It feels good to be a Red Sox fan these days, doesn't it? Four World Series championships in the last 15 years is the envy of all baseball. It must have felt the same way 100 years ago, when the Red Sox were coming off their fourth championship in just seven years. But, as fans back then were about to find out, nothing lasts forever.
Ninety-nine years ago, on the morning of Jan. 4, 1920, Bostonians awoke to shattering news from which they would not recover for 86 long years. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee had sold the team's -- in fact, baseball's -- biggest star to the New York Yankees. Babe Ruth, then not yet 25 years of age, had already racked up 90 victories as a left-handed pitcher in his still blossoming career. Even more noteworthy, though, was the 29 home runs he had hit in 1919, smashing the previous record.
And he was just coming into his own.
It's hard to imagine nowadays what stunning news the deal was. This was long before free-agency existed, it was when a team owned the rights to a player forever, unless it decided to sell him to someone else. Frazee had a reason for selling Babe Ruth, though. He needed the dough. Big-time.
His theatrical producing business had hit a dry spell and was bleeding money. So, too, were the Red Sox, who had not recovered from the government's shutdown of the 1918 season a month early (it was during World War I). This was when baseball teams' only source of revenue was gate receipts. To lose a whole month was devastating. There was another reason Frazee needed the money -- he lived life in the fast lane and he wasn't about to skimp on his life-style.
The deal for Ruth was for $100,000 cash, an unheard of amount a century ago. However, unannounced at the time was that Yankee owner Jake Ruppert also gave Frazee a $300,000 loan with Fenway Park as collateral. Think about it, the Yankees held the mortgage on Fenway Park and could call the loan at anytime, thus putting the Boston Red Sox right out of business. Jake Ruppert and the New York Yankees had Harry Frazee right where they wanted him, in their hip pocket.
But, hey, look at the bright side. Ruth had morphed into a full-time hitter, and pitching wins, right? The Red Sox still had the best pitching staff in baseball. But not for long. The Ruth deal was just the tip of the iceberg.
The following October, Frazee tipped Sox manager Ed Barrow that the Yankees were looking for help in the front office. Barrow, with Frazee's blessing, got himself appointed Yankee general manager and immediately started cherry-picking the Red Sox roster.
Just two months later, Frazee shipped pitcher Waite Hoyt (237 wins, Hall of Fame) and starting catcher Wally Schang to the Yankees for three nonentity players and, of course, cash for Harry Frazee. The next year it was pitcher Sam Jones (229 wins), pitcher Joe Bush (195 wins), and shortstop Everett Scott to the Yankees for some more nonentities and -- you guessed it -- cash. In August 1922, third-baseman Jumpin' Joe Dugan was sent to New York for -- wait for it -- cash. The Yankees still lacked a front line left-handed pitcher, so the next off season the Sox sent them Herb Pennock (240 wins, Hall of Fame), and threw in George Pipgras (102 wins) for good measure. In return the Red Sox got three more nonentities and Harry Frazee got cash.
So it was that in 1923, when the Yankees won their first World Series in franchise history, Bob Shawkey was the only pitcher on the staff who won a game (he had 16 of them) who had not been sold to them by Harry Frazee. The starting catcher, shortstop, and third-baseman were also former members of the Red Sox, sold to the Yankees by Harry Frazee. Oh, then there was the guy in right field who batted .393 that year, though with only 41 homers (which was still more than anyone not named Ruth had ever hit), and who was by then as famous as the president of the United States. He was a former Red Soxer, too.
By that time, Harry Frazee had bailed out of baseball. Having drained the Red Sox of all their worthwhile assets, he sold the team in June 1923. Only a few short years before, the Sox had been the envy of all baseball, but now they were nothing more than a doormat and would remain so for years to come. But Frazee's fast-lane lifestyle never had to suffer a bit.
A word about "No, No, Nanette." It's gotten a bad rap. The mythology is that Frazee sold Ruth to finance the play. But "No, No, Nanette" didn't open on Broadway until April 1925. That was more than five years after Ruth was sold and almost two years after Frazee dumped the Red Sox. Harry Frazee sold his soul to Jake Ruppert for one reason only: to line his pockets.
The estimable Dan Shaughnessy, in his classic book, "The Curse of the Bambino," tells of a night that Frazee was on the town with a pal of his. They picked up a couple of girls at a downtown club and, in order to impress them, took them over to Fenway Park to show them around. Their cab driver asked Frazee if he really was the owner of the Red Sox. Frazee allowed that indeed he was. Whereupon cabbie decked him with a single punch. If the citizenry of that day had known about the incident, they'd have held a parade in that cab driver's honor.
So, enjoy the present Red Sox success while you can. It might go on for another year or two, or even ten, but, life being what it is, it won't go on forever. It's unimagineable to even think that the current ownership would engage in such treachery, but things change in ways that we can't foresee. Let's just count our blessings that we live in such glorious Red Sox times.
Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.
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