Saturday, December 26, 2009

This Day in Yankee History (The Bosox Sale of Ruth: The Conspiracy Theory)

December 26, 1919—Babe Ruth liked a nice cold beer as much as the next fella (okay, maybe a bit more than the next fella), but in later years he was unable to shake the belief that his purchase by the New York Yankees from the Boston Red Sox—concluded on this date—had been facilitated “over a few glasses of beer” between the Sox owner and one of his two Bronx Bomber counterparts.

It’s not what you think—Col. Jake Ruppert of the Yankees didn’t get Red Sox owner Harry Frazee soused in the family brewery. No, it was the other Yankee “Colonel”, Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, who was a drinking buddy of Frazee. With Frazee’s New York office just two doors from Yankee headquarters, Ruth believed, the idea of a deal might have been broached over some liquor refreshments.

The consequences of the deal were so momentous, of course, that fans of both the Red Sox and the Yankees have concluded that only an act of drunkenness or some other use of mind-altering substances could have sparked it.

Over the years, talk grew more and more loudly about the “Curse of the Bambino.” (When the Yankees won their 28th World Series this year, a particular fervent fan—a co-worker of mine—claimed that the Curse hadn’t really been lifted—not even after Bruce Springsteen performed an exorcism at Fenway. No, the Bosox, he said, won their two championships in ’04 and ’07 because “their ‘roids were better than ours.” “The Curse Lives!” he proclaimed.)

Even at the time the Ruth deal went down, it was not popular with Red Sox Nation, folks. The $125,000 transaction—along with a side deal involving a $350,00 loan to Frazee from Ruppert and Huston, who took a mortgage on the Sox’ stadium as collateral—was not announced for another 10 days. Why—to let the lawyers haggle over some clauses? To let that decade’s version of spin doctors figure out how to tell fans their favorite slugger was gone? I don’t know, but whatever the reason, it didn’t work.

Now, Frazee had his apologists, to be sure, the same way Prince Charles’ flunkies will always claim that you can’t blame the randy royal for steppin’ out on Princess Diana because, after all, she was a bimbo—which, even if true, doesn’t excuse anything. Frazee supporters will point to Ruth’s hellraising, his demand that his salary be doubled, and, as a last straw, his sitting out the final day of the Red Sox dismal 1919 season. But nobody has ever really bought this specious reasoning.

The most common explanation—that Frazee sold the Bosox’ best player because he needed to fund a musical, No, No, Nanette—has been much debated over the years. For awhile, the new vogue idea became that this was an urban myth. But a few years ago, Leigh Montville, in The Big Bam, seemed to produce evidence which strongly suggested that this theory was true after all.

But I’m surprised that a far simpler, more sinister theory hasn’t come to mind yet. Something of this kind, after all, must have occurred when you consider how one-sided the deal turned out to be—and of how many people (everyone, it seems, except Frazee) sensed its potential:

*Yankee manager Miller Huggins, in urging Ruppert to get Ruth to raise the Yankees out of the second division, observed that with the short right-field stands at the Polo Grounds (the home the Bombers then shared with the New York Giants), the slugger would hit 35 homers in a season, thereby eclipsing the mark he’d already set this past season.

* No other players were involved in the Ruth deal, and Frazee’s protestations at the time to the contrary, the money was not used to secure any combination of players of remotely comparable value.

* In the past season, his first as an everyday player after several as an ace starting left-handed pitcher, Ruth had set a record for homeruns.

It’s true that Ruth was a player of outsized talent. But I’m sorry—just one player is not enough to ensure that not only will a team be deprived of a championship for 85 years, but that this same team will not even exceed the .500 mark for the next 15, as happened to Boston after Ruth left.

A curse has been the traditional means for describing this run of bad luck. It’s almost as if a kind of mighty, world-altering act of vengeance is required, such as the whammy Alberich lays on anyone who gets his hands on the ring in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

But why on earth hasn’t someone come up with something far more consistent and logical that fits the facts?

Yes, I mean a conspiracy theory. After all, it’s been used to explain just about every aspect of American history, so why not the American pastime?

In short, why couldn’t Frazee be the greatest betrayer in American sports infamy? In magnitude, his offenses might exceed James Wilkinson, commander in chief of U.S. army under Thomas Jefferson, who had already taken a secret oath of allegiance to Spain? He might even approach the Roman Catholic cardinal at the heart of the Vatican who takes an oath to Satan, thereby ensuring the durability of bloodthirsty creatures of the night, in John Carpenter’s Vampires, a film remarkably woolly-minded even for that horror genre.

Because rest assured: Harry Frazee not only drained the Bosox of blood in the Ruth deal, but kept doing so.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, whenever the Yankees needed a key player for a pennant run, they invariably turned to the Kansas City Athletics. Look at who the Yanks landed: Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, Ralph Terry, Ryne Duren—all of whom played an essential role, of one kind or another, for the Bombers in this period.

The rest of the league complained that the A’s received so little in return, it was almost as if the Yankees treated them as their own personal farm team. In fact, Arnold Johnson, owner of the A’s, was a real-estate business owner of Del Webb, a co-owner of the Yanks.

Where do you think they got the idea of such close collaboration? Here’s my theory, and it works as well as any other explanation of the facts regarding the Ruth deal: Frazee was doing the same thing with the Yankees three decades before. Among the other players besides Ruth shipped to New York in the Frazee years: Herb Pennock, Everett Scott, Waite Hoyt, and Joe Dugan--all exceptionally helpful in the Bomber rise to greatness in the next decade.

Frazee had no particular affection for Beantown—in fact, he said the best thing about Boston was the train ride back to New York. His heart was not in the game, but in musicals such as No, No, Nanette (which, incidentally, toured all over the world before finally coming to the Big Apple in 1925, five years after the Ruth transaction). Once Frazee took over the Red Sox in 1917, the team went steadily downhill. His mismanagement was so infectious that it even continued after he sold his ownership stake in 1923.

So there it is, Red Sox Nation—a traitor in your own midst, all the way at the beginning. Only a conspiracy of such monstrous proportions could have ensured defeat so long-lasting. Just a few years before, for $450,000, Ruppert and Huston had purchased, in Ruppert's terms, "an orphan club without a home of its own, without players of outstanding ability, without prestige."
For a comparable price for getting "one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men that ever wore a uniform" off Frazee's hands, Ruppert and Huston had changed all of that. And it all had been done for the equivalent of a song.

No comments: