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Bambino's curse begins as Red Sox trade Ruth
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 1999
When they awoke on Jan. 6, 1920, and opened their morning newspapers, they discovered a landmark had been shipped to New York. The Babe was gone, sold by Red Sox owner and theatrical producer Harry Frazee.
"Boston's greatest baseball player has been cast adrift," John J. Hallahan wrote in the Boston Globe. "George H. Ruth, the middle initial apparently standing for "Hercules,' maker of home runs and the most colorful star in the game today, became the property of the New York Yankees yesterday afternoon."
Boston hasn't been the same since.
From their inception in 1903, the Red Sox had appeared in five World Series and had won them all. In 1916 and 1918, left-handed pitcher Babe Ruth had started three games and won them all, and his 0.87 earned-run average included 292/3 shutout innings, a record that would last 43 years.
By 1918, Boston manager Ed Barrow was beginning to experiment with Ruth as an outfielder and, occasionally, a first baseman. Ruth batted .300 and tied Tilly Walker of the Athletics for the American League home-run title. In 1919, Ruth became more hitter than pitcher. His 29 home runs were an all-time record. But the Red Sox stumbled to sixth place.
And then Ruth was gone.
Call it the Curse of the Bambino if you believe in such things. Bostonians do. Since Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees, Boston hasn't won a World Series. The Yankees, who never had won an American League pennant, won their first in 1921. Two years later, they won their first World Series. In 1999, they won their 25th.
Ruth had made $5,000 in 1917, $7,000 in 1918. After the World Series victory, Ruth demanded $10,000 for 1919. "Frazee yelled as if I were trying to rob the cash drawer at the old Frazee Theater in New York," Ruth wrote in his biography. "For $10,000 he said he'd expect at least John Barrymore. I asked him what good Barrymore's profile would be with the bases filled in a tight ball game." Ruth later changed his demand to $15,000 for 1919, or $30,000 for 1919-21. In the spring of 1919, Ruth and Frazee shook hands on the three-year deal. It would last one year.
Frazee and two others had bought the Red Sox in 1916, paying less than half the $675,000 sale price in cash, Frazee making up the rest in notes to former owner Joe Lannin. Frazee had his roots in the theater. He had produced a string of Broadway hits. But by 1918, with World War I on, his theater revenues and World Series gate receipts dropped. He was trading starting players for reserves and cash. And Lannin was calling in his notes.
His office was in the theater that bore his name, just two blocks from the Yankees offices. One of Frazee's drinking buddies was Col. Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston. He and Jacob Ruppert co-owned the Yankees. "I believe that it was over a few glasses of beer that Huston first learned of Frazee's need and that if the amount was right he could obtain me for the Yankees," Ruth wrote. Huston talked it over with his co-owner.
Ruppert was a millionaire brewer and with prohibition on the horizon he was unwilling to pay too much in cash. The deal they worked with Frazee called for $125,000 in cash -- more than double any previous price for a player -- and a $300,000 loan. The deal was signed Dec. 26, 1919. Two days later, Frazee broke the news to Barrow, who had suspected it. The manager told the owner: "You ought to know that you're making a mistake."
Before it was announced, Ruppert sent manager Miller Huggins to Los Angeles to meet with Ruth, to be assured he'd play for the Yankees -- and behave himself. Ruth agreed, but added: "If I go to New York, I'll want a lot more dough than the $10,000 Frazee paid me last year." The Yankees agreed to double his salary for 1920.
The story of the sale that appeared in the New York Times called Ruth "such a sensation last season that he supplanted the great Ty Cobb as baseball's greatest attraction, and in obtaining the services of Ruth for the next season the New York club made a ten-strike which will be received with the greatest enthusiasm by Manhattan baseball fans." It also suggested, "It would not be surprising if Ruth surpassed his home-run record of twenty-nine circuit clouts next summer."
The Curse of the Bambino was a blessing for the rest of baseball. In 1920 it came to light that the Chicago White Sox had thrown the 1919 World Series. The game could have been irreparably harmed. But Ruth, in the media capital of the world, became, in essence, its savior. He lived with gusto, to say the least. He was bigger than life, a phenomenon. He grabbed baseball by its flannel and cleats and pulled it back to respectability.
Ruth hit 54 home runs in 1920, three more than his three closest challengers combined. He hit 59 the following year. Starting in 1923, Ruth led the league in home runs eight of the next nine seasons, peaking at 60 in 1927.
It was the Golden Age of Sports, with Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bill Tilden and Bobby Jones becoming American icons. And Ruth led the parade.
Frazee used the money from the sale of the Babe and numerous other Red Sox to remain solvent and survive until he sold the team for $1.25-million in 1923.
Two years later, he hit it big with the musical No, No, Nanette. He was the toast of New York -- but only briefly. On June 4, 1929, Frazee died of Bright's Disease, a form of kidney failure.
In 1919 and for the next 18 seasons, the Red Sox foundered in the second division, finishing last nine times. They didn't win another pennant until 1946.
With the sale of Ruth, Frazee became anathema in Boston (and still is). One night when he still owned the Red Sox, he and a young lady took a taxi to Fenway Park. It was his way of attempting to impress her. The cabbie overheard his boasts about the team he owned and asked if his passenger really was the Harry Frazee. Frazee said he was. The driver flattened him with one punch.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.