Alternate Jersey: Breaking Bambino

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An alternate timeline where Babe Ruth remains with the Red Sox

Welcome to the first-ever MLB edition of Alternate Jersey! Are you excited? I’m excited. Because for our inaugural lap around the diamonds, we’re going to be exploring one of the biggest trades in baseball history.

The year is 1919 and Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee is having a bit of an internal crisis. His team had just suffered a miserable season just a year after the team had won Babe Ruth’s third World Series title. This was due to a combination of things: looser player conduct rules, World War 1 beginning to require some of their players, and also the insane amount of money Frazee would throw around in order to get those players in the first place. Whatever the reasons, the world champions were staring at a 66-71 record and a 6th-place finish in the American League. However, it didn’t matter financially because this team had Babe Ruth! The Sultan of Swat! The Colossus of Clout! The Great Bambino! Baseball fans from all over would come just to watch Ruth knock hit after hit out of the park. The team very wisely resigned him to a three-year contract and the future of Boston looked bright.

That is, until Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees for $100,000 so he could finance a play (possibly the musical No, No, Nanette), which marks the first and last time anybody has ever sacrificed a sports budget for art.

The rest is baseball history. A bitter rivalry between the two teams began and has been going strong for 98 years. Babe Ruth put the Yankees on the map; winning 4 World Series titles, setting a home run record that would stand for nearly 40 years, and permanently carving his name not just into baseball history, but into American history. The Yankees would become synonymous with success, winning an additional 23 titles after the Bambino’s retirement and at least one in nearly every decade since the 30’s excluding the 80’s. Meanwhile, Boston famously suffered a championship drought, failing to win a single World Series title following the Ruth trade until 2004, a solid 84 years since their previous title.

But what if Babe Ruth never gets sold to New York?

Here at Alternate Jersey, we are not prone to believe in jinxes, curses, or Deus Ex Machina level interference in the sports world. We like data and real measurable events. So while we can give a skeptical glance to the Curse of the Bambino, there may be some reasoning that suggests Babe Ruth could change everything. 

But first, we’ll talk about the immediate impact it has on the Red Sox. One crucial fact about Babe Ruth’s legendary record is the fact that he was actually able to step up to the plate for every game because the Yankees converted him to a full-time outfielder. The Red Sox, however, had Ruth double up as a pitcher and outfielder. This is important because in olden times before the concept of a DH was even thought up, pitchers just flat out didn’t hit. Can you imagine? A team NOT wanting Babe Ruth up to bat? Take a look at Babe Ruth’s batting stats during his first 5 years in Boston compared to just one year in New York. Once the Yankees put him in the outfield, Ruth hit more Home Runs in a single season than he did during his first six years as a player. That’s 59 as a Yankee and 49 as a Red…Sock? (What do you a call a singular Red Sox player?) Point being, Ruth was just starting to dip his toes into home run dominance in 1919. He didn’t fully emerge into a living legend until 1920.

In fairness to Boston, Babe was on the hitting diamond a lot more in 1919, hitting a lead leading 29 home runs during this time. They also drastically cut down the number of games he pitched in which gave him more opportunities at bat. While I don’t think the Red Sox totally abandon Babe on the Mound in 1920 (given their best option at pitcher was Bullet Joe Bush who pretty much the definition of hit or miss) I will say that they’d be a lot more willing to let Babe keep adding to his legacy.

What really ends up making the difference now, in spite of definitely not winning the World Series in ’19 or ’20, is the newfound leverage Frazee now has in the league. He did not have a lot of money to just throw around if he keeps Babe on board, but what he would have is some massive appeal to come play for the Red Sox. Contracts and trades were all pretty loose back in the day. Frazee could tempt a player with a financial amount and you could just go ahead and go with it. But the dream team the Yankees were able to build and maintain even post-Bambino had a lot to do with Bambino. Joining the Yankees in Babe’s prime could almost guarantee you a championship. Becoming a Yankee afterward meant becoming part of the best team in the sports world. The Yankees were able to do a lot in the shade of Babe’s shadow. Read any book about Babe Ruth. The feeling was palpable. That power now shifts to Boston with Babe’s presence.

By 1921 Babe Ruth is the athlete of the century. The Sox, seeing how close they can get to victory with Ruth in the outfield and up to bat, convert him to a full-time outfielder and just let him go ham. The Red Sox zoom past the other teams in the AL on the wings of some shiny new players wanting to play with Babe and Babe just being an absolute maniac. However, they are still not enough to defeat the New York Baseball Giants in the World Series. Following a forgettable year by Babe Ruth standards in 1922, he finally gets his groove back in 1923 just as he would with the Yankees and leads the Red Sox to the 4 titles the Yankees would have had in this time span.

Now, keep in mind, the Yankees have NEVER won the World Series up to this point and are kept far and away from any hope of it during Babe’s career. “Big whoop.” I hear some Yankee faithful chortling. “We still win those other 23 titles without Babe Ruth.” But see, the Yankees were able to make a ton of money from all those tickets they sold with Babe playing. Furthermore, they could use that money and success to attract other players. Remember the oft-common complaint that the Yankees would just buy the best players and keep winning? Who do you think was the main attraction that got that ball rolling? Now the Red Sox have all that Babe money and success. A success that they can just keep adding onto as the Boston Red Sox accumulate the most championships in baseball history.

Potential cultural impacts? Maybe Jay-Z never starts rocking Yankee hats. Maybe New York never develops a sports identity it can latch onto since all they’ll have going for it are some inconsistent football teams, another historically lousy baseball team, and the Knicks. Maybe hockey becomes much bigger in the Big Apple. But one thing is certain: we’ll likely never hear this song.

I think that’s gift enough.

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