Babe Ruth's Sale to the New York Yankees
After the Boston Red Sox's terrible 1919 season and owner Harry Frazee's financial troubles, Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston entered the scene with their sights on Babe Ruth. Both were called "colonel," but other than that and money, the two had little else in common.
Huston (a real colonel) had received a modest upbringing in Ohio, then gone off to Cuba and become an officer during the Spanish-American War. He amassed his fortune working as an engineer on large harbor projects in Havana and other ports but had remained a casual gent and a modest, sloppy dresser who often wore the same suit for days on end.
A friend to the ballplayers and sportswriters, who called him "Cap" out of deference to an earlier rank, the big, heavy-set Huston was also a drinking pal of Frazee's -- whose New York office was just two doors down from Yankees headquarters. With this in mind, Ruth later speculated in his autobiography that his sale had first been posed by Cap to Harry "over a few glasses of beer."
Ruppert, on the other hand, had been born into money. His grandfather had founded a brewery in Bavaria, and his father made millions plying the same trade in the states. The 51-year-old bachelor was always dressed in the finest suits and shoes, and had his own valet, cook, butler, maid, and laundress on call at his Fifth Avenue apartment.
A former four-term congressman from the upper-crust East Side, he was an arrogant self-promoter who, after being made an honorary colonel by a New York political crony, insisted on being addressed by the title from then on. He was a collector of fine art, race horses, and -- thanks in part to Harry Frazee -- an assortment of quality ballplayers.
This was the colonel that Frazee had most often dealt with in past transactions. In fact, Ruppert had supposedly already proposed purchasing Ruth in 1918 following one of Babe's many home runs for Boston at the Polo Grounds.
The Bid for Babe
The push to get Ruth may also have started with Yankees manager Miller Huggins, a 5' 6", 135-pound sparkplug who had piloted the team to third- and fourth-place finishes since coming over from the St. Louis Cardinals. Asked by Ruppert after the 1919 season what the Yanks needed to get over the hump, the rough-edged former big league infielder had supposedly said simply, "Get Ruth from Boston."
Apparently he too knew Frazee was hard-up for cash. After being sent to Boston to find out the price tag for the acquisition of Ruth, Huggins returned with news that Frazee would "start talking" at $125,000. Ruppert thought this preposterous, to which Huggins replied, "Bring him to the Polo Grounds and he'll hit 35 homers at least."
Regardless of whoever first proposed it, an offer was put on the table between the Yankees and Red Sox in late December -- Ruth straight up for cash. Frazee's decision not to involve any players stemmed partly from his need for quick money and partly from a conversation he had with Barrow during the negotiations.
Calling his manager to a meeting at New York's Knickerbocker Hotel, he told Barrow he intended to sell Ruth but would also get some players in return. "Losing Babe Ruth is bad enough," Barrow remembered telling Frazee. "But don't make it tougher for me by making me show off a lot of 10-cent ballplayers that we got in exchange for him."
Although they were in far better financial shape than Frazee, Ruppert and Huston were leery of spending that much money. They knew that if Ruth joined the club and Yankees attendance increased, Giants manager John McGraw (who liked having the most popular team in town) might get them thrown out of the Polo Grounds and force them to build their own ballpark.
There were other things to consider as well. There was the looming threat of Prohibition, slated to go into effect a few weeks later on January 16, 1920. A major source of Ruppert's income came from the 1.3 million barrels of beer his brewery produced each year, and he figured to have far less capital to work with once the new law banning the purchase, consumption, or transportation of alcohol within the United States went into effect.
Despite their apprehensions, Ruppert and Huston apparently knew one thing: This was too good a chance to pass up. On December 26, 1919, unbeknownst to the public, a deal was struck in which Frazee would be paid $25,000 up front for Ruth, along with three promissory notes of $25,000 each. Harry would also receive a loan of $300,000 against the mortgage at Fenway Park, making the final deal worth $400,000 -- nearly the full amount Ruppert and Huston had paid for the entire Yankees franchise just four years before.
The $100,000 in cash was easily the most ever paid for a ballplayer, doubling the $50,000 the Indians had given the Red Sox for Tris Speaker in 1916. Fans were still kept in the dark, but the first hint that something was awry came when Frazee told reporters the next day he was willing to accept offers for any player on Boston's roster but one -- outfielder Harry Hooper.
Huggins was sent to Los Angeles to alert Ruth of the still-secret deal and take care of Babe's contract demands. Meeting up with his newest ballplayer on the Griffith Park golf course, he introduced himself and shook hands.
Ruth later admitted he already had a feeling at this point he had been traded, but he made small talk until Huggins got around to asking how he'd feel about playing for the Yankees. "I'm happy with the Red Sox," Babe replied. "I like Boston. But if Frazee sends me to the Yankees, I'll play as hard for them as I did for him."
Next, Huggins laid down the law. "Babe, you've been a pretty wild boy in Boston. In New York you'll have to behave. You'll have to be strictly business." The strait-laced manager went on to warn of the dangers and temptations that could be found in New York -- dangers and temptations that no player on his team should succumb to under any circumstances.
The approach Huggins took irked the usually fun-loving Ruth, who after listening in boredom for a while shot back, "I already told you I'll play the best I can. Let's get down to business. How much are you going to pay me?"
As per Ruppert's instructions, Huggins offered first $15,000 and then $17,500 a year. Ruth restated his original $20,000 demand, then threw in that he also expected part of the profits Frazee had received for his sale. Huggins ran the numbers by Ruppert, and at their next meeting Babe signed a contract that satisfied both parties.
Ruth would be paid $10,000 for each of the next two seasons -- his 1919 salary -- but would also receive an immediate bonus of $1,000, plus $20,000 more paid out over the two-year period in $2,500 intervals. The numbers added up to $20,500 each season -- more even than Cobb -- and Ruth supposedly promised to behave himself while earning it.
Breaking the News to Boston
Huggins wired word of the signing back to Ruppert, and late on the Monday afternoon of January 5, 1920, Frazee made the deal public with a press conference in Boston. "The price was something enormous, but I do not care to name the figures," Harry told reporters. "It was an amount the club could not afford to refuse. I should have preferred to have taken players in exchange for Ruth, but no club would have given me the equivalent in men without wrecking itself, and so the deal had to be made on a cash basis."
"No other club could afford to give the amount the Yankees have paid for him," he continued, "and I do not mind saying I think they are taking a gamble. While Ruth is undoubtedly the greatest hitter the game has ever seen, he is likewise one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men ever to put on a baseball uniform."
Frazee went on to cite Ruth as the reason for Boston's poor showing the previous season, stating that "you will notice that a one-man team is almost invariably in the second division... The other players have little incentive or encouragement for great effort when the spectators can see only one man in the game, and so the one man has an upsetting influence on the others."
Frazee was actually blaming Babe for being a great player on a bad team. As his ridiculous rambling continued, he spoke of Ruth's greed in seeking a new contract and how his "insubordination" had "endangered the discipline of the whole squad."
There was a promise from Frazee that he would use the money from the sale to purchase quality ballplayers, but the now-leery Boston fans, after watching their once-perennial champions slowly dismantled by the smooth-talking owner, didn't buy it. The transaction was front-page news in all the city's newspapers that evening, and most of the reaction was negative.
The Boston Post called the move "a tremendous blow to the army of loyal fans" and predicted the Sox would be "crowding the Athletics for eighth place in 1920." Another paper featured a cartoon showing historic Faneuil Hall and the Boston Public Library adorned with "For Sale" signs. Apparently the artist felt no local landmark was safe with Harry Frazee in town, and Red Sox fans from all walks of life voiced their agreement with some prophetic judgements.
"Ruth was 90 percent of our club last summer," said Johnny Keenan, leader of the "Royal Rooters" fan club that had been cheering and serenading the Red Sox at home games through most of the team's existence. "It will be impossible to replace the strength Ruth gave the Sox."
A Knights of Columbus chapter in South Boston adopted a resolution declaring, "It is the consensus of opinion in K of C circles that Boston fans were dealt unfairly in the sale of Brother Ruth, and it is felt that commercialism is fast gaining control over baseball."
Upon seeing a poster near Fenway park advertising Frazee's current show running in Boston -- My Lady Friends -- one disgruntled fan was heard to comment, "Those are the only friends that blankety-blank has."
Yankees rooters were understandably more excited. Ruth was known as a notorious pull hitter, and in the Polo Grounds, the right field foul line stood just 257 feet from home plate. Babe had hit five of his first 11 big league homers in the park, and Huggins's prediction of 35 homers for Ruth over an entire season there seemed a good estimate.
A group of New York sportswriters gathered to toast the city's good fortune and their own pending great copy, but The New York Times thought the whole business rather shady. It was a poor state of affairs, an editorial in the paper surmised, when a good player on a weak team could hold out "for an imposing salary" and "get somebody in New York or Chicago to buy his services." Running under the headline "The High Price of Home Runs," the editorial went on to compare Ruth's salary to that of a Columbia University professor.
Amidst this exciting backdrop came several salvos from sunny California and the Babe Ruth camp -- some true and many fictional. "'Babe' Says He Will Play in Boston or Nowhere" one Globe sub-headline read, with Igoe claiming to have received a telegram from Ruth reading: "Will not play anywhere but Boston. Will leave for the East Monday."
It was an odd message considering Ruth had already agreed to terms with Huggins, and a day later Babe seemingly admitted his fate when he wired to Igoe: "Tell the newspapermen that I am sorry to be traded to New York and hate to get away from Boston fans." Ruth still claimed he would return to town soon, but now only to refute Frazee's disparaging remarks and hopefully pocket some dough from his sale.
When Ruth did come to Boston in mid-January, Frazee refused to meet him. Babe said the owner was simply trying to "alibi himself with the fans" and revealed that when given his "day" the previous September he had received only a cigar from tightwad Harry while his wife, Helen, was forced to pay her own way into Fenway.
He also defended his demand for a higher salary: "Any fair-minded fan knows that my efforts on the Boston club last season warranted a much higher salary and I asked for it," Ruth said. "I have always hustled as much as any man on the diamond." Folks accepted the words as sincere; Boston fans never viewed Ruth as a greedy ballplayer, and for the rest of his career he would be looked upon as a hero in the city where his fame began.
The same could not be said of Harry Frazee. He had given away baseball's single most spectacular performer -- a figure whose feats were changing the very nature of the game -- and had received not one ballplayer in return. The money he did get kept him going so he could finance more shows, and eventually his luck turned back around. Madame Sherry netted more than a half million dollars, and in 1925 Harry really hit it big with No, No, Nanette -- the play that made "Tea for Two" famous and earned him more than $2.5 million during its worldwide run.
Bostonians saw it as blood money. By this time Frazee had sold off Boston's remaining quality players to Ruppert and Huston and was mercifully out of baseball. Following the Ruth deal had come moves sending Wally Shang, Waite Hoyt, Everett Scott, Joe Bush, Sam Jones, Joe Dugan, and Herb Pennock to New York for mostly cash and a few worthless bodies.
When the Yankees won their first World Series in 1923, playing in brand-new Yankee Stadium ("The House That Ruth Built"), they did so with 11 players who had once worn a Red Sox uniform. Over one million fans cheered on Boston's former heroes in New York that summer, while back at Fenway the "Dead" Sox drew under 230,000.
All told, the Yankees won seven AL pennants and four World Series during Ruth's 15 seasons with the club, enough to build a powerful farm system that would eventually produce 29 league and 20 world championships in the first 54 years following what would be, for Bostonians at least, the worst transaction in baseball history.
The Yankees earned an almost mythical reputation as the greatest dynasty in professional sports, while the Red Sox...well, the Red Sox became the team that continues to break the hearts of fans.
After winning five of the first 15 modern World Series, the victims of Frazee's greed saw their fortunes continue to slide following Ruth's departure. Boston finished fifth the next two seasons, last in 1922, and then rose above seventh place just once through 1933.
Their average record the first 14 seasons without Babe was 54-95, and during one eight-year period they never finished closer than 431/2 games to first place. The Yankees made over $31/2 million from 1920 to '30; the Red Sox were the only major-league team to lose money over the span.
Things improved after owner Tom Yawkey arrived in 1933 and began stocking the team with stars like Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams, but when Boston again became an American League power, one team always seemed to stand between them and a pennant -- the New York Yankees. It wasn't until 1946 that a Red Sox team returned to the World Series, but that and three subsequent trips brought the same result -- a loss in seven games.
The Curse of the Bambino?
Several other agonizing near misses in the regular and postseason helped earn the team that had gone 5-0 in World Series competition through 1918 a reputation as baseball's biggest chokers, and imaginative Fenway faithful came up with their own excuse for the rotten luck. Because the Yankees so often seemed at the heart of their problems, it was felt that Babe Ruth must be sending bad vibes toward his former club from the grave.
The "Curse of the Bambino" has never been proven, but some rather creative measures have been undertaken or suggested to stop it -- exorcisms, prayers from clergymen, and the buying back of Ruth's contract among them. Entering the 1995 season, none had worked (although the Red Sox's 2004 World Series victory certainly helped).
Whether or not the Red Sox are cursed, the mere mention of Harry Frazee or No, No, Nanette still causes New England baseball fans to cringe. Yankees followers, however, seem just fine on the subject. As far as they're concerned, Ruppert and Huston's "gamble" worked out quite nicely.
Once the trade to New York was finalized, how did Babe Ruth fare? Learn more on the next page.
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