Dec. 26, 2022

Babe Ruth Joins the New York Yankees

Babe Ruth Joins the New York Yankees

December 26, 1919. Baseball’s so-called Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth, is sold to the world-famous New York Yankees.


Cold Open

It’s just before midnight on October 27th, 2004 at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Keith Foulke stands at the mound and breathes slowly, trying to remain calm. He’s the team’s closer, it’s his job to strike out the batter at home plate, get the last out, and finish out the game. He’s done it successfully many times this season. But Keith is still nervous. No game this year has been as important as this one. This is the World Series—baseball’s most prestigious championship—and the Red Sox are on the cusp of clinching a historic victory. Keith winds up… and hurls the ball toward home plate. 

The St. Louis Cardinals batter manages to get his bat on the ball. But it’s a weak hit. The ball ricochets off the ground and into Keith’s glove.

The crowd cheers. It should be an easy out to end the game. But for a split second, Keith hesitates - frozen with indecision. He’s unsure whether to throw the ball to first base and risk a fielding error, or whether to race the batter to first base himself. In a flash, Keith makes his decision.

He runs a few steps and throws the ball at first. The Cardinals player is out, and the Red Sox have won.

Keith turns as one of his teammates leaps into his arms. Other Red Sox players surround him, hugging in celebration. Some laugh and scream with joy. Others have tears in their eyes. Because they have just reached the pinnacle of their sport. They are Major League Baseball champions.

In 2004, the Boston Red Sox celebrate a momentous triumph, sweeping the Cardinals 4-0 in one of the most one-sided World Series in baseball history. But for the city of Boston, the victory is so much more than just a strong championship showing. It’s the end of the infamous “Curse of the Bambino.”

For the previous 86 years, the Red Sox were one of baseball’s most underperforming teams. And many thought the reason for their lack of success was attributed to a curse, set off by the decision to sell Babe Ruth—the greatest player in baseball history—to the New York Yankees, on December 26th, 1919.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 26th, 1919: Babe Ruth Joins the New York Yankees.

Act One

It’s 3 PM on October 9th, 1916, three years before Babe Ruth is sold by Boston Red Sox. 

21-year-old Ruth breathes deeply as he stands on the pitcher’s mound at Braves Field in Boston, trying to get his nerves to settle.

Ruth has been the best pitcher for the Boston Red Sox this season, and arguably the best in the entire league. But this is the first time Ruth has ever pitched in a World Series. And he knows his opponents, the Brooklyn Robins, are a tough team to beat.

Ruth stares at the Robins player who stands his bat poised, ready to swing. Ruth already got two batters out. And if he can get this third player out, the Robins’ first innings will end without a score. So Ruth takes another deep breath and twists his body, and throws the ball. It's fast and low, but within the strike zone, and batter swings and connects. Ruth hears a crack of the bat almost simultaneously with the sight of the ball shooting past Ruth, low to the ground, but so quick that he can’t stop it.

Still, Ruth isn’t worried. It should be simple for the outfielders to intercept the ball and get the batter out at first. But the right fielder dives, misjudging the ball. He goes right over the top of it and it continues rolling to the fence. Ruth groans with the crowd in frustration at the fielding error. Then, the Red Sox center fielder begins to chase the ball down, and Ruth lifts his hands to his face in disbelief as the fielder slips. Eventually, the player gets the ball back to the in-field, but only after the batter has run around the bases to field an inside-the-park home run. Ruth hurls his cap to the ground in dismay.

Nearly an hour later, Ruth is back on the field at the bottom of the third inning—but this time he has a bat in his hand. As usual, the pitcher is the last of the Red Sox players to bat. But Ruth is not a typical pitcher. Normally, pitchers are the weakest batters on the team. But Ruth loves to swing. He’s hit three home runs this year, more than any other player on the Red Sox.

But Ruth doesn’t hit another home run today. Still, he does hit a ball that forces the fielders to take action. As he sends the ball soaring, Ruth drops his bat and sprints toward first base. It's going to be a close one. But out of the corner of his eye, a Robins player bobbles the ball. Ruth is only two strides away and thinks he's going to make it, but the Robins player’s throw to first base is good, and Ruth is called out. But the crowd still cheers for him. Confused, Ruth looks around the field. Then, he lifts his fists in celebration as he realizes his hit gave a different Red Sox player the opportunity to make it the home plate. Now with both teams tied at 1-1, the game turns into a tense battle.

Ruth continues to throw from the mound, and the opposing Robins can’t seem to get their bats on the ball. Most innings pass without a Robins player even registering a hit. But the Red Sox flounder at bat too. At the end of the ninth inning, the score still sits at 1-1. So, the game goes into extra innings.

Darkness falls over Braves Field as the game goes on. No Robins player gets a hit in the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th innings. Ruth is pitching the best game of his career. But the Red Sox batters also still struggle to score. Until, in the 14th innings, a Red Sox batter hits a deep line drive that occupies the Robons outfielders long enough to allow a Red Sox runner to make it home.

Ruth joins his teammates as they rush out of the dugout jumping up and down in celebration. But several players also turn to Ruth, clapping him on the shoulder. Ruth pitched 13 scoreless innings to keep the Red Sox in a tight contest. His teammates know it was him who really won it for them.

The game at Braves Field will become the longest-ever played in a World Series—a record that will stand until the 21st century. And Babe Ruth’s performance will establish him as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Over the coming years, his star will keep rising. And he'll be back in the World Series in 1918. Then, he will go on to pitch one scoreless game and shut out his opponents for most of the next. The streak will result in 29 consecutive scoreless innings over three games—a record that will stand until 1961.

But along with his success will come controversy. As his skills develop, Ruth will begin to demand better payment. But, his immature behavior will begin to cause unrest for the Red Sox and jeopardize his future with the team.

Act Two

It’s six in the morning on April 30th, 1919 at a hotel in Washington D.C., eight months before Babe Ruth will join the New York Yankees.

Ed Barrow, the Boston Red Sox manager, jolts awake at a knock on his door. The sudden noise leaves him momentarily confused but then he remembers. He tipped a bellboy to let him know when Babe Ruth finally made it back to the hotel after breaking curfew. The knock lets Ed know that Ruth is back and that it’s time to have words with his team’s star player.

For the past two years, Ruth has doubled up as his team’s best pitcher and best hitter. He’s a great asset to the team. But he’s also becoming a thorn in Ed’s side.

In recent months, Ruth has garnered a reputation for selfish behavior. He didn’t turn up to spring training holding out for an improved wage. Then even after he got a better deal, he occasionally skipped Red Sox games to play in better-paying exhibition matches. But what really gets his manager mad is Ruth’s laissez-faire relationship with the clock. Ruth often breaks nighttime curfews and turns up late for games. Now, Ed is ready to confront Ruth and let him know his behavior is unacceptable

Ed puts on a dressing gown and slippers, opens up the hotel room door, and slips a dollar into the bellboy's hand. Then he steps into the corridor and stomps to the room where Ruth should have been resting before today's big game against the Washington Senators. Ed knocks on the door of the room Ruth is sharing with a teammate. There’s no answer. Ed cups his ear to the door. He hears whispering. So he knocks again, louder this time. After a pause, Ruth’s teammate sheepishly opens the door. Ed demands to know where Ruth is. The player hesitates, then says he’s in bed.

Ed pushes past the player and enters the room. Ruth is indeed lying down in bed. But he’s not asleep; he’s smoking a pipe, his sheets pulled up to his neck. Ed asks why he’s smoking. And Ruth replies that it relaxes him and helps him get back to sleep if he wakes early. Ed is not convinced. Suddenly, he leaps forward and pulls the sheets down. Ruth is fully dressed and has obviously just gotten back from a night in Washington’s bars. Ed shakes his head in disappointment. Then, he turns and leaves.

As he walks back to his room, Ed thinks about how to get through to Ruth. For far too long, words have been lost on the player. So, today, Ed decides to reprimand Ruth another way.

A few hours later, Ed is in the Red Sox dressing room at Griffith Stadium, home field of the Washington Senators. He reads out the team’s positions. And he hears a gasp when he says the name of today’s left fielder: Del Gainer. Left field is normally Ruth’s position when he isn’t pitching. Ed looks up to see Ruth glaring at him. Ruth looks pale and hungover, but Ed can tell he’s angry he has been left out.

Ruth stands up and curses, saying to Ed, “If you ever come into my room like that again, I’ll punch you in the nose.” Silence falls over the dressing room. Ed knows he can’t let this insubordination go with the rest of the team looking on. If discipline falls apart, the team’s results will suffer. So, Ed doesn’t back down. He turns to the rest of the players and tells them to go warm up on the field. He says that he and Ruth stay here alone, lock the door, and have it out.

Ed knows it’s a gamble. The 50-year-old manager is effectively challenging his 24-year-old star player to a fight. But Ed doesn’t think Ruth will actually get physical with him. He hopes the threat of a fight will be enough to cow Ruth into submission.

Ed turns away as the players file out of the room. And out of the corner of his eye, he sees Ruth sneaking out with them, his head hanging low. Ed smirks. For once, Babe Ruth has backed down, and Ed has won the battle of wills—for now.

Even without Ruth in left field, the Red Sox go on to beat the Senators that day. When the team returns to Boston, Ruth apologizes, both for breaking curfew and threatening his boss in the dressing room. For the rest of the season, Ruth knuckles down. He wins nine of the 17 games he pitches in and hits 29 home runs; the most any other Red Sox player hits that season is three. But the Red Sox as a whole suffer their worst season in 12 years.

Babe Ruth’s batting will be one of the few bright spots of the season for the team. But incidents such as the run-in between Ed Barrows and Babe Ruth will continue. And eventually, Red Sox leadership will decide it’s not worth keeping such a disruptive influence in the clubhouse, prompting one of the most shocking transfers in baseball history.

Act Three

It’s December 26th, 1919 at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, where a historic business deal is being negotiated.

In hushed voices, Harry Frazee, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, and Jacob Ruppert, the owner of the New York Yankees, go over the terms of the deal. Each man is leaning in close, speaking quietly so they aren’t overheard by passers-by. Neither owner wants news of the deal to leak before the paperwork is signed. And Harry is also trying not to smile. He doesn’t want Jacob to think the Yankees are getting hustled because Harry is confident he and the Red Sox are getting the better end of the arrangement.

The Yankees will pay the Red Sox $100,000, and Jacob will also personally loan Harry $350,000. And in return, the Yankees will sign Babe Ruth.

The two men nod their agreement, then shake hands to seal the deal. Harry is pleased with this bit of business—he thinks Jacob has wildly overpaid for an increasingly troublesome player. But Harry is wrong.

Over the next 15 seasons with the Yankees, Babe Ruth wins four more World Series titles. His powerful home-run hitting redefines the game of baseball and earns Ruth the nickname ‘The Sultan of Swat.’ He breaks records and carves a reputation as baseball’s best-ever player.

But Harry’s Red Sox do not enjoy the same success. Without their star player, they transform from baseball’s most successful team into its most lackluster. After selling Babe Ruth, the Red Sox only make it to the World Series four times over the next eight decades. And each time, they lose in a grim seventh game.

Red Sox fans will point to the sale of Ruth as the moment their fortunes changed. For the next 86 years, they will blame the team’s poor results on a jinx caused by manager Harry’s decision: the Curse of the Bambino. Not until 2004 will the Red Sox win another World Series, finally putting an end to the bad luck that began nearly nine decades earlier when Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees on December 26th, 1919.


Next onHistory Daily. December 27th, 1657. Settlers in what is today Queens, New York write “The Flushing Remonstrance,” a petition that, for the first time in North American history, articulates that freedom of religion is a fundamental right.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.