Remembering Jake Ruppert: The Man Who Built the Yankee Empire
The Yankees roll on, top of the heap, more stars, more world championships, more hype and hoopla. They are New York. They are big time baseball.
Lest we forget, the roots go all the way back to the son and grandson of Bavarian beer tycoons who founded the Ruppert Breweries. Heir to the family millions, young Jacob Ruppert was born on August 5, 1867. He lived with his family in a commodious and luxurious Manhattan Fifth Avenue apartment. He attended the prestigious Columbia Grammar School. Although he was accepted to the School of Mines of Columbia University, his father insisted he become part of the brewery business.
By the turn of the century, the Rupperts in a time before income tax, were reaping huge profits and had become fabulously wealthy. The Ruppert Brewery, one of the most modern beer producing plants in the world, was a complex of thirty-five fortress-like red brick buildings located from East 90th to East 94th Street between Second and Third Avenues in the Yorkville section of Manhattan's upper East side.
The brewery chimneys spewed smoke carrying the sulfurous smell of malt from the boiling vats into the air. On windy days the smell was especially foul and noxious. Maids in the area even in the summertime, closed windows, pulled down drapes, did what they could to keep the stench out of their employer’s dwellings.
At 19, Jacob Ruppert began work at the brewery - - washing barrels. Four years later he was general manager. At 29, he was president of the Jacob Ruppert Brewing Company succeeding his father who had retired. Under the young Ruppert’s direction, the brewery increased its 1893 output of 350,000 barrels to 1,300,000 barrels just prior to prohibition. In his tenure Ruppert would create and head a gigantic and modern plant for 62 years - home to the finest brewery in the world. At one point, valued at over $30 million, the Ruppert brand (“Make Mine Ruppert”) employed more than a thousand workers and was an integral component of the entire New York economy.
A vast fortune and Tammany Hall connections eased Ruppert into a congressional seat. He was elected as a Democrat in a normally Republican district. The ambitious Ruppert served as a four-time member of the House of Representatives from 1899 to 1907 representing the "Silk Stocking" district of Manhattan.
After the death of his father in 1915, Ruppert continued to live with his mother in the family's red brick Victorian house at 1115 Fifth Avenue on "Millionaire's Row" along Central Park. When his mother died in 1924, Ruppert stayed on in the family mansion for another year. He then sold to a developer and moved across the street into a 12-room apartment in a 15-story luxury building at 1120 Fifth Avenue. His apartment faced Fifth Avenue and looked out onto the Central Park Reservoir directly across the street. Five full-time servants catered to every whim of the Teutonic, punctilious millionaire. Throughout his life, Ruppert lived within easy walking distance of his brewery.
He was appointed an honorary Colonel in the New York State 7th National Guard Regiment, and it pleased him very much when people used "Colonel" in addressing him.
A heavily invested real estate toomler as well as the head of the most powerful brewery in the world, “Colonel” Ruppert’s wealth kept increasing making him one of the world’s richest men with an estimated fortune of nearly $50-million.
Called “Congressman” by some, “Colonel” by most, "Jake," by his closest friends, Ruppert had the world on a string. A confirmed bachelor, he always had one beautiful woman, sometimes two, on his arm. But his true love had always been baseball. He was always a rabid fan.
Back in 1880 when he was just 13, Jacob Ruppert owned, managed, captained and played second base for a local Manhattan baseball club. The snobbish, some would say cruel, rich boy, insisted that his players clean the cages of his private menagerie before he would bring his bat and ball down to the vacant lot where the team played. Making it perfectly clear to all that he could not abide losing, Ruppert also made it very uncomfortable for any of his players who struck out – he fired them. The highly privileged youngster was a passionate rooter for the New York Giants. As a teenager he tried out but could not make the club. No matter, he would accomplish much more in baseball than that.
North of the city at his large estate in Garrison, New York, Ruppert kept St. Bernards and Boston terriers. He owned a dozen varieties of doves, two dozen varieties of monkey. He had a collection of Percherons, the large horses that had pulled the big beer trucks. He was a collector of trotting horses and thoroughbred race horses, yachts, Chinese porcelains, jades. His country place was a repository of one of the largest personal art galleries and libraries in the United States.
His office was devoid of curtains. Close by his desk were marble pedestals, a goldfish aquarium, two bronzes of American Indian collectibles.
Ruppert’s shoes were made to order. Changing his clothes several times a day, he dressed in the latest and most expensive fashions and was attended to by a valet. He traveled in style with his secretary Al Brennan in his own private railroad car. It was known that the “Colonel” enjoyed the comforts of his own drawing room and sleeping in a silk brocade nightshirt.
Always interested in baseball, always acquiring, Ruppert was very much interested in purchasing the New York Giants but was told by manager John J. McGraw that they were not for sale but that the sad sack New York Yankees might be.
"It was an orphan club," Ruppert said, "without a home of its own, without players of outstanding ability, without prestige." It was a team whose average annual attendance was 345,000, and dozen year record was a mediocre 861 wins and 937 defeats. But Jake Ruppert, the man they would later call "Master Builder in Baseball," would change all that.
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 from the original owners - -professional gambler Frank Farrell and ex-police commissioner William S. Devery. Huston impressed everyone by peeling off 230 thousand dollar bills – his share of the purchase price.
Players and sportswriters referred to Hutson as "Cap." There were others who called him "the Man in the Iron Hat" because of the derby hat, generally crumpled, that he wore. The hat matched his suits, always crumpled and rumpled.
The Farrell-Devery duo had milked and mismanaged the franchise for years. So owning the Yankees, who had a 12 year record of 861-937 and average attendance of 345,000 a season, would be a challenge for the new owners.
Ruppert and Huston, however, were up to the challenge. They had deep pockets and a great deal of business acumen. Huston was a successful entrepreneur engineer, a rich contractor. Ruppert always knew his way around a buck.
All kinds of intrigue surrounded the purchase of the Yankees involving Tammany Hall wheeler dealers, other owners, and the American League President. All of them were very anxious to put in place new Yankee ownership and a successful franchise in New York City. To close the deal, American League owners and the League kicked in the rest of the half million dollars that Farrell and Devery insisted on before they would sell out.
"I never saw such a mixed up business in my life,” Ruppert complained right off the bat. “Contracts, liabilities, notes, obligations of all sorts. 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."
All of that would change. The “Prince of Beer” wanted to re-name the Yankees to “Knickerbockers” after his best-selling beer, but the marketing ploy failed. Besides, it was said, the name was too long for newspaper headlines. Years later it would be short enough for basketball’s New York Knickerbockers.
Ruppert pressed on. As a beer baron, he was hands on for every aspect of his business. That same behavior pattern existed for him with the Yankees. 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.
The Yankee owner rarely hung out with "with the boys," Rud Rennie wrote in the New York Herald-Tribune. "For the most part, he was aloof and brusque.... He never used profanity. 'By gad' was his only expletive."
A fixture at his Stadium, which he insisted on keeping so fanatically clean that sometimes he even swept it himself, Ruppert had a private box to which he invited the celebrities of the day. He was not an owner, though, who came to the park to be seen. His interest was in seeing his tea, excel.
The Colonel’s idea of a wonderful day at the ball park 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.” he said. “A great day is when the Yankees score a lot of runs early and then just pull away.”
He created the “Ruppert effect.” Those who worked for him at the brewer on the ball club knew he was around and about and very interested in all that was going on.
Members of his team received first class treatment. For the Yankees this showed itself in the sleeping accommodations he arranged 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
While the Yankees were high flying, Ruppert’s other business – his brewery was hurting. Prohibition cut his brewery's annual production of 1.25 million barrels of real beer to 350,000 barrels of half-percent near-beer that nobody wanted to drink. In effect, the brewery treaded water producing, bottling and selling "near beer".
In a move that would change the course of Yankee and Red Sox history, indeed, baseball history, Jake Ruppert on January 3, 1920 purchased George Herman “Babe” Ruth, 25, from Boston. The deal 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 as a Yankee , he blasted 54 homers.
Ruth bragged “They’re coming out to see me in droves.” From 1920 to 1922, the Yankees with G.H. Ruth on board drew more three million fans into the Polo Grounds. Never had the New York Giants drawn a million fans in a season.
The Colonel was the only one to conduct salary negotiations with the “Sultan of Swat.”Ruth was a valuable commodity and the Yankee owner treated him as such. The pair disagreed at times privately and publicly about contracts; nevertheless, Ruppert and Ruth were personal friends. Frugal to a fault, Colonel gave orders that the Yankee front office should always keep an eye out for any out of line Ruthian expenses. Thus, a $3.80 train ticket for Mrs. Ruth and a $30 "uniform deposit" were not honored extracted for the greatest single gate attraction of all time.
Angered and annoyed at the gate success of Babe Ruth & Company, the Giants told the Yankees to look around for other baseball lodgings. The Yankees had been playing in the shadow of the Giants at the Polo Grounds since 1913, tenants of the National League team. It was a very unsatisfactory arrangement; now with the Yankees outdrawing the Giants in their in their own ballpark, it was an embarrassment.
The forward looking 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. So the search was on to create a new ballpark, not just a new ballpark but the greatest and grandest edifice of its time, one shaped along the lines of the Roman Coliseum. The Colonel dreamed big dreams and had the power and money to back them up.
Babe Ruth became a Yankee through the dream and efforts of the Colonel. Yankee Stadium was really “the house that Jake Ruppert built.” And all credit goes to Ruppert as the man who truly built the Yankee empire.
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