Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 27, 2018

The Biggest Deal In Hot Stove History

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be taking a short break while traveling over New Year’s, so there will be no post next Sunday or Thursday. The regular schedule will resume on Sunday, January 6th. Thanks as always for your support, and Happy New Year!

This time of year wasn’t called the hot stove season back then, and the deal wasn’t announced to the public until shortly after the new year.  But on the day after Christmas 1919, ninety-nine seasons ago this week, the owners of two teams agreed to the terms of a transaction that would alter the future course of both franchises and be counted as one of the most historic deals in the long saga of the Great Game.  Whatever big contracts are announced in the next few weeks, it’s unlikely that any will top what happened all those years ago.

The world, and baseball, were very different then. News traveled slowly. The Great War had accelerated the development of radio, with the introduction of vacuum tubes and electronic signal amplification, but the first great commercial stations that would soon become the source of information and entertainment for the masses had yet to go on the air. Big cities like New York and Boston had multiple competing daily newspapers that were the primary source of news, be it of politics or sports, for millions of avid readers. But that meant the word of the day was updated not by the ping of a text alert, but only when the printing presses were once again set into motion.

The national pastime was about to be engulfed in scandal, for just weeks earlier the 1919 World Series had ended in unexpected fashion, with the favored Chicago White Sox, an established power that had claimed the title two years earlier, losing to the upstart Cincinnati Reds, a team that had finished atop the National League standings for the very first time. Suspicion and rumor would eventually turn into indictments and lifetime bans for eight Chicago players. But the Black Sox scandal might never have occurred were it not for the reserve clause, which tied a player to the team holding his contract for life, and for the enmity felt by members of the White Sox against miserly owner Charles Comiskey. In those days, decades before a players’ union or free agency were even conceptualized, almost all ballplayers were at the mercy of their team’s owner for each season’s contract. Just a tiny handful of the game’s biggest stars were popular enough to possess any leverage when it came time to negotiate a salary.

In the winter of 1919 one of those fortunate few was a 24-year-old left-handed pitcher who had won two games including a shutout for Boston in the 1918 World Series, which the Red Sox had taken in six games over the Cubs. That same season the star hurler, who was equally adept at the plate, had insisted on playing the field on the days between his pitching starts, in order to contribute to Boston’s fortunes with his bat. The young George Herman Ruth, known to all as Babe since his childhood days at a Baltimore reform school, promptly led the majors in home runs in both 1918 and 1919. His 29 round-trippers in the latter year set a major league record and made Ruth a national celebrity. His rapidly growing fame drew supportive fans to Fenway Park, and that increased activity at the park’s turnstiles allowed Ruth to demand a higher salary.

Unlike owners such as Comiskey, Harry Frazee, a New York theatrical producer who had purchased controlling interest in the Red Sox in 1916, had proven willing to loosen his purse strings to obtain and keep key players. Before the start of the 1919 season, extended negotiations with Ruth resulted in a three-year contract valued at $10,000 per year. But after setting the home run mark and with his newfound fame, Ruth asked Frazee to double his salary.

The legend is that Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to finance his Broadway production of “No, No, Nanette,” but as with many legends, the truth is more complex. While “No, No, Nanette” became a smash hit on the Great White Way and brought Frazee financial security, the musical comedy didn’t begin its run until 1925, long after the Ruth transaction. To the extent that Frazee’s theatrical interests factored into his decision at all, it was to finance the long-forgotten play “My Lady Friends,” which opened in 1919 with a script written by one of the eventual co-writers of the far more successful musical that came half a decade later.

But even as he tired of Ruth’s demands, Frazee faced other financial pressures. He still owed former Red Sox owner Joseph Lannin one-fourth of the $500,000 purchase price he’d agreed to three years earlier. Frazee was also in a dispute with Lannin and the Taylor family, owners of Fenway Park, over the future of the ballfield, which raised the possibility that the Red Sox, then just tenants, might be left with no place to play. He was also in a bitter struggle with American League president Ban Johnson, who was threatening to revoke Frazee’s franchise.

Yankees owner Rupert Murdoch was one of only two other American League team owners who sided with Frazee against Johnson. That left the Red Sox chief with few choices when he decided to sell Ruth’s contract. The White Sox offered Frazee $60,000 and the soon to be banned Shoeless Joe Jackson, but Murdoch’s offer was much sweeter – $100,000 for Ruth’s contract, plus a loan of $300,000 to help him buy the ballpark from Lannin and the Taylors. It was enough to ensure that the player who would soon become known as the Sultan of Swat would earn the appellation wearing pinstripes.

In this case, the rest really is history. The Yankees had never finished first in the American League, never played in a World Series. After the acquisition of Ruth, the team’s first AL crown came in 1921, its first championship two years later. In all four Series wins in seven appearances came while the Babe was batting in the middle of New York’s lineup, setting a tradition of winning that has only rarely flagged over the ensuing decades as the Yankees became the most successful franchise in sports.

In Boston, of course, the story was very different. The 1918 championship was the fifth title for one of the American League’s charter teams, whose fans surely thought many more would follow in due course. Instead those fans endured an eighty-six year wait, and during that long hiatus often blamed their misfortune on a mythical curse brought on by Frazee’s sale of the Bambino in order to finance a Broadway musical.

Recent seasons have been far kinder to Red Sox fans, though there will surely always be some among the Boston faithful who will wonder what might have been had Babe Ruth remained at Fenway. But they should remember that as bad as those eighty-six years of often inept baseball were, things could always have been worse. After all, the collateral for that $300,000 loan to Harry Frazee was a mortgage on Fenway Park. Just imagine if he had defaulted, and for all those years the old iconic stadium was owned by the Yankees!


Responses

  1. Thanks for leaving us with a great story for the end of the year, Mike. Safe journeys and blue skies to you. I look forward to reading more from you next year.
    Ω

    • Thanks very much Allan. I enjoyed the brief break; now back in the saddle later today. Hope your holidays were peaceful.

      M-

      • they were, indeed, Mike. Thanks and good luck with staying in the saddle.
        Ω


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