When the Boston Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals 3-0 on Oct. 27, 2004, giving them the World Series, the entire city of Boston felt like a weight had been lifted.
It had been 86 years since the team’s last Series win, in 1918, and no matter the confluence of circumstances that combine to make a team a winner or loser, many over the years blamed the drought on the Curse of the Bambino.
Throughout the 1910s, the Boston Red Sox were a superior ball club, winning four World Series, while the New York Yankees had yet to make the championship, much less win one.
Decades after the fact, the theory developed that the sale of Babe Ruth — by far the best player in baseball at the time — from the Red Sox to the Yankees, supposedly to finance the production of a Broadway musical called “No, No, Nanette,” was such a disaster that it left the Sox cursed to lose for almost a century.
“The Selling of the Babe,” by sportswriter Glenn Stout, gives the lie to the theory — the factors behind Ruth’s sale were both far more complex and mundane than that, and the deal also was not nearly as ill-advised at the time as people later thought — while also providing fascinating early snapshots of both America’s pastime and the game’s greatest hero.
Ruth began his career in 1914 as a pitcher. Quickly becoming one of baseball’s best, he won 67 games over his first three seasons. In 1918, he set a record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the World Series with 29, a mark that would stand for 43 years until Yankee Whitey Ford smashed it in 1961.
As it happens, his 1918 Series was almost marred by what would become another Ruth trademark — his wild, carousing, often careless life off the field. After a strong start, he was removed from Game 4 early due to a finger “swollen to nearly twice its size due to some mysterious altercation on the train from Chicago to Boston, one that put his fist into contact with either a solid steel wall, a window or the jaw of another passenger.”
A giant of a man for the time — 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds when the average American man, Stout writes, was “only 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-7 and barely 140” — the married Ruth was a regular at Boston’s houses of ill repute.
“Finding Ruth after a bender — usually sleeping it off somewhere, often in the back alley behind a brothel, his pockets turned inside out — became something of a pastime for his teammates,” Stout writes. “Stories of Ruth’s nighttime escapades were well known among Boston working men . . . and some of their wives.”
In addition to drinking and womanizing, Ruth completed the trifecta as an incessant gambler.
“Ruth loved to gamble but didn’t really seem to get the concept that he was supposed to win,” Stout writes, noting that Ruth once “gambled away the bulk of his season’s pay in only a few weeks.” (For a time, the team paid him on a “per diem” basis, so he wouldn’t keep blowing all his money.)
Ruth was the sort of gregariously clueless person who operated completely without self-awareness and was so fun to be around, he was forgiven an endless litany of indiscretions.
Stout writes that “he did just what he wanted, impulsively, whether it was take a bite from another fellow’s sandwich, use his roommate’s toothbrush or let out an enormous belch,” and was given full leeway, like someone’s adorable kid brother who can’t stop blurting out inappropriate insults.
But Ruth’s devil-may-care attitude was less cute when it became devil-only-cares-about-me. Ruth, Stout writes, was remarkably self-absorbed, as terrible a team player as one could imagine. If he could skip a game to make a few extra dollars, even with the pennant on the line, then that’s what he would do. When the Red Sox tried to put him in the outfield, he complained that he got “sleepy out there in the field.” In one of the most egregious examples, he skipped what would have been his first day on the field in a New York Yankee uniform so he could play golf instead.
The Boston fans’ love for, and constant forgiveness of, their star pitcher only increased, however, when it became clear that he had a talent for hitting baseballs out of the park.
At the time, home runs were “a rare and almost accidental occurrence, a happy accident no one would dare actually try to accomplish.”
The sport was still in its “dead ball” era, when baseballs were more loosely stitched together than they are today, and were also reused far more frequently. This made the balls difficult to hit, leaving games low-scoring exercises.
The 1918 World Series, that last Red Sox victory for a while, was also the last in which neither team hit a home run the entire series.
Ruth’s talent first revealed itself during the team’s batting practices, which were open to the public. Baseball hitting then was all about strategy and control. Hitters swung “parallel to the ground,” hoping to “simply make contact and slap ground balls or line drives between fielders.”
But not the gigantic Ruth. He “attacked the ball, swinging a baseball bat almost like a lumberjack wielding an ax, but loose and free with a pronounced uppercut.” Fans young and old had never seen anyone swing like this, and had also never seen similar results, with the ball often flying out of the stadium.
It’s hard to fathom today, but at the time, team powers-that-be considered his home-run swing a hassle.
“As he took batting practice, Ruth’s coaches and teammates just shook their heads and rolled their eyes. You couldn’t hit like that; everybody knew it,” writes Stout. “But since Ruth was a pitcher, they let him be. When he didn’t get his way, he’d mope and moan around the ballpark and be a bother to everyone. It was easier just to let him have his fun.”
Amazingly, the great baseball minds and talents around him missed what young fans grasped instantly — that they were watching something not just special but literally game-changing.
“No one realized it yet, but Ruth’s swing was revolutionary,” writes Stout. Not only did Ruth’s uppercut send the ball for distance like no one before him, but the way “the angle of his swing nearly matched the downward drop of the pitch” meant that “Ruth’s bat stayed in the hitting zone for a longer time than that of other hitters.”
The increasing interest in this talent led to a repeated back-and-forth between Ruth and the team’s management throughout the 1918 and 1919 seasons that went something like this: Realizing the adulation that came with home runs, Ruth no longer wanted to pitch. But the team needed their star pitcher, not this home-run foolishness, so they pacified him with bonuses or whatever else it took to get him back on the mound. Then, sometime later, Ruth would threaten to leave, or he’d miss a few games in protest, and the process repeated.
He even once threatened, in a negotiating ploy, to leave baseball for boxing. The Red Sox, correctly, did not take this seriously. Throughout 1918, Ruth’s pitching diminished while his slugging intensified. He even hit home runs in three consecutive games, only the second time this had been accomplished. (The first, oddly, had also been by a pitcher: Yankee Ray Caldwell in 1915.)
By 1919, Ruth realized that home runs were his future. The Red Sox did not, expecting him on the mound.
Numerous factors combined that season to make it Ruth’s last with the Red Sox. For one, he went on a home-run-hitting spree that resulted — despite baseball playing just a 140-game schedule that year — in his breaking the single-season record, ending with 29.
In addition to changing the game of baseball, home runs brought him into a financial category that the Red Sox — whose owner, theater producer Harry Frazee, was burdened by debt, and by consistently low attendance at Fenway — could ill afford. (That said, Frazee was cash poor but not wealth poor, and didn’t produce “No, No, Nanette,” which would become a theater-defining smash, until well after Ruth became a Yankee.)
Another factor, dealt with in depth in the book, was a long-running enmity between Frazee and the owners of the Yankees and the Chicago White Sox, and Ban Johnson, the founder of the American League, who was then the most powerful man in baseball. Johnson served as the equivalent of the sport’s commissioner despite secret financial interests in several teams, including the Cleveland Indians, that he would openly favor in trades and disputes. The three owners spent years in various courts against Johnson, eventually displacing him.
Before they did, though, numerous problems created by the feud — combined with gargantuan contract demands by Ruth, the fact that neither Frazee nor Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert owned his respective team’s ballpark, and losses that Ruppert, whose fortune had come from brewing, was set to face due to the coming prohibition on alcohol — placed the two owners in danger of losing their teams, a mess that the Ruth deal would help solve for both.
Officially, Frazee sold Ruppert the rights to Ruth for $100,000, paid in installments. Unofficially, the two also made a side deal — astounding by today’s standards, given the intense rivalry between the teams — that briefly gave the Yankees the mortgage on Fenway Park.
In his first year as a Yankee, Ruth, assisted by the move to the more slugger-friendly Polo Grounds as well as the beginning of the sport’s “live ball” era, shattered his previous year’s home run mark with 54, then broke his own record again the following year with 59. He’d hit 60 in 1927, and that mark would stand until 1961.
By the 1920s, Ruth’s power had made the home run baseball’s premier attraction, and the sale of Ruth to the Yankees would prove to be a good deal for all involved including Frazee, who sold his club in 1923 for $1.2 million, double what he had paid.
And the Curse of the Bambino? A fiction, invented years later, after the Red Sox’s long dance with futility was already apparent. Stout lays the blame for the team’s decades-long failures on the “mismanagement and institutional racism” of longtime owner Tom Yawkey and his immediate successors. He also makes the case that, due to the difference in the home ballparks, Ruth would have hit far fewer home runs as a lifelong member of the Red Sox.
As for Ruth, he led the Yankees to four World Series victories, cementing the legacies of both himself and his team, and changed the game off the field as well. Always hungry for better financial opportunities, in 1920, Ruth became the first player in baseball history to sign with an agent.
“From that moment on,” Stout writes, “the selling of the Babe was a full-fledged business. The modern game — the Babe’s game — was now fully in place.”
Written by Larry Getlen