- The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership That Transformed the New York Yankees by Steve Steinberg, Lyle Spatz
Has any team been dissected, rehashed, and mythologized more than the Jazz Age New York Yankees? Even casual baseball fans can cite some particulars. There’s Babe Ruth, with his mighty swings and tummy aches heard ’round the world; the dignified Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse on his way to sporting martyrdom; and Yankee Stadium itself, the concrete colossus that symbolized baseball’s emergence as a big-time sport.
In The Colonel and Hug, coauthors Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz find a fresh angle on the Yankees by examining the partnership between Jacob Ruppert and Miller Huggins, the two men who steered the team through its first period of glory. The result is a well-written, [End Page 140] thoroughly researched narrative that provides both more and less than its title implies but should, nevertheless, be of interest to any baseball fan.
Along with partner Til Huston, Jacob Ruppert, a millionaire beer baron, former congressman, and die-hard New York Giants supporter, purchased the Yankees in 1915 for $450,000. Giants manager John McGraw and American League president Ban Johnson encouraged the sale because they believed another strong New York franchise would financially benefit baseball as a whole.
The Yankees were perennial bottom-dwellers who played before small, apathetic crowds in the Polo Grounds, which they rented from the Giants, until Ruppert committed himself to transforming his ragtag acquisition into a champion. After floundering for a few years, he found a manager who was equally dedicated to winning. Miller Huggins was a mere wisp of a man, a scrappy former second baseman whose slapping, slashing playing style compensated for his 120-pound frame. Huggins, who was skippering the St. Louis Cardinals when Ruppert hired him in 1917, had a reputation as a highly cerebral baseball man with a gift for spotting and developing talent.
Ruppert and Huggins shared some crucial personality traits. Both were intensely private men who limited their public utterances to bland inanities. Both had a burning desire to win. Each trusted the other to do his job. Ruppert handled the big picture, hiring subordinates who handled the business end, while leaving on-field affairs squarely in Huggins’s wizened hands.
Steinberg and Spatz see their subjects as forward-looking baseball men. Ruppert was a model executive who built a top-notch organization and fought for his team’s interests whenever Ban Johnson or fellow owners threatened them. Huggins anticipated baseball’s shift from the deadball style he had embraced throughout his playing career toward a new era of sluggers. Moreover, he understood that his patient, build-from-the-bottom-up philosophy wasn’t always the best approach in a city that celebrated glitzy stars. The Yankees were a big-market team with more resources than other franchises, and neither Ruppert nor Huggins saw anything wrong with leveraging the team’s financial advantage whenever a colossal talent like Babe Ruth was there for the taking.
In fact, Ruth, whose off-field antics caused as many headaches for his manager and team owner as his home runs did for opposing pitchers, emerges as a third partner in The Colonel and Hug. His presence dominates the sections covering the Yankees’ pennant-winning juggernauts of the mid- and late 1920s, at times pushing Ruppert and Huggins, the ostensible subjects of the book, into the background as the narrative drifts into a rather conventional recounting of wins, losses, and the Babe’s latest headline-grabbing move.
The Colonel and Hug is probably the best biography we will ever have of two pivotal figures in baseball history. It mines available newspaper and magazine sources, along with a handful of personal letters from its subjects. It also does a fine job of setting the Yankees against the broader context of sociocultural developments during the 1920s and ’30s. Yet the relationship at the heart of the book remains murky. There is ample...