It’s not uncommon for a team in any major professional sport to make a bad trade. Any pro sports team that has been around for a few decades has made at least one move they wish they could have back. The Chicago Cubs traded Lou Brock to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Charlotte Hornets sent a young Kobe Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky.
But one move stands out above the rest as the stupidest move in sports history, and that’s the Boston Red Sox selling future all-time great Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920. Ruth was just 24 years old at the time. How could any team make such a blunder? Let’s take a look back at what happened and how it changed the course of baseball history.
Babe Ruth, the starting pitcher?
Ruth made his major league debut for the Red Sox at the age of 19, all the way back in 1914. The fun trivia about the slugger is that he was originally a pitcher, and he tossed seven innings against the Cleveland Naps that day. Ruth allowed eight hits, two earned runs, and no walks, striking out one batter and getting the win
Over six seasons in Boston, Ruth pitched 1190 innings with a 2.19 ERA and a record of 89-46. He allowed just nine home runs as a pitcher while hitting 49 as a hitter. That’s not all that impressive of a six-year total for Ruth, but he did lead the league in homers in 1918 and 1919. During the 1916 season, Ruth led the league with 40 starts, nine shutouts, and a 1.75 ERA during the regular season.
Next: The early success in Boston
Success in Boston and World Series wins
Although Ruth won three World Series rings during his time in Boston, another fun piece of trivia is that he had exactly one hit during those three series – a triple in 1918 against the Chicago Cubs. Ruth did start three games as a pitcher, posting a 0.87 ERA with victories in all three games. In total, Ruth tossed 31 innings with 13 hits allowed, seven walks, two earned runs, and four strikeouts during his World Series career.
Among players with at least 30 innings thrown in the Fall Classic, Ruth is No. 3 on the all-time list of players with the lowest ERA’s behind just Harry Brecheen and Madison Bumgarner. When most people think of Ruth as a World Series hero, it’s definitely for his bat and not his fastball.
Ruth’s most notable game came in 1916 against the Brooklyn Robins. He started Game 2 of the series, and it went into extra innings before the Sox won in 14. Ruth pitched all 14 innings, allowing just one run and getting the victory. He also had one of Boston’s two RBI in the game.
Next: The big rumor around the fateful trade
The trade to the New York Yankees
In January of 1920, the New York Yankees announced that they had purchased the contract of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in exchange for $125,000. Sox owner Harry Frazee, it was rumored, did the deal in part to fund a musical called No No, Nanette.
All things considered, the musical has been a success if you ignore the fact that they gave up Ruth. Another reason why Ruth was dealt was because he demanded a raise, which Boston wasn’t quite willing to give him.
Here is Frazee’s statement at the time as for the official reason he preferred cash in the deal for Ruth.
I should have preferred to take players in exchange for Ruth, but no club could have given me the equivalent in men without wrecking itself, and so the deal had to be made on a cash basis. No other club could afford to give me the amount the Yankees have paid for him, and I don’t mind saying I think they are taking a gamble. 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.
Famous last words, eh?
Next: Even bigger success in New York
More World Series trophies
The Red Sox had transferred Ruth to the outfield for the bulk of his time in his final season in Boston, and the Yankees phased out his pitching almost entirely. Ruth never made any postseason appearances on the mound for New York, and in total he only threw 31 innings in the regular season over 15 years with the Yanks.
In 36 World Series games in pinstripes, Ruth hit 15 home runs with a scalding slash line of .347/.497/.788. He reached base in 77 of his 155 plate appearances, which is almost exactly half of his trips to the plate. To say that Ruth was successful would be putting it lightly. Over those 15 years with the Yankees, Ruth made it to the World Series seven times and won four of them. He finished out his career with seven total championships to his credit.
Next: The Hall of Fame comes calling.
A Hall of Fame career in New York
But the World Series trophies aren’t all people remember Ruth for during his time in New York. The slugger arrived with the Yankees just prior to turning 25 years old, and he would lead the league in home runs again for the third consecutive season in 1920. But this time, it wasn’t like the last two years when he combined for 40 homers in total. Ruth smacked 54 home runs in his first year with the Yankees, which was a major league record at the time.
The next year, Ruth topped his own record with a league-best 59 home runs. In 10 of his 15 seasons in New York, Ruth led the majors in home runs. In 1927, he crushed a career-best 60 home runs — a record that would stand until Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961.
In his Yankees career, Ruth hit .349/.484/.711 with 659 of his 714 home runs. He is baseball’s all-time leader in slugging percentage (.690) and OPS (1.164), and Ruth was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936.
Next: The Curse of the Bambino.
The 86-year drought
Things weren’t as rosey for the Red Sox after they sold Ruth to the Yankees. While Frazee saw success with No No, Nannette, his baseball team wouldn’t finish above .500 again until 1935 – Ruth’s final year in the majors. They were just 78-75-1 that year, finishing in fourth-place in their league and 16 games out of first place. It wasn’t until 1946 that the Red Sox made another appearance in the World Series, losing 4-3 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Boston lost the World Series again to the Cardinals, 4-3, in 1967, and then 4-3 against the Cincinnati Reds in 1975. The Sox appeared to have finally broken through in 1986 against the New York Mets, but a grounder went under the glove of first baseman Bill Buckner in Game 6. Boston lost that series, 4-3, as well.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the Sox finally broke through, becoming the first team in major league history to come back from down 0-3 in a best-of-seven series to win. It happened in the ALCS against, who else? The New York Yankees. The Red Sox swept the Cardinals in the World Series that year, breaking the famous Curse of the Bambino and winning their first championship in 86 seasons.
Next: The stupidest trade in American sports history.
The legacy of the deal
In baseball, much of what fans hear and digest is based on media narrative. No one — or at least, few people — truly believe that trading Babe Ruth placed an actual curse on the franchise. If it had, what was the thing that broke this curse? There is no clear answer. But because the Curse of the Bambino was talked about by fans and media, it took on a life of its own. The Red Sox failing to win the World Series became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
But younger baseball fans probably only know the Curse of the Bambino by name, and not a whole lot of the details of the story. After all, the Red Sox have been extremely successful since the turn of the century. Since 2003, Boston has made the postseason in nine of 15 seasons. They’ve made five trips to the ALCS, and three trips to the World Series. As for the Yankees, their three World Series victories since ’03 outpaces New York’s one from 2009.
So what is the legacy of the Babe Ruth trade? It’ll never be fully forgotten because of Ruth’s utter dominance throughout his career with the Yankees and Boston’s lack of success for the decades that followed. Even as the Red Sox find success in the new millennium, sending Ruth to their rival remains the stupidest deal in sports history.