View Full Version : When Sold, Babe Wasn't the Babe Yet

02-23-2004, 11:17 PM

As television lights and flashbulbs illuminated Alex Rodriguez's coming-out party at Yankee Stadium last Tuesday and his arrival at spring training on Saturday, somebody would occasionally be heard saying, "I think this is bigger than Babe Ruth, I really do." Or that "this" was the Yankees' biggest moment since the Babe was acquired from the Red Sox in 1920.

Nothing could be further from the hype.

The Babe's arrival didn't provoke anything like A-Rod's introductory news conference at Yankee Stadium, for three reasons. One, the House that Ruth Built was three years from being built. Two, no television cameras, no Internet, no radio to speak of. And three, the Babe was not yet the Babe we think of now.

Adulation for the Babe has always involved his home runs and World Series moments in the 15 seasons after he joined the Yankees, not what he meant on the day he joined them.

Actually, the Babe didn't arrive in New York until nearly two months after the deal. The day it was announced, Jan. 5, 1920, he was in California playing golf and negotiating his role in a motion picture that would be shot in Haverstraw, N.Y., later that year on August mornings before he hurried back for 3 o'clock games at the Polo Grounds.

The only semblance of a news conference occurred in Boston, where the Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, announced to baseball reporters the deal that dispatched George Herman Ruth, a 24-year-old slugger and left-handed pitcher, to the Yankees for what in that era was an exorbitant sum: $125,000, and a $300,000 loan for the mortgage on Fenway Park.

For Frazee, a New York theatrical producer who was friendly with the Yankee co-owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, the Babe's departure represented good riddance.

"The price was something enormous," Frazee acknowledged that day, according to Dan Shaughnessy's book "The Curse of the Bambino" (Dutton, 1990), "but I do not care to name the figures. It was an amount the club could not afford to refuse. No other club could afford to give the amount the Yankees have paid for him, and I do not mind saying I think they are taking a gamble."

Some gamble. That word would haunt Frazee.

"I do not wish to detract one iota from Ruth's ability as a ballplayer nor from his value as an attraction," Frazee continued, "but there is no getting away from the fact that despite his 29 home runs, the Red Sox finished sixth in the race last year. What the Boston fans want, I take it, and what I want because they want it, is a winning team, rather than a one-man team that finishes in sixth place."

But without the Babe and other players Frazee gift-wrapped to the Yankees notably the Hall of Fame pitchers Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Red Ruffing, along with third baseman Joe Dugan the Red Sox would remain in the lower half of the eight-team American League for the next 14 seasons, including nine last-place finishes.

"The other players," Frazee added, "have little incentive for great effort when the spectators can see only one man in the game, and so the one man has an upsetting influence on the others. Then again, Ruth has shown neither the Boston club nor myself, nor the Boston fans for that matter, much consideration. He has been rather selfish."

Frazee recalled that in 1919, the Babe dictated his contract, three years at $10,000 a year. And now the Babe was daring to demand $20,000 for the 1920 season.

"Ruth has been insubordinate on occasions," Frazee said, "and has insisted upon having his own way to such an extent that he endangered the discipline of the whole squad."

When the Babe was tracked down in California, he growled to reporters that Frazee was "not good enough" to own a ball club, much less the Red Sox. They had won a record 5 of the first 15 World Series, including 1916 and 1918 with Ruth as their ace pitcher and sometimes slugger. In 1919, his first season as a full-time outfielder, he batted .322 with 114 runs batted in and those 29 homers; as a part-time pitcher that season, he had a 9-5 record with a 2.97 earned run average.

"He has done more," the Babe said of Frazee, "to hurt baseball in Boston than anyone who was ever connected with the game in that city."

Quite an accurate prophecy, considering that more than eight decades later the Red Sox have yet to win another World Series. But the Babe was in no hurry to get to New York. In late February, he first returned to Boston, where he hoped to wangle from Frazee a percentage of his purchase price.

"He wouldn't even see me," the Babe said.

Eventually, on Feb. 28, the Babe arrived in New York by train at Penn Station, minutes before boarding another train taking the Yankee contingent to Jacksonville, Fla., for the start of spring training. His anticipated appearance at Penn Station prompted a few dozen fans to greet him, but soon he was on the Yankees' train, shuffling a deck of cards.

With a record 54 homers that season, he was about to get the Yankees going toward their 26 World Series championships. But the day in 1920 when the Babe finally arrived in New York on one train and boarded another for spring training, not much of a fuss was made. That's understandable. At the time, the Babe was not yet the Babe