By Glen Sparks
Harry Frazee needed some cash; Babe Ruth was worth a lot of it.
Frazee, a theater owner and theatrical producer, owned the Boston Red Sox. He led a three-man group that bought the team from Joe Lannin on Nov. 1, 1916, for approximately $675,000. Frazee was 36 years old at the time.
The Peoria, Ill., native liked to wheel and deal. Early on in his tenure as the Red Sox’ boss, he tried unsuccessfully to buy the great Walter Johnson from the Washington Senators for $60,000. He also tried, again unsuccessfully, to woo former Red Sox skipper Bill Carrigan out of retirement.
But, Frazee was not entirely without money problems. Lannin still held the new owner’s notes for much of the team’s purchase price. He wanted payment in 1919; Frazee, though, lacked the requested $125,000.
What was Babe Ruth worth?
Ruth broke in with the Red Sox in 1914 as a left-handed pitcher. He fashioned a 23-12 won-loss record in 1916 and led the American League with a 1.75 ERA. He followed that up with a 24-13 record in 1917 and a 2.01 ERA.
Even so, the Babe was restless. He didn’t like sitting on the bench between starts, watching the action. He wanted to play every day. He wanted to hit. (Through 1917, Ruth had smacked nine homers in 361 career at-bats.)
In 1918, the future Sultan of Swat put on quite a show. He pitched in 20 games (19 as a starter) and went 13-7 with 18 complete games and a 2.22 ERA. He also began seeing regular action in the outfield. (The Babe’s first appeared in a game at a position other than pitcher on May 6, 1918, according to Robert Creamer’s book Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.) Ruth went to bat just 317 times that season. He still led the league with 11 home runs.
Ruth put that mark to shame in 1919. He blasted 29 round-trippers, more than anyone in baseball history. Edward Nagle “Ned” Williamson, playing for the Chicago Colts in 1884, held the previous record with 27. (Williamson took advantage of a right-field fence at the Congress Street Grounds that stood a scant 215 feet from home plate.)
Baseball fans loved Ruth. They stared in awe as he belted 500-foot, 550-foot … 600-foot (?!) clouts. Ruth swung big. He also lived life big. Too big, maybe. Ruth already had gained a reputation for his late-night carousing.
He and Manager Ed Barrow clashed more than once, sometimes in the early-morning hours as the Babe tried sneaking back into his hotel room after curfew. Barrow even assigned a coach, Dan Howley, to keep a watch on Ruth. No one, though–not Howley, not anyone–could keep up with Babe Ruth.
To Frazee’s dismay, Ruth also understood his own value to the team, as well as to the box office. He wanted a raise following that big 1919 campaign. A salary of $10,000 a season just wasn’t good enough, the Babe said. He wanted $20,000 in 1920, or he might just sit out. Frazee gulped. The Babe wanted a lot of money. Lannin wanted even more money.
Frazee did what he thought he had to do. He called the perennial also-ran New York Yankees. Owners Jacob Ruppert and the fancily named Tillinghast L’Homedieu Huston were in the market for players. What did they want for Ruth?
The Yankees and Red Sox agreed to a deal that would alter the course of baseball history. Lannin would get $100,000, according to the Creamer book, more than double the amount ever paid for a baseball player. Plus, Rupert agreed to loan Frazee $350,000. The deal was signed Dec. 26, 1919.
Rupert dispatched his manager, Miller Huggins, to inform the Babe. Huggins headed out to southern California and met Ruth on a golf course at Griffith Park in Los Angeles on Jan. 4, 1920. Ruth quickly spotted the fiery 5-foot-2 Huggins.
“Have I been traded?” Ruth asked, according to the Leigh Montville book The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth.
Huggins told Ruth about the sale. Well, I don’t know, the Babe said. “I’m happy with the Red Sox,” Ruth decided, according to the Creamer book.
Ruth signed the deal the next day. He’d get $20,000 a year for the next years, plus a $20,000 bonus. The New York papers loved their new player. Boston newspapers were divided. Yes, Ruth was a great player, but, according to a Boston Post columnist, Ruth’s “faults overshadow his good qualities.”
Ruth, from California, called Frazee a “cheapskate.” Frazee, in turn, called Ruth “the greatest hitter the game has ever seen.” He also called him “selfish and inconsiderate.”
The Bambino proceeded to slam 54 home runs in 1920, 35 more than runner-up George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns. He hit 659 homers in 15 glorious, often controversial, years with the Yankees. He led the team to seven pennants and four World Series titles. And, Red Sox fans never let Harry Frazee forget about it. (Frazee would sell the Red Sox in 1923 for $1.15 million.)
The guy sold the greatest player ever to finance his production of No, No, Nanette, the Boston critics howled. Or, did he? No, No Nanette, the musical version of My Lady Friends, did not premiere until Sept, 16, 1925, nearly five years after the Ruth sale. What did the play have to with anything? But, as Montville points out, Frazee used the money from the Ruth sale to finance his theatrical productions. That included No, No, Nanette.
The Red Sox finished in fifth place in 1920 (72-81), actually somewhat better than in 1919 (66-71, sixth place), Ruth last season with the club. They also finished fifth in 1921 (75-79). Then, the bottom dropped out. From 1922-33, the Sox ended up in last place nine times. Twice, they finished next to last. Once, (in 1931) they ended the year in sixth place. Had the curse of the Bambino been cast?