As we wait for pitchers and catchers to report to spring training, it's hard not to notice all of the money being waved around. For those not following hot stove developments, Josh Hamilton has left the Rangers and signed with the Angels for $125 million over 5 years. B.J. Upton has bid Tampa Bay farewell and inked a $75 million 5-year deal with the Braves. David Ortiz has opted to stay in Boston after being offered $13 million a year for the next two seasons. That's an awful lot of cash for a designated hitter.
So where did this madness begin?
With Babe Ruth, of course.
1919 was a coming out year for Ruth. From 1915 through 1917, he had served primarily as a pitcher, compiling a handsome 65-33 record in that span. Once he revealed his power at the plate, the Red Sox began penciling him into the lineup on a daily basis. During the '19 slate, Ruth pitched just 17 games while playing 5 at first base and 112 in the outfield. The results were dramatic as he led the league in numerous statistical categories while setting a new single season record for homers with 29 (a mark he would shatter the following year).
At the end of the season, Ruth turned in his two Red Sox uniforms and announced that he was most likely done with the club. Asking for $20,000 (double the previous year's salary), he departed for California to participate in a series of exhibition games that would net him $500 apiece. Meanwhile in New York, Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston asked manager Miller Huggins what he needed for a contending team. In the widely accepted version of this story, Huggins replied: "Get me Babe Ruth." Ruppert and Huston agreed.
At the time, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was juggling baseball and theater interests. The first World War had negatively impacted gate receipts and he still owed a lot of money to Joseph Lannin on his original purchase of the club (made back in 1916). Looking to liquidate his assets, Frazee put Ruth up for sale. He defended his actions by complaining that he was tired of dealing with the slugger's "eccentricities," which he perceived as a detriment to team morale.
After getting Frazee's approval, the "Two Colonels" sent Huggins to California to hash out the details with Ruth. The contract was worth more than $100,000--an astronomical sum in those days and more than double the largest amount ever offered to a player (Tris Speaker had once signed with the Indians for $55,000). Ruppert and Huston were widely praised by the New York press for their bold maneuver. Reviews for Frazee in Boston were also quite positive. The Boston Post commented: "It is believed that practically every man on the Boston team will be pleased at Ruth's sale to New York." The Boston Herald echoed that sentiment and cautioned fans to "reserve judgement until they see how it works out."
As nearly everyone knows by now, it didn 't work out so well. Over the next few seasons, Frazee would become addicted to selling his star players to the Yankees, stocking the Bombers with all the ingredients necessary for a world championship. With Ruth leading the way, the Yanks would make 7 World Series appearances between 1920 and 1932, emerging victorious 5 times. The Sox would go in a completely different direction, finishing no higher than fifth place in that span. By the end of the 20th century, New York had captured 25 world championships to Boston's 5.