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How Red Sox-Yankees Babe Ruth trade changed baseball forever

This is an exclusive free extract from my latest book, Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart. You can grab your copy in paperback or Kindle eBook format here.

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What did Babe Ruth do with the Boston Red Sox?

A young southpaw named George Herman Ruth was masterful for the Red Sox, pitching 29.2 consecutive scoreless innings in World Series play. That record stood for 43 years, and the prized phenom had three championship rings before he turned 24. There had never been a more exciting prospect in baseball history.

Boston bought Ruth from the minor league Baltimore Orioles midway through the 1914 season. At first, the crude kid was reluctant to move away from home, and his initiation with the Red Sox was often rocky. Nevertheless, Ruth barrelled his way to approval with dense determination, and the Red Sox reared a legend.

Brash and untamed, Ruth rivalled Walter Johnson, the Senators’ famed fireballer, in a number of masterful outings. Possessed of a natural affection for the game, George Herman wanted to see and do everything all at once, and his simultaneous emergence as a hitter gave Boston a two-pronged weapon in its quest for eminence.

In 1918, Ruth went 13-7 as a pitcher, massaging a 2.22 ERA through 20 starts. He also played 95 games in the field for Boston, hitting .300 while leading the league with 11 home runs. There was an absurdity to Ruth’s act that simmered as the Red Sox won another world championship that year. Some began to question whether Boston could contain The Babe and his carnival act.

“There was no doubt about his place in baseball now,” writes Leigh Montville in The Big Bam, his seminal Ruth biography. “He was the number one attraction in the game. If there was a Most Valuable Player award in 1918, and there wasn’t, he would have won it in a breeze. He was the best player on the best team, and if you listened, you would hear good young players compared now to Babe Ruth, not Ty Cobb, not anyone else. The best player deserved the best money, Ty Cobb money. The Babe had made $7,500 in 1918. Now he wanted $15,000 a year.”

As a franchise, the Red Sox had five World Series titles by 1918. They had won 33% of all Fall Classics that had ever been played, and Philadelphia was the only other team to claim more than two championships. The Red Sox also had the game’s best player and its most colourful character. In short, Boston was the crucible of baseball. No city could compare.

Why did the Red Sox trade Babe Ruth?

All was not serene, however. When the Red Sox finished sixth in 1919, mustering a meagre defence of their world championship, owner Harry Frazee found himself in a bind. A noted theatre impresario, Frazee was losing money by the day. His Broadway empire required immense funding, and when a series of mediocre productions flopped at the box office, baseball’s swashbuckling executive ran into trouble.

Born in Peoria, Illinois, Frazee carved a handsome reputation with theatrical successes such as Fine Feathers and Adele. A keen baseball fan, he then teamed with Hugh Ward, a friend, to buy the Red Sox from Joseph Lannin in November 1916.

Despite musical triumphs, Frazee did not really have much free-flowing capital, and $262,000 of the ballclub sale price was tethered to a three-year credit. When that credit came due, in November 1919, a perfect storm engulfed Frazee, who struggled to make ends meet.

Slumping attendances amid World War I hurt the beleaguered owner, who favoured his theatre investments over the Red Sox as a serious avenue to financial security. Accordingly, Frazee came to view baseball player sales as a tool for stimulating capital in his theatre business. The Red Sox were a pawn in Harry’s game of high-stakes racketeering.

Boston drew criticism by trading frontline pitcher Carl Mays to the Yankees, but that was merely the start of Frazee’s fire sale. Wally Schang, Herb Pennock, Everett Scott, Waite Hoyt, Joe Bush and Sam Jones were all sold to the Yankees. Ed Barrow, the man who allowed Ruth to play some outfield in Boston, also moved to New York, where he built a Hall of Fame resume as the Yankees’ general manager. The Red Sox were gutted so Frazee, a New York resident, could continue putting plays on the stage in the Big Apple. An inferiority complex roared to prominence.

Unbeknownst to many contemporary fans, however, even Frazee’s ability to trade players was impinged by grim extraneous circumstances. Ban Johnson never really liked Frazee, and the American League president launched a scurrilous smear campaign that turned many team owners against Boston. As a result, most Johnson allies refused to deal with Frazee, precluding the potential for trades. The Red Sox owner was essentially restricted to two potential transaction partners: the White Sox or the Yankees.

Working amid such draconian restraints, Frazee knew that Ruth, his star pitcher-hitter, was a highly valuable asset. The rambunctious Ruth broke the single-season home run record in 1919, thrashing 29 long balls in 130 games. Ruth hit more home runs that year than 10 major league teams, including both pennant winners. He also drove in 113 runs and got on base at a .456 clip. Few players had ever produced such a potent season.

Branded ‘incorrigible’ as a kid, Ruth grew up in the tough Baltimore neighbourhood of Pigtown, a place of minimal hope and bleak lawlessness. Suitably reckless as a youngster, Ruth was sent to St Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a correctional institute that kerbed his rowdiness. Still, George Herman was a crude and uncultured colt early in his baseball career, and the game’s cognoscenti was not always receptive of his bluster.

Frazee grew impatient with Ruth’s antics, believing the star wanted too much at a young age. Ruth repeatedly threatened to hold out for a bigger salary, and his thorough iconoclasm was difficult to comprehend for traditional baseball men who had always seen the game played in a sedate mode of hushed dignity. Ruth’s flair singled him out, and the crusty nostalgists were not amused.

What did the Red Sox get for trading Babe Ruth? 

Meanwhile, Frazee struggled to find the money to repay his credit used to purchase the Red Sox. November seeped into December, intensifying the panic. Something had to give, and on the fifth day of January 1920, Ruth was sold to the Yankees for $125,000 and a personal loan to Frazee of $300,000, secured against Fenway Park. Chicago offered Shoeless Joe Jackson and $60,000 for Ruth, but Frazee opted for the larger financial windfall.

The sale of Ruth allowed Frazee to appease his creditors and consolidate his Broadway efforts. Future plays such as My Lady Friends and No, No, Nanette were particularly successful, but such glory became increasingly rare for the baseball team that once kept its predominant director solvent.

Frazee relied on the Red Sox to underpin his lifestyle, taking loans and making the club pay his non-baseball expenses. He frequently overdrew his salary, by as much as $21,659 in 1920, and his general insouciance for the future of baseball in Boston was flagrantly selfish.

“The Ruth deal was the only way I could retain the Red Sox,” Frazee once told baseball historian Fred Lieb. Indeed, he only remained Red Sox owner until 1923, presiding over four more losing seasons before selling the team to Bob Quinn, a Johnson ally. Baseball was never the same again.

What was the Curse of the Bambino? How the Yankees' acquisition of Babe Ruth changed sport forever

When Ruth swapped Boston for New York, the Red Sox had five World Series titles, the most in baseball history. The Yankees had none. New York won 26 world championships before Boston next managed the feat. They also clinched 39 pennants, confirming their status as the preeminent powerhouse of North American sports. The Yankees redefined winning while the Red Sox capitulated with stunning regularity. Rarely have we seen such a profound transformation.

Endowed with pinstripes, Ruth became the greatest player who ever lived, converting to the outfield full-time and mashing more home runs than anybody thought possible. The Yankees built a cavernous stadium to maximise his left-handed power stroke, and the resultant surge in attendances and marketing cache grew their resources beyond the kin of any competitor ballclub.

In the Bronx, George Herman morphed into The Babe, a storybook character who transcended the sport and personified the era. Ruth was known alternatively as the Great Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the Colossus of Clout, the Behemoth of Bust, the Wazir of Wham, and the Maharajah of Mash. He was Santa Claus with a baseball bat, and everybody loved him.

Launching 714 career home runs, Ruth reinvented baseball, fuelled the Yankees’ empire and catalysed the Red Sox’ mutilation. His sale from Boston to New York became the single most infamous player transaction in sporting history. It altered the fate of two teams and two cities for almost a century henceforth. Harry Frazee had a lot to answer for.

Between 1920 and 2003, when the so-called Curse of the Bambino was in full effect, the Yankees finished ahead of the Red Sox on 66 occasions, or in 78% of all seasons. In 10 of the first 12 seasons after he swapped Boston for New York, Babe Ruth out-homered the entire Red Sox team on his own. In turn, it took the Red Sox 14 years just to reach the .500 mark again after losing their talisman, while a first-place finish came a further 12 seasons thereafter.

The Yankees soared from one dynasty to the next, winning two, three, four and five consecutive titles at various points. Boston, in contrast, became the ultimate baseball bridesmaid, winning the pennant but losing the World Series in 1946, 1967, 1975 and 1986.

Their rivalry was like that between a nail and hammer. One team existed merely to be thumped by the other. No amount of dreaming could alter that fate, and no blend of suspicious desperation rewrote the familiar script. The Yankees drove home their power with one clinical blow after another. Boston cowered in the corner, battered and bruised by the sinister sibling it once taught to fight.

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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!

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