Harry Frazee, Ed Barrow, and The Curse of the Bambino


Have you ever had a bout of insomnia over a mistake you’ve made? Have you ever stopped in the midst of obsessing over that topic with the realization that it happened thirty-two years ago? Most people don’t. Most people are blessed and cursed with short-term memories. We’ve all made mistakes though. We’ve made errors in judgment based on uninformed choices, and dumb decisions that seemed so right at the time. Most of us are able to move on in life, even after making decisions that proved catastrophic at the time. Most of us have never made a decision, or series of decisions that proved so catastrophic that people will be talking them one hundred years from now, characterizing our choices as some of the worst mistakes in human history. Other than those decisions made by those involved in the Black Sox Scandal, there might only be one person, in baseball, that continues to be mocked, ridiculed, and scorned one hundred years after he made historically poor decisions, Harry Herbert Frazee.

Ed Barrow, Babe Ruth, and Harry Frazee

Harry Herbert Frazee (June 29, 1880 – June 4, 1929) was an American theatrical agent, producer, and director, and he remained successful in this field until the day he died. He also happened to be a successful boxing promoter who once landed one of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson’s matches. Harry Frazee also bought the 1915 and 1916 World Series champion Boston Red Sox, who won the 1918 World Series for him. One of the players he sold was also on the 1912 World Series championship team. The error in judgment, uninformed choices, and dumb decisions that Frazee made were to sell, and sell/trade almost all of the best players on those teams. Yet, for all of the successes and failures of Harry’s life, many believe his tombstone should read, “Here lies Harry Herbert Frazee, the man who sold Babe Ruth.”

Most writers love to write provocative articles from an angle no one has ever considered before. We enjoy taking a well-known story and providing a non-traditional perspective that opens our readers eyes to “the other side”. The other side, of the story we now call The Curse of the Bambino involves a suggestion that the conditions surrounding Harry Frazee’s sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees were a lot more complicated than most people know. The author of such a provocative article is then obligated to back up his assessment with data that supports his thesis. This thesis becomes more provocative when the author can provide data that most people don’t know.

The Curse of the Bambino suggests that the sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the New York Yankees prevented the Red Sox from winning the World Series from the point of sale in 1920 to the publication date of the Dan Shaughnessy book in 1990 (the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004). Some of the authors, who attempted to write the other side of the sale of Babe Ruth and eight other players from the Red Sox to the Yankees, looked at the data from a baseball perspective, others chose a financial lens, and some had slide show presentations that suggest while history will never judge Harry Frazee kindly, the reactions to his sales and trades were evenly divided among fans and sportswriters at the time. Anytime we read an article that suggests a matter is far more complicated than we ever knew, our natural inclination is to weed through their narrative for the simple truths. One simple truth that permeates all of the articles written on this topic is that Harry Frazee made historical mistakes, and those mistakes led to the Yankee dynasty of the 1920’s and the early part of the 1930’s.

Another simple truth that is impossible to ignore is that the Red Sox won three World Series in four years before the sales and sale/trades, and they finished no higher than fifth in the thirteen years following the sales/trades. Other than a blip in 1925, the Yankees finished no lower than third in their league, and they won seven pennants and four World Series championships over the same thirteen-year period, following the trades. Another fact that’s impossible to ignore in all of the data is that among all the players involved, there were three people most responsible for this shift in the balance of power, Babe Ruth of course, Harry Frazee, and former Boston Red Sox manager-turned-New York Yankee business manager (general manager) Ed Barrow. 

Those of us who enjoy reading authors take those simple truths and attempt to provide another perspective on them, enjoyed the article written by Glenn Stout titled Harry Frazee. In this article, Stout writes that The Curse of the Bambino, and the subsequent demonization of Harry Frazee, was largely a myth created by writers to help Boston Red Sox fans explain their team’s disastrous loss to the Mets in the 1986 World Series. The thesis of the The Curse of the Bambino was there was no other way to describe that inexplicable loss. Stout writes that 1986 Red Sox fans were looking for someone to explain the inexplicable to them. They wanted a scapegoat, and they found one in Harry Frazee. His actions, over sixty years prior, allowed them to think there was more going on than some clutch hitting by the Mets, and an error in game six of the series that led to the Red Sox defeat that year. It was, of course, the ghost of Babe Ruth haunting them.

Stout also writes that Harry Frazee was not a greedy owner who wanted money more than a successful franchise. He writes that Frazee was independently wealthy from an early age, and he died that way. He also writes that Frazee was a wealthy and successful man before and after the trades that depleted the Red Sox and built the Yankees eventual dynasty. He writes that when Frazee died, a majority of the fan base, a majority of the sportswriters, and a majority in baseball didn’t hold him singularly responsible for the fall of the Red Sox. He states that while history might make Frazee appear incompetent, the reality of the situation that occurred during the 1920-1923 period was a lot more complicated than most people know.

To illustrate his point, Stout wrote a book with Richard A. Johnson called Red Sox Century, in which they provide a note Harry Frazee wrote to explain that the sale of Babe Ruth was based on Ruth’s contractual demands, and “[Ruth’s] disruptive influence on the team, and the fact that [Ruth] had “jumped the club” at the end of the 1919 season.” In the book, they also provide Frazee’s frustrations with The Bambino:

“While Ruth without question is the greatest hitter that the game has seen,” Frazee wrote in a 1,500-word statement, “he is likewise one of the most inconsiderate men that ever wore a baseball uniform.”

The Red Sox owner said Ruth had “no regard for anyone but himself” and was a “bad influence on other and still younger players on the team.”

He continued: “A team of players working harmoniously together is always to be preferred to that possessing one star who hugs the limelight to himself. And that is what I’m after.”

The sale of Ruth aside for a moment, Glenn Stout attempts to defend the fire sale of the other eight players by writing that the minor leaguers the Red Sox received in those subsequent trades didn’t pan out, as some of them suffered career-ending injuries.

Injuries are a part of the game, of course, and they can make owners and GM’s look bad when they make deals for players who were injured so early in their careers they appear anonymous to history. This attempt to defend Frazee is valid, until one asks the question how many minor league prospects reach their full potential? Whatever the actual answer is, it surely pales in comparison to the prospect of whether or not a player who has already won three World Series might succeed. Stout does not specifically address this particular idea in his defense of Frazee.

Stout also writes, “no one could know that Babe Ruth would become Babe Ruth”. Fair enough, but at the point of sale in 1919, Ruth played six seasons for the Red Sox, and in that brief span, he set the record for home runs in a season twice, and he led the league in eight different batting categories in 1919, the year before Frazee sold him. He was also a dominant pitcher early in his career, before he switched to hitting. 

As one of his peers, Rube Bressler said in his interview for the book The Glory of Their Times “[Ruth] played by instinct, sheer instinct. He wasn’t smart, he didn’t have any education, but he never made a wrong move on a baseball field. He was like a damn animal. He had that instinct. [Animals] know when when it’s going to rain, things like that. Nature, that was Ruth! 

Stout’s point that Frazee couldn’t know Ruth would be one of the top five players of all time is a valid one, as I point out, but it sounds like if he wanted to know the potential The Babe had to be great, all he had to do is ask around. Some of those who provide an alternative view of this story suggest that Frazee saw how undisciplined Ruth was, and how unintelligent he was, and he figured that Ruth’s 1919 season was a peak performance, and he wanted to receive peak value for his services.

Stout, and numerous others, state that the previous owner of the Red Sox was calling in Frazee’s loan, and that Frazee was in a tight spot financially. If Frazee didn’t pay the loan back that year, he might have lost the franchise. Yet, Stout and others assure us Frazee was never personally broke and none of the sales between the Yankees and Red Sox involved Frazee’s attempts to enrich himself personally. If that’s the case, and I appreciate the author’s attempt to dispel this simplistic notion, I cannot understand the deals Frazee made with the Yankees following the Ruth sale. If those latter deals involved Frazee’s continued efforts to save his franchise, one would think he might dip into his considerable personal finances and help the Red Sox over the temporary blip. I prefer to think, as Daniel R. Levitt, Mark Armour, and Matthew Levitt write, that Frazee somehow became addicted to making deals with the cash rich Yankees to help him resolve the Red Sox debts. 

Those of us who know history, cannot put blinders on. No matter how many alternative “time and place” perspectives various writers put before us, we know that Frazee sold Ruth for money, and no matter how much money he received from that sale, it paled in comparison to the money Ruth would’ve generated for Frazee in the coming years. Stout’s argument that, “no one could’ve known that Babe Ruth would’ve become Babe Ruth” is a decent one when we think about how many could’ve been should’ve beens dot baseball history, but Frazee received $100,000 and a loan of $300,000 from the Yankees for the services of Babe Ruth. We can speculate that this wasn’t the initial offer from the Yankees, and we can guess that Frazee and his people drove that initial offer up by detailing for the Yankees Babe Ruth’s current, 1920 market value. We can also guess that they had detailed forecasts on Ruth’s future, market prospects to drive that price up further. We can speculate that in those dark room negotiations, Frazee and his people displayed intimate knowledge of Ruth’s current and future market value to persuade the Yankees to pay more for Ruth than any major league franchise had ever paid for a single player before. One thing we do know is that many around the league considered the Yankees fools for paying that much money for one player.

Harry Frazee probably tried to feed into this with his explanation for selling Ruth, “With this money the Boston club can now go into the market and buy other players and have a stronger and better team in all respects than we would have had if Ruth had remained with us.” Sportswriters and fans believed this at the time, for they probably shared the sentiment that one man does not a team make. With the amount of money the Yankees were paying, many inside baseball thought Frazee got the better end of the deal, but no one knew how addicted Frazee would become to using the Yankees’ money to escape debt, no one, it seems, except Ed Barrow.

***

Ed Barrow

Authors Daniel R. Levitt, Mark Armour, and Matthew Levitt introduced this name Ed Barrow to us in an article titled Harry Frazee and the Boston Red Sox. Ed Barrow, they state, played a prominent role, perhaps the most prominent role, in the sales/trades the Red Sox made to the Yankees following the sale of Babe Ruth.

“[Glenn] Stout and [Richard A.] Johnson claim that Frazee made sound baseball deals with the Yankees and that he could not have foreseen what the trades would do for either club,” Daniel R. Levitt, Mark Armour, and Matthew Levitt write. “This argument does not hold up. Ed Barrow, manager of the Red Sox from 1918 through 1920, left the Red Sox and became general manager of the Yankees. Barrow knew the Red Sox players as well as anyone, and he spent the next few years grabbing all of the good players, like future Hall of Fame pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, catcher Wally Schang, shortstop Everett Scott, third baseman Joe Dugan, and pitchers Joe Bush and Sam Jones, among others. In fact[,] Barrow liked his former players enough that he got the Yankee owners to give Frazee $305,000, convincing evidence that both teams agreed that the talent was imbalanced. To argue that Frazee made good deals is to suggest both that Barrow and the Yankees somehow lucked into their dynasty and that the money was not the central piece of the deal for Frazee.”

In my opinion, the answer to the many questions we have regarding why Frazee sold so many players to the Yankees revolves around the question why did Ed Barrow quit his job as Red Sox manager to become the business manager (general manager) of the Yankees? The answer to those questions involves the insider information Barrow had about Harry Frazee, the debt the Red Sox were experiencing in those years, and how Frazee planned to resolve that debt.  

Before Ed Barrow left the Red Sox in 1921, we can assume that for most of his three year tenure, he was so satisfied to be the Red Sox manager, that if it were up to him he would retire from baseball as their manager. He led the Red Sox to the 1918 World Series championship after all. When Frazee sold The Babe, it probably came as a shock to Barrow, but we can guess that Frazee sat him down and explained to his manager why the sale was necessary. When Frazee sold four more players, we can guess that Barrow required a more detailed explanation, as Frazee opened the books for him to show the manager the debt Frazee incurred as owner of the Red Sox. This moment, right here, resulted in the changing of the tide in baseball more than anything else. Regardless what the books said, Barrow obviously realized that his owner was susceptible to bad deals that arrived with large sums of cash. 

Ed Barrow also knew, as many did at the time, that due to the “Black Sox Scandal” and Frazee’s disputes with American League Bam Johnson and the other teams in the American League loyal to Bam, Harry Frazee was limited to dealing exclusively with the Yankees. (Note: There is a consensus among the writers of the various articles I read on this particular topic that these circumstances forced Frazee to deal exclusively with the Yankees for the reasons listed here. The idea that Frazee and the Red Sox could have dealt with a team in the National League is not mentioned in any article I’ve found, and there is no reason listed for why this wasn’t a possibility for them.) We can also presume that in his dealings with Frazee, Barrow saw the writing on the wall for the Red Sox franchise, and his owner’s willingness to sell his team down the river for large sums of cash.

As anyone who has experienced debt knows, if we find one way to resolve some of our debt, we are prone to follow that path down the drain to become debt-free. Barrow may have experienced some disgust when Frazee began selling his 1918 World Series Champions, but he was probably one of the few who knew the situation so well that when the previous Yankees general manager died in 1920, Barrow probably raced down to the Yankees front office to pitch them on how he, if hired him as their next general manager, could persuade Frazee to sell more players to the Yankees and help them build a dynasty.

As the new business manager for the Yankees, Ed Sparrow helped the owners of the Yankees engineer four subsequent trades with Frazee and the Red Sox that involved 12 players and $305,000 “to help Frazee recover from his debt”. As the Levitts’ and Armour article suggests, the idea that Barrow convinced the Yankees to add $305,000 to the deal provides compelling evidence that both teams knew the Red Sox were getting the raw end of the deal. If we are to believe the writers who write from another perspective, it’s simplistic to say that Frazee made these maneuvers for the money, and “the reality of the situation was a lot more complicated than most people know”. If he didn’t need the money, as they write, and it was his goal in life to continue to own a profitable, winning major league baseball franchise, then he was either an incredibly poor business man, or someone who did not know baseball very well. Whatever the case was, Barrow knew who he was dealing with, and he knew how to convince Frazee to sell/trade twelve more players to the Yankees.  

When Barrow’s new team, the New York Yankees, won their first World Series two years later, in 1923, four of the eight starting position players were from the Red Sox, and four of the five starting pitchers on that championship roster were former Red Sox players. The Red Sox finished last in the American League that year, and “their skeletal remains would be the doormat of the league for many years”. With this team of former Red Sox players, Barrow would oversee the Yankees winning six more pennants, and three more World Series. During his tenure as general manager, the Yankees would win a total of fourteen pennants and ten World Series. This level of success, initiated by Barrow’s maneuvers with Frazee, would lead many to call Barrow an “empire-builder for the first quarter-century of the Yankees’ dynasty.” These sales/trades also landed Ed Barrow in the baseball hall of fame and Yankee Stadium placed a plaque of him in center field.

As Harry Hooper, the center fielder for the ‘15,’16, and ’18 World Series champion Red Sox, states in his interview for the book The Glory of Their Times, “The Yankee dynasty of the twenties was three-quarters the Red Sox [dynasty lineup] of a few years before. All Frazee wanted was money. He was short of cash and he sold the whole team down the river to keep his dirty nose above water. What a way to end a wonderful ball club.

“Sick to my stomach at the whole business,” Hooper followed Ruth’s hold out with a hold out of his own just to get out of Boston before it all came crumbing down, and Frazee sold Hooper to the Chicago White Sox.

It would be devastating to any franchise, of any sport, to sell one of the top players of his era, who would become one of the top five greatest players to ever play the game. Yet, even selling a once-in-a-generation talent like Babe Ruth is not enough to sink a franchise for eighty-four years, in a manner suggested in The Curse of the Bambino. It’s even difficult to believe that Ed Barrow taking advantage of Frazee to the point of selling/trading twelve other players over the course of three years can curse a franchise for that long, but as we all know winning breeds winning. In the course of those eighty-four years (1918-2004), the Red Sox did have some high quality, competitive teams. Various Red Sox teams won division titles, pennants, and they competed for the World Series in 1946, ’67, ’75 and ’86 only to fall short. The Yankees, of course, would win 26 World Series championships in the same time-frame, and they would appear in 39 World Series. Many of those Red Sox teams were unlucky, but unlucky is difficult to grasp when it occurs over the space of eighty-four years and the score with their cross town rivals was 26-0 when it came to World Series championships. Some people need an explanation, any explanation, to explain how some bizarre plays and unlucky events lead to a championship drought, and the 45% of the population who believe in ghosts thought they found the reason in Babe Ruth, Harry Frazee, and The Curse of the Bambino. Now that it’s over, and Boston Red Sox soaked the curse for all that it was, what do Red Sox fans talk about now that Boston has won the World Series four times including 2004?

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