

Needing a new field manager, the two owners immediately tabbed none other than Donovan, just months removed from claiming the International League’s pennant. He was a man with an outstanding baseball reputation to teach and motivate, and also appeared to have the name and personality needed to guide the Yankees and compete with the Giants.

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