December 26, 1919
The three most important individual dates in Yankees history are April 15, 1947, April 15, 1958 and December 26, 1919. The first was the day Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers and integrated baseball. The anniversary of Robinson’s first game is appropriately recognized observed throughout baseball. On April 15, 1958 the San Francisco Giants hosted, and drubbed by a score of 8-0, the Los Angeles Dodgers. That was the first big league game ever played on the west coast and marked the beginning of big league baseball becoming a truly national, bigger and ultimately international industry. That anniversary is rarely commemorated because the narrative around the move west by the two erstwhile New York teams is still dominated by the overstated and less than accurate view that this was a disaster for New York and, in some existential sense, our collective post-war innocence-or some other sepia toned nonsense.
December 26, 1919 is rarely remembered, but if the events of that day had not occurred, baseball would look very different today. The sale of the greatest player in the history of the game, who possessed not only extraordinary skills as a baseball player, but a fantastic sense of showmanship, great media skills and a magnetic personality, to a franchise based in the media capital of the country, reinvigorated a game that was in its infancy. Not only was big league baseball relatively new in December of 1919, but it was only a few months removed from a World Series that was tarnished by corruption as the Chicago White Sox essentially let the Cincinnati Reds win, and only a few years removed from the emergence and collapse of the Federal League. The American League was not even twenty years old and already the structure of the game, and indeed its overall future, was imperiled. One of the biggest ways baseball recovered was through the excitement Babe Ruth created in his new home in New York.
The Yankees paid $100,000, about $1.5 million in today’s dollars, for Ruth. During his 15 years with the Yankees Ruth hit .349/.484/.711 for an OPS+ of 209 and a total of 659 home runs. Ruth helped the Yankees win seven pennants and four World Series during these years. Before 1920, the Yankees were just another team. They had some good years, including narrowly missing the pennant in 1904, but were not even close to being the marquee team in the sport-that title belonged to the Giants, with whom they shared a borough. The Yankees could not afford, and did not really need, a good ballpark of their own until Ruth came along, sharing the Polo Grounds with the Giants from 1912-1922. After Ruth joined the Yankees, the team quickly eclipsed the Giants and have remained the most famous, valuable, recognized and, frequently, best team in baseball ever since.
Ruth did not only make the Yankees bigger and better, but, after joining the Yankees, had that same impact on the game itself. Before the phrase, “face of the game” existed, Ruth was the unequivocal face of the game. He was not only by far the most famous baseball player in the world, but at the dawning of what has become a more than a century long obsession with celebrity, Ruth was one of the most prominent, media friendly and accessible celebrities around. All of that was made even bigger because he played in New York. Had Ruth stayed in Boston with the Red Sox, the Red Sox would have been a lot better and the Yankees a lot worse, but baseball itself would have lost out because the biggest and most magnetic star in the game would have not been where the media, money and people were.
History is always inevitable in retrospect, but at the end of the 1919 season it was not at all obvious that baseball would continue to become America’s national pastime and occupy such an important place in the life and culture of the country, that the American and National League would become hegemonic over all of professional baseball or that the New York Yankees would become the most important, wealthiest and most baseball team. The sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees opened the door to all of that.
Ruth died more than seventy years ago, and played in his last big league game, with the Boston Braves not the Yankees, in 1935, but he is still part of the culture of the Yankees and of baseball. Yankee Stadium, even in its third iteration, is still occasionally called the “House that Ruth Built.” It is still common to see fans wearing Yankees t-shirts and jerseys with the number three on the back, which all Yankees fans know was only ever Babe Ruth’s. Even in non-baseball contexts, the word “Ruthian” is sometimes used to mean huge and impressive. The books that are written about the Babe every few years are further evidence of his enduring fame. Ruth’s story of growing up in an orphanage, becoming the best left-handed pitcher in baseball and then the best player, hitting 60 home runs in 1927 and calling his home run in the 1932 World Series as well as his larger than life off the field exploits and personality are well known, but had he not been sold to the Yankees, the history of Ruth, the Yankees and baseball would have been very different. One hundred years ago today, the Red Sox made one of the worst transactions in baseball history, but there is not a Yankees fan alive who isn’t grateful for that-and all baseball fans should recognize that the game is bigger and better because of it.