Boston Red Sox Day of Infamy: Frazee buys team


On December 4th, 1916 Harry Frazee buys the Boston Red Sox and a chain of events ensued that took decades to recover from.

This is the Day of Infamy for those Boston Red Sox fans who were raised within the confines of “The Fellowship of the Miserable.” What is the historic significance of December fourth? A hint would be to attach a year – 1916? Another hint is Joe Lannin. Unless you are well versed in the history of the team both hints are meaningless until I add a third to it: Harry Frazee.

Harry Frazee and Hugh Ward purchased the World Champions and set in motion circumstances on a scale of a chain reaction that one would expect in a nuclear explosion – in this instance the spiral to the depths of despair for the Royal Rooters of the Red Sox.

For the first two decades of the new century, the Boston Red Sox represented the best not only of the American League but baseball itself. A talented juggernaut that won the first World Series, finished first the following season (1904) and won three more titles before being sold. Under the reign of Harry Frazee, the Red Sox won another title (1918) before being dismantled like a cheap carnival ride done with milking the locals before moving on to another score.

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Starting in 1919, the Red Sox never extricated themselves from the second division until Tom Yawkey purchase the team in 1933 and started to buy players instead of selling them. The doldrums also saw a grand total of nine last place teams and teams that lost 100 games on five occasions. Fenway Park was neglected and fans were about as frequent as water parks in the Sahara Desert. The team was – like the county during the real depression – on life support.

The fable goes simply that the financially strapped Frazee sold off Babe Ruth to finance Broadway productions. Frazee was heavily involved and as the story goes “No, No, Nanette” was one production that needed an infusion of money, however that, is open to speculation since the production did not take place until 1925. The original stage production of Nanette was as a play called “My Lady Friends” that failed, but Frazee had two successes after that failure.

The real issue was the tenuous financial dealings of Frazee, disputes with the President of the American League, Ban Johnson, anti-Semitism, Ruth’s behavior and holdouts, WW I, The Federal League and a divorcee. All coagulated in a perfect storm that resulted in the Red Sox being laid bare and Frazee eventually filing for bankruptcy. I’ll cover a few.

Frazee purchased the team for $500,000, but Fenway Park was excluded from the purchase and the Red Sox became renters. That meant loans to give funds for the purchase. The Federal League was defunct, but still had compensation due from baseball. Frazee refused to pay, claiming it was the responsibility of the previous ownership. And there was more – a lot more – to impact the Red Sox.

Once a settlement was reached regarding the purchase of Fenway Park a news story targeted Frazee with some anti-Semitic rhetoric that would make Father Coughlin or Henry Ford blush. The interesting part was Frazee was not Jewish. At the same point in his personal life, Frazee was involved in a divorce and in the early 1920s this was not the type of publicity one sought. Both the divorce and article put Frazee on the defensive. And then there was the $300,000 loan from (drum roll, please) the Yankees!

For the next several years, the Red Sox core players became the core Yankee players that gave a kick-start success of what became the flagship franchise for baseball. Carl Mays twice led the American League in wins while compiling an 80-39 record in five New York seasons. Sam Jones went 67-56 in New York. Herb Pennock, like Ruth, ended up in the Hall of Fame. So did a promising right-hander, Waite Hoyt. Bullet Joe Bush went 62-38, Joe Dugan hit a career .286 as a Yankee, slick fielding shortstop, Everett Scott, and hit .254 for New York and that is just part of the multitude of “trades” and sales to the Yankees.

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When the Red Sox went on sale by the Yawkey Trust I was quite disappointed that Frank McCourt was denied the team. The bid was higher (supposedly) than the Henry consortium. McCourt – the parking lot king – would have constructed a new Fenway Park on the waterfront. And McCourt was a local guy (Boston born) who had the political connections, the pulse of the area and the money to exterminate “The Curse.” But McCourt, like Frazee, had a liquidity issue and a very public divorce. Thankfully, Henry took control.

Frazee has certainly been given somewhat of a bad rap for the team failures. Certainly his level of responsibility is significant since he made the decisions that resulted in the team’s eventual irrelevancy for decades. What is missing is that Frazee actually made a substantial profit when he sold the team in 1923 to Bob Quinn who had a shoestring budget and fiscal smoke and mirrors until Yawkey saved the team.

Next: Red Sox all-time 25-man roster

Sources: “The Big Bam” by Leigh Montville
SABR (Society of American Baseball Research)
IDBD (Internet Broadway Data Base)