1920: The Most Important Year in Baseball History?

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Welcome back to Peculiar Side of Sports.  Every so often something in sports perplexes me, and I just hate not knowing something.  So, I do what any normal, sane sports fan does – I search ad nausea for the answer by any means necessary.  The good news is that I take all my hard work and relay the results to you.

Last week I presented “1869: The Most Important Year In Baseball History?“, which was to be the first of three in my series considering which year is most important to baseball history.  Today I present a year which might be familiar to you already; 1920.

George Herman Ruth Jr.  The Babe.  Sultan of Swing.  The Bambino.  No matter how you refer to him as, Babe Ruth is not only one of  the greatest players in the history of the game, but he is the source for many rumours and stories.  But what makes this year, 1920, so intriguing is that just as the Babe was hitting the height of his greatness, he was sold from Boston to the New York Yankees.  The “Curse of the Bambino”, which by the way was not coined until the late 80’s or early 90’s, began decades of successes and failures.  Most people remember Ruth as a Yankee, but was he really that important in Boston?  Was the deal really that outrageous?  Let’s spend a few minutes looking at what Babe Ruth did in his years in Boston.

During his Red Sox years starting in 1914, Babe Ruth was a pitcher.  After his first year, which he pitched only five times, he earned a starting rotation spot in the following year, and went 18-8 on the season.  Ruth picked up  four homers that year, though he really wasn’t a huge part of their success.  In fact, he didn’t pitch in during the World Series, and didn’t have a single hit either – Boston won the World Series.

In 1916 things changed.  Ruth went 23-12, had nine complete game shutouts (a record until 1978), and struck out 10 in a single game.  He led the league in both wins as well as a miniscule 1.75 ERA.  This time around, he had a strong outing in the World Series, and again, the Red Sox were champions.

Ruth’s reputation as a “difficult” guy to manage surfaced in 1917.  He was ejected from one game, but he didn’t leave without taking a swing at the umpire, garnering him a 10-game suspension.  He went 24-13 that year with a 2.01 ERA.  As a batter, Ruth was becoming the hitter who we think of today.  Many attribute his success to his home runs exclusively, but many don’t realize how great an all around hitter he was.  In 1917 he hit .325.

READ MORE: How Babe Ruth Killed the Bunt

If 1917 was a bit of a break-out year for Ruth as far as hitting went, he was still limited to only batting on days that he pitched.  So in 1918, he was being played more as an outfielder.  The added at-bats are what solidified him as one of the game’s greats, as he hit a league-leading 11 home runs.  He still pitched a respectable 13-7 with 2.22 ERA that year, and in the World Series he even threw a shutout in game one, and won game four as well.  The Red Sox, for the third time in four years, won the World Series.

The following year, 1919, the big bat of Babe Ruth was becoming very well known.  He was pitching less, playing outfield more, and his hitting stats took off.  He hit .322 and set the record for home runs in a season with 29.  But no one was ready for what happened just after Christmas – December 26th to be specific.

On December 26, 1919, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.  The Yankees were not the one we think of today; they were regularly losing money and did not have the weight of the people of NYC behind them.  To this day, no one knows why he did it, but he offered this explanation to the Boston Globe:

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.

He couldn’t have been more wrong, in every respect.

The first thing New York did was remove his role as pitcher and made him a full time outfielder, and thus, a power hitter.  In one year, 1920, Ruth crushed 54 home runs and batted an incredible .376. He had an astounding .847 slugging average (a record until 2001).  What is more absurd-sounding; Babe Ruth hit more homeruns that year than any other team aside from the Phillies.

In fact, before Ruth home runs weren’t given nearly the attention they are now – he made them into the stat it is today because he was the game’s first power hitter.  Ruth revolutionized the game and changed the way that batting orders were set up, introducing the idea that the middle of the order guys were your power hitting specialists, and the home run hitters who drove in the guys at the top of the order.  Before this the idea of the slugger, really wasn’t part of baseball.  This trade (and the conversion of Ruth to a full time outfielder following the deal) allowed him to concentrate on becoming that power hitter and change the game.

We don’t need to do a play-by-play of every year he had with the Yankees to understand how he impacted the game.  He was an icon, a superstar, and one of the country’s most recognizable names.  The crowd loved him, and he loved them.  Shortly after Ruth’s arrival, Yankee Stadium was built to house the swelling crowds and that’s how it became the “House that Ruth Built.”  Ruth became the first baseball mega-star, transcending sports, and becoming a big name in pop culture of the time.  He became so popular and so famous that he even had his own candy bar named after him, and was the pitchman for numerous products.  The popularity and transition of Ruth from Great Ballplayer to Larger than Life legend occured in New York, and that is what separated him from other stars of the day such as Cobb or Shoeless Joe.

One thing to remember is that prior to Ruth’s arrival, the Yankees were a struggling franchise, with no Championships, and no World Series appearances.  Struggles at the gate, and monetary losses would force the Yankees original owners, Frank J. Farrell and William S. Devery, to sell the team to Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Captain Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston in 1915.  Even after the sale the Yankees played in Polo Grounds, where they were the second most popular team behind the New York Giants, who were much more successful on the field in those years.  The sale of Babe Ruth, and the popularity he achieved would soon change all that, and the success would have the Giants kick the Yankees out of their stadium (Polo Grounds) and the Yankees new owners would build their own stadium across the Hudson River, in the Bronx.  In 1923, the Yankees first year in Yankee Stadium, the team would beat the Giants and win the World Series, the balance of power had officially shifted.

We know the sale of Ruth and the beginning of a Championship drought lasting 86 years occurred at the same time.  While everyone thinks of it as the end of a period of dominance for the Red Sox, it was also the beginning of one for the Yankees.  Few would argue that the New York Yankees are one of the most recognizable teams in any sport on the planet, and it was the arrival of Babe Ruth that ushered in a long period of success for the team – 90+ years of it.  Before him they were not the pinstripes you think of today.  In fact the Pinstripes were added to the Yankee uniforms for the slimming effect that the vertical lines give a person.   Something that was done due to the physique of their star, Babe Ruth.

In this way the Babe Ruth trade paved the way for major changes in the way baseball was played (the rise of the power hitter), changed the fates of three franchises (Yankees, Red Sox, and New York Giants), and let the world see the first mainstream crossover team sport athlete to be a mega star rivaling the fame of any movie star of the era.

Read More: Babe Ruth–The Santa Claus of Baseball

I’ll leave you with some of his more impressive statistics:

Ruth’s career slugging % (.690), *OPS (1.164), *OPS+ (206) are still the greatest in the history of the game.  He ranks second in on-base % (.474) and RBI (2213), 3rd in home runs (714) and walks (2,062), 4th on runs (2,174), 6th on total bases (5,793) and 10th on batting average (.342).

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This trade alone would have been enough to have 1920 considered for inclusion in this series, but two other events happened that year which were very notable and should be mentioned.

In February 1920, the Negro National League was formed.  It would go on to last for 11 years and was one of several Negro Leagues of the time.  The League was founded by a coalition of team owners who met at a Kansas City YMCA.  Rube Foster, owner and Manager of the Chicago American Giants called the meeting and is credited with being the driving force of the league.  While the NNL eventually failed due to the Great Depression and the economic reality that set in, this league was the first African American baseball league to achieve stability and last for more than 1 season. It was mainly operated in the mid west, with Kansas City as the western most member, and Pittsburgh as the eastern most.  In 1924 the NNL would compete against the Eastern Colored League (ECL) for the Negro World Series.  The league would be the forefather of the Negro American League.

In November 1920, 8 players from the Chicago White Sox, including Shoeless Joe Jackson were indicted on charges that they fixed the 1919 World Series and their loss to the Cincinatti Reds.  The “Black Sox Scandal” would lead to Kenesaw Mountain Landis being named the first commissioner of baseball, and to the banning for life of all 8 players indicted.  While Shoeless Joe denies the charges, the stain left on his career and reputation remains to this day.  Baseball’s extreme prohibition on gambling of any kind (on games) by its players also arose from this incident, leading to Pete Rose being banned from baseball nearly 70 years later.

 

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