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Five O'clock Lightning:  Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the Greatest Team in Baseball History, The 1927 New York Yankees


Beer baron Jake Ruppert could remember names but never addressed anyone by a first name. The Yankee owner was characterized in Ed Barrow's memoirs as an "imperious" man, one who "in all the years I knew him, always calling me 'Barrows,' adding an 's' where none belonged.

Ruppert "was a fastidious dresser," Barrow remembered, "who had his shoes made to order, changed his clothes several times a day, and had a valet."

Arriving in style with his secretary Al Brennan for spring training in St. Petersburg in his own private railroad car, it was said that the honorary Colonel savored the comforts of his own drawing room and sleeping in a silk brocade nightshirt.  Ruppert was particularly interested in and impressed with the man he had sunk all that money into.
"Ruth looks great," he announced. "Watch that boy. In fact, he may set another home run record. The team as a whole is in fine shape, shows real fighting spirit and looks like a winner, although I admit I'm not much of a prophet." 

Despite the sunny side up outlook of their owner, there was an undercoating of gloominess that pervaded  spring training for the Yankees whose wrenching loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1926 World Series was still close to the surface especially for the frail Miller Huggins who stayed during spring training with his sister Myrtle in a home he owned in St. Petersburg.  A bachelor, he also lived with her in a Manhattan apartment.

There were times in his early years with the Yankees that he would come home dejected: "Ah, it's just too frustrating. Life is too short for this kind of rotten stuff and rowdy players I have to put up with. I think I'll chuck the whole thing."

"Stick it out" Myrtle would prop him up. "Don't let them be able to say that you quit when you were under fire." 
Dubbed "the unhappy little man," Huggins was always with a short stemmed pipe in hand or mouth, a gray visage, a worrier, anguishing over his stock market investments although he played that game with great skill and enthusiasm and at times invested for players, turning a profit for them. He anguished over his real estate holdings, his players, his appetite, his real and imagined medical problems. One could never tell by the way he dressed, by the little well worn traveling bag he carried on the road that the mite manager's salary for 1927 was $37,500.                                                                       
He had all those expressions that he was fond of repeating:

"Baseball is my life. Maybe it will get me some day. But as long as I die in harness, I will be happy."                                          

"A manager has his cards dealt to him and he must play them."

"Great players make great managers."

When Colonel Ruppert and Huggins first met, the patrician owner was not at all enamored with what he called: "the worker's clothes, the cap perched oddly on Huggins head, the smallness of the man."

Truth be told, Miller Huggins was the most unlikely Yankee. The Cincinnati native was 5'4", 140 pounds, aloof, superstitious. He had a law degree from the University of Cincinnati, but he never practiced law.

Initially, Ruppert balked at employing Huggins as Yankee manager. Initially, Huggins viewed managing an American League team as a step down from his time as skipper with St. Louis  in the National League. Somehow, the little man at the age of 39, became the eighth manager in the franchise's 16-year- history in 1918.

"HUGGINS IS READY TO MOLD YANKEES" was the headline in the February 2, 1918 edition of The New York Times.

Dwarfed by Babe Ruth and other Yankees in size, reputation and image, Miller Huggins bitched: "New York is a hell of a town. Everywhere I go in St. Louis or Cincinnati, it's always 'Hiya Hug.' But here in New York I can walk the length of 42nd Street and not a soul knows me."  

As pilot of the Yankees, it took him a while to make things happen. There was a 1918 fourth place finish in his first year as manager, then two third place finishes. There was a 1921 pennant, the first for the Yankees. A pennant in 1922. Another pennant in 1923 and this time, finally, a World Series victory over the Giants. After a seventh place finish in 1925, the roster was re-shaped for 1926 and there was another pennant. But that was the time of the wrenching loss to his old St. Louis team in the World Series.

Now in spring training of 1927, the shuffling, scuffling, searching for any edge Huggins was more intense than ever, looking for ways to improve his Yankees. In 1926, shortstop Mark Koenig had batted leadoff. Centerfielder Earl Combs, the Kentucky rosebud, had batted second. In June Huggins flip-flopped them in the lineup; they  stayed that way for the remainder of the season. That would be the way it would be in 1927, too, Huggins decided. 

Now in spring training, Huggins made another far more crucial, more dramatic lineup switch. Lou Gehrig would now bat cleanup, sandwiched in between the outgoing and energetic Ruth moved to the third slot and the taciturn and unpleasant Bob Meusel, in the fifth hole.

Huggins also added a new coach, Arthur Fletcher. The Phillies manager in 1926 would now be a fixture for the Yankees at third base and a heckler without equal.  A former shortstop, a clone of John McGraw, whose Giant teams he had played on for more than a decade, "Fletch" was the leader and sparkplug of one of the Deadball Era's top  infields that featured Fred Merkle at first, "Laughing Larry" Doyle at second, Buck Herzog at third. Fletcher was the shortstop. 

"If there be one among the gamesters of baseball who is gamer than the rest, that man be Fletcher," wrote sportswriter Frank Graham. Everywhere the Giants went, Graham wrote, "There was fighting and Fletcher always was in the thick of it. He fought enemy players, umpires, and fans. He was fined and suspended frequently." A friend of Huggins from their National League days, reluctant at first to take the job, Fletcher loved being a Yankee coach and being on the scene of a winning team.

Charley O'Leary, a buddy of Huggins, had been on the scene as Yankee first base coach since 1921. Skilled at and fond of getting on umpires and players, his rowdiness sharply contrasted with the muted personality of the cerebral Huggins.  The slightly built Irishman, one of eleven boys in a family of sixteen children, like Fletcher, was a former shortstop and had starred for Detroit's pennant-winners in 1907-1908.  It was O'Leary who Huggins would later give credit to for the development of the kid infielders Tony Lazzeri and Mark Koenig.

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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

FROMMER SPORTSNET (syndicated) reaches a readership in the millions and is housed on Internet search engines for extended periods of time.
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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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