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Monday, Mar 27, 2017

Architects of the Yankees dynasty

So many books have been written about the New York Yankees, and deservedly so. The franchise has won 40 American League pennants and 27 World Series titles. Books about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio are plentiful, colorful and will enrich any baseball fan’s library.

But what about the two original architects of Yankee greatness? Very little has been written about Jacob Ruppert, who used his money and business savvy to turn the Yankees into contenders; and Miller Huggins, the manager who guided the team to its first six pennants and three World Series crowns during the 1920s. It took many years before either was welcomed into the Hall of Fame. The Veterans Committee inducted Huggins in 1964, 35 years after his death; and Ruppert was enshrined in 2013, 74 years after he passed away.

Where was the respect for so many years?

Authors Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz give both men their due in their latest work, “The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership that Transformed the New York Yankees” (University of Nebraska Press; hardback; $34.95; 521 pages).

Steinberg and Spatz have collaborated before, writing “1921: The Yankees, The Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York,” a narrative that included the Yankees’ first pennant-winning season. In “The Colonel and Hug,” the authors take a broader view, mainly covering the 12 years that Ruppert and Huggins worked together.

The research for this book is outstanding, but not surprising. Steinberg is a baseball historian and Spatz has authored or edited several baseball biographies. There are a mind-numbing 107 pages of notes and a 21-page bibliography. Throw in a foreword by former Yankees public relations man (and current prominent Yankees historian) Marty Appel, and “The Colonel and Hug” just brims with plenty of fascinating information and detail.

It is Appel who sets the scene for this book, noting that while George Steinbrenner said that owning the Yankees was like owning the Mona Lisa, Ruppert was the guy who painted the masterpiece — a baseball version of Leonardo da Vinci, if you will.

Steinberg and Spatz present the reader with a palette of good writing, putting baseball into the context of the times. Prohibition, the fight to host Sunday baseball, gambling, World War I, New York’s politics and Tammany Hall, and the dogged newspaper coverage by New York’s sportswriters — all of these subjects are presented seamlessly.

Ruppert was “the colonel,” a successful beer baron in New York. He received his nickname because he had risen to that rank while serving in the New York National Guard. Ruppert served several terms in Congress, loved show dogs and horses and was a patron of the arts. He teamed with Tillinghast Huston to buy the Yankees in 1915. The New York Giants and manager John J. McGraw ruled Gotham; the Yankees were seen as an afterthought.

“I know there are boneheads in baseball,” manager Frank Chance had said in 1914, “but I didn’t believe so many could get on one club. Mine.”

Ruppert changed that by hiring Huggins for the 1918 season. Huston, who was serving in France during World War I when Huggins was named manager, was never a fan and lobbied for other managers — particularly Brooklyn’s Wilbert Robinson — to take his place. On this point, Ruppert held firm and backed his manager. Ruppert would buy out Huston in 1923 and owned the team until his death in January 1939.

Ruppert wanted to win and had a business plan in place. Unlike future Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Ruppert was content to write the checks and allow the men he hired handle the personnel decisions. He hired Huggins and business manager Ed Barrow and then got out of their way. Success was not necessarily measured by accountants; money was important, but winning pennants was Ruppert’s passion. And he reveled in all 10 of them during his ownership.

Certainly, the purchase of Ruth from the Boston Red Sox before the 1920 season was a key reason the Yankees became successful. Ruth’s home run swing and charisma changed the game. But as the authors point out, the Yankees’ first move toward respectability and baseball glory was hiring Huggins. On the surface, Huggins was not impressive. He was small in stature and frail in health. Despite a law degree and a career as a scrappy second baseman in the National League, Huggins, a pipe-smoker, looked like a gnome.

But he also knew how to handle his players and was a baseball “lifer,” living and breathing the game every day. He planned for the long term and believed in developing players, rather than going for the quick fix. While his first three AL champions were built on trades, his pennant winners of 1926 through 1928 were built by developing young players like Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs and Mark Koenig.

“Huggins had vision,” Ruppert wrote in 1931. “Getting him was the first and the most important step we took toward making the Yankees champions.”

And it wasn’t easy, the authors write. Ruth was not impressed with Huggins, and neither were pitchers Carl Mays and Ray Caldwell and outfielder Bob Meusel. Pitcher Waite Hoyt took a punch at his manager after suffering his first loss of the season, a 14-inning game in on April 29, 1922, against Boston. Hoyt had been angry about being ordered to intentionally walk Elmer Smith to load the bases in a 2-2 game, and Joe Dugan’s subsequent two-run single led to a 5-2 win for the Red Sox.

Reportedly, Ruth and a few teammates once dangerously dangled Huggins from a moving train.

He may have had his detractors, but Huggins remained steady and determined. The way he handled the Hoyt incident was typical.

“I always remember that I, too, once was a ball player,” Huggins said. “I know he [Hoyt] has his heart and soul in the game.”

Ruppert always backed his manager, and players who didn’t follow Huggins’ rules were either traded away or released. Those who stayed became part of the Yankee mystique that remains today.

“If you became a Yankee, you took on the qualities of breeding which the Yankees exemplified,” Hoyt remembered years later. “You became a Yankee, and that answered a whole lot of questions.

“For some reason, you were able to perform a little better.”

Some of the book’s more fascinating passages revolve around players the Yankees tried —and failed — to acquire before finally landing Ruth. Huggins tried to swing trades to bring Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Tris Speaker to New York.

Huggins’ death in late 1929 ended an era and fruitful partnership, but Ruppert saw added success when he hired Joe McCarthy, who would lead New York to four World Series titles during the colonel’s final years.

“The Colonel and Hug” explains admirably how the Yankees became the Yankees. Steinberg and Spatz draw heavily on their research to provide a readable, lively narrative.

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