Babe Ruth gets due credit for his well-known role in turning the Yankees from second fiddle in the Big Apple to what would be the biggest success story in sports. But despite their enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert and manager Miller Huggins have received vastly disproportionate accolades for having launched the transformation. And while Ruth’s play on the field and larger-than-life personality off it have been the subject of dozens of books (and two mostly regrettable feature films), Ruppert’s and Huggins’s stories have rarely been prominently featured.
Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz have done their part to remedy that in The Colonel and Hug (University of Nebraska Press, 521 pps., $34.95), positioning the duo as integral to the first sustained Yankees success. It was the Colonel’s commitment to putting the best team on the field regardless of the cost (sound familiar, Yankees fans?) and his “Mite Manager’s” resolve that laid the groundwork before Ruth’s exploits put Murderer’s Row over the top.
Steinberg and Spatz reveal more than a few interesting notes along the way, including the Colonel’s pursuit of Joe Jackson, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins and other stars; had any of these been successful, Ruth may have never even been a Yankee. Or, imagine a Yankee outfield of Jackson and Ruth (with no 1919 Series to throw, Jackson’s story would clearly have been far different).
All of the familiar Yankees characters of the era are integral to Colonel and Hug, from Ruth to Lou Gehrig and even Joe DiMaggio towards the end of Ruppert’s days. And new life is breathed into the likes of Fritz Maisel (did the Yankees really reject a Maisel-for-Shoeless Joe deal? And we’re lauded for it?), Ban Johnson, John McGraw and plenty of others.
Huggins was a product of the dead ball era, a 5’6″ shortstop who hit a grand total of nine home runs in nearly 7000 plate appearances in 13 Big League seasons for the Reds and Cardinals. After five years as St. Louis skipper, the first four as player-manager, Hug was brought over by Ruppert, who had not met the diminutive Huggins but who liked his style immediately.
Though of quite different backgrounds — Ruppert was the heir to a dominant brewery, politician and member of the social elite, while Huggins had more hardscrabble roots — they shared a desire to win, were lifelong bachelors and teamed to put together a franchise that dominated for decades.
There is recognition of the two titans at Monument Park at the Yankee Stadium not built by the duo (a monument in honor of Huggins and a plaque for Ruppert), dwarfed in size by that of the other owner to bring a seemingly failed manager — Joe Torre — from St. Louis and win multiple titles eight decades later in George Steinbrenner. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of fans walk past those remembrances before every Yankee home game, the large majority blissfully unaware of what those two men’s contributions meant to the century of success since.
Perhaps Steinberg and Spatz’s work can change that.