The Yankees needed a power bat in the worst way in 1920, and almost a century ago today, the team announced that they had acquired someone who would be the solution to their power struggles. That man was former Red Sox pitcher/left fielder George Herman Ruth.
Colonel Jacob Ruppert, then the president of the Yankees, dished out the most money ever paid for one player to date, a total of $125,000 to put the slugger in pinstripes. Ruppert also loaned Red Sox owner Harry Frazee somewhere around $300,000 so that Frazee could keep the Red Sox in Fenway Park (not to finance the musical No No, Nanette, which was made years after Ruth’s departure from Boston, as noted in Glenn Stout’s recent book The Selling of the Babe). Frazee had been deep in financial debt when his friend Ruppert and the Yankees came calling about Ruth, a star in the making who Frazee believed was a burden to Boston due to his off-field issues and desire to vacate the pitcher’s mound in favor of the long ball.
The Red Sox brought Ruth up to the majors as a pitcher, and he was phenomenal. Ruth won 67 games with a 2.34 ERA and 16 shutouts through his first four seasons, and his mark of 29 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series remained a record until Whitey Ford eclipsed the Babe in 1961.
However, Ruth believed his true calling was at the plate, where he demonstrated unmatched power. He convinced manager Ed Barrow to let him play left field on days he didn’t pitch in 1919, and he promptly set a record with 29 homers. The Red Sox, keeping with the tradition of the Deadball Era, believed Ruth’s arm was more valuable to the team than his bat. Ruth disagreed and became a difficult personality to have around, and Frazee shipped him off to New York, believing the Babe was the Yankees’ problem now. having this to say about the deal on January 5, 1920:
I think the Yankees are taking a gamble. While Ruth is undoubtedly the greatest hitter the game has ever seen, he is likewise one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men ever to put on a baseball uniform.
Of course, Frazee did have a point. According to Stout’s book, and Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert W. Creamer, Ruth was a handful for managers and owners, demanding things be done his way and causing numerous altercations with teammates, umpires, and ownership. The Babe had to be removed from his crucial start in the 1918 World Series due to a swollen finger that was damaged in an altercation on a train, in which Ruth was believed to have punched a wall, or perhaps a teammate. Even when Ruth arrived in New York, he missed what would have been his first game in pinstripes to hit the golf course.
Despite the baggage that came along with Ruth, the Yankees took the gamble, and the gamble paid off in the form of four World Series titles, a brand new stadium that would become one of the most famous ballparks in history, and the pride of knowing that arguably the greatest player to ever live would forever be linked to the Yankees.
Ruppert agreed with Ruth in that he saw his newest acquisition moving to the outfield full-time, and would draw in crowds using Ruth’s awe-inspiring home run power. Ruth rewarded Ruppert’s faith by continuing to rewrite the record books with 54 dingers in 1920, followed by 59 in 1921. By the end of that year, the Yankees had their first pennant, Ruth was already the career leader in home runs at age 26, and the Deadball Era already seemed to be a distant memory. The scandal-ridden days of the 1919 Black Sox quickly faded as well.
Of course, the Babe still had his issues, and would spend years feuding with Yankees skipper Miller Huggins. It is clear that he was a difficult player to manage and to keep satisfied, but the Yankees saw that as a small price to pay for a player who would revolutionize baseball. Frazee wasn’t wrong in many of his criticisms of the Babe, but judging how things unfolded for the two franchises after the deal, I don’t think the Yankees are upset about making this move.