Ban Johnson was about to see his wish come true. He had been hoping he could get a team for his infant American Baseball League located in New York City and when the AL’s Baltimore Orioles franchise collapsed financially, he saw his chance. The only problem was timing. The 1903 season opener was just months away and not only was Johnson without an owner for a Big Apple franchise, the City didn’t even have an available ballpark.
If the self-righteous Johnson had more time to find the right guy to purchase the Orioles there would be no way he’d agree to partner with a saloon-owning, bookmaker with a notorious reputation for bribing Tammany Hall political hacks to look the other way. But Frank Farrell had both the cash and political muscle necessary to overcome the ballpark building obstacles that forces friendly to the National League’s New York Giants’ ownership were throwing up to block any competitive League or team from putting down roots in their neighborhood.
So Johnson accepted both Farrell’s $25,000 certified check and his even more unsavory partner, a former crooked New York City cop named Bill Devery. Together, the two got a 16,000 seat ballpark built in the Washington Heights section of the City in less than six weeks and American League had a foothold in the most important professional baseball market in the world.
Farrell would then spend the next decade fighting with Devery but he also made a sincere attempt to turn his ball club into a World Champion. When he was pretty much forced to sell the club to Jacob Ruppert after the 1914 season, he had no AL Pennants to boast about and little if any profit to show for his efforts. Farrell, Devery and CBS are the only owners of the Yankee franchise who failed to win a Pennant or World Series during their reigns. Frank Farrell died in 1926 at the age of 60.
Sort of appropriate that during a week when it was revealed that a whole bunch of crooked New York City policemen scammed taxpayers out of millions of dollars of undeserved disability and retirement income, today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant happens to also be one of the most well-known corrupt cops in the history of NYPD. “Big Bill” Devery became one of the first owners of the Yankee franchise when he silent partnered with the notorious saloon owner and gambler Frank Farrell, to purchase the struggling Baltimore Orioles’ American League franchise in 1903 and move it to New York.
Devery was really nothing more than a super-sized Tammany Hall-backed bribe collector with a badge, who demanded tribute from just about every border-line illicit business in his Manhattan precinct. This slob used to stand on a prescribed street corner and accept bribes in full view of the public. So crooked was the Big Apple police force back then that a brazen thief like Devery actually rose to the rank of Chief of Police in 1898 before the decade-long reform movement initiated by Teddy Roosevelt and a team of muckraking New York City newspaper and magazine reporters, finally took hold.
Unfortunately for the cause of justice, Tammany Hall still maintained enough control over the City’s court system to get Devery acquitted of corruption charges and he was able to retire a free man, collect his pension and take full advantage of all the loot he plundered from his policing days.
There was enough of that loot for him to put up half of the $18,000 purchase price he and Farrell paid for the Orioles in 1903 plus finance the hurried construction of a playing venue for the new team in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan that would come to be known as Hilltop Park. The new club’s co-owners had such questionable character that their identity was kept secret for months as negotiations over the sale of the team and construction of the park were completed. Baseball historians are still a bit perplexed over the fact that AL President Ban Johnson, a man who was so concerned with the crystal-clean image of his league, would choose to comport with men like Devery and Farrell. The best answer put forth thus far was that Johnson needed their City Hall and labor group connections to get the new ballpark built in time for the 1903 baseball season.
Whatever the reason, Devery proved to be especially inept as an owner of a baseball team and for the most part, permitted Farrell complete control over all management decisions. His most famous interaction with the Highlanders’ operation occurred during the 1914 season. Farrell had hired the legendary Cubs manager, Frank Chance to skipper the team that season. By that time, Devery had learned enough about baseball to make it a point to publicly criticize Chance for poor decision making after several Highlander losses. The crooked cop-turned owner made the mistake however, of issuing one of his criticisms of the New York manager right after a tough loss while standing in close proximity to the frustrated skipper in the team’s locker room. Chance, who had a well-known reputation as a brawler took a swing at Devery but missed, as onlookers quickly moved in to separate the two.
Can you imagine if Chance was manager at the time Steinbrenner owned the Yankees or if Billy Martin was skipper when Devery owned half the team? There would have been a murder committed in the Yankee locker room.
As it turned out, Chance wasn’t the only guy growing tired of Big Bill. Frank Farrell had grown to hate his crude and hefty partner as well. The two men stopped speaking to each other and Farrell actively started looking for someone willing to buy Devery’s share of the club.
Sure enough two prospective buyers turned up but they weren’t interested in purchasing half a team, they wanted it all. On January 30, 1915, brewery owner Jacob Ruppert and construction magnate Tillinghast Huston paid Farrell and Devery $460,000 for the Highlanders.
Devery died in June of 1919 at the age of 65. Though everyone assumed he had plenty of money, the probate court declared his estate to be in debt at the time of his death.
Over a half-century before George Steinbrenner came on the scene, another son of a wealthy German-American businessman purchased New York City’s American League baseball franchise and wheeled and dealed his way to World Championships and a brand new Big Apple stadium for his team. But instead of building ships like George’s dad, this guy’s father made beer.
His name was Jacob Ruppert and he took over the family business when his Dad died in 1915 and immediately began looking for ways to get his brewery’s name in the newspapers more often. He accomplished that by purchasing a baseball team. Originally, Ruppert was co-owner of the Yankees along with partner Cap Huston. He bought out Huston in 1923 to become sole owner of the ball club.
In a series of astute business and hiring maneuvers, he turned the Yankees into the most valuable brand in all of sports. He brought Babe Ruth to New York. He hired Ed Barrow to build baseball’s best farm system and he put managerial legends, Miller Huggins and then Joe McCarthy in the Yankee dugout. During his 23 years owning the franchise, the Yankees won the first ten of their World Series championships. Though I’ve never been a big fan of the guy, I agree with those who felt George Steinbrenner belongs in Baseball’s Hall of Fame but only if they put Jake Ruppert in their first. Rupert received that honor in 2013, when he was the choice of the Hall’s Veterans’ Committee.
His full name was Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston but his friends called him “Cap.” The nickname was a tribute to the rank he attained in the military during the Spanish American War. He served as a captain of an engineering unit that built and repaired roads and bridges in Cuba during that conflict and when the war ended, he remained in Havana as a private contractor and made a fortune building the docks and piers that formed the infrastructure of that city’s harbor.
He used a part of that fortune to go in as equal partners with Jake Ruppert in 1915 and purchase the New York Yankee franchise from Frank Farrell and William Devery, for $450,000. On the day of the deal’s closing, Ruppert arrived with his lawyer and a certified check for his half while Huston showed up with 225 one thousand dollar bills.
The two men then invested another $500,000 of their fortunes to add the personnel necessary to create the beginning of the Yankee dynasty. They had plenty of squabbles along the way. For example, Huston was against the hiring of Miller Huggins as Yankee manager. Cap’s choice was the long-time Brooklyn skipper Wilbert Robinson. Huston hated then AL President Ban Johnson and it had been Johnson who urged Ruppert to hire Huggins. As it turned out, Huston was more than satisfied with Huggins performance but he never got over Johnson’s interference in the matter. So when Boston sold New York yet another star player in pitcher Carl Mays and Johnson threatened to veto the deal, Cap Huston was ready for the ensuing fight, which the Yankees won. He also led the effort to rid the game of corruption by installing an independent commissioner, which happened in 1922 with the hiring of Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
By far, Huston’s crowning moment as Yankee co-owner was overseeing construction of Yankee Stadium. He was on the building site every day, utilizing his engineering and construction expertise to ensure the finished product was built right. But he also loved being an owner. He enjoyed traveling with the team on road trips, going to spring training, partying with his players and making friends in every American League city. But as time went on, his relationship with Ruppert began to get strained.
The two men were just too different and too used to being the boss to co-own the same business. The situation came to a head when one of the Yanks’ 1922 World Series games was called on count of darkness with the score tied in the tenth inning. Afraid that the press would accuse the Yankee and Giant owners of suspending play just so they could sell a stadium full of tickets for the extra makeup game, Commissioner Landis ordered both teams to donate their share of that game’s gate receipts to charity. Huston wanted to give the money to injured war veterans while Ruppert had other causes in mind. The fight between the two men got hot and heavy and precipitated the termination of their partnership. Ruppert ended up giving Huston $1.25 million for his share of the team in 1923.
Huston continued to attend games and stay close to the game. When he died in his office of a heart attack in 1938 at the age of 71, he had just been involved in an unsuccessful effort to purchase the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Huston shares his birthday with this long-ago Yankee prized prospect.
Dan Topping was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth but in his case that spoon was made of tin. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a baron of the world’s tin industry. In 1946, the grandson converted some of that inherited tin wealth into a one-third share ownership of the New York Yankees, forming a partnership with real estate and construction magnate, Del Webb and the baseball organizational wizard, Larry MacPhail. When he and Webb bought out MacPhail’s share two years later it was Topping who became the the more involved owner of the remaining pair. They maintained ownership for two decades during which the Yankees captured fifteen pennants and ten world championships, still the most successful twenty year period in the club’s history. Topping’s favorite player was Joe DiMaggio and he spent the earlier part of his ownership tenure constantly convincing the Yankee Clipper not to retire. When MacPhail was bought out, it was Topping who replaced him with the venerable George Weiss as Yankee GM. It was also Topping’s idea to make Yogi Berra the Yankee manager in 1964 because New York baseball fans were increasingly growing enthralled with the comical manager of the crosstown Mets, Casey Stengel. Topping figured Berra would serve as the lovable counterweight to the “Ol Perfessor.” Webb and Topping sold the club to CBS in 1964 for over 11 million dollars. In addition to world series rings, Topping also accumulated wedding bands and children. He got married six times and fathered nine children. His third wife was the three-time Olympic Gold Medalist in figure skating, Sonja Henie (see accompanying photo.) I guess no one was surprised when that Topping marriage also ended up on “thin ice.” Topping died in 1974 at the age of 62.
Topping shares his birthday with the first catcher in Yankee franchise history to make it into the Hall of Fame.
Most of the Yankees’ most successful (World Series-winning) owners were born with silver spoons in their mouths. That’s certainly the case with the Steinbrenner brothers, Hank and Hal who inherited the team from their father and with “the Boss” himself, who’s dad left him the American Shipbuilding Company. Jacob Ruppert’s dad gave his son a thriving beer brewery. The spoon in Dan Topping’s mouth when he was born was actually made of tin because his grandfather on his mom’s side was one of the largest owner of tin mines in the entire world.
The only Yankee owner to win a World Series who wasn’t born with money was Topping’s partner, Del Webb. Webb entered this world on May 17, 1899 in Fresno, California and actually started out wanting to be a ballplayer. He quit high school to become a carpenter’s apprentice and play semipro baseball. In his late twenties he came down with typhoid fever and moved to Phoenix, AZ because doctors told him the drier climate would help him recover from the dreaded disease. He brought his tool-box with him to his new desert home and started his own one-man construction company. He might not have made it as a baseball player but he grew that little construction company into one of the largest and most diversified construction, real estate development and property management firms in the country. When WWII broke out, he got the contract to build the infamous Poston War Relocation Center, the Arizona-based internment camp that was home to 17,000 Japanese Americans. His company, Del Web Corporation, built and managed huge retirement communities, resort hotels, major league ballparks and Las Vegas casinos.
On January 26, 1945, Webb and Topping along with Larry MacPhail Sr. purchased the Yankees from the estate of Ruppert for $2.8 million. The plan was for Webb and Topping to treat the purchase as an investment and rich man’s hobby and let MacPhail run the thing. But when legendary Yankee skipper, Joe McCarthy quit because he couldn’t stand his new boss and his successor, Bill Dickey did likewise, Topping and Webb bought out MacPhail and took full control of the franchise.
Webb often said his most significant contribution to the team was convincing Casey Stengel to leave his job as a manager of the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League to become Yankee skipper in 1949. Stengel’s successor as New York manager, Ralph Houk absolutely adored Webb and the feeling was mutual.
Topping and Webb maintained ownership of the franchise for two decades during which the Yankees captured fifteen pennants and ten world championships, still the most successful twenty year period in the club’s history. They sold it to CBS in August of 1964 for $11million. Del Webb had become an extremely wealthy man by knowing when to buy and when to sell a property and he certainly made the right calls when he decided to purchase and then dump his Yankee shares. He died from lung cancer on July 4, 1974. Married twice he had no children. In 2001, the Del Webb Corporation was purchased by a company called Pulte Homes.
Larry MacPhail Sr. was anything but an ordinary guy. The son of a prominent banker, Larry attended private schools, went on to get his law degree and then enlisted in the army to fight WWI as an artillery captain. As the armistice was being negotiated, he accompanied his commanding officer on an unsanctioned and unsuccessful mission to kidnap the Kaiser. After the war, he practiced law, ran a department store and became part owner of a minor league baseball team. That team was affiliated with the St Louis Cardinals and through that affiliation, Larry developed a working relationship with the Cardinal’s chief executive, the legendary Branch Rickey. A few years later, the Cincinnati Reds were looking for a new GM and Rickey recommended MacPhail for the job and the game of baseball was never the same. MacPhail was an innovator. He introduced night baseball, air travel and television to the sport and for good measure, he gave the game Red Barber. After leaving the Reds he became GM of the Dodgers and turned a very bad Brooklyn team into a pennant winner within two seasons. Then in 1945, he was brought into a partnership by Dan Topping and Del Webb that purchased the New York Yankees from the estate of Jacob Rupert. Neither Webb or Topping knew anything about running a baseball team and after witnessing MacPhail’s success with Brooklyn, they figured he was the right guy to make baseball decisions.
The problem with MacPhail was he loved the booze as much as he loved running a baseball team and he too often let the two mix. Yankee manager Joe McCarthy quit the team when MacPhail became its President and so did his successor, Bill Dickey. One night while drinking with Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey in Toots Shoor’s restaurant in Manhattan, MacPhail actually traded Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams. When Yawkey sobered up the next morning, he called old Larry and nixed the deal. After both McCarthy and Dickey quit as Yankee skippers, MacPhail started courting Leo Durocher, who was being investigated by the Commissioner’s office for his association with known gamblers. It soon became clear to Webb and Topping that MacPhail was not a good fit. The situation came to a head after the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the 1947 World Series. MacPhail was already drunk before the final game ended. During a team celebration that followed at Manhattan’s Biltmore Hotel, the seriously inebriated executive insulted every one in his path including Topping. Author Roger Kahn later wrote that MacPhail was actually suffering a nervous breakdown during the event. Whatever the case, Topping and Webb quickly forced him out of the partnership. He never again ran a big league ball club.
MacPhail passed away in 1975 at the age of 85. Three years later he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His son Lee was also a Yankee GM and joined his Dad in the Hall of Fame in 1998, becoming the only father-son tandem in Cooperstown. Larry Sr. shares his February 3rd birthday with this former Yankee pitcher, this one too and this one-time Yankee third-baseman.