The Most Despicable Yankees Owner Ever
Last week I contributed to a discussion on Facebook started by someone who wondered why Jacob Ruppert has never been elected to the Hall of Fame. I had to agree that he has strong credentials as a successful and influential owner–certainly he belongs in the Plaque Gallery ahead of Tom Yawkey, whose most relevant contribution was the significant amount of money donated to the Hall by him and (since his death) his foundation. In the time Ruppert owned the Yankees (from 1915 until his death in 1939), he built Yankee Stadium, the greatest cash cow in baseball history, and hired the four key men who helped build an unmatched dynasty that lasted more than four decades: managers Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy, and executives Ed Barrow and George Weiss. All four of those builders have been enshrined in Cooperstown for their achievements with the Yankees, so why not the man who brought them to the Bronx?
I did feel compelled, however, to add my two cents’ worth that Ruppert is the most despicable owner in Yankees history. Not that that in itself disqualifies him from Hall of Fame election. Despite the presence of a “character clause” in the Hall’s criteria for voters of the past half-century or more, more than a few deplorable human beings have been elected over the years. If you were starting the Hall of Fame over and could only elect marvelous specimens of human character, you could fit all the plaques into my old office there, which trust me wasn’t very big.
When I was doing radio interviews to promote my book This BAD Day in Yankees History, more than one person asked me, “What was your biggest surprise while researching and writing this book?” My answer was, “Going in, I assumed that George Steinbrenner was the most despicable owner in Yankees history, but I wound up realizing that Jacob Ruppert deserves that distinction.” Through my research, I had discovered what they had in common: an aptitude for hiring people who would help the Yankees win pennants, and a penchant for bad-mouthing and belittling players to their faces and to the press.
The key difference, I decided, was that Steinbrenner paid for the privilege. By overpaying players, he earned the right to be critical of their play. If he made Dave Winfield the highest-paid player in the majors, he could demand that Winfield produce more than he did in important games. As a product of the age of free agency, he embraced the notion of overspending to win titles–as long as the players kept winning titles. Ruppert, on the other hand, was a product of the age when the reserve clause gave players virtually no leverage in contract negotiations. He begrudged every dollar he spent on every player’s salary and went all-out to convince the public that any player who demanded a raise was the most ungrateful creature imaginable.
Consider his treatment of the three pre-1950 immortals who epitomized Yankees greatness and are most beloved today: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Here are a few examples culled from the pages of This BAD Day in Yankees History.
1931-32: Ruppert showed his skill in playing two stars off against each other, swatting Ruth and Gehrig back and forth like a shuttlecock. He started with a blustery declaration to the press that Ruth would never get another $80,000 salary, even though the Babe hit .373 in 1931 with 149 runs scored and 163 RBI, not to mention leading the league with 46 home runs, a .495 on-base percentage, and a .700 slugging percentage. I take that back. He tied for the league lead in home runs–with Gehrig. Maybe that’s why Ruppert felt entitled to treat them equally, that is, as whiny peons.
He insisted to reporters that Ruth “isn’t the big drawing power” he used to be and snorted, “I suppose Gehrig didn’t help draw all those big crowds last summer?” That’s fair enough, on the surface, but you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to find the fetid underbelly of a rich man’s greed. From his statement about Ruth, you would infer that he was prepared to reward Gehrig for making a contribution to the team’s coffers that apparently outweighed Ruth’s. After all, in 1931 Gehrig set an American League record which still stands with 184 RBI. Along the way, he hit .341 and, in addition to homers and RBI, led the league with 211 hits and 163 runs scored. His salary in 1931 was $25,000.
Okay, that makes it pretty simple to see what Ruppert’s viewpoint–as expressed to reporters–dictated he do next: rectify the disparity between Ruth’s $80,000 and Gehrig’s $25,000. He went part of the way by dropping Ruth’s 1932 salary $5,000 to $75,000. How big a raise did Gehrig get? Zippo. Nothing. That’s right. He got the same $25,000 in 1932 that he did the year he drove in an AL-record 184 runs. You can imagine what Ruppert told him behind closed doors: “A raise? What for, Lou? Sure you drove in a bunch of runs, but you don’t think fans come to the ballpark to see you, do you? They come to see the big ape.”
And so it went with one of the minority of Americans who actually got much richer during the Depression. Not only did Ruppert have a lot of ready cash when the stock market crashed in 1929, which enabled him to gobble up a lot of New York real estate at reduced prices, but once Prohibition ended in 1933, he made fresh fortunes with his breweries. Besides all that, he was shrewd enough to save $5,000 in the salaries he paid the most formidable one-two punch in baseball history, who had just combined for 92 home runs and 347 RBI.
1932-33: In 1932, Ruth made $75,000, and he earned it and then some. He hit .341 with 41 home runs and 137 RBI, and led the league in walks and on-base percentage as the Yankees won their first pennant since 1928. In the World Series, he hit .333 to join Gehrig in leading the Yankees to a sweep over the Cubs. In four games, he scored six runs and drove in six, most notably with a pair of round-trippers in Game 3 including his famous “Called Shot.” Do you think Ruppert felt joyful enough at his first title in four years and reward the stars who achieved it for him? Please. Of course not! Instead, he offered Ruth a contract for 1933 at a salary of $50,000. That’s right–screw the “Called Shot” and cut the Bambino’s salary by one-third! An appalled Ruth marveled, “I can understand getting a cut, but this is more of an amputation.” He had thought that with the imminent repeal of Prohibition, Ruppert the brewer would be coming into flush times and therefore easier to negotiate with, but he was wrong. He asked for $60,000, but Ruppert rebuked him, telling the press, “He asked me if I was going to let a matter of $10,000 stand between him and the club. I told him I had no alternative, pointing out that it was not a matter of $10,000 but one of $60,000, involving a club that lost money last year. . . .Do you think I would be going through this situation if it was not necessary?”
In the heart of the Depression, what newspaper reader could fail to sympathize with this indignant poor-mouthing? What fan in a time of unprecedented employment wouldn’t wonder why Babe Ruth, a big lunk who had never done anything but play ball for a living, seemed ungrateful at the prospect of making $50,000? Ruppert knew he could count on that sentiment, and he wore his star down until Ruth settled for a $52,000 deal. But here’s the thing: yes, the Yankees did lose money in 1932, on paper. How much? Exactly $4,703.04. That is the figure provided by economics professor Mike Haupert, who has looked into every nook and cranny of the Yankees’ financial ledgers from Ruppert’s tenure. That was the only year when Ruppert suffered a loss, and at the time his net worth was roughly $30 million. Let me wrap that in a neat package for you: this multi-millionaire used the country’s economic woes as a wedge between sport’s biggest star and his adoring fans, who only needed to hear the word “loss” to justify Ruppert forcing that star to take a 30 percent pay cut after a championship season.
1936-37: Ruth was gone and the Yankees were Gehrig’s team. He led them to yet another title in 1936, batting .354 with 152 RBI and leading both leagues with 49 home runs, 167 runs scored, 130 walks, and a .478 on-base percentage. He made $31,000 in 1936, so what do you think Ruppert offered him for 1937? He offered him $31,000. That’s right, it’s a rhetorical question at this point. Why would you give a guy a raise you didn’t have to, even after a season like that, which was capped by the Yankees’ first World Series title since 1932? Gehrig had the temerity to ask for a raise to $50,000–in itself only 60 percent off Ruth’s highest salary–but Ruppert was appalled and incensed. He blasted Gehrig to the press, saying, “Gehrig comes into my office and says he should get more than $31,000. But he does not mention that he also got $31,000 in 1935 when he had a poor season. So I remind him of it. I also reminded him that. . .he and [Lefty] Gomez ruined our pennant chances in 1935 by their Japan trip.” Let’s take a closer look at that bitter assertion by a man who had known “The Iron Horse” for a decade. What exactly could a postseason barnstorming tour in November 1934, have to do with the 1935 pennant race? That would be a hard proposition to demonstrate unless a major injury suffered during the trip sidelined a player for a significant part of the following season. No such injury occurred, and if you want to postulate that the mere fact of the trip wore players out in 1935, consider that Charlie Gehringer also made that trip, and he contributed his usual .330 average and 108 RBI to the Tigers’ 1935 pennant.
As for what Ruppert termed Gehrig’s “poor season” in 1935, all Gehrig did that year was bat .329, lead the league in runs scored, finish second in RBI, and rank third in home runs and slugging percentage. What a brutal performance! That isn’t exactly in the same territory as Albert Pujols’ current “poor season” after an off-season trip from St. Louis to Anaheim, is it? As for Gomez, after winning the pitching Triple Crown in 1934, he did struggle in 1935. His ERA jumped from 2.33 all the way to 3.18. Combined with run support that dropped from 5.8 runs per game in 1934 to 4.5 in 1935, the result was a 12-15 record. You can imagine how “The Gay Castillian” fared in contract negotiations that winter, but Ruppert’s attack on Gehrig was petty, unwarranted, and harshly personal. He counted on Gehrig’s non-confrontational character; indeed, Gehrig’s only counter-punch was pure arithmetic, nothing personal. He said, “Has it occurred to the Yankees that in twelve years they have not had to employ a reserve first baseman? Only last year the Yankees, through their farming system, sold three first basemen for the reported price of $105,000.” Good point, but it didn’t matter; Gehrig had no tangible leverage and signed for $36,000.
1937-38: The final exhibit for the prosecution is the infamously bitter Joe DiMaggio holdout which lasted into the start of the 1938 season. As a second-year player in 1937, DiMaggio made $15,000. Did he earn it? I’d say so. He hit .346 with 167 RBI, leading the league with 46 home runs, 151 runs scored, and a .673 slugging percentage. Of his 215 hits, 96 went for extra bases. That’s all. When the Yankees offered him a $25,000 contract, he quickly rejected it and asked for $40,000. In January, an indignant Ruppert, referring to the $25,000 offer, told a reporter, “I think you’d be satisfied with it.” Of course, the reporter hadn’t driven in 167 runs and helped the Yankees win their second straight title. By March, with DiMaggio not budging and the season approaching, Ruppert began playing hardball, threatening to fine DiMaggio for every game missed and describing his new star as “an ungrateful young man. . . .I’ve offered him $25,000 and he won’t get a button over that amount. Why, how many men his age earn that much? As far as I’m concerned that’s all he’s worth to the ball club and if he doesn’t sign we’ll win the pennant without him.” That was the flip side of Branch Rickey’s later admonition to a raise-seeking Ralph Kiner, telling him the Pirates “can finish last [again] without you.” Of course, Ruppert held all the cards, all the wild cards, and had stacked the deck. The war of words continued until DiMaggio, after missing a week of action, caved and signed for $25,000.
That’s what I knew when I wrote my book, and it was enough to convince me that while George Steinbrenner might have been the most obnoxious Yankees owner, and while the franchise’s original owners, Frank Farrell and William Devery, were well-documented as the most overtly criminal owners, nobody could top Ruppert as the most gratuitously boorish and despicable man who ever happened to own the team. I couldn’t shake my image of him as a cheap millionaire who hoarded his money, a lifelong bachelor whose estate, valued at $40 million when he died in January 1939, was bequeathed to two nieces and a showgirl with whom he had dallied over the years.
Two weeks ago, while going through some microfilm at the Hall of Fame library, I found an article from 1946 which changed my image of Ruppert–somehow, it worsened it exponentially. The article was penned by Virginia Irwin, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatchwho had made her mark in April 1945, as one of three Americans who sneaked into Berlin in advance of the American Military Forces and reported on the Russian invasion. The Post-Dispatch article carried the headline “Tossed Away Millions of Dollars” and the sub-headline “Col. Jacob Ruppert, Beer Baron, Was One of Country’s Leading Spenders.” The article is too long to quote here in full, but I’ll share with you the first two Runyonesque paragraphs and assorted other tidbits, as follows: [Caution: do not proceed on an empty stomach.]
“The life of the late Col. Jacob Ruppert, New York beer baron, baseball magnate and collector of everything from Barbizon landscapes to Boston bulldogs, is the perfect blueprint for anybody confronted with the problem of pitching away $40,000,000 in one lifetime.
“The Colonel inherited his father’s great suds factory and fortune and was at one time reportedly possessor of more than 40 millions in actual negotiable wood pulp. An appraisal of his estate the other day for federal and state taxes revealed that the Colonel had shaved that sum down to $10,000,000 at the time of his death.
“When it was found that the fastidious old bachelor sportsman was worth only about one-tenth the expected amount, it was recalled that at one time or another in his lifetime Col. Ruppert had bought just about everything but the Brooklyn Bridge. . . .He bought the right to have the flagship of Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole named after him by donating a large sum toward the expenses of the trip. He bought a mess of St. Bernard dogs that cost him $5,000 each year in meat alone. . . .In 1932 he bought a 35-story New York skyscraper for $3,500,000. He bought motor yachts and Chinese porcelains, collected first editions and long-tailed monkeys and once paid a fabulous price for a blue macaw.
“In between big deals, Col. Ruppert apparently could be depended on to buy stock in anything from a farm for raising silkworms to a scheme to grow eidelweiss [sic] on top of the Empire State Building. The inventory of his estate listed 45 issues of valueless stock.
“After coming into command of his father’s fabulous fortune, he built up a fine stable of thoroughbreds, but abandoned this expensive hobby when his pious mother objected on the grounds that horse-racing was a form of gambling. To replace his interest in horses, he started buying art treasures, took to book collecting and built himself a private zoo to which he retired his Percheron brewery horses in their old age. In his 12-room apartment on Fifth Avenue he kept his collection of English portraits, Barbizon landscapes, animal bronzes by Mene and Barye, his Chinese porcelains of the Ming and Kang Chi dynasties, his Elizabethan furniture and sixteenth century tapestries.”
Heard enough? Let’s finish off this squanderer’s smorgasbord with Virginia Irwin’s final paragraph:
“As the snow fell on his beloved Yankee Stadium in January of 1939, Col. Jacob Ruppert, ‘The Million Dollar Touch,’ was dead. He had just lost a tax refund suit, claiming $637,291 as losses on bad debts owed to him. Now even his beloved ball club has been sold against his wishes. His paintings, sculpture, collection of Far Eastern art and silver are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; his parakeets, cockatoos and assortment of long-tailed monkeys are in the Bronx Zoo, and his dogs, brewery horses and rooms full of Indian relics [are] scattered about the country. Out of the vast fortune built on beer, the septuagenarian spendthrift who thought nothing of paying $1,250,000 for half a ball team and probably passed up buying the Brooklyn bridge [only] because nobody ever thought of trying to sell it to him, had comparatively little left.”
Conspicuously absent from Irwin’s reckoning of Ruppert’s chronic expenditures is the word “charity.” That was the real Jacob Ruppert, the man who spent $3.5 million on a skyscraper in 1932 at the same time that he bullied Babe Ruth into taking a $23,000 pay cut because an accountant figured out that the Yankees lost $4,703.04 on paper that year. That was the spoiled rich kid who grew into a cold-hearted dilettante who spent $5,000 a year just to feed one species in his menagerie at the same time he told the press (regarding Lou Gehrig), “I can understand how a man and his club can be a few thousand dollars apart, but when a player asks $19,000 a year more than he received the previous season, that is another matter. . . .I’ve taken a definite stand on this matter, and I’m ready to put a ball club on the field this Spring no matter what happens.”
Don’t tell me that he shouldn’t be criticized in this regard because he paid Ruth more than any player before him had been paid, or that in his final season of ownership he paid Gehrig more than anyone else was making at the time [albeit less than half of what Ruth ever made], or that ballplayers made more money, even from Ruppert, than they would have made in the general work-force. Don’t tell me it was his money and his right to do what he wanted to do with it. The numbers aren’t the point; the important thing was the man’s philosophy and style. The laws of baseball permitted him to treat his employees as chattel, and that suited him just fine. He didn’t even call Babe Ruth “Babe” until he was on his deathbed. Before that Ruth was simply “George,” another peon on the payroll, a pest who needed to be put in his place because Ruppert endorsed General Manager Ed Barrow’s disapproval of Ruth’s profligate lifestyle and determined to support it financially as little as possible. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
So go ahead and put him in the Hall of Fame. They can have him, and he won’t be the first asshole to find a permanent haven in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. But he might be the biggest, if my two cents’ worth stacks up against the squandered millions he was more willing to share with art dealers, animal breeders, and fly-by-night investors than with the baseball immortals who filled Yankee Stadium the last sixteen years of his life.