MLB's No. 2 Worst Trade in History: Boston Trades the Bambino

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IDecember 8, 2010

Before building his famous house in the Bronx, Babe Ruth was a top pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who played in the outfield on days he didn't pitch.
Before building his famous house in the Bronx, Babe Ruth was a top pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who played in the outfield on days he didn't pitch.

Well, here we are.  Just one more trade until I discuss what I believe is the worst one in baseball history and for No. 2, I’ve picked a good one. 

This trade needs no introduction.  It’s a DOOZY.  Books have been written about it.  Baseball historians have discussed it for decades.  There is nothing else I can say about this trade that would make its introduction any better.  Oh, by the way…it’s when the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

I can imagine what most of you are thinking.  This trade dramatically changed the histories of the two teams involved.  One went on to become the most successful franchise in sports history, and the other (up until recently), was for decades considered to be a group of lovable losers.  Yet, while a lot of people know about the trade itself, what they don’t know is the story behind it.  That’s where I come in, so let’s get started

Now, I know that most baseball fans know how Babe Ruth is best known for his years spent with the Yankees and how during that time, he set records with his home run hitting.  But before he was the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth was a standout player for the Boston Red Sox.

Making his debut in 1914, Ruth made an immediate impact for the Red Sox not as an outfielder, but rather has a starting pitcher.  Looking at his pitching statistics, I’m honestly surprised that he made the switch.  His career record is astounding: 94 wins compared to 46 losses.  His career ERA is just as impressive at 2.28!   His talent on the mound led the Red Sox to consecutive World Series titles in 1915 and 1916.

So now there are some readers who are probably wondering, “OK, Josh, you’ve shown us Ruth’s pitching statistics and they’re pretty good, but he’s still known primarily as an outfielder.  Why is that?”  I’m glad you asked!

One thing that we need to understand regarding Ruth’s switch to the outfield is the era in which he played.  There were two leagues, American and National, but they were basically one and the same.  Why?  The designated hitter rule wasn’t around yet!  As a result, Ruth was in the batting order whenever he pitched, and his offense was not what people expected of a pitcher at the time.

Team management took notice of Ruth’s talent at the plate, and started playing him in the outfield on days he didn’t pitch.  Boston’s offense became even more powerful as the team won the World Series in 1918, the first season in which Ruth consistently played in the outfield.  However, the team’s successes were short-lived.  The Red Sox finished in sixth place in 1919, and the house fell down.

Even before the collapse of 1919, the Red Sox had been looking for a reason to get Ruth off of the team.  Both on and off the field, he had temper issues.  He drank, smoked, got into fights, and didn’t do a particularly good job of taking care of himself. 

So, after the 1919 season, team owner Harry Frazee finally had a reason to unload his controversial All-Star player.  At the time, the Red Sox were basically trading away all of their star players, and getting other players in return; you know, NORMAL trading practices.

However, Frazee did something a bit unconventional in trading Ruth.  Now, apart from owning the Red Sox, Harry Frazee was also a producer of Broadway shows.  At the time, he needed money to finance a play.  What did he do?  He traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. 

Who did the Red Sox get in return?  Well, it’s more a question of what than who.  The Yankees received Babe Ruth, and in return sent $100,000 cash money to Boston.  No players, no draft picks (since that concept hadn’t been invented yet), just cold hard cash.

Now, given how this is a website frequented by sports fans, I don’t think I need to go into too much detail regarding the aftermath of this trade.  Long story short, Ruth goes on to finish his career with 714 career home runs, sets all sorts of records, retires as the greatest hitter of all time, makes the Hall of Fame. 

The Red Sox spend the next 80-something years as perennial underachievers until they finally win another World Series in 2004.  End of tale.  Yet, I don’t think that we can fully understand how bad this trade is until we look at it compared to some similar ones made in the modern age.

Today, if a team trades a player for “cash considerations,” it usually means that the player involved is a mediocre one at best and that a fair agreement can’t be reached using other players.  A good example of this occurred this past season, when the Cleveland Indians traded relief pitcher Kerry Wood to the Yankees for cash considerations, although low-level minor leaguers were also involved in that deal.  Just the same, it was a case of one team looking to get rid of one player for a low price.

If Harry Frazee tried to trade Babe Ruth today, he could have gotten much more back in return, regardless of whether Ruth was a pitcher or an outfielder.  In 2010, Ruth could have been worth a star outfielder, plus a couple of minor league prospects.  He would be an elite player, and he wouldn’t come cheap if another team was looking to acquire him.  Just imagine how much money he’d demand as a free agent!

If the Babe Ruth trade hadn’t happened, there’s no telling how differently baseball history would have panned out.  Maybe the Red Sox would have gone on to be the most successful team in sports history, rather than my beloved Yankees.  Babe Ruth might not have become one of the greatest home run hitters of all time. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I know that bad trades are bound to happen, but trading a top player to finance a Broadway show?!  Harry Frazee, wherever you are, I hope you’re kicking yourself for this horrible mistake (or blessing, if you’re a Yankees fan like I am!).

Anyway, that’s No. 2, folks.  Tune in tomorrow for No. 1!


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