The book: “The Selling of the Babe: The Deal that Changed Baseball and Created a Legend”
The author: Glenn Stout
The vital statistics: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages, $27.99. Released March 8
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com
The pitch: Some of this bears repeating, because it seems so ridiculous:
As a Boston Red Sox left-handed pitcher for the first six seasons of his big-league career, Babe Ruth posted 13 wins (in 19 starts) in 1918 and 9 more wins (in 15 starts) in 1919. Consider that the prior three years, he won 18, 23 and 24 games, leading the league in games started (40), shutouts (9) and ERA (1.75) in ’16.
There were, of course, extenuating circumstances with this production drop off on the mound.
In 1918, he also happened to lead the AL in home runs with 11 as the Red Sox won the World Series, their third in four seasons (and last until 2004). The next year, Ruth shattered the single-season record with 29 homers, also leading the league with 103 runs and 113 RBIs, as well as slugging percentage and OPS.
That’s because when he wasn’t pitching, the Red Sox found a spot for him at first base, left field or even center field.
And not long after that season ended, primary Red Sox owner and New York theatrical promoter Harry Frazee sold Ruth (and his salary demand issues) to the New York Yankees’ principal owner/beer baron Jacob Ruppert, urged on by Yankees manager Miller Huggins.
Just as Frazee did earlier that same year with pitcher Carl Mays.
The curious swap on the day after Christmas in 1919, officially taking place on Jan. 5, 1920, meant that $125,000 went from New York to Boston, plus $300,000 in loans.
And the rest is history.
The significance of this pivotal point in baseball on so many platforms, occurring right before the 1919 “Black Sox Scandal” was about to steal headlines, has been broken down and reassembled in all kind of history and Ruth biography books.
Yet, what inspired another dissection by Stout, the series editor for “The Best American Sports Writing” and author of books such as the 2002 “Yankees Century,” the 2005 “Red Sox Century” and 2012 “Fenway 1912,” is, after that all his recent research into subjects related to this, there was still some things not really known.
The missing pieces from the deal, as well as the fact that “perhaps no other personality in sports has been so exalted, mythologized and obscured by history,” started to come together for Stout and the result is this Cracker Jack of a book that manages to bring history to live with lively writing and not the often usual drudgery.
We’re already supposed to know that there was Frazee’s need for cash, the effects of Prohibition and the Yankees desire for a new stadium that laid the groundwork.
Stout finds documents that seem to show the mortgage due on Fenway Park didn’t really factor in the sale of Ruth.
He also finds more material on how Ruth’s disposition had more a negative impact on the Red Sox roster, so much so that despite his on-field accomplishments, it was a matter of team chemistry that was in peril.
“Previous biographers have usually become to enthralled with the results of this transformation (of pitcher to hitter, of George Herman Ruth to The Babe), so blinded by the white heat of the home run, that the precise details of the change have almost been entirely overlooked,” Stout writes in the intro. “The sale of Ruth from Boston to New York is almost inevitably viewed with the kind of hindsight reality does not provide, leaving Ruth’s evolution during this time period, essential to understanding the dynamics of the sale, virtually unexamined.”
Connecting dots even further outside the borders, Stout is spot on when he points out that Gavrilo Princip is more the reason why Ruth became the player we know him as rather than any one person in baseball. Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in June, 1914 was the last major act that led to the start of World War I.
Major league teams’ rosters were depleted by men going into the U.S. service.
Ruth, a 19-year-old rookie on the Red Sox roster at the time, was someone who today “would likely be diagnosed as ADHD and drugged into somnambulism,” writes Stout. Ruth loved to play anywhere on the field, shag fly balls, take infield grounders and spend extra turns in the batting cage with the rather undisciplined act of swinging out of his shoes when he was between pitching assignments.
As the war progressed, players who could handle more than one position were in demand.
“Had it not been for the war,” Stout repeats, “Ruth would be remembered today for his prowess as a pitcher, and nothing else.”
He continues: “Although the modern game was only about twenty years old, it was already living in the past .. the same few names dominated the sport … but in 1918, (Ty) Cobb was entering his 14th season in the major leagues. (Napoleon) Lajoie, (Honus) Wagner and (Christy) Mathewson had recently retired and the few remaining stars, like (Shoeless Joe) Jackson and (Eddie) Collins and Tris Speaker lacked the charisma and appeal of their predecessors.
“The game needed a star. The last thing it needed was a war. In the end, it got both. In the long run, the carnage that overspread Europe was the best thing that ever happened to the game.”
In the end, Stout agrees that the sale of Ruth allowed Frazee to keep the Red Sox and “protect its value” before he chased out in 1923. The play, “No, No, Nanette” became a Broadway hit in ’25, and Frazee died at the age of 48 in ’29.
“When he died, no one blamed him for anything,” Stout points out.
As for Ruth: “Off the field, (he) remained much the same problematic, self-absorbed, guileless yet occasionally troublesome player he had been in Boston … he suffered from venereal disease, alcoholism, gained a tremendous amount of weight and suffered from a host of other physical maladies” while he was also suspended several times, reportedly stabbed and shot at by angry husbands and jilted women, wrecking cars, leaving his wife …
“All sorts of things that would have brought down any other man in the game … (yet he was) celebrated for it.”
Not so much in this book.
More to know:
== The Boston Globe’s story of Ruth signing with the Yankees, and Frazee’s explanation, in its Jan. 6, 1920 edition.