Day will break and I’m gonna wake; and start to bake a sugar cake;for you to take for all the boys to see. – Lyrics from Tea for Two, from the Broadway musical, No, No, Nanette
During the first week of January in 1920, Yankees’ manager Miller Huggins hopped on a train and made the long journey out to California. His destination was Los Angeles and his mission was to bring home a star. However, the object of Huggins’ affections wasn’t a Hollywood bombshell, but rather an oversized baseball player who went by the name of Babe.
Just after Christmas 1919, Colonels Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston and Jacob Ruppert, who had partnered to buy the Yankees in 1915, made an offer that Red Sox owner Harry Frazee couldn’t refuse. In exchange for $125,000 (as well as a $300,000 loan that wasn’t disclosed), Frazee had agreed to hand over the game’s greatest player. The combined consideration was just less than the $450,000 Huston and Ruppert had paid for the entire team five years earlier, but in short order, it would prove to be money well spent.
Before consummating the deal, the Colonels wanted to make sure Babe Ruth was willing to play for the Yankees, and it was Huggins’ job to find out. According to Leigh Montville’s biography, “The Big Bam”, the diminutive manager finally caught up to his larger than life conquest at a golf course on January 4. Ruth’s first reaction was to brush off the intruding Huggins, but once the manager stated his intentions, the conversation turned to money…and lots of it. Within two days, the Yankees and Ruth had reached an agreement, and on January 6, the news was finally released to the world: Babe Ruth was headed for Broadway.
We do not care what he thinks of it, and do not even consider the idea of his trying to block it. All I can say is whether [A.L. President Ban] Johnson likes it or not, Ruth will be in our opening lineup.” – Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, quoted by AP, January 6, 1920
Harry Frazee knew Broadway well. After starting out as a theatre runt in Peoria, Illinois, he rose to prominence as an agent, producer, and director on the Great White Way. One of his biggest hits was a musical called “No, No, Nanette”, which, as it turned out, was financed with the money he received in exchange for Ruth. Although history has wavered on the extent to which those events were linked (some accounts have suggested that the sale and loan were part of a larger battle between the Yankees and Red Sox against American League President Ban Johnson; this theory seems to have some credibility, based on the pointed criticism Ruppert directed toward Johnson in the deal’s immediate aftermath), the sale of Ruth effectively closed the curtains on over 80 years of Boston’s championship aspirations.
More interesting than the historical reaction to the trade is how the move was perceived at the time. In New York, the acquisition of Ruth was treated as a major coup. The New York Times boldly predicted the Yankees would win the pennant and referenced the great excitement that existed among fans in the City. No sooner than the ink had dried on the first accounts, baseball enthusiasts in Gotham were already dreaming about an October clash between the Yankees and Giants.
Manhattan’s fondest dreams of having a World Series at the Polo Grounds between the Giants and Yankees now becomes a tangible thing, and that is the big event which New York fans will be rooting for all next Summer.” – The New York Times, January 7, 1920
Needless to say, the reaction in Boston wasn’t as unanimous. Frazee tried to pass the sale off as addition by subtraction, and some of the city’s major newspapers seemed to take his side. The Boston Herald, which urged Red Sox fans to be patient, stated, “Frazee has carefully considered the Ruth angle and believes he has done the right thing.” The New York Times also reported that Hugh Duffy and Fred Tenney, two players who had prominent careers with the National League’s Boston Beaneaters before the turn of the century, agreed with Frazee’s assessment and endorsed the move.
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. Had he possessed the right disposition, had he been willing to take orders and work for the good of the team, I would have never dared let him go.” – Harry Frazee, quoted in The New York Times, January 7, 1920
The fans in Boston weren’t as kind to Frazee. In an attempt to give all parties equal say, The New York Times tracked down Johnny Keenan, who was president of the Royal Rooters Red Sox fan club. “Ruth was 90% of our ball club last Summer,” Keenan lamented. “The Red Sox management will have an awful time filling the gap caused by his going. Surely the gate receipts will suffer.”
As we all know, Keenan’s assessment proved to be the most accurate, just not immediately. The Red Sox actually won six more games in 1920, but the team was still transformed from a perennial contender to a permanent resident of the second division. Adding insult to the injury, attendance at Fenway Park also plummeted throughout the decade. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ franchise was reborn. With Ruth in the lineup, the Yankees won 15 more games in 1920, even though the much coveted all-New York World Series would have to wait until another season (in fact, the Yankees and Giants met in the World Series for three straight years beginning in 1921).
The Ruth trade may have been one of the most lopsided exchanges in baseball history, but, from a personal standpoint, Frazee didn’t come away empty handed. “No, No, Nanette” wound up being a very successful production, with long runs in Chicago, New York, London, and Australia, as well as touring shows all over the country and throughout Europe. Red Sox fans may not have liked the trade, but Frazee had to be thrilled with a transaction that turned one baseball player into “Tea for Two” and then millions of dollars.
Ninety-two years later, Babe Ruth’s name still resonates in American popular culture, and the shift in the balance of power that resulted from the sale still defines the baseball landscape. When Miller Huggins first approached the Bambino on the golf course, he probably had no idea the historical impact that was being set in motion. Luckily, the Big Bam didn’t pound the Mighty Mite into the ground. Otherwise, the Yankees may never achieved the same amount of success, and the theatre-going public might have missed out on one hell of a show.