Harry Frazee

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Harry Herbert Frazee

Biographical Information[edit]

Harry Frazee was owner of the Boston Red Sox from November of 1916 until 1923. His team won the World Series in 1918, but he is most remembered for selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920 and more generally for dismantling what was at the time baseball's best franchise.

Frazee was a New Yorker and made his fortune as a theater producer on Broadway. A baseball fan, he initially attempted to buy a National League team, the New York Giants. In November of 1916, along with his theater associate Hugh Ward, he purchased the Boston Red Sox from Joseph Lannin for a total of $1,000,000 on November 1, 1916. The Red Sox were coming off a World Series victory and were probably the best team in baseball, stocked full of young stars. The amount paid by Frazee included $662,000 to Lannin - the amount reported by newspapers at the time ($400,000 in cash and the rest in the form of a note due in November 1919), $150,000 in stock issued to previous owner Charles Taylor and a $188,000 mortgage on Fenway Park, the club's ballpark. Lannin was highly-indebted and decided to sell high on his property, paying off his debts through the transaction. However, it was Frazee who in turn assumed a lot of debt, as he borrowed a large share of the cash amount paid to Lannin and quickly became tied down by the large amounts of interest due on the loans.

The sale of the Red Sox was done without the intervention of American League president Ban Johnson, who until then had links with all the other ownership groups in the league. Johnson was powerless to stop the transaction however, and quickly feuded with the newcomer Frazee. A major bone of contention was Johnson's handling of the war-shortened 1918 season: the decision not to play games after September 1st was a blow to Frazee, who needed all the gate revenue he could get in order to repay his financial liabilities. He thus became one of the first owners to support adopting a single Commissioner of baseball, lobbying to have former President William Howard Taft appointed to the post. For his part, Johnson accused Frazee of turning a blind eye to gamblers who were operating in the vicinity of Fenway Park.

Things came to a head in 1919 when star pitcher Carl Mays jumped the team in mid-season. Other teams were interested in acquiring the malcontent, but Johnson opposed a trade, claiming that an insubordinate player should not be rewarded by a trade. Frazee ignored him and cut a deal with the New York Yankees, whose owners, Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, were willing to defy Johnson's authority. They agreed on a purchase price of $40,000 for Mays (along with two second-tier players) and obtained a court injunction to allow Mays to play for his new team. Johnson had lost, and the league was now divided into two rival camps of owners: Frazee, the Yankees owners, and Charles Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox on one side, and all the other owners and Johnson on the other.

By that point, Frazee was in financial trouble. Because of World War I, attendance had fallen sharply in spite of the team's good on-field performance, and 1919 had only brought a partial recovery. As a result, Frazee was having trouble meeting the costs of servicing his large debt. He tried to sell a piece of the team to his General Manager, Ed Barrow, after the 1917 season, but Barrow was unable to raise enough capital in the straitened economic circumstances caused by the war. In 1920, the Red Sox barely turned a profit after meeting their debt obligations, in spite of a huge recovery of attendance throughout baseball. Frazee's theater business had also suffered because of the war and was not earning him enough income to compensate for the drain on his finances from baseball. As was the case in baseball, Frazee was often reduced to selling off his share in his most successful productions, such as the 1916-17 hit Nothing But the Truth, in order to generate enough cash flow to keep his other productions going. He would not make a large fortune on Broadway until the second half of the 1920s, when the musical No, No, Nanette became a huge hit and put him in the black for good.

In 1919, however, things were much bleaker. In November, the $262,000 principal on the promissory note to Lannin from the original purchase came due. Johnson, knowing that Frazee's financial situation was shaky, wanted to use the opportunity to force him to sell. Not earning any significant profits from either his theater or baseball interests, and having to repay large debts, Frazee turned to his one liquid asset left: his players. The Red Sox were stocked with young talent at the time. These included pitcher turned outfielder Babe Ruth, outfielder Harry Hooper, infielders Everett Scott and Joe Dugan, catcher Wally Schang, and pitchers Joe Bush, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, George Pipgras and Sam Jones; all of them would soon be gone, with the Red Sox receiving in return some second-line talent, but mostly cash, and almost all of the deals were with the New York Yankees, who would turn in the process from a second-division franchise to baseball's biggest powerhouse.

On January 5, 1920, Frazee made the fateful decision to sell his most valuable baseball asset, Babe Ruth. He received the record sum of $100,000 from the Yankees, $25,000 in cash, and promissory notes for three more similar sums over the next three years, all bearing interest. He also obtained a $300,000 loan from Yankee owner Ruppert, to be secured by the mortgage on Fenway Park. Frazee's objective was to get Lannin off his back by reimbursing what he owed him, but that only earned him temporary breathing room. While Frazee was struggling with Charles Taylor's and Lannin's competing claims on his money, Lannin sued for ownership of Fenway Park, which was the security on the amount due him. The two sides' attorneys cut a deal favorable to Lannin, forcing Frazee to pay him $265,000 by May 3rd. The entire prize of Ruth's sale went to meet that obligation; part of the loan from the Yankees was used to repay the outstanding mortgage on Fenway Park, the rest supplementing the repayment to Lannin. Frazee claimed to journalists that the team's finances were now sound and that the Red Sox would soon be back on the market to purchase players themselves. This would prove to be spectacularly false.

Frazee had avoided looming financial disaster with the sale of Babe Ruth, but his underlying posture was still shaky, and he became addicted to the sale of players to the Yankees for quick influxes of cash into his baseball operations. Between 1920 and 1923, he received $50,000 in the trade of Hoyt and Schang; $150,000 in that of Scott, Bush and Jones; $55,000 for Dugan; and $50,000 apparently for the separate trades of Pipgras and Pennock. All of these deals involved players coming to Boston as well, but the most prominent names were pitcher Jack Quinn and shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh and the others simple roster filler. Bereft of talent, the Red Sox tumbled quickly to the bottom of the standings, finishing last 8 of 9 years between 1922 and 1930, the only exception being 1924, when they finished 7th, one game ahead of last-place Chicago. In 1920, Ed Barrow became General Manager of the Yankees and he knew exactly what talent he was extracting from the Red Sox, having served in the same position in Boston immediately before. The claim by some writers that some of these trades were straightforward baseball deals that just happened to turn out badly for the Red Sox does not really hold water.

In July 1923, with no valuable players left to sell, Frazee sold his team. He obtained $1,150,000 from a consortium led by Bob Quinn, including $850,000 for the team and $300,000 for the assumption of Jacob Ruppert's mortgage on Fenway Park. It was in 1924 that No, No, Nanette became the huge Broadway hit that put Frazee on a sound financial footing for good. Later, a legend would grow that it was the price of Babe Ruth's sale that financed the musical, but the time line doesn't mesh and financial records show clearly where the money from Babe Ruth was spent. One could argue, however, that the sale of the Red Sox themselves allowed the producer to finance his greatest hit. He would have no further hit however; Nanette's successor on the stage, Yes, Yes, Yvette, was a flop, and Frazee died of Bright's disease, a kidney ailment, in 1929.

Frazee became a villified figure starting in the 1920s, as it became clear what his constant dealing with the Yankees had done for the state of the two franchises. The Red Sox would not recover for more than a decade, and would not return to the World Series until 1946. In 1935, when the Boston Braves acquired an aging Ruth from the Yankees, the Associated Press stated that "Boston fans [...] still shudder when the name of the late Harry Frazee is mentioned, [and] will never forget how he ruined a championship club to make the Yankees a winner." This view was enshrined in sportswriter Fred Lieb's seminal history of the Red Sox published in 1947. However some of the revulsion has been overdone: Frazee is not the only owner to ever sell his stars in order to meet his financial obligations (Connie Mack, for one, did so on more than one occasion), and he can in no way be blamed for the last 70 or so years of Boston's 85-year run without a World Series title. But revisionism can also go too far. In 2000, in the book Red Sox Century, Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson argued that Frazee was a deeply misunderstood man, that he was making baseball deals that happened to turn out poorly, and that he was haunted by anti-Semitic figures such as Johnson and Lieb who were out to sully his reputation (in fact, no evidence of anti-Semitism against either Johnson or Lieb has been offered). Those claims do not hold water; in any case, Frazee was not Jewish and religion or anti-Semitism have no bearing on his tenure as Red Sox owner.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Daniel R Levitt, Mark L. Armour and Matthew Levitt: "History versus Harry Frazee: Re-revising the Story", in SABR: The Baseball Research Journal, Volume 37, 2008, pp. 26-41.
  • Glenn Stout: The Selling of the Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend, Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 9781250064318

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