Did Babe Ruth play a role in the origin of the MLB trade deadline?

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BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Babe Ruth played a part in the institution of Major League Baseball’s first trade deadline.

As we get closer to the July 31 Major League Baseball trade deadline, thoughts generally turn to where players like Carlos Beltran and Ubaldo Jimenez will end up later this week (if they get traded at all). However, did you ever think about why there is a deadline? It has been July 31 since the players and owners collectively bargained for it to be changed in 1986. For the previous sixty-three years it was June 15th. How did it get to be June 15th? And how did it come into existence in the first place? The answer lies with a few deals involving Boston and New York, both the Red Sox and Yankees of the American League and the Braves and the Giants of the National League. It also does somehow involve Babe Ruth.


Read on to find out how!

I have written before about the environment surrounding Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s 1920 sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees (you can read an extensive piece on it here), but I’ll quickly set the scene for you. At the time, the American League and the National League were very much run as their own independent leagues. It would not be until later in 1920 (with the Black Sox Scandal making headlines) that Major League Baseball would appoint Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the very first Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

In the American League, among the eight teams, there was a split between those five teams loyal to Ban Johnson, President of the American League (Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Washington Senators, Philadelphia Athletics and St. Louis Browns) and the three teams that were at odds with Johnson (New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox). It was a very strange situation to be in, as an all out civil war in the American League seemed to be a constant threat, so teams like the Yankees and Red Sox would actually go out of their way to make deals with the other teams for purely political reasons (you know, like ‘you can’t say that we don’t deal with you - we just sold you Player X!’).

So when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for a little over $100,000 (plus some other financial interests, including help on the mortgage to Fenway Park), the rest of the league was outraged at the idea of the Yankees using their great financial strength to take advantage of the Red Sox to the detriment of the rest of the American League.

Meanwhile, the new owner of the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith, also tried to get Ruth from the Red Sox, but he did not have much luck. Moreover, when he saw how much Ruth was signed for, he became a bit worried. The fact that the Yankees were willing to spend so much was a sign to the players in the American League that, hey, the owners had money to spend - we should be getting a piece of that money. This might have been true for the other owners, but Griffith, who was in his first year as the owner of the Senators after managing the team since 1912 (he and a partner, grain broker William Richardson, purchased a controlling interest in the team in 1919 and Richardson allowed Griffith to represent both of their interests), had no other income than from the Senators and their stadium (which was re-named Griffith Stadium). So he took a hard line with his players in that first 1920 season. In addition, Griffith decided to try to get involved in American League leadership (as he was one of those owners who was friendly with Ban Johnson) and Griffith proposed a new rule that required that no player could be sold to another team for more than the waiver price. This was a direct response to the Babe Ruth sale (of course, if money was included in a trade of players, that was all right, which is obviously exactly what ended up happening). This rule of Griffith was strengthened by the other owners into a new rule - that no trades or sales could take place between August 1st and the end of the World Series. This was the first trading deadline in Major League Baseball history (the National League, in 1917, had instituted a rule saying that after August 1st, players would have to clear waivers to be dealt, but that was not a strict deadline like the American League’s new rule).

After the Babe Ruth sale, any deals between the Yankees and Red Sox began to be viewed with disdain by the other owners (and there were a lot of them, as the Red Sox sent the Yankees the following players- Ernie Shore, Duffy Lewis, and Dutch Leonard in 1918; Carl Mays in 1919; Babe Ruth in early 1920; Waite Hoyt, Harry Harper, Wally Schang, and Mike McNally in late 1920 and Everett Scott, Joe Bush, and Sam Jones late 1921). The problem was that after the 1920 season, the Black Sox scandal broke out and suddenly Charles Comiskey was no longer available as a friend to Frazee. So the Yankees owners were Frazee’s only friends in the American League, which was likely why he did so many deals with them. Still, after the Yankees won the American League pennant in 1921, Frazee tried to quell the complaints (especially Ban Johnson’s brutal comment that Frazee was a ‘champion wrecker of the baseball age’) by pointedly dealing with the other teams. Most notably he worked out a three-way deal with the Athletics and the Senators where he sent star shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh (who he had just acquired from the New York Yankees) to Washington for shortstop Frank O’Rourke and third baseman Joe Dugan (who came from the Athletics, with the Senators sending pitcher Jose Acosta and outfielder Bing Miller to the Athletics to complete the trade). As soon as the deal happened, though, the other teams all grumbled that it would only be a matter of time before Dugan would end up a Yankee, as they felt Frazee only acquired Dugan because he could later sell him to the Yankees for $50,000.

Frazee held off on such a deal, but late in the season, with the surprising St. Louis Browns in first place (two and a half games ahead of the Yankees) and the Red Sox mired in last place, Frazee could not hold on to Dugan any longer. So on July 23, 1922, Frazee traded Dugan and right fielder Elmer Smith to the Yankees for outfielder Elmer Miller, shortstop Johnny Mitchell, utility man Chick Fewster, pitcher Lefty O’Doul (initially a Player to be named Later) and, of course, $50,000. The Yankees then went on to surpass the Browns and win the American League pennant (although they were swept by the New York Giants in the World Series, their second straight defeat to the Giants in the Series).

The other teams were apoplectic, President Ban Johnson included. Johnson wanted to ban mid-season trades all together.

However, what is often overlooked in the hullabaloo over the Dugan trade is the fact that it was really ANOTHER deal with Boston and New York that put the collective outrage in the baseball community over the edge. You see, while the Yankees had been using their financial advantages to, well, their advantage, so, too, had the New York Giants in the National League.

Only twice did Frazee deal a player to the Yankees late in the season. Mays in 1919 and now Dugan in 1922. The Giants, however, repeatedly made deals in July. In both 1917 and 1919 they made deals, with the August 1, 1919 acquisition of star pitcher Art Nehf from the Boston Braves for pitchers Joe Oeschger, Red Causey, and Johnny Jones, catcher Mickey O’Neil, and $55,000 being the most notable.

In June 1920, the Giants acquired star shortstop Dave Bancroft from the Philadelphia Phillies for shortstop Art Fletcher, pitcher Bill Hubbell and $100,000.

In June and July of 1921, the Giants made a number of deals, with the most notable one being the late July acquisition of outfielder Irish Meusel (then hitting .353 with 12 home runs) from the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Curt Walker, catcher Butch Henline, and $30,000. The deals helped the Giants come from four games back of the first place Pirates and win the National League pennant and then the 1921 World Series.

In late July 1922, the Giants had a small one and a half game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals when the Giants acquired pitcher Hugh McQuillan from the Boston Braves for pitchers Larry Benton, Fred Toney, and Harry Hulihan and $100,000.

Now, finally, after years of little media attention to the Giants and their mid-season acquisitions, THIS deal suddenly drew the rage of sportswriters across the country, as the Giants were being accused of ‘buying’ the championship once again.

It helped that the two teams most affected by the New York teams and their trades were both from St. Louis. Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey tried to drum up moral outrage over the deals, getting the City Council, the Rotary Club and other local St. Louis organizations to send letters of protest to Commissioner Landis. After the season, with complaints from all sides, Landis agreed to make changes (it helped that the owners had recently agreed to new rules allowing Landis considerably more power as Commissioner) and while he did not take Ban Johnson’s ‘no mid-season trades’ rule seriously (especially since Landis strongly disliked Johnson), he did agree to make a trade deadline for the Major Leagues, choosing June 15th based on a suggestion by the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Barney Dreyfuss.

So that’s how we got the June 15th trade deadline. First the Babe Ruth sale, and then later Boston/New York deals.

So as for the truth of the legend....


Thanks to Mike Lynch and his brilliant book, Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson, and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and Ted Leavengood’s nifty biography, Clark Griffith: The Old Fox of Washington Baseball, as they were filled with information about this topic (particularly Lynch’s book).

--Brian Cronin

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