Sell Babe Ruth? What Were the Red Sox Thinking?
In this wide-ranging interview with the stepdaughter of Babe Ruth, Bob Klapisch finds out what the Sultan of Swat was like off the field and how he felt about being sold by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920.
I had the pleasure of meeting Julia Ruth Stevens in 2011, when—at the age of 93—she was serving as America’s oldest (and best) historian on the subject of Babe Ruth. If anyone could consider herself an expert on the matter, it was Stevens. She was the Bambino’s stepdaughter and was unembarrassed to still be calling him “Daddy” almost a century later.
I wanted to speak to Stevens because, like so many who fall in love with baseball’s past, I wanted to know more about Ruth’s life and personality—the real one, the one he displayed at home after the adoring fans had left. It took several phone calls to track Stevens down in New Hampshire, but it was well worth the detective work. She was eloquent and spontaneous; her memories of the Sultan of Swat were razor sharp. It was as if I were talking to someone 50 years younger.
I’d initially wanted to know how Ruth felt about the deal that sent him from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920, how New York compared to Boston, how Ruth became an American icon. Stevens was born in 1916, so I assumed she would’ve become aware of her stepfather’s celebrity status by the mid-to-late 1920s. By then the Yankees were enjoying the windfall of the biggest, boldest deal in Major League history. But Stevens first needed to create a character sketch of the Ruth the public wasn’t acquainted with.
“People knew Daddy for running around a lot, but with me, especially after I became a teenager, he was very strict,” Stevens said. “He never let me stay out past midnight. I saw the effect he had on people in public—it was electric—but at home he was such a good father.”
Stevens recalled how much the Babe loved being a pitcher, and that her first memories of his storytelling days revolved around his career on the mound with the Red Sox, from 1914 to 1919.
“Daddy was very proud of his pitching record,” she said, referring to his 94–46 career record and 2.28 ERA. Ruth played a prominent role in the back-to-back wins for the Red Sox of the world championships in 1915–16.
Babe Ruth always had a soft spot for children after his upbringing in St. Mary’s, a home for troubled youth.
Despite those early successes, baseball’s tectonic plates shifted on the day Ruth was sold to the Yankees, and as Ms. Stevens has said so many times over the years since, “Nothing meant more to my father than being a Yankee. That’s who he was, that’s what defined him as a baseball player. The fact that he won all those championships had even greater meaning because he was wearing that Yankees uniform.”
Of course, Stevens was too young to know the exact reason the Red Sox gave up on Ruth, although history has already taught us the broad strokes. Boston owner Harry Frazee needed money to finance his play “No, No Nannette,” which compelled him to contact the Yankees. This wouldn’t be the usual swap: Instead of player for player, Frazee said, why not player for cash? How about lots of it? The Yankees jumped at the chance to acquire Ruth, even for the steep price of $100,000.
The Yankees had heard all about Ruth’s carousing and outsized personality. They knew the Bambino was a non-conformist and antiauthoritarian by nature. They were fully prepared for what was just around the corner. But two factors weighed heavily in their decision to agree to the swap.
First, they knew Ruth’s talents were legitimate. Not only was he an elite caliber pitcher, but his hitting skills qualified him as the sport’s first, multi-dimensional star. As great as Ruth was on the mound, his power and huge swing were hypnotizing. The ability to drive the ball to the planets is what set the Bambino apart.
The Yankees hadn’t forgotten his opening act in 1918, the towering home run hit at Polo Grounds on the first day of the season. Two days later, Ruth hit another HR against the Yankees. Owner Charles Rupert decided he would someday like to have Ruth in his lineup. Wally Pipp had led the American League in home runs in 1916 and 1917, but Ruth was in another class of slugger.
The Yankees knew Ruth, for all his quirks and outbursts, would be welcomed by the ticket buyers. That was the second factor working in his favor. Unlike Protestant New England, New York City was full of immigrants who were more inclined to admire an iconoclast like the Babe. Ruth fit right in with the Big Apple’s 19,000 saloons and, later, during Prohibition, its 35,000 speakeasies.
Ruth was directly responsible for a huge surge in attendance, which ultimately led to the Yankees leaving the Polo Grounds—which they had been sharing with the Giants—and building their own venue. The Bombers drew 1.2 million fans in 1920, a gain of 50 percent from the year before, and 25 percent more than the Giants.
The Giants weren’t just embarrassed by the second-tier status in their own ballpark; it was the type of fans who were showing up to watch the Yankees and their new slugger. Yankees fans were loud and unmannered, in the Giants’ eyes.
Indeed, it was immigrants who were flocking to see the home run–hitting machine. Ruth’s arrival only put an exclamation point on what made New York so different from the part of the country Ruth used to call home. By 1925, one out of every seven New Yorkers was of Italian descent.
For their part, the Red Sox did their best to minimize their mistake, issuing a statement from Frazee indicating the $100,000 windfall was “something enormous . . . it was an amount the club could not afford to refuse.
“I should have preferred to have taken players in exchange for Ruth, but no club could have given me the equivalent in men without wrecking itself, and so the deal had to be made on a cash basis.”
Frazee made sure to take a subtle jab at the Babe as well.
“I do not wish to detract one iota from Ruth’s ability as a ball player nor from his value as an attraction, but there is no getting away from the fact that despite his 29 home runs, the Red Sox finished sixth in the race last season.
“What the Boston fans want . . . is a winning team, rather than a one-man team which finishes in sixth place.”
Most surprising of all, however, was Ruth’s initial reaction to the trade. Having been informed of the deal by his business manager, the Bambino responded via telegram: “Will not play anywhere but Boston.”
Ruth wanted to stay put to look after a cigar business he’d established in Boston. Little did he know the greatest transaction of his career was already complete. Thanks to the Red Sox’s money grab and the Yankees’ moxie, baseball would never be the same.
Babe, shown here in his cigar store, invested his own money into cigars and he even had his own nickel cigar with his picture on the wrapper.
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