In 1919, Harry Frazee was like many baseball owners who followed in the modern era—tired of a petulant, self-absorbed player who made too much money and was an off-field distraction.
The Red Sox owner sold that player for $100,000 to the New York Yankees, an extraordinary amount of money at the time, but Babe Ruth was an extraordinary player. Since then, the Ruth transaction has been the most discussed, dissected and de-mystified move in the annals of baseball. In The Selling of the Babe
(St. Martin’s, 294 pages, $27.99) Glenn Stout writes the factors behind Ruth’s sale were far more complex and not nearly as ill-advised as people later thought. “Once and for all, let’s put to rest the tired, spurious, hoary old chestnut that proceeds from the sale of Ruth financed (Harry) Frazee’s production of the seminal hit musical No, No, Nanette
,” Stout writes. The musical was produced only years later, after Frazee had produced a number of other hit shows. Initial biographies about Ruth portrayed him as a lovable galoot who fancied himself as an overgrown kid playing a kid's game. But Stout’s descriptions are far more accurate and telling, especially when it came to Frazee’s decision to sell the Babe. “Finding Ruth after a bender—usually sleeping it off somewhere, often in the back alley behind a brothel, his pockets turned inside out—became something of a pastime for his teammates,” Stout writes. “Stories of Ruth’s nighttime escapades were well known among Boston working men ... and some of their wives.” Ruth’s gambling was also becoming a problem for Frazee, who found a willing taker for the star slugger in Yankees’ owner Jacob Ruppert, who was ready to pay top dollar to bring baseball’s premier gate attraction to New York, thereby filling the grandstands, especially on Sundays, when baseball could be played in New York but not in Boston. In 1920, his first season in New York, Ruth repaid Ruppert’s investment by clubbing a previously unthinkable 54 home runs, helping the Yankees became the first team to draw more than one million fans to its home games at the Polo Grounds. That season, Stout writes, “an entirely new game, built around the home run, with Babe Ruth as the catalyst, was sold to the American public.” Stout has written several books about the Yankees and the Red Sox, but The Selling of the Babe
is his first foray delving into the intersection of both clubs. Red Sox fans will be upset at Stout’s attempt to rehabilitate Frazee’s image as a self-centered owner who was responsible for the “Curse of the Bambino.” Yankees fans, conversly, will applaud Stout’s argument that Ruth was the catalyst for the club's 27 World Series titles.