Says Tracy Ringolsby, Hall of Fame baseball writer ruminating over baseball’s long enough history of ownership troubles: “There’s been troubled ownership in baseball since at least the days of Babe Ruth, who in 1919 was sold by Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee to the New York Yankees for $125,000 because Frazee needed money to fund his Broadway musical No, No, Nannette.”
Say I: Aw, jeez, not this crap again.
Ringolsby, customarily one of the game’s better writers, seems blissfully unaware that the No, No, Nanette myth (notice he couldn’t even spell it right) was debunked several years ago. As a matter of fact, you don’t have go back any further than 2003 to begin discovering some of the actual facts behind the Ruth sale, even if you did know that No, No, Nanette didn’t hit Broadway running until five years after Ruth was sold to the Yankees.
In 2003, Glenn Stout published Impossible Dreams: A Red Sox Collection, a splendid anthology of journalism covering the Olde Towne Team since the formation of the American League a century earlier. Concluding the opening section, “Glory Days,” there appears a Boston Post article, by Paul H. Shannon, datelined 6 January 1920. The headline: “New York Club Gives $125,000 for Battering Babe—Biggest Price Ever Paid for Player.” Included in the article is the quote of a formal statement by Frazee in which he outlined his reasons for selling Ruth to the Yankees in the first place:
Ruth had become simply impossible, and the Boston club could no longer put up with his eccentricities. While Ruth without question is the greatest hitter that the game has ever seen, he is likewise one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men that ever wore a baseball uniform., and the baseball public, according to press reports from all over the country, are beginning to wake up to the fact.
Some people may say that the Boston club sold Babe Ruth simply because of the tremendous sum of money handed over by the New York club, but let them listen to a few facts and perhaps they will change their mind. Ruth is a wonderful box-office attraction and he drew many thousands of people to see the Sox play all over the circuit. Had he been possessed of the right disposition, had he been willing to take orders and work for the good of the club like the other men on the team I would never have dared let him go, for he has youth and strength, baseball intelligence, and was a popular idol. But lately this idol has been shattered in the public estimation because of the way in which he has refused to respect his contract and his given word. But I shall enlighten the public some more.
Twice within the past two seasons Babe has jumped the club and revolted. He refused to obey the orders of the manager and he finally became so arrogant that discipline in his case was ruined.
. . . He left us in the lurch many times and just because of his abnormal swatting powers and the fact that he had been given such tremendous advertising by the newspapers he obeyed none but his own sweet will. At the end you could not talk to him . . . Fans, attracted by the fame of his hitting, went out to Fenway Park unmindful of the steady work of (Stuffy) McInnis, (Harry) Hooper, (Wally) Schang, (Everett) Scott and others who were playing the same steady and brilliant ball, oftentimes handicapped by injuries that should rightfully have kept them out of the lineup. There was no longer any interest in the pennant race. And these same faithful, loyal players really felt it . . .
. . . How many games can you point out that he won single-handed and unaided last season? He won some, I will admit, but many a time it has been some other player on the team that contributed the deciding smash. Only Babe’s long hit always got the credit. We finished in sixth place in spite of Babe and his 29 home runs. This will bring out, I think, very clearly the fact that one star on a team doesn’t make a winning ball club. Cleveland had the great (Nap) Lajoie for years and couldn’t win, Detroit has its Ty Cobb and Boston had its Ruth. A team of players working harmoniously together is always to be preferred to that possessing one star who hugs the limelight to himself . . .
. . . Harmony had departed when Ruth began to swell and I doubt if we could have kept out of the second division this year with Ruth in the lineup. After all, the baseball fans pay to see games won and championships achieved. They soon tire of circus attractions. And this is just what Ruth has become.
. . . I might say in conclusion that the New York club was the only outfit in baseball that could have bought Ruth. Had they been willing to trade players, I would have preferred the exchange, but to make a trade for Ruth, Huggins would have had to wreck his ball club. They could not afford to give me the men I wanted.
This was hardly the first time Frazee chose to rid himself of a malcontent by trading or selling him. During the 1919 season, in fact, when talented but troubled pitcher Carl Mays walked off the mound in the middle of a game, Frazee defied American League president Ban Johnson’s expressed wish for a suspension and sold Mays to the Yankees. Johnson’s bid to block the sale (it took a court order in New York for the deal to stand) provoked the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Chicago White Sox, in turn, to band up against and, in due course, provoke the dumping of Johnson, though not necessarily out of the same motives.
Note the language of Frazee’s statement, however. He was willing to unload Ruth because Ruth, essentially, had become a law unto himself on the Red Sox, even before he launched the contract dispute that led directly to the Yankee sale. Red Sox manager Ed Barrow had made one factor difficult for Frazee: he told Frazee, apparently, that the Yankees had no players in whom he’d be interested.
However, if you’re wondering about whether Ruth moving to the Yankees suddenly launched the Yankees from also-rans (which they’d been until Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston bought them in 1914) to bona-fide contenders, you might care to make note what was recalled in Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg’s 1921: The Yankees, The Giants, & the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York: the Yankees were actually beginning to be seen as a powerhouse before they had Babe Ruth on their radar.
The Yankees had some powerful bats in their lineup late in the second decade of the twentieth century. “Murderer’s Row” was a phrase New York sportswriters began calling the Yankees as early as 1918, long before Babe Ruth joined the team. “The renowned ‘Murderer’s Row’—this mob of baseball criminals and pitcher beaters,” wrote columnist and cartoonist Robert Ripley* that year, “are apt to break out at any moment.” Less than two weeks later Fred Lieb also used the phrase. On June 23 he wrote of “Murderer’s Row, the greatest collection of pitcher thumpers in baseball to-day.”
This group consisted of outfielder Ping Bodie and the entire Yankees infield: first baseman Wally Pipp, second baseman Del Pratt, shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, and third baseman Frank Baker.
As a matter of fact, Spatz and Steinberg, harking again to the writings of the time and place, uncovered the actuality that several baseball observers were picking the Yankees to challenge for and even win the 1920 American League pennant before Babe Ruth walked into the Yankees’ spring training camp. (If you give Frazee the benefit of the doubt, when he said Miller Huggins would have wrecked his team with such a deal, that may or may not call into question just why Ed Barrow—who eventually went to the Yankee front office, about which more anon—didn’t want any Yankee players if the Ruth deal had to be done.)
The Ruth deal did include the infamous $300,000 loan to Frazee, which the Red Sox owner secured with a mortgage on Fenway Park. Frazee wasn’t exactly in solid financial straits. Aside from his theatrical woes of the time, the Red Sox had actually lost money in 1918—the Red Sox had been hit by attrition because of World War I, and Frazee spent heavily to replace them, throwing in $60,000 with three second-string players to get Philadelphia’s Schang, Joe Bush, and Amos Strunk, then dealing cash and players to get McInnis from the A’s.
There was also the little matter of Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. In July 1918, with the Red Sox leading the American League pack, Baker—who couldn’t possibly have known the war would end 11 November—ordered baseball shut down by Labour Day 1918 or its players would be slapped with a “work or fight” order. Come Labour Day, the Red Sox were pennant winners but losing the revenues for the rest of the month was a big financial hit on the team. By the time the fifth game of the World Series approached, with the Red Sox on the way to winning a low-scoring set, the low attendance looked to mean far less than the promised $2,000-a-man winners’ shares. Both the Red Sox and the opposing Chicago Cubs were ready to sit out Game Five until Ban Johnson appealed to the honour of Red Sox star Harry Hooper. The Sox won the Series in six games and the players accepted far less than promised.
Frazee in 1919 also faced pressure from Joe Lannin, from whom Frazee bought the Red Sox and who was now demanding final payments. Whatever else was or wasn’t true about Frazee’s theatrical productions (he’d had a few hits and a few more flops, like any producer), the real impetus for thinking about a Babe Ruth sale and the monies to be reaped—a sale Ruth certainly made easier to swallow with his behaviour aside from the contract threat—seems to have been completing the purchase of the Red Sox.
Now, hark to Peter Golenbock’s Fenway: An Unexpurgated History of the Boston Red Sox: “With Ruth gone, the 1920 Red Sox finished fifth. Frazee’s financial slide continued. He needed more money to finance his new production, No, No, Nanette (which featured the song ‘Tea for Two’).
In October 1920, Frazee advised Barrow that the ship of state was about to sink to the bottom. He also told his manager that Yankee (co-)owner Cap Huston wanted to talk to him about working for the Yankees.
“I’d advise you to see him, and anything you do is fine with me,” Frazee said. Barrow moved into the Yankee front office on October 29, 1920, and during the next three years continued what historians have called “the rape of the Red Sox.”
That referred to the coming deals which made Yankees out of such Red Sox as Schang, Waite Hoyt, Mike McNally, Jumpin’ Joe Dugan, Elmer Smith, and Herb Pennock. The so-called rape didn’t involve the Yankees exclusively; when Hooper held out for $15,000 for 1921, Frazee sold him to the White Sox, who’d just been wrecked by the suspensions of the Eight Men Out. By 1923, Frazee—facing a divorce settlement that ordered him to pay his wife $12,000 a year, an extra $40,000 over the first two years, and some properties—sold the Red Sox to Bob Quinn for $1 million, though it took awhile to finalise the deal while Frazee settled some unpaid bills to concession titan Harry M. Stevens.
The Yankees with Ruth were in the thick of the 1920 pennant race, but they didn’t win the pennant despite Ruth having his single greatest season, to date and, as it turned out, for his entire career. (Yes, you can look it up.) The Cleveland Indians—rallying out of their grief over shortstop Ray Chapman’s death, after being skulled by a Carl Mays fastball—managed to eke out the pennant on the final regular-season weekend, once the 1919 World Series scandal exploded in earnest and drydocked seven of the Eight Men Out as the final weekend began. (First baseman Chick Gandil, the reputed mastermind behind the fix, had already left the team.) The White Sox lost two of their final three, against the St. Louis Browns; the Indians split four with the Detroit Tigers to take the pennant and went on to beat the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) in the World Series.
Finishing third in 1920, a mere four games out of first place, the Yankees would go on to win pennants from 1921-23 but not wrap up their first Series conquest until 1923. The Red Sox didn’t win a thing but they actually improved to fifth place in 1920 and 1921, with their wins increasing incrementally over both seasons. Then the Red Sox fell to the basement, in 1922, a year before Frazee was finally forced to sell the team, and stayed there for nine of the following twelve seasons, in the twelfth of which Quinn sold the team to Tom Yawkey.
Re-read the foregoing very carefully. Harry Frazee did sell or swap Red Sox assets, and financing No, No, Nanette—which became a hit, landing Frazee a cool $2 million in the bargain—was one of the reasons. But Babe Ruth was not one of the assets he sold to finance the musical, which would enjoy a briefly popular Broadway revival in the 1970s. So how else could the Ruth sale have been tied to No, No, Nanette?
Again, it’s easy to answer if you know where to look. No, No, Nanette was the musical adaptation of a stage play known as My Lady Friends, by Emil Nyitray and Frank Mandel. My Lady Friends was written and staged in 1919. And it was My Lady Friends—not No, No, Nanette, whose book Mandel and co-lyricist (with Irving Caesar) Otto Harbach adapted from the earlier play (with Vincent Youmans writing the music)—which benefitted from financing with a portion of what Harry Frazee got for Babe Ruth.
(* — Yes, that Ripley—believe it . . . or not . . . )