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12/26/09 2:30 PM EST
Cursed anniversary: Babe's sale turns 90
MLB remembers storied transaction sending Ruth to Yanks
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
Saturday marked the 90th anniversary of the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees. There was a time when that topic got people's blood boiling. Now, it is just a transaction in the bio of the greatest player ever. If you look up the history of Dec. 26, in fact, that secret deal in 1919 doesn't look as big anymore. That same day in 1776, the British lost at the Battle of Trenton. Chairman Mao was born that day in 1893; FM radio was patented that day in 1933; Time magazine's 1982 Man of the Year went instead to the personal computer; the United Soviet Socialist Republic was formally dissolved that day in 1991; and disasters occurred with an Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and a Taiwan earthquake in 2006. Even in Massachusetts, where generations of frustrated Red Sox faithful once winced whenever that deal was brought up, it is probably more meaningful that on this day in 1620 the first pilgrims landed at what became New Plymouth. This is the day after Christmas, and it is the start of a week-long Kwanzaa holiday celebration. It is a generally happy time for masses of people, and kids are outside playing with their new presents. Is the big deal a big deal anymore? Of course it is to Yankees fans, because that was the day their team officially owned the contract of pitcher/outfielder George Herman Ruth, then age 24, and it was the impetus for an organization that would rack up 27 World Series titles. You can find his likeness all over new Yankee Stadium, where people congregate on Babe Ruth Plaza. It is notable for baseball history and society in general, because Ruth changed the game perhaps more than anyone, introducing the home run as theater and introducing the concept of the sports mega-celebrity. For Red Sox fans, it is a footnote, maybe a reminder of how life was like before five years ago, a date to acknowledge and then move on to the day's events at hand. They remember where they were when the so-called "Curse of the Bambino" was ended in October 2004, when the Red Sox overcame a 3-0 Yankees lead in the American League Championship Series and then swept St. Louis. Five Decembers ago, Red Sox season-ticket holder Stephen King and a coauthor were already out with "Faithful" -- the first of volumes of books that offseason chronicling the end of a constantly discussed "curse." Boston would win again in 2007. In fact, the Red Sox and Yankees tied for most world championships in this decade being closed, each with a pair. The Yankees beat the Mets in 2000 and they beat the Phillies last month in six. Yankees fans point perpetually to the number 27, to account for the long haul, to accentuate Ruth's influence. Red Sox fans consider that last one New York's turn in a horse race of dueling noses. "Not bad ... 1918's now just another year we won the World Series," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein -- then 30 and a native of Brookline, Mass. -- said the night Boston won it all in 2004. "This is what we've all been waiting for. We can die happy." "I'm going to miss it a little bit now that they've won," Boston Globe columnist and "Curse of the Bambino" author Dan Shaughnessy said that same night. "They're not going to be quite as interesting. The quest is really what makes the story extra special." The quest. It all went back to that day after 1919 Christmas, when Harry Frazee, then the Red Sox's owner, secretly completed a deal with Col. Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees' owner. Ruppert needed a box-office draw to compete with the New York Giants, and Ruth's remarkable talent (and bravado) seemed like an answer. Frazee had been offered Shoeless Joe Jackson and $60,000 by the White Sox, this before the Black Sox Scandal would erupt. The Yankees trumped the offer and the deal was announced the first week of January 1920. The Jan. 6, 1920, issue of the New York Times reported that New York paid $125,000 "for the sensational batsman who last season caused such a furor in the national game by batting out twenty-nine home runs, a new record in long-distance clouting." Ruppert said the contract would call for $10,000 a year to Ruth, and he said Ruth would play right field in 1920, instead of left, where he had led all outfielders in fielding percentage in 1919. The Times also noted in that article that Ruth (born on Feb. 6, 1895) was 26 years old, and myths and mistruths would follow the Ruth storytelling from then to present. By all accounts, it was a conveniently retold myth that Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees to bankroll his struggling Broadway musical, "No, No, Nanette." Author Glenn Stout wrote in his book "Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees" that Frazee "wasn't out of money. The Red Sox had been profitable in 1919 and his new play, 'My Lady Friends,' was just beginning a run that would eventually last almost a year and was earning him $3,000 a week." "It must be said that virtually every assumption that underlies 'the Curse' is factually incorrect," Stout wrote. "Frazee was neither a failure in the theater nor ever broke. Neither did he use the proceeds of the sale to finance his play 'No, No, Nanette' or any other. In fact, Frazee was actually one of Broadway's grand success stories." The curse is long gone, if there ever was one. Ruth made his history. He clouted 714 homers, a record that stood until Hank Aaron hit his 715th in 1974. He hit 60 homers in a single season, a record that stood until future Yankee Roger Maris went one better in 1961 (with an extra eight games on that year's MLB schedule). Ruth personified the Bronx Bombers and led them to three straight World Series from 1921-23, including their first title in the last one. Rarely have the Yankees stopped winning ever since, and from 1918-2004, the angst grew with each Red Sox autumn shortcoming. Babe Ruth Plaza was filled with revelers last month after the Yankees won the Fall Classic. In Red Sox Nation, they watched their rivals celebrate, and this time they did so with chagrin but hardly a deep remorse. The Red Sox went out and got John Lackey. They will contend. The Yankees will contend. Next season will start with Yankees at Red Sox on Sunday, April 4. Those teams will conclude the regular season in the same place. It will be business as usual, here in life after the curse. The day Babe Ruth was sent from Boston to New York is an anniversary that makes you remember the game's greatest player, but one that also makes you wonder whether a big deal then is a big deal anymore.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.