In perhaps the most famous MLB transaction of the 20th century, the Boston Red Sox sold pitcher/outfielder Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season. Harry Frazee, Red Sox owner at the time, liked to finance theater productions, and people say that he left the team in bankruptcy because of that. After he sold George Herman Ruth to the Yankees, the team was regularly in the last place of the American League and failed to finish with a .500 record until the 1934 season.
With Ruth in the fold, the Yankees went on to win seven World Series championships. They won the 27 trophies in total after the Ruth trade, and the Red Sox suffered at the hands of what became known as the “Curse of the Bambino”: after getting rid of Babe in 1919, a year after they lifted the trophy, they didn’t win another Fall Classic until 2004, and 86-year drought.
Playing for the Yankees, Babe Ruth became a figure bigger than his sport, a true legend. But have you stopped to wonder what if the Boston Red Sox hadn’t sold him to the Yankees?
A two-way star
Babe Ruth was a large man. Yes, he was powerful and had hit a home run or two in his tenure with the Red Sox in the 1910s, but he was also perhaps the best left-hander in the sport at the time.
That’s why the Red Sox, until the last two years of his stay there, virtually refused to take him off the mound. And, since he retired with a 2.28 ERA in 1221.1 frames, one can understand that stance.
But one has to wonder if he wasn’t sold to the Yankees, would the Red Sox have let him bat full-time? Or would they keep him as a two-way star? Would he have reached legendary status having to share his time between pitching and hitting?
The way I see it, his legacy and impact is so grand because the Yankees let him bat full-time. He was a good pitcher, but he was the best hitter, a truly game-breaking talent in the batter’s box.
Ruth’s offensive prowess, in addition to other factors such as a livelier ball, the outlaw of some illegal pitches and the use of more baseballs per game (up to those days, MLB used only one ball per game, which got very dirty and didn’t travel so far) helped change the game to a more offensive-oriented one.
Consider the home run leaders of the 1919 season:
Now, the 1920 leaders:
And the 1921 leaders:
You see Ruth always leading the pack, but at the same time, you notice that the rest of the leaders increase their respective counts. It’s easy to concoct theories about Ruth’s performance, in combination with a livelier ball, leading to hitters adopting a “free-swinging” style with the intention of hitting the ball hard and with an uppercut stroke.
How crazy was it for a player to hit 54 home runs in a single season around those days? Well, when the Babe knocked 29 balls out of the park in 1919, the baseball world was in shock. Imagine virtually doubling that number a year later; in his first season as a full-time batter, which came with the Yankees in 1920, Ruth hit more homers (54) than every other AL team — and all but one other big league squad.
Had he stayed with the Red Sox, there’s no guarantee that they would have turned him into a full-time hitter. Of course, they could have done it. We will never know.
With Ruth, the Yankees won seven World Series. Is it possible that they win that many rings without Babe’s larger-than-life presence in the lineup? Perhaps they could have, but it’s highly unlikely they would have reached such spectacular heights, even given how talented Ruth’s eventual supporting cast was.
Babe Ruth not only changed baseball, he also changed the fate of two franchises. He was that big.