Review of Glenn Stout's "The Selling of the Babe: The Deal that Changed Baseball and Created a Legend"Books
Even people only marginally interested in baseball are familiar with the standard story of the deal that sent Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees: “everybody knows” that Red Sox owner Harry Frazee did it to raise money for his Broadway musical, “No, No, Nanette,” that it was one of the most foolish, one-sided deals ever, and that it guaranteed the making of the Yankee dynasty while dooming the Red Sox to mediocrity and worse. Frazee, it is sometimes implied, sometimes shouted (especially in Boston), shoulda known bettah.
As the critic Lionel Trilling once pointed out, however, “The refinement of our historical past chiefly means that we keep it properly complicated.” Baseball historian Glenn Stout—author of Fenway 1912 (2012) and other works—does just that in The Selling of the Babe, a formidably-researched, entirely engaging book that expands upon a chapter that he wrote for Red Sox Century (2000). In the process, he modifies, rearranges, or discards enormous chunks of the master narrative. In the end, of course, the deal did indeed change baseball history and did make Ruth a legend. But the path to that outcome was a long and winding road.
Heading down that road, Stout immerses the reader in baseball and America before, during, and after World War I. That past is truly a foreign country, particularly before the war. Baseball in the “dead ball” era was dominated by what we now call “small ball,” with the best hitters (Ty Cobb is the best example) following Wee Willie Keeler’s ancient injunction to “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Power hitting wasn’t valued. Frank Baker of the Philadelphia Athletics acquired the nickname “Home Run” while never hitting more than 12 in a season. When Babe Ruth arrived on this scene, he made his name as a pitcher; only gradually did his batting prowess come to overshadow what he did on the mound (which included a record 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series, a mark that stood for over 40 years).
Boston was a powerhouse then. They had won the World Series in 1912, before Ruth even arrived, and won again in 1915 (Ruth won 18 games and hit 4 home runs), 1916 (Ruth won 23 and hit 3 home runs), and 1918 (he won only 13, but homered 11 times, in a shortened season). The 1918 season was troubled and turbulent for both Ruth and the game. Ruth understandably balked at taking a regular turn on the mound and playing the rest of the game in the outfield; even in those unspecialized times, nobody else was doing it. And the game itself, its popularity no longer growing, nosedived in the public’s estimation when the owners tried to justify continuing the season during wartime. Some players volunteered for the armed forces; some were drafted; some tried to avoid the draft by going to work for war industries, especially shipyards (many of them obsessed with fielding good baseball teams). The quality of play suffered, and fans simply stopped coming out to the ballparks. When the Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, public indifference was almost palpable.
When the war ended in November 1918, baseball’s leaders suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, realized they could have a season in 1919. In many regards, it was a daunting prospect: many fans, besides finding the current style of play boring, still stigmatized the players as slackers and draft-dodgers, and the owners as unpatriotic profiteers; players resented the owners’ manipulation of World Series shares and penny-pinching salaries; and behind the scenes, an ugly feud involving American League President Ban Johnson (one of the triumvirate on the commission that ran the major leagues) and several owners, including Frazee, the Chicago White Sox’s Charles Comiskey, and the New York Yankees’ “Colonel” Jake Ruppert, threatened to end in public embarrassment. (Johnson was, to put it gently, a control freak. Secretly, he was also part-owner of more than one franchise, which, to put it even more gently, made him a less than impartial arbiter when it came to disputes over things like player suspensions and trades.)
Viewed in hindsight, the 1919 season marked the emergence of the phenomenon that was Babe Ruth. Although he started slowly, his pursuit of the single-season home run record (previously obscure until it was unearthed by enterprising reporters) made headlines as the season wound down; his dreary team, which finished sixth, was far less interesting. Ned Williamson of the 1884 Chicago White Sox had hit 27 (aided by a right field fence that was only 196 feet away; 25 of Williamson’s homers were struck at home). The hoopla that attended Ruth’s 27th was, Stout insists, more dramatic than Carlton Fisk’s famous clout in game six of the 1975 World Series or Ted Williams’ “farewell” home run in his last at bat in 1960. Maybe so, but Ruth, who hit two more to set the record at 29, was more concerned with picking up some quick cash than adding to his mark. He skipped the last game of the Red Sox season and played an exhibition game in Baltimore instead. Stout observes, “Frazee later lumped it in with his midseason shipyard vacation in 1918 as another indication [of] Ruth’s me-first attitude.”
Such behavior helped to make Ruth expendable. There were other factors, too, “a confluence,” Stout says, “of events, circumstances, coincidences, accidents, and fate.” Ruth’s recent performance, while remarkable, had been far from consistent: “Over the past two years, across nine months of regular season play, Ruth had been a spectacular and extraordinary hitter for perhaps four months—six weeks in 1918 and then the last half of 1919. The rest of the time, he had been a troublesome and problematic player of almost average ability, someone who had shown he would leave in a moment’s notice for a chance to make a penny more, team be damned.” If he continued to be erratic, he could reasonably be seen as more trouble than he was worth. (As Branch Rickey said to Ralph Kiner when he traded the slugger to the Cubs: "We finished last with you; we can finish last without you.") If, on the other hand, Ruth became a superstar, the Red Sox wouldn’t be able to afford him. (And given what insiders already knew about Ruth’s after-hours carousing and general disregard for training, it seemed unlikely that his star would shine brightly for long.)
Frazee did face financial obstacles that had nothing to do with “No, No, Nanette.” (Stout’s reading of Frazee’s finances suggests that his show business ventures were a lot more profitable than his baseball team.) Boston’s ban on Sunday baseball cut sharply into the team’s revenues. Fenway Park, hastily constructed, was now falling apart—and Frazee didn’t even own it; former Sox owner Joseph Lannin did. Meanwhile, the Yankees were in at least as much trouble as the Red Sox. Co-owner Jake Ruppert made his fortune in brewing, and with prohibition looming on the horizon, he had to start making money from baseball. Stout sums up the situation at the end of 1919 nicely: “Frazee needed to keep his team and oust Johnson, Johnson needed to force Frazee to sell to keep his power, Ruppert needed Frazee’s support to find a way to keep his team, and Joe Lannin needed his $262,000 [that he would make by selling Fenway Park]. And the Babe? All he wanted was more dough and he was more than willing to break his contract in order to do it.”
The unpredictable, capricious slugger was tossed overboard and landed in clover. He was, Stout says, “the right guy at the right time, the symbolic leader of the party soon to get under way, the uncrowned King of what soon would become the Roaring Twenties.” He was now at home in a ballpark (the Polo Grounds) far more suited to his left-handed, swing-from-the-heels style than was Fenway. (And, of course, soon there would be Yankee Stadium, “the House that Ruth Built,” which could just as accurately be called “the House Built for Ruth.”) The New York newspapers built their circulation on his baseball exploits, and stories appeared under his (ghost-written) byline. (They whitewashed or ignored the less savory episodes, because they needed him more than he needed them. (“Today,” Stout remarks, “he’d be splashed over Deadspin or TMA like a sour bucket of paint.” The parameters of celebrity have changed.)
The era that inaugurated sports statistics and perfected the creation of celebrity found its man in 1920. After another slow start, Babe Ruth became, as Stout puts it, “BABE RUTH.” The stars of baseball contingency aligned for him: Ruth benefited from a livelier, more tightly-wound ball and, particularly after Ben Chapman was killed by a pitch, the growing insistence on using clean, white, more visible baseballs. He hit a gaudy .376 and an astonishing 54 home runs, besting his own record by 25. He scored a record 158 runs and drove in 135. Sabrmetricians applying modern metrics to old box scores calculate his on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) at an incredible 1.379. The Yankees finished third, but won 95 games (the Red Sox were fifth and lost more than they won). The New Yorkers drew more than a million fans to the Polo Grounds (the Sox wouldn’t count that many until after World War II.) The Yankee dynasty was on its way.
So thoroughly does Stout deconstruct the master narrative of Harry Frazee and “No, No, Nanette” that there’s virtually nothing left of it. “Ruth was just a piece of…property,” he says, “a pawn in a series of decisions made partially for baseball reasons, partially for political reasons, and partially for financial reasons. One thing can be said for certain—no single reason, no single fact, and no single condition led to the sale of Ruth.” To his credit (and despite the presence of typos and other minor slips that the copy editor should have caught), Stout untangles and explains it all clearly and vividly. His book is an outstanding exercise in historical thinking, depicting issues and events through the eyes of the people who lived them and eschewing judgments based on 20-20 hindsight. Rather than just print the legend, he digs for evidence. The story that emerges is far richer and more intriguing than the one we had before. The Selling of the Babe is not merely sports history at its best, it is history at its best.
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