By Dr. Harvey Frommer
Babe at Fenway in Yankee uniform with admirers.
The stunning news that Giancarlo Stanton, one of baseball’s best sluggers is now a member of the powerful New York Yankees, It is almost like a flashback to the World newspaper headlines of January 6, 1920.
“YANKEES BUY RUTH AND HOME RUN BAT FOR OVER $100,000.”
“Pay Highest Price in History.”
“Col. Ruppert Says New York is Carrying Out Policy to Get a Winning Team.”
And,the World reported: Ruth himself said he was not surprised: “When I made my demand on the Red Sox for $20,000 a year I had an idea they would choose to sell me rather than pay the increase, and I knew the Yankees were the most probable purchaser.”
That choice may have been pushed by Yankees manager Miller Huggins. Just 5' 4," just 120 pounds, the former Cardinal manager had steered the Yanks to third-and fourth-place finishes. When the 1919 season ended, Ruppert asked Huggins what was needed to make the Yankees better. The rough-around-the edges tough little man answered: "Get Ruth from Boston."
The Babe held out on signing a new contract with Boston after the 1919 season, demanding $20,000 per year—twice as much as he had made that season. He planned other ventures: becoming a boxer, becoming an actor.
What the young slugger did freaked out Red Sox owner Harry Frazee who had a home in Boston, but his main residence was on Park Avenue. He had made the comment that the "best thing about Boston was the train ride back to New York." A show business wheeler-dealer who owned a theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan, close by the New York Yankees offices, Frazee was a gambler. And he was always hustling, scuffling about for a buck, always overextended in one theatrical deal or another.
Miller Huggins went to Boston to find out from Frazee what it would take to acquire the young George Herman Ruth.
“Frazee would start talking at $125,000,” Huggins told Ruppert.
Taken aback by the price, Ruppert thought Frazee was blowing smoke. The top price for the sale of a player to that time had been $50,000.
Huggins responded "Bring Ruth to the Polo Grounds, and he'll hit 35 homers at least."
There was no doubt Ruth stood head and shoulders over most players of his time physically and talent-wise. But the youngster was a problem --testing and breaking team rules, undermining his manager by openly criticizing him, refusing to pitch at times, angering his teammates and team owner by skipping the Red Sox’s final game of the 1919 season and playing in a lucrative exhibition game in Baltimore.
Ruth’s off-field antics were becoming more and more outlandish. Excess feeding of an insatiable appetite for food, drink and women. Wrong judgments and automobile accidents characterized his way of life. Boston media portrayed the big slugger as selfish, arrogant and ungrateful.
Attendance at Fenway Park dropped during 1919 despite the presence of the Babe. Broadway producer Frazee due to the success of his shows wasn't broke; however, he always looked for extra money to pay off loans. Ruth provided that opportunity.
All along as the owner of the Yankees, the shrewd beer baron businessman Ruppert, knew he had to acquire a superstar attraction who could power his team to victory and put more fannies in the seats.
Early on he had his eye on the talented outfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, a star on the Indians. That never happened because Cleveland traded the illiterate Jackson to the White Sox. Had it happened there probably would never have been the “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919. And Ruth would not have been a Yankee.
Co Yankee owner Colonel Huston and Red Sox owner Harry Frazee had a more than cordial relationship. Buddies, they were part of the New York social circles. They drank a lot together at bars, parties, events, restaurants. Huston was a soft touch for every New York City sports writer, always buying a drink or two for them.
Frazee was an even heavier drinker than Huston. His business office was located in his theater just a few blocks from the offices of the Yankees in midtown Manhattan. Location became everything as Ruppert and Frazee did a lot of talking about baseball and trades.
It is not clear who first proposed the move of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees. What matters is that an offer was put on the table. The date was December 26, 1919. Ed Barrow, manager of the Red Sox, implored Frazee to go for cash only.
"Losing Babe Ruth is bad enough," Barrow argued. "But don't make it tougher for me by making me show off a lot of 10-cent ballplayers that we got in exchange for him."
Into play came the standard one-page uniform agreement to transfer a player. It listed “the sum of Twenty-Five Thousand ($25,000) Dollars cash and other good and valuable considerations.”
An elaborate six-page memorandum accompanied the document. Typed, double-spaced, on onion-skin paper with two flowery signatures in bold script - Jacob Ruppert and H. H. (Harry) Frazee, it was a memorandum between the two outlining the terms of the sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees.
The cash price agreed upon was “the sum of ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND ($100,000) dollars.” In 2017 money that would be worth $1,463.224.24.
At the top of the second page was the statement that $25,000 was immediately payable “in cash on the execution and delivery of this agreement” and the balance in three separate $25,000 notes at six percent interest due on each November 1 of the next three years.
So the total cash purchase of Ruth for $100,000 was the highest price ever paid for a ballplayer. There were also several protective clauses Ruppert inserted. Not fine print but another important part of the history making deal were promissory notes valued at six percent interest. Those notes actually made for the Yankees winding up paying the Red Sox closer to $110,000 for Ruth. Ruppert also agreed to loan Frazee an additional $300,000, for which the Yankees held a mortgage on Boston’s Fenway Park. If Frazee defaulted on the loan, the Yankees would own Fenway Park. Ruppert had a way with contracts.
When everything was added up, the final cost to the Yankees was worth $400,000 -- nearly the full amount Ruppert and Huston had paid for the entire Yankees franchise just four years before.
Although the deal was signed by the owners on December 26, 1919, they agreed to wait until the “Big Bam” agreed to terms to announce his sale to the press. A key clause spelled out that the entire transaction with Frazee and the Red Sox was contractually contingent upon the agreement of George Herman Ruth. Without the Babe’s agreement –no deal.
Babe, like Stanton, agreed.
Frazee was rid of an unhappy star and turned a problem into much-needed cash, ultimately millions of dollars.
Ruppert and the Yankees had landed a star slugger and gate attraction who would help make the Bronx Bombers baseball’s greatest franchise.
And Ruth was in the money more than ever with a huge salary increase and was now one of the highest paid players in the game, well on the way to becoming a legend.
The most celebrated sports figure of his time, perhaps of all time, the Babe hammered the first home run ever in Yankee Stadium. Number 3 said: "I could have had a lifetime .600 average, but I would have had to hit them singles. The people were paying to see me hit home runs."
"No one hit home runs the way Babe did," his teammate Lefty Gomez said. "They were something special. They were like homing pigeons. The ball would leave the bat, pause briefly, suddenly gain its bearings, then take off for the stands."
The golden age of Yankee baseball can be traced directly to their acquisition of George Herman Ruth.
And now we wait and see what the Stanton Yankees will turn into.
(Some of this article is excerpted from Frommer’s The Ultimate Yankee Book http://frommerbooks.com/ available at fine bookstores and Amazon.
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