(Excerpt from my manuscript for the upcoming book “The 1927 Yankees: Anatomy of the Greatest”)
Babe Ruth had appeared in 130 games for Boston in 1919, pitching in only 17 of those and posting a 9-5 record to run his career mark with the Sox to 89-46. However, during the season the Babe had found that smacking a baseball around was considerably a lot more fun than pitching one, and during the summer he was somewhat relieved of his regular pitching duties to concentrate on hitting, and hitting home runs.
In a season when only 448 home runs were hit in the majors, and while the rest of Ruth’s teammates combined for just four, coming from only two other players, the Babe pounded 29 homers, almost three times greater than the runner-ups. He broke the 17-year-old American League record of 16 held by Philadelphia’s Socks Seybold, Ruth hitting his 17th on August 14 in Chicago. He then also broke the 35-year-old major league single season record of 27 set by Ned Williamson, the Babe slamming his 28th on September 24 at the Polo Grounds.
It should be noted that Williamson’s round-trippers back in 1884 were more of an aberration. At the time, the seven-year veteran had never hit more than three homers in a season, and would not hit more than nine in a season the rest of his career. But four Chicago players hit more than 20 home runs in ‘84 due to an incredibly short poke of only 180 feet down the left field foul line at their home in Lake Front Park. There, a ground rule double in ’83 became a homer in ’84, and no less than 25 of Williamson’s home runs were hit at Lake Front Park.
Ruth actually did most of his long ball damage on the road in 1919, smashing 20 of his 29 homers in enemy parks. When he hit his 29th of the season off Rip Jordan in Washington on September 27, it meant that the Babe had hit at least one home run in each of the junior circuit’s ballparks during the campaign, a nice way to round out his record season. In addition, he clubbed four grand slams to tie a major league record. All the damage was done while batting .322, including a 20-game hitting streak, and leading the league with 114 runs batted in and 103 runs scored. Clearly Ruth was the most productive hitter in baseball and it was obvious where his brighter future lied, and the Bambino’s pitching days would have to take a back seat and be a thing of the past moving forward. Despite Ruth’s tremendous efforts, the Red Sox took a dive in the standings and finished the season in sixth place.
Many rumors had been floating around Boston. When team owner Harry Frazee and two others bought the two-time defending champion Red Sox in December 1916, they paid a portion of the sales price in cash, with Frazee responsible for making up the rest in a promissory note to former owner Joseph Lannin. Having led the league in attendance in both ’14 and ’15, the turnstiles in Boston had steadily become less attractive to fans. By ’18, with the Great War on, Frazee’s theater revenues and baseball gate receipts both dropped, he may have been a little over-extended, and he began exploring trading star baseball players for cash reserves.
The defending champion Red Sox slipped to a sixth-place finish in the league in ’19 before only about 417,000 paying customers, just the fifth best total in the league. With Lannin holding a note coming due in November, rumors began that Frazee was selling the club.
On October 23 The New York Times reported Frazee’s denial, while he simultaneously conceded that he was “willing to part with the club if he could get his price”. But Frazee wasn’t selling mainly because he “considers his star slugger, Babe Ruth, as the greatest attraction to the national game”.
The Mays controversy hadn’t been pushed under the carpet, it was just on the sidelines. While the series’ validity was being debated in the papers, Johnson still had not formally documented the Mays trade to the Yankees as of late October, and he even went so far as to issue two different sets of statistics out of his office.
Then came an injunction and a judge’s ruling on October 25 that American League clubs could conduct business without interference from the loop’s president. Four days later, the National Commission withheld New York’s third-place share of the postseason money claiming the nine games that Mays won should be disallowed, thus dropping the Yanks in the standings. It led to Huston and Ruppert paying the shares to the players out of their own pockets.
While Frazee’s deadline approached and the battle surrounding Mays continued to play out, Ruth had been enjoying life. In the weeks following his record-setting 1919 season, the 24-year-old slugger capitalized on his newfound popularity while fans and writers speculated as to whether he could surpass the record when the schedule was returned to 154 games for the upcoming season. The home run king was barnstorming across America playing in exhibition games with the White Sox’s Buck Weaver, reportedly earning $10,000 for the tour, close to the Babe’s salary for an entire baseball season. On the West Coast he would make a movie entitled Heading Home the purpose of which was to obviously exploit Ruth’s marketability and make money.
His record-breaking season and tour earnings led the Babe to believe that he was being grossly underpaid by the Red Sox, and the fact that he was already under contract didn’t seem to bother him a bit. Despite entering the second year of an existing three-year contract, he told the press that he demanded a new deal that would double his salary and pay him $20,000 for the ’20 season, or he was prepared to sit it out. Holdouts were usually associated with players as a ploy to sign a contract, and he was taking it to a new level in demanding a raise on an existing contract, something practically unheard of. The mandate amounted to more money for a season than proven veteran star Eddie Collins of Chicago was earning with his $15,000 salary, and it would put Ruth with Ty Cobb of Detroit, the veteran master batsman who in ’19 had claimed his record 11th batting title in 13 years and was generally recognized as the greatest baseball players in history, if not the greatest.
The young slugger’s remarks were carried in the October 30 issue of The Sporting News. Ruth offered, “I’m the best drawing card in the game now. Ty Cobb’s salary is $20,000 a year and I intend to get the same money. You can say for me that I will not put on a Boston uniform next year if I don’t receive twenty thousand iron men.”
Frazee certainly didn’t take too kindly to the Babe’s decision not to honor his existing contract and subsequent large salary demand. The Boston owner was being backed into a corner, but there was a lot more to it than just a player wanting a raise.
Despite his incredible baseball ability, the fact remained Ruth had become increasingly problematic by testing team rules, undermining his manager at times, refusing to pitch at times, and actually skipping the Red Sox’s final game of the season in Washington to participate in a lucrative exhibition game in Baltimore. The stunt received immediate disapproval from his Red Sox teammates, Barrow, and the owner. What made it worse, Frazee had held a day in his slugger’s honor in September, and had given him a $5,000 bonus.
Moreover, Ruth’s behavior off the field was getting too much to bear. The Babe’s personal life had become one of satisfying an insatiable appetite for everything in excess, with his constant partying, drinking, extra-marital affairs and automobile accidents.
Ruth’s behavior on the field and off the field had all had played out while the Boston press continued to fire unflattering publicity his way. They portrayed him as a selfish, arrogant and ungrateful ballplayer. Player and owner were on a collision course. Without question, something had to give.
In the meantime, on a much larger scale, the country was preparing to enter a new age. The culmination of a temperance movement had national Prohibition of alcohol right around the corner. It was going to practically coincide with the dawn of a new decade.
In reality, Prohibition itself had made no reference to actual alcohol content, citing only “intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes” as being illegal, but as laid out it would have a profound affect on one major league baseball owner specifically, the Yankees’ Colonel Ruppert, who had been active in attempting to protect the interests of his other business, the family brewery. In doing so he merely echoed general public sentiment, not to mention that of his fellow brewers across the country, that beer ought to be excluded from the “dry” law, particularly beer of low alcohol content.
The debate had escalated when it was revealed that Congress hadn’t selected the legal limit based on any chemical or scientific data on the actual properties of intoxication. Instead, the figure was simply borrowed from the Bureau of Internal Revenue back in February of ‘19, which used one-half of one percent (.5 percent) to distinguish a taxable malt beverage from a nontaxable one. On October 28, 1919, Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s veto and passed the Volstead Act to enforce the 18th Amendment. The act dealt with the national prohibition of alcohol and set the legal alcohol limit at .5 percent, and it was going into effect within three months.
Ruppert was immediately among the first to challenge the law. Asserting that beer containing 2.75 percent alcohol or less could not be considered intoxicating, he brought suit in the Supreme Court against a United States Attorney and the Acting Collector of the Internal Revenue Service. Ruppert sought an injunction to restrain the federal government from enforcement, prior to the effective date of the 18th Amendment, the wartime prohibition sections of the Volstead Act. The case was argued for two days beginning on November 20, 1919.
Ruth continued to tell the press that he wanted $20,000 for the ‘20 season, and he wasn’t going to budge. It was one of a collection of huge headline baseball stories that were making the off-season one like no other before it, each a major story that could stand alone, but collectively a trio that dominated the newspapers, and each with important underlying pieces.
Frazee had failed to make his required $262,000 payment to Lannin on November 1 for a number of reasons, and speculation abounded. Theories ranged from Frazee’s displeasure in being assessed a portion of major league baseball’s proposed settlement in the Federal League case to his just plain not having the money available and his credit in Boston reputedly a bit unstable.
In his other business, Frazee had continued to operate as usual. He was looking to buy another theater in New York. He also had just opened the play My Lady Friends, written by Frank Mandel, at the Comedy Theater on December 3, 1919, the 23rd show he had produced. It would most likely take Frazee a while to turn a profit on his investment, which understandably placed him probably not in the greatest of liquid financial positions, despite running each of his business interests as separate entities.
As for his baseball team, Frazee constantly chirped to the press that he wanted another winner, it was his duty to give the Boston fans a winner, and he was prepared to make a major shakeup to get one. Frazee admitted that any player on his club was available for trades with the exception of star outfielder Harry Hooper, a longtime Red Sox stalwart. Such a statement was crystal clear; the Babe was on the block. Frazee also admitted that several possible trades were being explored with various clubs, with speculation being Detroit, Chicago, New York and Washington.
When Ruppert had successfully procured Miller Huggins away from the Cardinals to manage the Yankees, he had found the right man for the job, despite Huston’s strong opposition. Huggins was a brilliant and underrated manager who not only loved the game and understood it; he was also a great judge of talent and could help develop it. Under Huggins’ leadership and armed with aggressive player acquisitions, the Yanks rose to third place in 1919. To continue their rise, the “Mite Manager” had made it known that the Yankees were going to be active in the off-season.
Huggins knew what the franchise needed to reach the next level, and to shed their second-class status in New York behind John McGraw’s Giants. The entire baseball world knew the storm brewing up in Boston with Ruth. Everyone knew that a year earlier the Red Sox and Yankees had hooked up together for a big trade. Everyone also certainly knew that less than six months earlier the Yanks had procured disgruntled star pitcher Mays during his “strike” from Boston amid a squall of controversy that drew the ire of league president Johnson and divided the loop into two factions. But what a lot of people didn’t know was that Frazee was in essence pigeon-holed into dealing with only a few junior circuit teams, and while a smaller deal was being talked about with Washington, Frazee found easier channels of communication to explore with his two “Insurrecto” buddies in Chicago and New York.
On the surface, the White Sox appeared a viable option for Frazee. Unfortunately for Comiskey, whose main business was baseball, he was kept very busy dealing with accusations that a number of players were tainted. It was also pointed out in the press that Comiskey probably erred when he didn’t bring the matter up at the recent American League meeting to get the rumors out in the open for all to discuss. It meant that those ballplayers rumored of being involved in a possible fix would be tough to move in any trade.
Turning attention to the Yankees, it was reputedly Huston who was first approached that Ruth could be pried away from the Red Sox. The Colonel and Frazee were cordial drinking buddies in New York social circles, and the two teams were comfortable with each other with regard to player transactions.
Huston was quick to discuss the possibility of acquiring the Babe with Ruppert. The two owners had certainly entertained thoughts of purchasing other premier players in the $50,000 range, but that figure probably wasn’t close to what was needed to procure Ruth. Huggins’ opinion assured Ruppert that the promising young slugger was worth every penny of an asking price that undoubtedly was sure to be much larger.
The two Yankee colonels were wealthy men in their respective rights, but money was certain to be a drawback. Uneasy about their status as tenants of the Giants in the Polo Grounds, they had been trying to build a new ballpark for the past few years. However, plans had just not worked out for one reason or another. Still, if they did take a turn for the better, large amounts of cash would be needed rather quickly to pay for such a venture. There was also the ongoing court battle against Johnson regarding the Mays controversy, and the legal fees associated with it. As such, the Yankees’ responsibility toward maintaining ample liquidity added a different dimension to any possible deal for the Babe.
Ruppert personally was also dealing with other pressing issues. Mainly, he had serious concerns about his family’s Manhattan brewery continuing as a viable entity as Prohibition was fast approaching, and with it a severe decline in that particular income stream. It seemed only natural that he would shift more of his focus to his baseball team.
Conveniently, Frazee’s business office was located in his theater, which was just a few blocks from the Yankees’ offices. That enabled him and the two colonels to communicate quickly and to work out the particulars of any possible trade. It was a complicated situation with many elements. Quite frankly, it appeared that Huston and Ruppert were the ones negotiating from a position of strength.
Eventually, a suitable deal for both sides was reached, the third between the two clubs in a little over 12 months’ time. On December 26, 1919, the Red Sox owner secretly gave all of New York a belated Christmas present when fountain pens were put to paper, but he wasn’t Santa Claus, and Frazee was getting a present of his own in return.
Unable to get satisfactory players from New York as advised by Red Sox manager Ed Barrow, Frazee agreed to sell Ruth to the Yankees and the standard one-page uniform agreement to transfer a player listed “the sum of Twenty-Five Thousand ($25,000) Dollars cash and other good and valuable considerations”. But Ruth wasn’t going to be had for only that amount, for an elaborate six-page memorandum accompanied the document and was notarized by Byron Clark.
Clearly spelled out and typed in the first section of the memorandum, the cash price agreed upon was “the sum of ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND ($100,000) dollars”. Continued at the top of the second page, was the agreement that $25,000 was immediately payable “in cash on the execution and delivery of this agreement” and the remaining balance in three separate $25,000 notes at six percent interest due on each November 1 of the next three years. Regardless of how the money was changing hands, the lucrative cash purchase of Ruth for $100,000 was the highest price ever paid for a ballplayer, and practically twice the amount of any previous transaction. But that was only part of the contract’s complex financial language.
Various clauses were also incorporated on paper for the Yankees’ protection. If Ruth did not report to the Yankees by July 1 the deal was off and any cash already paid would be returned. If the Babe demanded more money and the Yanks deemed “it necessary to increase such salary in order to retain the services of said player”, the Red Sox would have to chip in. If Ruth demanded more greenbacks in the form of a “bonus”, once again, the Boston club would be obligated for a portion above a stipulated amount. The various clauses meant that Huston and Ruppert were anticipating some level of trouble dealing with the young slugger, and they were taking appropriate measures to guard their interests. Moreover, the entire deal with Boston and Frazee was contractually contingent upon getting the Babe to agree, or it was off.
After the accord was struck, Huggins personally boarded a train and traveled across the country for the west coast. Not only was he going to look over some minor league talent, he was going to meet with Ruth to personally discuss things, and it was a meeting that carried some major implications.
With a signed agreement already in place to purchase Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, Yankees’ manager Miller Huggins arrived in Los Angeles the morning of January 5, 1920. Initially at a loss where to find the mighty slugger, Hug tracked Ruth down at the Griffith Park golf links and waited quietly and patiently on the clubhouse porch for the Babe to finish his round.
Somewhat dumfounded, Ruth tried to excuse himself for a previous engagement, but Huggins wasn’t going to let him get away that easily. He offered to drive him wherever he was going, and one stop was the Babe’s hotel. It was an automobile ride that practically clinched the deal.
Nobody questioned Ruth’s baseball talent, so Hug talked about all kinds of things and especially emphasized that the Babe would have to behave himself in New York. Ruth, in turn, was interested in how much more money the Yanks would pay him.
After some haggling, a raise was promised, and the Babe verbally agreed to honor the remaining two years left on his existing Boston contract. According to Huggins, the deal was completed by five o’clock. Hug had certainly been business-like, and the manner in which he tied up the deal certainly boded well for the relationship between the Mite Manager and the slugger.
It also meant that all parties involved got what they wanted. Boston owner Harry Frazee converted his disgruntled asset into much-needed cash to keep the Red Sox solvent and help meet obligations, the Yankees received a much-needed slugger and gate attraction, and Ruth got a much-wanted hefty salary increase, making him one of the highest paid players in the game.
Coincidentally, January 5 was a day that carried both bad and good news for Yankee owner Colonel Ruppert regarding two of his business interests. The bad; just 11 days before national Prohibition was going into effect, the Colonel and his brewery lost a major battle, all his various protests and objections essentially having fallen on deaf ears. In the case of Jacob Ruppert, Inc, v. Caffey, U.S., 251 U.S. 264, the Supreme Court upheld the Volstead Act as within the government’s war powers and, more significantly, affirmed the right of Congress to limit the alcoholic content of beer by defining as intoxicating all beverages of more than one-half of one percent alcohol (.5 percent).
Ruppert’s desperate attack had been thwarted. It was a final blow not only to his brewery, but also to all the breweries across the country.
The good news that same day was the public announcement of the Ruth transaction. Ten days after being put on paper, and it was the most expensive trade ever in the history of baseball. With most New York newspaper reports erroneously inflating the price paid for Ruth into the $125,000 range while most Boston newspapers had it at $100,000 cash, the sports world was stunned, and reaction was immediate. It eclipsed the attention generated by the Carl Mays acquisition and ensuing controversy.
In Boston, Frazee attempted to explain his reasons in a lengthy statement. He offered that he thought it an injustice to keep the Babe with the Red Sox, who were viewed as fast becoming a one-man team. Frazee also hinted that the money received from New York could improve the ball club by adding other players from teams other than the Yankees.
It was an interesting assessment considering that the Yanks had finished ahead of Boston in the standings and the Red Sox needed pitching and infield help. The Yankees certainly had adequate young personnel in both areas such as 20-game winner Bob Shawkey and promising southpaw Hank Thormahlen on the mound, and Del Pratt at second base, one of the best at his position. Any of the three could have gone to the Red Sox in the Ruth trade.
Reputedly, it was Sox manager Ed Barrow that had advised Frazee to get the cash for Ruth instead of players, and who better to make a total assessment of what the Babe meant to a team than its skipper. Nonetheless, Barrow was still up in arms at losing his best player, but he had to make the best of the situation.
Around Beantown there was a curiously mixed reaction to the Ruth trade. Some fans and sportswriters were understandably outraged, but just as many seemed pleased to see the young slugger go.
In the Boston Evening American, Nick Flatley wrote that the Red Sox had “lost the greatest drawing card the game has ever known, and the esteem of many of thousands of supporters”. John J. Hallahan wrote in the Boston Globe, “Boston’s greatest baseball player has been cast adrift. George H. Ruth, the middle initial apparently standing for ‘Hercules’, maker of home runs and the most colorful star in the game today, became the property of the New York Yankees.” And cartoons quipped that the title of Frazee’s play in New York, My Lady Friends, were the only kind he had left.
On the other hand, James O’Leary was solidly behind Frazee. He wrote in the Boston Globe, “Considering what the club received for its rights to him (Ruth); the risk of carrying such a valuable player, and all the other circumstances, it is hard to see how Frazee could have turned down New York’s offer for the star, and it looks as if he had made a good bargain”.
An article in the Boston Evening Transcript concluded, “Red Sox players doubtless will be pleased with the disposal of the incorrigible slugger, and team play should be in more evidence”.
In New York, reaction was delight. The story of the sale that appeared in The New York Times the following day suggested, “it would not be surprising if Ruth surpassed his home-run record of twenty-nine circuit clouts next summer.” It also called Ruth “such a sensation last season that he supplanted the great Ty Cobb as baseball’s greatest attraction, and in obtaining the services of Ruth for the next season the New York club made a ten-strike which will be received with the greatest enthusiasm by Manhattan baseball fans.”
Even further insight was offered in The New York Times on January 7. “Frazee says the Yankees were the only club which could have bought Ruth. ‘Had they been willing to trade players,’ says the Boston owner, ‘I would have preferred the exchange, but to make a trade for Ruth Huggins would have had to wreck his ball club. They could not afford to give me the men I wanted. Ruth’s great value did not appeal to all the club owners. I could not get (“Shoeless” Joe) Jackson (from Chicago) in trade for him and I know of at least two other stars that Ruth could not have been traded for.”
Not only was the Yanks’ acquisition of the Babe viewed as an improvement on the field, it was undoubtedly a giant step towards winning the hearts of New Yorkers. After acquiring him, Ruppert immediately “doubled” his salary to $20,000 annually, but the increase was payable in the form of installment bonuses during the next two seasons, meaning that the Red Sox were contractually liable for a portion, whether the Yankees exercised that provision or not. Regardless, the reported figure put Ruth with Cobb as the highest paid players in the game, two men who went about their business in completely different styles, and it was approximately five times the average player’s salary.
Ruth wasn’t particularly pleased at many of the reasons Frazee offered for his departure, specifically the part about him being a liability to the Red Sox, and the Babe fired back at his former boss from the west coast. He said, “Frazee is not good enough to own any ball club, especially one in Boston. It is not necessary for me to say that he is unpopular, for that is a fact well known by every one interested in the game. He has done more to hurt baseball in Boston than any one who was ever connected with the game in the city. The Boston people are too good for him, and it will be a blessing for them when he steps out or is ousted out.” Ruth also offered that he vowed to prove Frazee wrong by his performance in New York.