(b. 5 August 1867 in New York City; d. 13 January 1939 in New York City), brewer, sportsman, and owner of the New York Yankees who was instrumental in bringing Babe Ruth to New York and starting baseball's outstanding dynasty of the 1920s and 1930s.
Ruppert was born in the German Catholic neighborhood of Yorkville in New York City to Jacob Ruppert, Sr., a brewer, and Anna Gillig Ruppert, a homemaker and mother of six. In 1851 his paternal grandfather Franz brought the brewing skills from Bavaria to the United States that became the basis of the family fortune when Jacob, Sr., founded the Jacob Ruppert Brewery in 1867. Ruppert attended Columbia Grammar School, graduating in 1885. He passed the entrance examination for the Columbia College School of Mines later that year, but never attended. In 1886 he entered the family business at his father's request.
Ruppert's apprenticeship at the brewery started at the bottom, but by 1890 he was the general superintendent and then, six years later, the acting head of the firm. Under Ruppert's management, the brewery's beer production rose from 350,000 barrels in 1892 to 1.3 million barrels in 1919. He became the president after his father's death in 1915. A major figure in the brewing industry, Ruppert was elected president of the U.S. Brewers Association sixteen times and in 1937 was the first chairman of the United Brewers Industrial Foundation.
Ruppert's interests outside the family business were extensive. In 1886 he joined the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard, the "silk-stocking" brigade, and became an aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel on the staff of the New York governor David B. Hill from 1889 to 1892, and then the senior aide to Governor Roswell Flower until 1895. Using his political influence, Ruppert ran as a Democrat in the largely Republican district of Yorkville, and was elected to the New York State Assembly for four consecutive terms (1898–1906). He was a powerful figure in Tammany Hall politics for the rest of his life.
Imperial and dignified, Ruppert was a model of the well-heeled socialite in New York City during the early twentieth century. He was a member of numerous social clubs, including the Jockey Club, New York Athletic Club, National Democratic Club, Highland Golf Club, and two yachting clubs. A noted art collector, Ruppert also raced Thoroughbreds and showed pedigreed dogs. His 135-acre home, Eagle's Nest in Garrison, New York, contained a private zoo with one of the largest collections of monkeys in the world. He invested heavily in real estate, owning several Manhattan skyscrapers and serving on the board of directors for numerous corporations. In 1933 Ruppert donated $250,000 to support Admiral Richard Byrd's expedition to the South Pole; the donation inspired Byrd to name his flagship Jacob Ruppert.
Ruppert's most famous enterprise, after his brewery, was his ownership of the New York Yankees. The American League president Ban Johnson needed a strong team to compete with the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, but the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees) struggled under the ownership of the gambler Frank Farrell and the former police captain William Bevery, both of whom had Tammany Hall connections. Johnson asked Ruppert and his fellow sportsman Colonel Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston to purchase the Highlanders for $460,000, which they did late in 1914. Ruppert and Huston invested in better players and key personnel. In 1918 Ruppert used his political connections with the state senator Jimmy Walker and the newly elected governor Al Smith to get Sunday baseball approved in New York City. He also was instrumental in opposing Johnson's efforts to close down baseball during World War I, making Johnson a lifelong enemy. While Huston served in Europe during the war, Ruppert hired the former St. Louis Cardinals infielder Miller Huggins to manage the team, a move that eventually alienated Huston.
In 1919 there was a power struggle in baseball over the control of the major leagues. Their governing body, the national commission, was controlled by Johnson, who was now openly warring with Ruppert. The brewer joined with the Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee and the National League owners to vote the commission out of existence, replacing it with a single baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Landis, who in turn replaced Johnson as the chief arbitrator of baseball. Also in 1919 Babe Ruth began dominating baseball with home runs, and Ruppert decided he wanted Ruth in New York. When the Red Sox floundered and Frazee's Broadway production folded that same year, Ruppert and Huston offered the Boston owner $100,000 for Ruth. Despite Johnson's attempt to block the deal, Frazee took the offer along with a personal loan from Ruppert for $350,000 against the mortgage of Boston's Fenway Park. Ruppert took over the mortgage when Frazee sold the team in 1923 and sold the stadium back to the Red Sox in 1931 at a substantial profit. When Ruth joined the team for spring training in 1920, the Yankee dynasty began; they won eleven pennants and eight world championships in Ruppert's lifetime.
The Yankees drew more than one million fans in 1920 while playing on a one-year lease in the Polo Grounds, the home of the Giants. Johnson tried to convince the Giants owner Charles Stoneham to cancel the lease, putting the Yankees out in the street and allowing Johnson to regain control of the team. Ruppert, in turn, sought to buy a half-interest in the Polo Grounds, but when that initiative failed began plans, against Huston's wishes, to build a new ballpark. On 5 February 1921 Ruppert announced his $650,000 purchase of land on the Astor family estate across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds. "Yankee Stadium was a mistake," Ruppert exclaimed, "Not mine, but the Giants'." The structure, completed in 284 days at a cost of $2.5 million, held 62,000 seats and was situated 15 minutes by subway from Forty-second Street. While Huston lent his engineering expertise to building the stadium, he bridled at Ruppert's tactics and finally agreed to a buyout of $1.25 million; on 1 June 1923 Ruppert became the sole owner of the Yankees.
Ruppert spent most of the 1920s maintaining the team and especially its central star, Babe Ruth. When Ruth married Claire Hodgson in 1929, Ruppert broke with tradition by asking her to travel with the team to keep an eye on her husband. A fashion plate himself, Ruppert insisted the Yankees look the part of champions. He used pinstripes on the uniforms as early as 1915, and insisted on two sets of home and away uniforms so the team would always take the field looking fresh. In 1929 Ruppert was the first to add numbers to the backs of the uniforms so fans could identify the ballplayers. In the early 1930s he began building the Yankees farm system with teams throughout the eastern seaboard, recruiting talent that ensured the team's success for twenty-five years after his death.
Ruppert became ill with phlebitis in April 1938 and died in his New York penthouse on 13 January 1939. Babe Ruth was one of his last visitors. A lifelong bachelor, Ruppert left an estate estimated at between $40 and $45 million to the Ruppert family and to Helen Winthrope Weyant, a friend and former actress. He is buried in the family mausoleum at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
Ruppert epitomized dignity and instilled his values of confidence and style upon one of the roughest teams of his era, turning the Yankees into baseball's most successful dynasty. A shrewd businessman, he understood what attracted the fans and encouraged his players to look sharp, play hard, and treat the fans with respect. Under Ruppert's leadership, the New York Yankees became the aristocrats of baseball—proud, often arrogant, and driven to excellence. His team management set the standard for achievement in America's favorite game.
Details about Ruppert's life appear in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1940), Who Was Who in America (1942), Biographical Directory of the American Congress (1950), and Dictionary of American Biography (1958). There is also a great deal of information about his baseball career in Frank Graham, The New York Yankees (1943); John Durant, The Yankees (1950); and Marshall Smelser, The Life that Ruth Built: A Biography (1975). An obituary is in the New York Times (14 Jan. 1939).
Patrick A. Trimblem