- - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE COLONEL AND HUG: THE PARTNERSHIP THAT TRANSFORMED THE NEW YORK YANKEES

By Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz

University of Nebraska Press, $34.95, 576 pages

With their 27 World Championships, the New York Yankees are baseball’s most storied franchise.

Yet until 1920, even the American League pennant eluded them. It was John J. McGraw’s dominant National League Giants to which New York’s baseball fans were devoted. But like the rest of America in the 1920s, baseball was poised for big changes, and the Yankees would lead the way.

How this came to be is at the heart of Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz’s “The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership that Transformed the New York Yankees.”

“The Colonel,” Jacob Ruppert, was a prosperous New York brewer. He dabbled in horses and show dogs, acquired books and art, and served several undistinguished terms in Congress as a cog in the Tammany machine. In 1915, though, he would expand his ventures by going in with another “Colonel” — Till Huston — to purchase the Yankees.

Unlike other baseball owners who kept one eye on the ledger, Ruppert was willing to spend big to acquire whatever talent was necessary to win. Measuring success by pennants rather than profits, he brushed aside the criticism that New Yorkers used the “checkbook to unfair advantage” that continues to this day. Ruppert was unabashed: “Winning pennants is the business of the New York Yankees.”

Looking back upon the great 1920s-era Yankee squads, Ruppert would say that the most important step was hiring “him.” “Him” was not Babe Ruth, nor any other player, but manager Miller Huggins. A former ball player who had scrapped out a respectable career through sheer willpower and love of the game despite his diminutive size, “Hug” was managing the St. Louis Cardinals and had earned a reputation as one of baseball’s finest minds. Ruppert saw in Huggins a great organizer who lacked only resources, and Huggins saw with Ruppert those resources combined with the freedom to do his job.

New York City 100 years ago was no less a pressure cooker than today. Huggins quickly grasped that fan and press expectations meant there could be no “rebuilding years” where young and inexperienced players learned their craft at the cost of a winning record. While Ruppert’s money bought superstars, they were often accompanied by egos that needed to be carefully managed. Huggins shrewdly tacked between “disciplinarian” and “diplomat” depending on the particular player rather than having one “managerial style.”

A press fixated on sport and celebrity as a means of retaining readership after World War I would scrutinize his every move. Denying rumors that Huggins was on the verge of being replaced was a full-time job for Ruppert, even though the rumors were often fueled by co-owner Huston’s derisive comments about their skipper and star players’ disturbing lack of respect for his rules.

By 1921, Huggins had the Yankees atop the American League but they would lose two straight World Series to their cross-town rival Giants, engendering more criticism. After their second loss Ruppert made a critical decision: The critics, not Huggins, must go. Ruppert bought out Huston and made clear that any player who wasn’t willing to play for Hug would be given his walking papers.

The following season saw the Yankees‘ first World Series title.

In all, Huggins would manage three World Series and six pennant winners for Ruppert before passing away near the end of the 1929 season. By then the Yankee machine was underway.

As in their previous collaboration, “1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York,” Mr. Steinberg and Mr. Spatz are brilliant at setting baseball into its cultural setting. Prohibition, the battle over Sunday baseball (which transformed the game from a “speculative” business venture into a financially sound bet) and many other aspects of American life loom large in their tale. Especially strong is their intricate account of the Yankees‘ newspaper coverage during an era when some sports writers were themselves larger than life figures.

By spreading their 344-page narrative along the 12 seasons that Miller managed the Yankees and the seven-year period immediately following until Ruppert’s death, however, some of the narrative drama of 1921 is lacking. Few players come alive as they did in that volume, excepting occasionally Ruth. The key role of others such as business manager Ed Barrow is never fully fleshed out (perhaps because Barrow was the subject of a recent and very detailed biography). As a result, only one aspect of the Yankees‘ rise — the relationship between Ruppert and Huggins — is fully realized. The book’s last 50 pages covering the post-Huggins period in particular might have been better used to bring these other on-and-off field actors during the 1920s into sharper focus.

In 1930, history would repeat itself when Ruppert hired Joe McCarthy, who had been recently released by the Chicago Cubs despite his reputation as the finest mind in baseball. McCarthy had one stipulation: complete control. Ruppert likewise had one: win. After a single rebuilding year, the Yankees were on top again.

Alec Rogers was senior counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

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