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|Thursday, July 18
When the Yankees nearly moved to Boston
By Glenn Stout
Special to ESPN.com
The Boston Yankees. Is that an oxymoron or what? But it almost happened.
Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees in December 1919. Within months, the Yankees almost moved to Boston to play in Fenway Park, and Babe Ruth came this close to coming back to Beantown. As a Boston Yankee. That's right, Red Sox fans. That team in New York with 26 world championships could have been Boston's.
Red Sox fans have long blamed former owner Harry Frazee for the loss of Ruth and the subsequent demise of the franchise, all wrapped up in a tidy package known as "the Curse of the Bambino." For more than eight decades Sox fans have rued the sale of Ruth to the Yankees, using the deal to explain how things have always gone wrong for the Red Sox and right for the Yankees. Frazee has become a malevolent figure like other local symbols of evil such as the Boston Strangler, Bucky "Bleeping" Dent, and Don Zimmer.
"The Curse" makes a nice, neat story. But as fact, it makes nice fiction. For while "the Curse" is a good hook, it is not very good history.
In fact, shenanigans elsewhere in the American League cost Boston Babe Ruth. And not once, but twice.
Here's how it happened.
First, it must be said that virtually every assumption that underlies "the Curse" is factually incorrect. Frazee was neither a failure in the theater nor ever broke. Neither did he use the proceeds of the sale to finance his play "No, No, Nanette" or any other. In fact, Frazee was actually one of Broadway's grand success stories.
Wealthy and well connected, Frazee was something of a visionary among the men who owned baseball teams at the time. Not only was he the first to propose the single-commissioner system, but it was Frazee who made the successful argument during World War I that baseball was good for the nation's morale, saving the 1918 season and providing the logic that also saved baseball during World War II.
From the instant Harry Frazee bought the Red Sox from Joseph Lannin in November of 1916, American League president Ban Johnson wanted him out. Frazee grated against Johnson in several ways, including his relative youth, his theatrical background, and even his religion, which Johnson and many contemporaries, particularly in the press, incorrectly assumed was Jewish. Johnson was accustomed to handpicking the owners in his league and Frazee had crashed the owners' club without permission. The two clashed at every turn. Johnson called Frazee "the champion wrecker of baseball" and promised to revoke the franchise. Frazee accurately whined that Johnson had made him "his particular target."
In the summer of 1919 everything came to a head when Red Sox star pitcher Carl Mays jumped the club. Johnson wanted Frazee to suspend Mays. Instead, Frazee sold him to Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston, who were angry with Johnson for not living up to a promise to help them get some players for their moribund franchise.
Everybody went to court as Johnson tried to block the deal and prevent the Yankees from playing Mays. The end result dramatically increased the acrimony between Frazee and Johnson and split the American League into two factions: the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox, known as the "Insurrectos," versus Johnson and the remaining five clubs, a.k.a. the "Loyal Five." Until the Black Sox scandal broke in the fall of 1920, the war between the Insurrectos and the Loyal Five was the biggest story in the game.
All parties ended up in court in the fall of 1919 to thrash things out. At the same time, Lannin and Frazee argued over who was responsible for Boston's $30,000 share of the legal settlement with the Federal League -- in protest, Frazee had stopped making his payments on the team. Lannin threatened to take Frazee to court and slap a lien on him. To protect his largest asset, the Red Sox, Frazee began a series of maneuvers to ensure that no matter what Johnson or Lannin did, they wouldn't be able to force him to dispose of his ballclub.
At the time Frazee purchased the Red Sox, it was erroneously reported that he had also bought Fenway Park. He had not. Frazee financial documents recently uncovered by the Frazee family and now held at the University of Texas reveal that the park remained in the hands of the Fenway Realty Trust, controlled by Charles Taylor of the Boston Globe Taylors. Taylor had owned the Sox from 1904 through 1911 and built Fenway in the first place. In recent years, Lannin had also been allowed to buy into the Trust. Frazee rented the park at $30,000 a year.
Being a tenant of the Fenway Realty Trust put Frazee in a precarious position. If Johnson were ever to make good on his threat to revoke the franchise, it would be a simple matter for a new owner to procure a lease on Fenway. But if Frazee were to control Fenway, that would change everything. With no place to play, Johnson would have a hard time convincing another party to assume control of the Red Sox.
On August 1, 1919, Frazee began negotiations to buy Fenway Park from the Fenway Realty Trust. He filed a plan to refinance his purchase of the team that would simultaneously buy out the interests of Taylor and Lannin and place the team, the Trust, and Fenway Park firmly in Frazee's hands and out of the reach of Johnson.
In the meantime there was the question of Babe Ruth, whose pathetic performance and erratic behavior over the first two months of the 1919 season had cost the Red Sox any chance at repeating as champions. While he had rebounded to set a new home run record, he was trouble both in the clubhouse and off the field, agitating for a new manager, a new contract and special treatment. Frazee was out of patience.
But he wasn't out of money. The Red Sox had been profitable in 1919 and his new play, "My Lady Friends," was just beginning a run that would eventually last almost a year and was earning him $3,000 a week. But lawyers cost money and the War between the Insurrectos and the Loyal Five limited Frazee's market -- the Loyal Five refused to deal with him at all. The White Sox offered him Joe Jackson (the Black Sox scandal had not broken wide open yet) and $60,000 for Ruth but the Yankees trumped the White Sox with an offer of an even $100,000. The Yankees were eager for a box-office draw to help them to compete in New York with the National League Giants and so they were willing to take a chance on the problematic star.
The Yankees took title to their prize on December 26, 1919. The transaction strengthened the alliance between Boston and New York against Johnson and gave Frazee some ready cash if the legal battle heated up. Or, $100,000 could buy a lot of ballplayers, which is what Frazee said he intended to spend the money on.
In the spring of 1920 the war with Johnson turned increasingly bitter. The New York courts had backed Frazee and the Yankees at every turn, but now Lannin decided to take advantage of the situation. Lannin slapped a lien on Frazee's Massachusetts holdings, legally preventing Frazee from "disposing of any more of the playing assets," and threatening to sell his shares of the Fenway Realty Trust. That kept the door open for a new owner friendly to Johnson to buy part of Fenway, while restraining Frazee from using the proceeds of the Ruth sale to rebuild his ballclub until their dispute was settled. Frazee countersued.
Lannin had Frazee over a barrel -- he couldn't make trades or buy Fenway without Lannin's OK. So Frazee settled. Both parties agreed to a stipulation that in essence meant that Frazee would complete his payments to Lannin for the Red Sox if Lannin would agree to pay the Federal League bill and allow Frazee to go ahead with his purchase of Fenway. The decks were now clear.
On May 3, Frazee and Taylor signed a purchase and sale for controlling interest in the Trust, paying off the existing mortgage and delivering ownership of Fenway to Frazee. Johnson's plans to get rid of Frazee were thwarted.
But Frazee wasn't finished. Within weeks he "flipped" the property, secretly securing a loan of $350,000 from Jacob Ruppert and the Yankees, using a second mortgage on Fenway Park as collateral. In effect, the Yankees now owned Fenway Park.
Now Frazee's holdings were fully protected. The loan from Ruppert allowed Frazee to pay off all his remaining indebtedness in regard to the Red Sox without dipping into the money he held in reserve to operate his theatrical interests. Now Johnson couldn't touch him, his ballclub, or his ballpark.
Blocked from getting Frazee, Johnson now turned his ire toward the Yankees. He was nearly as eager to be rid of Ruppert and Huston as he was of Frazee, for the Yankees had been Boston's partner in the Mays deal and had taken Boston's side in the resulting legal battle. The battle with the Insurrectos had stripped him of most of his power. That left Johnson, aptly described by one associate as a man "who never forgets an enemy," with only revenge on his mind.
Ruth, of course, would be a huge success as a Yankee, cracking 54 home runs in 1920 and proving to be the biggest drawing card in the game. The Yankees, without a ballpark of their own, leased the Polo Grounds from the Giants. In 1920 they were outdrawing their landlords for the first time. Johnson sensed an opportunity.
The Yankees' lease of the Polo Grounds was up at the end of the season and plans for their own park were still far in the future. In mid-May of 1920, Johnson approached Giants owner Charles Stoneham and urged him to throw the Yankees out on their ear. That would leave Ruppert's Yankees homeless in 1921 and Johnson could force a sale. Johnson even promised Stoneham he could handpick the new owner.
Stoneham was intrigued. With Ruth, the Yankees were starting to hurt the Giants at the gate. If he could arrange for a crony to buy the team, well, that wouldn't be a problem anymore. He readily agreed, and informed the Yankees he would not renew their lease.
But neither Johnson nor Stoneham yet knew that the Yankees would soon have a place to play -- Fenway Park.
New York's threat was made possible on May 25, when the loan to Frazee went through. If Stoneham failed to renew their lease at the Polo Grounds, the Yankees had an option in 1921. They would simply play in their ballpark in Boston, creating the Boston Yankees.
Welcome back to Beantown, Babe.
Johnson, who stayed abreast of all important developments in the small world that was the American League, shuddered at the thought. The notion was fraught with uncertainty, such as the question of what would happen to Frazee's Red Sox. But if Johnson tried to stop them, a protracted round of lawsuits was inevitable, and Frazee and Ruppert had done nothing but win in the New York courts. There, they enjoyed every advantage -- New York Supreme Court justice Robert Wagner later served as Frazee's divorce attorney -- and Johnson didn't know the legal players without a scorecard. The situation promised to create a nightmare for Johnson and his league, both legally and in the court of public opinion.
Without explanation at the time, Stoneham suddenly got cold feet. He knew that if the Yankees left New York, he would be stuck without a tenant and made to look like the bad guy, the guy who'd forced the greatest player in the game out of town. Stoneham tossed Johnson aside and agreed to renew the Yankees' lease.
In a case of "Curses, foiled again," Johnson slunk off. The Yankees stayed in New York.
And for the second time, Boston lost Babe Ruth.
Start spreading the news.
Glenn Stout is the series editor of the annual "Best American Sports Writing" and author of several books, including "Red Sox Century: One Hundred Years of Red Sox Baseball."