This is the day, 104 years ago, it was announced that Harry Frazee, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, had sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. There are a lot of points of light in baseball history. Never one brighter than this.
The deal had been consummated days earlier. But this was the day, Jan. 5, 1920, that Ruth becoming a Yankee was in headlines, and really was in lights. No one knew it at the time, not even in Boston and in New York where the sale made the most noise, but this was the moment when baseball really started to become the national pastime in this country, because of the man who is still the biggest and most flamboyant star the game has ever produced.
This isn’t just a New York thing, not just a sports thing. It is an American thing.
A few years later the Yankees would move into Yankee Stadium, known then and forever as "The House That Ruth Built." Over the next 15 years, the Yanks would win seven American League pennants and four World Series, and even though they weren’t in the Series every year, it must have seemed that way.
There were other stars on that Yankees’ team, one whose lineup would eventually be called Murderers Row. But Ruth -- The Babe, the Sultan of Swat, The Bambino -- towered above them the way he towered above the sport, especially in the 1920s, which would be called a Golden Age of American sports.
Ruth would eventually become the first man in baseball history to hit 60 home runs in a season, a magic number that would last until 1961, when Roger Maris (in a 162-game season) hit 61. Ruth retired with 714 home runs, a mark that would stand until the great Hank Aaron hit his 715th in 1974. There are so many remarkable numbers associated with what Ruth did, as he was doing more than any other player to begin to make baseball matter in America the way it has ever since. Here is just one:
When Ruth finally retired in 1935 with 714 homers, the next closest man to that number was Lou Gehrig, with 378. There were only two other men in baseball history who had as many as 300, Jimmie Foxx and Rogers Hornsby. It meant that Ruth was nearly 400 clear of the field. You can make the case, almost three-quarters of a century after his death in 1948, that not only was he the greatest player of all time, he was as much of a giant as we’ve had in any sport.
Ruth was also the first ballplayer to hit 30 home runs in a season, and 40, and 50 and 60. The year before he got to New York, he set the single-season record for home runs with 29. Then he hit 54 in his first year with the Yankees -- more than any other American League team hit that season.
Ruth had, of course, been the Shohei Ohtani of his time when he was still with the Red Sox, helping Boston win its last World Series -- until 2004 -- in 1918 as both a hitter and a pitcher. He helped them win three World Series, just one fewer than he would win with the Yankees, ironically enough. But he will always be remembered much better for the winning he did with New York.
Once he got to the Yankees, Ruth only pitched three times, starting twice. His record was 3-0. He hadn’t been brought to the big city to pitch, he had been brought there to hit home runs. And to become a bigger-than-life figure, the first truly modern sports star in so many ways, on and off the field.
My favorite Boston newspaper headline the day the deal was announced was this one:
“Red Sox Sell Ruth For $100,000 Cash.”
The sub-headline was even better:
“Demon Slugger of American League, who made 29 home runs last season, goes to New York Yankees.”
“I swing big, with everything I’ve got,” Ruth said one time. “I hit big, or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”
He did all of those things.
Another time he said this:
“Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”
Ruth is the legend around whom the first real American century of baseball was built. He is the one who made the first Yankee Stadium feel like the capital of American sports, and was the biggest reason that the Yankees would become the most famous brand in American sports, on their way to winning 40 American League pennants and 27 World Series.
There is some dispute, all this time later, about whether the sale price might have been as much as $125,000 for Ruth. It really doesn’t matter. There would never be a more meaningful, or historic, investment in sports than the one that Yankees owner Col. Jacob Ruppert made in Ruth.
It was all announced a little over 100 years ago. Not much happened that day. Just a national pastime.