Exactly 100 years ago today, on December 26, 1919, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold his team's biggest star, pitcher and occasional outfielder Babe Ruth to Colonel Jake Ruppert's rival New York Yankees for $100,000, plus a mortgage on Fenway Park.
You all know the story. From that moment on, the fortunes of the two clubs headed in opposite directions. The Yankees, who hadn't won much of anything to that point, would become sports' greatest dynasty. The Red Sox, with their roster gutted by this and other trades, wouldn't win another World Series until 2004. It was almost as if a curse hovered over the team...
1. No, "No, No Nanette!"
Let's clear this up first. Contrary to what Ken Burns' Baseball documentary told us, No, No, Nanette did not factor into the Ruth deal whatsoever.
Yes, Harry Frazee was a theatrical producer, and reports on his success in Broadway vary depending on the source - some say he was unsuccessful with only one real hit, some say he had several hits. However - and this is important - No, No, Nanette did not debut until 1925, five years after Ruth first took the field for the Yankees and four years after Frazee sold the team. However, he may have been financing My Lady Friends, which was in theaters around the same time.
2. Fire sale
While he may not have needed money to finance a play, it's generally agreed by baseball historians that Frazee did need money. He'd only bought the team less than three years earlier, and even though they'd won the 1918 World Series during his ownership, attendance had steadily declined year-over-year for reasons completely out of his control.
Boston -- and the rest of the United States -- had endured the end of World War I and the influenza epidemic that followed, the latter of which struck Boston especially hard. By late 1919, personal debts started piling up, including a $262,000 note to Joe Lannin, from whom Frazee had purchased the team.
3. 30,000 reasons to get out
When this story is recalled, it's usually as a measuring stick for those who throw away a sure thing and set themselves up for failure. However, if it were as simple as that, Harry Frazee would never have made the deal at all. Simply put, despite his prodigious talent - he'd shattered the home run record the previous year - Babe Ruth had gotten too big for the Red Sox to handle.
In a story that would be all too familiar a century later, he threatened to sit out the following season unless Red Sox management doubled his salary on the three-year contract he signed the previous year. That salary? $10,000 per year. It didn't help that Ruth loved to brawl, carouse, drink, and sometimes eat himself into a coma.
4. Public reaction was all over the place
Even before he became a Yankee, Babe Ruth was the talk of baseball. No one in history - and arguably, no one since - could whack the ball like the Babe.
The trade wasn't announced until January 4, 1920. When it was, it became front page news. The Boston Globe, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune blared the news as a front-page headline. If SportsCenter existed in 1920, the deal would easily have taken up over half of the show.
Curiously, in light of what happened in the century that followed, the reaction of Boston fans varied wildly. While many were devastated that Ruth was gone, others had grown weary of the Babe's antics and figured that he would ruin the Yankees. "I admire Frazee's willingness to incur the enmity of the fans, at least temporarily, in his efforts to produce a happy, winning team," said one fan to the Boston Globe.
5. The White Sox also could have had Ruth
Frazee and American League president Ban Johnson hit it off badly from the beginning, as Frazee, the theater producer, was not part of the old boys club of American League ownership. Things reached a boiling point at the tail end of World War I when Red Sox pitcher Carl Mays flipped to the Yankees over his own contract dispute -- which Johnson considered a betrayal, as contracts were considered sacred in the days of the reserve clause. Meanwhile, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey had his own dealings with Johnson, so the eight American League owners thus split into factions.
When Ruth threatened to sit, he could thus go to either the Yankees or the White Sox. And yes, the White Sox did make an offer - $60,000 and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson in return for Ruth. This was mere months after that same team (allegedly) fixed the World Series, mind you, for which Jackson would be banned for life. The same scandal that Ruth had helped baseball recover from.
Yes, the Red Sox could have gotten an even worse deal out of this -- less money and a player who would be banned after the following season.
6. This was not the only deal the Red Sox made
If the Red Sox had stopped here, it still would have hurt their chances of contending for the American League title throughout the 1920s, but it wouldn't have killed them outright. But Frazee didn't stop there because he couldn't afford to. He became dependent on selling players to the Yankees -- one of the only teams that could make a deal with them, remember - which resulted in the loss of twelve players in the next three years, including Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt and catcher Wally Schang.
The core of a team that won four World Series throughout the 1910s fell apart. Imagine watching those World Series-winning Marlins teams implode, only more drawn-out. And, you know, with people who care about them.