Originally published on July 9, 2014.
This is an updated version of an article from last fall, now including things from The Sporting News of the era. Thanks to the Society of American Baseball Research (of which I am now a member!) for the access to the Sporting News archive, which made this update possible.
It could be said that the last vestige of the “Curse of the Bambino” fell last year, as the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in Fenway Park itself for the first time since 1918. To be more exact, they were the first Boston team to clinch the title at home since this game.
Take a look at that game. And notice how different it was: it took only 1:56 to play, it was a day game and only 15,238 were in attendance. It took place in September since the season was shortened due to WWI travel restirctions. Hall of Famers Harry Hooper and Babe Ruth (who was used as a defensive replacement, despite still being primarily a pitcher at the time) were on Boston, and HOF umpires Bill Klem and Hank O’Day were working the corner bases (there were only four umpires in the playoffs back then).
Of course, that ended up being the last World Series game that Ruth would play for the Red Sox, because on December 26 of the following year, he was infamously sold to the New York Yankees. And that’s what brings us to this article, where I take a look at how the Ruth sale was reported in the papers of 1919.. or, rather, 1920, since it took TEN DAYS for them to officially announce it.
It was not a secret that Ruth and the Red Sox were having a contract dispute- going through papers in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the deal, you can find various things about it, and on the day the deal was announced (but before it got out), the Evening World in New York had at least three comments/scuttlebutts/rumors on Ruth’s contract demands in it’s “Live Wires” section. But, still, it’s unlikely anybody thought that he’d get traded, and the New York media was positively giddy when it happened.
The Evening World, for example, had this big comic (click it to expand):
What’s less well-known today is that there were still worries about Ruth’s contract and whether he’s sign. Right next to that cartoon, for example, was a headline saying Ruth was saying he didn’t want to play anywhere but Boston. Obviously, such a comment ended up never amounting to anything.
Anyway, most immediately recognized the significance of Ruth’s move to New York:
- That cartoon in the Evening World shows, amongst other things, a Yankee fan dreaming of a World title (after all, they’d never won one!) and two fans wanting to kiss each other they are so overjoyed. “The biggest thing in the history of local baseball,” said a column on that same page. The Evening Post, also in New York City, declared that the deal instantly launched the Yankees from an “anemic aggregation” of previous years to a club that everyone from “Ban Johnson to the peanut vendor in the stands” would predict to win the title. The Post also said that time would eventually heal the wound the Boston fans had felt… which it did… eventually.
- Frederick J. Lieb of The Sun in New York ended his first paragraph on the Ruth deal with, “And don’t be afraid to pinch yourself either, Mr. New York Fan, because it’s gospel truth.”
- Louis A. Dougher of The Washington Times (no relation to the current newspaper of the same name) instantly recognized how much playing in the Polo Grounds would favor Ruth, while also noting this:
“New York is a city of hero worshipers. No other city in the country so loves to coddle to itself an athletic hero. Ruth is destined from the beginning to make the Yankees quite as great favorites with the New York fans as ever the Giants were, and the Giants ‘belong’ in the metropolis.”
- Of course, Boston fans were… well, as the Washington Times put it:
- Many papers also liked noting how far Ruth had come. The Washington Times and New York’s The Sun both mentioned how he had just six years before been a inmate at a reformatory in Baltimore.
- Red Sox management spun it like this (from The Sun):
- The Utica (NY) Post-Dispatch found a different angle: that Frank Baker (AKA “Home Run Baker“) would be playing with Babe Ruth, making the old home run hitter stand alongside the new home run hitter.
- And then there is The Sporting News. The “Bible of Baseball” at the time, like others at the time it was reporting about Ruth and his situation for awhile, but, interestingly enough, on the Jan. 8 issue, they were only able to put up a brief item, only three paragraphs long and under “LATE NEWS ITEMS”. In fact, another article on the front page was entitled “MORE TRADES ABOUT READY TO BE SPRUNG”, and it was about how Harry Frazee was going to try and make more trades after pulling off the trade of Braggo Roth and Red Shannon to Washington. In other parts of the issue, Ruth is referred to clearly as if he was still a member of the Red Sox!
- Of course, eventually the dust did settle and the next issue, on Jan. 15, there was plenty of news on the fallout. Three of the five stories on the front page were about the Babe: “FRAZEE FINDS DEFENDER IN HIS RELEASE OF BABE RUTH”, “HUG IS KIND OF BOSS TO HANDLE THE BABE” and “RUTH AS YANK DOES NOT SCARE YANKS”. James O’Leary, in the first of those articles, was sympathetic to Frazee, mentioning the contract disputes and threats that Ruth had been doing. He also, however, worried that this set a bad example and also noted in a sub-headline that “None But Yankees Rich Enough”. Some things never change, I guess.
- Other signs that things never change: An article in The Sporting News on what Ruth’s deal with the Yankees meant in business terms (the writer, Thomas Rice, was skeptical if the Yankees would get a big enough business boost to justify Ruth’s large $125,000 salary). This isn’t that different from what certain sports business journalists do to this day, although obviously the business of sports is far different today- partially because of Ruth, in fact, who was arguably the first transcendent sports star in the mold that Michael Jordan and LeBron James would later inhabit.
- In the Sporting News‘ questions and answers segment, a person from Atlanta asked if Ruth was “a Hebrew”. (A: “No; he’s a Catholic.”)
- It is not until Page 5 that talk about the reaction in Boston comes in. Well, at least, talk that I can see- these papers are old, after all, so some parts are illegible. Boston fans, it is said, are “up in arms” and have sworn “dire vengeance” upon Frazee. Many of the writers in Boston are noted to want Frazee to quit and sell the team immediately, as an example.
- Also mad at Frazee, according to reports in The Sporting News: Ruth himself, who is said to take the slights by Frazee against him as motivation.
- While I couldn’t find anything for free online that should how Boston’s papers reacted first-hand (only the second-hand accounts from Sporting News), a New York Times article from the time mentioned that they had cartoons up of various other things in Boston that could be for sale, including the library, Boston Commons, and Fenway Park itself, but that the Boston Herald had urged fans not to rush to judgment.
Of course, it turned out that, if anything, not rushing to judgment was probably the worst possible move, as Ruth only went on to become, well, Babe Ruth.
this is wonderful! ‘anemic aggregation’ indeed — sounds like the writer was prescient, talking about what the Yankees are gonna trot out on the field come April.