Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 2, 2020

The Deal Of The Century Is A Century Old

If in all of sports there ever was a gift that kept on giving, surely it was the one that Red Sox Nation bestowed upon the Evil Empire in the final days of 1919, long before fans of either the Sox or Yankees or the franchises to which they are devoted had acquired those modern day nicknames. One hundred years later, on the centenary of the late December deal which shaped the character and fate of both teams for generations, fans in the Bronx still relish while those in Kenmore Square still rue the day that Babe Ruth became a Yankee.

In that distant year it was the Boston club that possessed the better pedigree. The Red Sox had won the World Series five times and might well have claimed a sixth but for the refusal of the New York Giants to recognize the champion of the upstart American League as worthy of a season-ending title series in 1904. Boston’s most recent championship was but one year old, won in September 1918, four games to two over the Chicago Cubs.

That Series was notable for several reasons, including when it was played. With the United States fully engaged in World War I by 1918, the Great Game’s regular season was cut short by the government’s “Work or Fight” order requiring draft-eligible men to sign up for a war-related job or face conscription. That led to the only edition of the Fall Classic played entirely in September. The same wartime atmosphere caused “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be played during the 7th inning stretch of Game 1, presaging the day when the song would become the national anthem and precede the start of virtually every sporting event in the land. The 1918 Series also weathered rumors of a strike by players, whose pay was threatened by low gate receipts. Finally, while it was impossible to know at the time, that Series was also the last to end with a Red Sox celebration for more than eight decades.

The winning pitcher in two of Boston’s victories was the left-handed stalwart of the Red Sox staff, 23-year-old Babe Ruth. Although he was already moving into more of an everyday role because of his bat, having started half the number of regular season games as in either of the two previous years, Ruth took the mound for Boston in Game 1 and threw a complete game shutout, holding the Cubs to just six hits, all singles. He had to be that sharp because his teammates managed to plate but one run, which came on a 4th inning RBI single by Stuffy McInnis. Four days later at Fenway Park Ruth was almost as good, holding Chicago scoreless for seven frames before finally being touched for two runs in the 8th inning. But that was a strong enough effort to secure a 3-2 Red Sox win that put the home team on the brink of a title they would finally claim two days later.

But as good as Ruth was as a pitcher, not just in that World Series but throughout those early years of his career, he was far more valuable making regular trips to the batter’s box. His eleven home runs tied Ruth for the major league lead that season, but the very next year he began to truly reshape the Great Game when he slugged the ball out of various parks twenty-nine times, setting a new major league home run record. That prodigious feat and his outsize personality brought Ruth to the attention of sports fans throughout the country, and he wasted no time using his increasing fame to pressure Red Sox owner Harry Frazee for a substantial raise over his $10,000 a year salary.

As even casual fans know Frazee had grown tired of Ruth’s demands, and was in not position to meet them had he been willing to do so. Frazee had gone into debt to buy the Red Sox in 1916, and the note was due. In New York, Colonel Jacob Ruppert, owner of the Yankees, needed to make his baseball team profitable since the brewery that was his main business was about go dry with the advent of Prohibition. Yankee manager Miller Huggins told his franchise’s owner that the answer to winning games and filling seats was to bring Ruth to Gotham. So, for the fabled sum of $100,000, Ruppert did.

The rest is history not just of two franchises that proceeded to go in very different directions, but also of the Great Game itself, which Ruth brought out of the dead ball era with each uppercut swing. He obliterated his own home run record during his first season in New York, smacking fifty-four round-trippers, a number that he would eclipse twice more during his career in pinstripes. The team’s first championship came in 1923, the opening season for the franchise’s new stadium in the South Bronx. Long after Ruth’s retirement many, many more would follow, as succeeding generations of New York players picked up the Babe’s mantle. Meanwhile in Boston the long decades in the desert unfolded, a sad tale that not even greats like Ted Williams or Carl Yastrzemski could rewrite.

In recent years of course, with ownership that’s willing to spend whatever it takes to capture a crown, the Red Sox have finally proven that they too can win championships. But the decades of doubt and despair are hard to shake, and every year that Fenway Park goes dark while the Great Game goes on in other ballyards there are fans of a certain age who shrug their shoulders, resigned to failure as if it is their predetermined fate.

Those fans will probably not be surprised to learn that as much as decades of results on the field speak to the lopsided nature of the deal that brought Ruth to the Bronx, the full financial story turns the transaction into a brazen theft. As researched by University of Wisconsin economics professor Michael Haupert and reported by Ruth biographer Jane Leavy, the $100,000 purchase price was paid in four yearly installments, making Ruppert’s cost with interest $108,750. But Frazee needed cash, so at the same time as the Ruth deal the Yankees owner gave him a personal loan of $300,000 at 7 percent, with Fenway Park as collateral. Aside from the ignominy of having the deed to the Red Sox home held hostage in Gotham, after five years Frazee had paid Ruppert $115,000 in interest, meaning the Red Sox owner had effectively paid the Yankees to take Babe Ruth off his hands. Happy 100th anniversary Red Sox fans, and thanks again!

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