Q & A with Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz

Steve Steinberg is a baseball historian and coauthor (with Lyle Spatz) of 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York (Nebraska, 2010), winner of the 2011 Seymour Medal, and author of Baseball in St. Louis, 1900–1925. Lyle Spatz is the author of several books, including Dixie Walker: A Life in Baseball.

Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz discuss their new book The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership that Transformed the Yankees (May 2015). 

How did this book come about?

After 1921, we were looking for another book to collaborate on. We’ve both researched and written a lot about the early Yankees. A book on Ruppert and Huggins was a “natural” for us, and neither man has gotten the attention or credit he deserves. They made for a nice book combo: Two men who had a special relationship, which withstood challenges from the fans, the press, Ruppert’s co-owner Til Huston, and even some of the Yankees’ players—including Babe Ruth.

Tell us more about the choice of Ruppert and Huggins.

They had a profound and lasting impact on the Yankees’ franchise. They transformed the club from a forlorn, losing franchise to one that became dominant and remained so for much of the 20th century. Yet surprisingly, there’s been little written in-depth about them. Just a handful of articles over the years. The fact that they were intensely private men-certainly not colorful ones—added to their being overlooked.

How is writing a biography, the approach here, different from writing about a season, as you did with 1921?

We cover far more ground here (the span of two men’s lives), which presents more material and research demands than one season. We look at many seasons, through the prism of how each season affected the two men, as well as how they affected the seasons. And because this book is in a sense a dual biography, we have the extra wrinkle of their evolving relationship and the adversity it had to endure. Although the primary focus is their years together, we discuss in detail both men’s lives before their fateful first meeting and Ruppert’s life in the years after Huggins’s death.

Is one more satisfying to you than the other?

We love bringing forgotten and overlooked people back to life, to “flesh them out” and allow our readers to really get to know them. For that reason, we probably preferred working on this book. But even though 1921 was about a season, we wove in the stories of the men who made that season happen and the America in which they lived. That’s what makes 1921 such an interesting read—the people and the times, not just the games and the scores.

What did you learn about the two men most baseball fans don’t already know?

How truly fanatical they both were about winning. What restless souls they were, unable to fully enjoy what they had already accomplished. Always worrying about the next game or season. And this was just one of the remarkable similarities between these two seemingly very different men.

When most fans think of the Yankees of the 1920s, they think of a smooth-running juggernaut that piled up pennants and world championships. They might be surprised at the turmoil that surrounded the club during those years. Also, most fans think of the Yankees of that decade as one dynasty. In reality, the club that won three pennants in the early Twenties was very different from the club that won three more in the late Twenties, separated by the collapse of 1925.  We really explore those differences, which reflect the insight and understanding Ruppert and Huggins gained over the years.

What came as the biggest surprise about each?

For Ruppert, the paradox of what a progressive baseball organization he built, yet what a mess his estate was in when he died. And while his contract battles with his players are well-known, his charitable donations and support of worthy causes is less well-known. Huggins had his own paradox: he had such a depth of baseball knowledge, yet was not able to project that to the press and public and wasn’t concerned about doing so. An educated man (he was an attorney), he placed no importance on his public image.

Did you find yourself liking/admiring them more or less?

Both men were such complex personalities, which made them all the more fascinating. There is so much to admire about both. Yankee fans owe an incredible debt to both. As authors, we don’t see it as a “like-dislike” choice. Biographers should not approach their subjects that way and have to guard against “falling in love with” their subjects.

How did you decide to split the writing?

Quite arbitrarily, since both men are pretty much in every chapter, once they join forces in late 1917. We think (and hope) the reader will not recognize who wrote the first drafts of the chapters, especially since we edit our work so heavily. One of us has to take the first “crack” at a chapter, which is only the start of an elaborate back-and-forth process. Every chapter ends up as a true collaboration.

What were some of the challenges of the collaboration? The benefits?

As with any partnership, there is give and take, with the goal of ultimately speaking with one voice. We did not have to “find our way” in this process (of collaborating), since we already had done that in the early stages of 1921. The absence of face-to-face contact is not a hindrance; emailing attachments of our chapters works fine. In the editing process, we go back and forth with revisions until we are both satisfied. When we started on 1921, we agreed that if we had a conflict we could not resolve, the writer of the first draft of a chapter has the final call on it. But I don’t think we ever got to that point—in either book.

The process would not work without our mutual respect. We constantly challenge each other. When we exchange drafts of a chapter, we look forward to the questions and angles the other writer will bring up, things the first writer hadn’t thought of.

What are some of the sub-stories to the book, beyond the two men?

We provide a non-baseball context; this is not baseball in a vacuum. The Great War, the flu pandemic, Prohibition, the immigrations battles, the Florida real estate boom and collapse, and the Depression are just some of the stories of America’s history during the timeline of this book. With Ruppert’s background as a German American brewer, and with both men involved in real estate, the country’s political, social, and economic developments are crucial to understanding the stories of these men. Also, neither man ever married, something Huggins regretted and Ruppert boasted about.

What are you proudest of about this book?

Telling, for the first time, the story of two men, who despite their enormous success are often overlooked.

Getting a sense of what these men were really like. Their strengths and weaknesses. Their private lives, “beyond baseball.” In Huggins’s case, his life beyond baseball was pretty much baseball. In Ruppert’s case, there was an air of regal mystery that we try to penetrate, including the “mystery lady” in that bachelor’s life. The rare photos are an added feature; there are many images in the book that have not been seen in decades. Finally, the blending and merging of our voices—two authors speaking as one—is a real source of pride.

In the more than three years you worked on the book, did it evolve or change? If so, how?

Of course, there is always more information surfacing about a book’s subjects, and at some point authors have to be done with the research, to get the book finished and published. But we did have to change one key thing. Shortly after we delivered our manuscript to the University of Nebraska Press, we finally tracked down Ruppert’s estate and probate papers. Their revelation required us to adjust some of the late chapters of the book.

Do you think their place in history has been overrated, underrated, or just about right?

Underrated, without question. The discussion of great managers of the first half of the 20th century often begins and ends with John McGraw and Connie Mack. Huggins belongs in that discussion. And yet he was not inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame until 1964, and Ruppert only in 2013! Their being underrated is partly a function of their understated personalities and partly a function of the subtle nature of their contributions. Ruppert’s behind-the-scenes support of his manager and Huggins’s quiet nurturing of young players are just a couple of examples. And they were both brilliant evaluators of talent; most of their key hiring decisions were brilliant.

Both of your books have been so well received, will there be a third one?

Currently, we are each working on different projects, but a third collaboration is certainly possible in the future. We were fortunate in that we agreed the subject matter of both 1921 and The Colonel and Hug appealed to us and are important parts of baseball history that had not been adequately covered. Should such a confluence arise again, we may very well do a third book.