Any great empire does not rise out of mere happenstance or a stroke of good fortune, but through the bold visions and shrewd calculations of a single catalyst. The Macedonians had Philip, the Romans had Augustus, the Brits had Elizabeth, and the Yankees had Jacob Ruppert. Just as Macedon was a secondary power when Philip II took the reigns in 359 BC, quivering at the mercy of Sparta and Athens, the Yankees were in shambles when Colonel Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston rescued them from the brink of oblivion in 1915.
The inception of the franchise was a contentious affair. At the close of the 1900 season, Ban Johnson, the president of the minor league’s Western League, saw the need for a division to rival the powerful National League in professional baseball. Three east coast teams were initiated, forming the American League. One of the club’s was slated for New York, but the vast political connections of the New York Giants stymied the plan and the third AL team was instead exiled to Baltimore, a city the NL had abandoned only the year before.
In 1901 the newly minted Orioles went 68-65 under John McGraw and finished 5th out of eight teams; however, when McGraw jumped ship to manage the Giants midway through the 1902 season, the Orioles finished dead last with a record of 50-88. In their first two seasons in existence, Baltimore had finished a combined 47.5 games out of first place and had the worst attendance in the league. Worse yet, McGraw gained controlling interest of the club and began pilfering it of all its talent until the AL stepped in.
In January of 1903 a summit was held between the rival leagues in an attempt at coexistence. Johnson reaffiirmed his desire to put an AL team in the Big Apple, an idea ratified by fifteen of the sixteen Major League owners, with only the Giants’ John T. Bush dissenting. Frank Farrell, a gambler, and Bill Devery, a corrupt NYC police chief, purchased the defunct franchise for $18,000 and moved the team to Manhattan. Hilltop Park was hastily constructed between 165th and 168th streets and the team was dubbed the Highlanders, since their field resided on one of the highest points on Manhattan Island. (Coincidentally the name “Macedonian” comes from the Greek word Makednos meaning “highlander.”)
In their inaugural season there was reason to be hopeful as the Highlanders finished 72-62 in a respectable 4th place. A 92-59 mark the next year left them just 1.5 games behind the Boston Americans at season’s end thanks to “Wee” Willie Keeler‘s diminutive yet powerful 30 1/2 inch bat and Jack Chesbro‘s 41 wins. However, New York’s other baseball team would have just two more winning campaigns over the next ten years. Corruption was suspected among the ownership and players alike, including first baseman Hal Chase who was widely suspected of game-fixing. By 1915 Devery and Farrell had become estranged and were desperately in need of money, having received little return on their baseball investment, and eagerly accepted an offer from Ruppert and Huston for $480,000–a sum equivalent to over $11 million in today’s money. The Yanks would struggle at the outset, never finishing higher than 3rd place under the first five years of Ruppert and Huston’s lordship, but a turning point came following the 1919 season.
Harry Frazee, the Red Sox owner, had become exasperated with his star pitcher who, after winning just nine games in 1919, felt entitled to a raise of $10,000. Facing mounting debt, Frazee opted to trade his mercurial hurler to Ruppert for $125,000 in lieu of Chicago’s offer of $60,000 and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Thus Babe Ruth became a New York Yankee. In one short-sighted maneuver, Frazee altered the fortunes of two baseball clubs for decades to come. When news of the trade broke, Frazee, in an attempt to save face, said, “I don’t mind saying I think they are taking a gamble.” His prophecy looked more and more foolish as Ruth set about slugging a record 54 home runs in 1920 to go along with 137 RBIs and a stupefying batting line of .376/.532/.867. The acquisition of the Bambino had helped the team win a franchise record 95 games, giving them a 3rd place finish while the Red Sox wallowed in 5th.
After the successful 1920 campaign, Ruppert made his next major acquisition when he tabbed Boston’s manager, Ed Barrow, to be his general manager. Barrow would come to be known as the “Yankee Empire Builder” as the architect behind 14 pennant-winners and 10 World Champions during his twenty-four year tenure with the club. He began by pilfering his former team of stars like Wally Schang, Waite Hoyt, Joe Bush, Everett Scott, Joe Dugan, and Herb Pennock. With the help of Barrow the Yanks would win their first of forty pennants in 1921 before falling to their crosstown rivals in the World Series. They would repeat as American League Champions in 1922, but a sweep by the Giants in the Fall Classic left them empty handed a second time. However, a changing of the guard was already afoot in the Big Apple.
Babe Ruth’s staggering popularity had made the Yankees the hottest ticket in town, a reality their landlords, the Giants, did not welcome. The two clubs shared the Polo Grounds, but when the Yanks began outdrawing the Giants in their own house, owner Charles Stoneham raised the rent. Infuriated, Ruppert and Huston purchased land in the Bronx from the estate of William Waldorf Astor and set about creating the first ball park to be worthy of the name “Stadium.” Ruppert’s bold vision for the cathedral on 161st Street was not tempered by the dip in popularity baseball suffered following the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, nor the financial risk it was to construct an arena of 60,000 seats, a number that doubled the capacity of most parks. The stadium went up in less than a year for a price tag of $2.5 million. Baseball in New York would never be the same. Just before the 1923 season, Huston sold his share of the team to Ruppert for $1.5 million, vacating his ownership on the cusp of the Yanks’ ascension to the heights of baseball glory.
Playing in a new arena, the likes of which had not been seen since the Roman Coliseum, the Yankees won 98 games and a third consecutive pennant behind Ruth’s 41 homers and Sam Jones‘ 21 victories. In the Fall Classic the Yanks finally slayed their nemesis, despite dropping the opener on Casey Stengel‘s 9th inning inside-the-park home run.
Under Ruppert’s reign the Yankees would garner 10 pennants and win 7 World Series, establishing themselves as the premier team in baseball. The Colonel had taken them from utter stagnation to the pinnacle of the game, ably guiding them until phlebitis claimed him on January 13, 1939, 74 years ago yesterday. He had set the Yankees on a course, fashioning a hapless club into a veritable sports empire that would become the envy of all it came up against. A man named George Steinbrenner would play a similar role of savior, purchasing the team in 1973, in the wake of a nine-year pennant-less streak, and bring New York a 21st World Series crown by 1977. Steinbrenner was beloved in the Bronx for his deep pockets and unshakeable commitment to winning, but without the Colonel, there would be no Boss. It is for that reason that Ruppert should be remembered as the first Emperor of baseball’s greatest dynasty.
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