New York Yankees Acquire Babe Ruth

The acquisition of Babe Ruth by the New York Yankees coincided with the emergence of the home run as baseball’s new weapon, enormously increasing the sport’s popularity and marking a new approach to franchise operations.

Summary of Event

The purchase of George Herman “Babe” Ruth’s contract by the New York Yankees from the Boston Red Sox Boston Red Sox in a deal that was finalized on January 3, 1920, was more than a simple baseball business transaction. The appearance of Babe Ruth in a Yankee uniform was significant in the transformation of how baseball was played on the field and, on a different level, had a profound effect on how owners and managers devised strategies for the overall operation of professional sports franchises. Sports;baseball
New York Yankees
[kw]New York Yankees Acquire Babe Ruth (Jan. 3, 1920)
[kw]Yankees Acquire Babe Ruth, New York (Jan. 3, 1920)
[kw]Babe Ruth, New York Yankees Acquire (Jan. 3, 1920)
[kw]Ruth, New York Yankees Acquire Babe (Jan. 3, 1920)
New York Yankees
[g]United States;Jan. 3, 1920: New York Yankees Acquire Babe Ruth[05020]
[c]Sports;Jan. 3, 1920: New York Yankees Acquire Babe Ruth[05020]
[c]Business and labor;Jan. 3, 1920: New York Yankees Acquire Babe Ruth[05020]
Ruth, Babe
Ruppert, Jake
Jackson, Shoeless Joe
Landis, Kenesaw Mountain
Barrow, Edward Grant

Ruth, the premier home-run hitter of the era, was also the key to the Yankees’ financial success. His contract was available after the 1919 season because Harry Frazee, Frazee, Harry the owner of the Red Sox, needed cash to handle debts and legal problems. The Red Sox, although financially strapped, were a traditionally strong team that had won four World Series championships in the preceding eight years; in contrast, Yankees owner Jake Ruppert had ample personal monetary resources, but his team had never finished higher than second place in the American League. In an effort to bring fans to the Polo Grounds (the Yankees’ home field until the opening of Yankee Stadium in 1923), Ruppert identified Ruth as a player of immense potential and purchased his contract from the Red Sox for $125,000 and a loan of $300,000—unprecedented amounts in player transactions at the time. By comparison, Ruppert and his partner had paid $450,000 for the entire ball club in 1915.

The arrival of Ruth in New York and the rise of the Yankees dynasty came at a time of crisis in professional baseball. Many franchises had heavy financial burdens from the brief but costly rivalry with the upstart Federal Baseball League, Federal Baseball League which in 1914 and 1915 had signed more than eighty major-league players and had drawn a large number of fans. The settlement with the Federal League may have cost American and National League owners as much as five million dollars. In 1918, moreover, more than two hundred major-league ballplayers entered the armed forces to serve in World War I. Fan interest dropped sharply, the playing season ended a month early, and club incomes declined.

Babe Ruth.

(Library of Congress)

Finally, the 1919 World Series ended under the shadow of rumors that eventually resulted in open charges that the Chicago White Sox, Chicago White Sox including star outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson, had accepted bribes from gamblers to lose the contest on purpose. In September, 1920, after several months of owner cover-ups, extensive coverage of the “Black Sox” scandal Black Sox scandal appeared in the press. This scandal threatened to deepen the game’s financial woes, because skeptical fans were not likely to pay admission to root for teams that may have sold out to gamblers.

Even before the full extent of the 1919 World Series scandal became public knowledge, Babe Ruth and the Yankees set out in a more positive direction. Ruth came to personify changes in batting techniques that, in the space of three years, revolutionized the way the game was played. Ruth’s main weapon was a long, thin-handled bat, and his method was a mighty, body-wrenching swing. One result was a swing and a miss—he struck out often. He was also exceptionally gifted in driving the heavy part of the bat directly into the pitch, however, and the result, for both players and spectators, was nothing less than phenomenal. Ruth’s claim to baseball immortality was the home run—not the typical extra-base hit of the day, which was usually a line drive that skipped between converging outfielders to find the far reaches of a ballpark, but a towering fly ball that traced a huge arc as it went into the stands or, in some cases, entirely out of the park. This style of hitting, based on a powerful swing with both arms fully extended, a slight uppercut motion with the bat, and the violent pivoting of the hitter’s body, was unlike the prevailing style of “punch” or “slap” hitting, in which the batter met the pitch with a short-armed swing.

Ruth’s performance in Boston had given an indication of what was to become his forte in New York. In 1918, although he was used primarily as a pitcher and played in less than two-thirds of his team’s games, he tied for the American League leadership in home runs, with eleven. Converted into a full-time everyday player for his final season with the Red Sox, he hit twenty-nine home runs, nineteen more than the second-place player. This record-setting feat stimulated interest among fans, but the 1919 season was only a prelude to what was to become a turning point in baseball history. After a slow start with the Yankees in April, 1920, Ruth found his form. On May 1, he hit a tremendous home run that cleared the right-field stands of the Polo Grounds and landed on a recreation field nearby. Before the end of the month, he had added ten more home runs, and by the end of the season he had a total of fifty-four—approximately five times the number needed for league leadership during the previous two decades.

The effect of this extraordinary performance on ticket sales and team income was dramatic. Yankees owner Ruppert was delighted to see his team set attendance records in the Polo Grounds and also in other ballparks in the American League as fans flocked to see Ruth. Although the Yankees finished third in 1920, their home attendance led the league at 1,289,432, a record that stood until 1946. The first-place Cleveland Indians drew the second-largest number at 912,834.


Jake Ruppert found a formula for popular and financial success in baseball. The unprecedented payment for Ruth’s contract, which had appeared to be a substantial risk in early 1920, was clearly a solid investment by the end of the season. Ruth’s home runs inspired respect and fear among other players and awe and excitement among knowledgeable baseball fans. These mighty blasts also attracted the attention of people who rarely had any interest in baseball. Ruth’s appearance at a local ballpark brought a large cross section of the community into the stands. In 1919, he was a superior ballplayer, but by the middle of the 1920 season, he was a national celebrity. The Yankees’ income for 1920 provided Ruppert with a firm financial base to use in signing other talented players and to begin the construction of Yankee Stadium.

Babe Ruth also cut a path for himself as an athlete who achieved media celebrity for profit. He rose to national prominence at an opportune moment in the city where the national print media had their headquarters. New York was the hub for the nation’s press associations and had thirteen daily newspapers of its own. The public relations and advertising industries expanded their nationwide operations from their offices along Madison Avenue. Ruth’s fame and fortune rose on a tide of media coverage that he received not only as baseball’s “Sultan of Swat” but also as a colorful, uninhibited, sometimes irresponsible personality who caused excitement off the field as well.

Some of Ruth’s non-baseball-related activities brought anxiety to the Yankees’ management and to the new commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had been charged with restoring the public trust in baseball in the wake of the 1919 World Series scandal. Ruth complicated Landis’s job. In spite of Landis’s concerns about the public image of ballplayers, Ruth consumed alcoholic beverages during a time of national prohibition, drove automobiles with reckless abandon, and pursued female companionship with equally reckless disregard for mainstream morality. Despite these foibles, however, Ruth managed to get good publicity.

Ruth’s running conflict with Landis became the subject of much press coverage and, in some circles, the source of considerable humor, including in Ruth’s popular 1921 vaudeville act. He also starred in a silent film and joined forces with Christy Walsh, Walsh, Christy a sportswriter and promoter who supervised a syndicated newspaper column under the byline “Babe Ruth.” As was customary, Ruth did not write the column (several other sports stars, including Rogers Hornsby and Knute Rockne, had similar arrangements), but Walsh was careful to direct the content toward entertainment rather than journalism. Ruth received ample compensation for the use of his name—about $15,000 in 1921, the column’s first full year.

This public image tended to obscure the baseball revolution that Ruth led. It was not his revolution alone, however, as he often admitted. Ruth shaped his swing after that of Shoeless Joe Jackson, a pioneer in the development of that style of hitting; ironically, Jackson was banished from baseball in 1920. Baseball statistics, however, do support the notion that Ruth was ahead of other power hitters in the period from 1919 to 1921. In 1920, for example, Ruth’s 54 home runs surpassed second-place George Sisler’s total by 35. Even more remarkably, Ruth by himself hit more home runs than any entire team (other than his own) in the American League. As the months passed, batters adjusted their swings to follow the Jackson-Ruth form. Although other factors may have played a part, the aggressive blow of the power hitter ushered in an era of high-scoring games. From 1901 to 1918, the average number of home runs per season in the American League was fewer than 200. In 1920, American League hitters accounted for 370. In 1921, they hit 477, and from 1922 to 1941, the average number of home runs per season rose to more than 600. The National League followed a similar pattern.

To handle his expanding franchise operations, Yankees owner Ruppert hired Edward Grant Barrow as general manager at the end of the 1920 season. Barrow, an iron-willed, authoritarian type, proceeded to build a baseball dynasty founded on power hitting. Lou Gehrig joined the Yankees organization in 1923, and by the middle of the decade, the Ruppert-Barrow teams began to dominate the American League. Yankee management continued to sign sluggers: Joe DiMaggio roamed the outfield from 1936 to 1951, Yogi Berra was a power-hitting catcher in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, and Mickey Mantle’s homers of the 1950’s and 1960’s reminded many of the handiwork of Ruth. In 1961, another Yankee slugger, Roger Maris, broke Ruth’s long-standing record for home runs in a single season.

The Yankees’ approach spread throughout baseball, but it was most successful in large cities with big stadiums that could accommodate heavy ticket sales. For example, the Philadelphia Athletics assembled the mighty bats of Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, and Jimmy Foxx to challenge the Yankees in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. In smaller cities, this formula did not work as well, probably because limited populations and smaller stadiums did not generate enough revenue. Branch Rickey, an innovative executive, devised another operational strategy for the St. Louis Cardinals. He organized a “farm” system of about thirty minor-league teams that would develop talented young players. This system worked well and lifted St. Louis into the upper echelons of the National League through the 1940’s, providing the Cardinals with the likes of pitching sensation Dizzy Dean and, later, slugger Stan Musial.

In spite of their imitators and challengers, however, the Yankees remained baseball’s premier organization from the 1920’s into the 1960’s. Yankee Stadium’s open green field surrounded by massive stands symbolized baseball’s merger of the nation’s rural past with the modern industrial city. Ruth himself seemed to represent a somewhat undisciplined version of heroic individualism while attracting millions of loyal fans for the smoothly run corporate organization headed by Barrow and Ruppert. The Ruth phenomenon of the 1920’s connected an organization’s financial success with the performance of an individual star, a development in professional sports that had rough parallels with Hollywood films and popular music, as film studios and record companies discovered that stars such as Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra were necessary to hold public attention and to command large paying audiences. Sports;baseball
New York Yankees

Further Reading

  • Alexander, Charles. Our Game: An American Baseball History. New York: Henry Holt, 1991. Veteran historian’s skillful summation of baseball history includes two chapters on the revolution in batting. Features a useful annotated bibliography.
  • Creamer, Robert W. Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. 1974. Reprint. New York: Fireside, 1992. A lively biography that focuses on Ruth in Boston and his early years in New York. Limited by absence of bibliography and footnotes.
  • Curran, William. Big Sticks: The Batting Revolution of the Twenties. New York: William Morrow, 1990. Highly readable discussion of the spread of the home-run revolution through the major leagues. Gives appropriate emphasis to Ruth but also pays much-needed attention to lesser-known sluggers. Includes a chapter on the home-run revolution in the minors.
  • Parrish, Michael. Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. A well-written historical survey that explains the economic, social, and cultural context in which Ruth, Ruppert, and Barrow revolutionized baseball. Lengthy annotated bibliography provides guidance to more specialized historical works on the era.
  • Rader, Benjamin. Baseball: A History of America’s Game. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Outstanding history of baseball. Includes a synthesis of recent research on Ruth’s impact. Uses statistics effectively to support the thesis that the owners did not order the use of a livelier ball. Includes bibliographical essay and index.
  • Robinson, Ray. Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. A competent biography of Ruth’s teammate and sometime rival. Based on interviews of Gehrig’s contemporaries, including Frank Crosetti, Jimmy Reese, and Ben Chapman.
  • Seymour, Harold. Baseball: The Golden Age. 1971. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Comprehensive study of baseball from 1903 to around 1930, with balanced coverage of the game on the field and business operations off the field. Detailed information on the workings of franchises and on league policies and politics.
  • Smelser, Marshall. The Life That Ruth Built: A Biography. 1974. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. Well-researched biography pays considerable attention to Ruth’s contracts and other financial arrangements and his ventures into show business and public relations as well as his work on the field. Includes footnotes and bibliography.
  • Tygiel, Jules. Past Time: Baseball as History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Looks at American society from the 1850’s onward through the interplay between baseball, the “national pastime,” and political, cultural, and social events. Includes notes and index.

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