Friday, August 06, 2004

The Single Biggest Non-Trade In White Sox History

Perusing through White Sox Interactive today, I saw a post linking to this
article indicating that the White Sox were offered Babe Ruth for Joe Jackson after the 1919 season. The reference to the trade offer is in third paragraph from the bottom:
Frazee says the Yankees were the only club which could have bought Ruth. "Had they been willing to trade players," says the Boston owner, "I would have preferred the exchange, but to make a trade for Ruth [Miller] Huggins [the Yankees' manager] would have had to wreck his ball club. They could not afford to give me the men I wanted. Ruth's great value did not appeal to all the club owners. I could not get Joe Jackson in trade for him and I know of at least two other stars that Ruth could not have been traded for."

This is one of the most stunning things I've ever read about White Sox history. Babe Ruth could have been a White Sox instead of a Yankee - at the price of Joe Jackson, who would only play 1 more year before being banned for life as a part of the Black Sox Scandal.

This is a great thought experiment on two levels: (1) to second guess Comiskey's decision not to trade Joe Jackson for Babe Ruth; and (2) to speculate on what the impact of Babe Ruth would have been on the White Sox in the 1920's. I'll separate these topics into two separate posts.

PART I - The Trade That Never Was

Joe Jackson for Babe Ruth. Left handed hitting outfielder for left handed hitting outfielder. One an established star (Jackson) , the other coming off the greatest home-run hitting season of all time (Ruth, who hit a league-record 29 homers for the Red Sox in 1919). It would have been a blockbuster trade; the defending American League champions give up their best player to get probably the best player of all time.

Let's put ourselves in the shoes of Charles Comiskey considering the offer of Ruth for Jackson. Here are the respective career stats for Joe Jackson and Babe Ruth through 1919:

Joe Jackson:


Babe Ruth:

1914 19 BOS AL 10 2 0 2 0 0.200 0.200 0.300
1915 20 BOS AL 92 29 4 21 9 0.315 0.376 0.576
1916 21 BOS AL 136 37 3 15 10 0.272 0.322 0.419
1917 22 BOS AL 123 40 2 12 12 0.325 0.385 0.472
1918 23 BOS AL 317 95 11 66 58 0.300 0.411 0.555
1919 24 BOS AL 432 139 29 114 101 0.322 0.456 0.657

Of course, Babe Ruth spent the predominant portions of 1914-1917 as a pitcher, and still made 19 starts in 1918 and 15 starts in 1919. So one really should only look at Ruth's 1918 and 1919 seasons to compare.

What this comparison shows is Ruth as an emerging, first of his kind power hitter in 1919. His 11 home runs in just 317 at bats in 1918 still led the league. And his 29 home runs shattered the existing AL record of 16 by Socks Seybold in 1902 (Gavvy Cravath held the existing National League record with 24 in 1915). His slugging percentage was something to behold; the existing career slugging percentage leader in 1919 was was Dan Brouthers at .519. Ruth's 1919 slugging percentage was 30% higher than that figure. His 1919 season was totally unprecedented, and there is no reason to believe that the American League did not recognize that Ruth was a different animal from what they had seen before. It would have been hard for the Sox to pass up on acquiring him.

At the same time, Joe Jackson was an established star in 1919. He was near the top of the league in most offensive categories that year and had lead the White Sox to two World Series in the last three years. He had hit .400 several years before and could rightly be seen as a consistent .350 hitter. At this time, batting average was the key indicator of a player's worth, so a contemporary viewer might have weighed Jackson's .350 average against Ruth's 29 homers a lot differently than we would today. He was the greatest player in Sox history to that point; trading him would have been quite unpopular with Sox fans.

The American League in 1919 was also a younger league. If you look at the 5 oldest players in the league in 1919, only 1 was over 40 and the other 4 were 38 and 39. In 1920, the fifth oldest player was only 36! So one could rationally look at Joe Jackson and think that he probably had 5-6 more good years left, while Ruth was more of a 10-11 year proposition. Given the operation of the reserve clause, you could say that Ruth was a better long-term value in any case.

We also, of course, have to look at this through the lens of history. First, we all know that Babe Ruth turned out to be...Babe Ruth. Second, we all know that 1920 be Joe Jackson's last year before his lifetime ban. So, as a White Sox fan, I can mourn this trade, but I might have thought differently at the time. We also don't know how serious Frazee was about trading Ruth for Jackson and preferring players over cash. It is well known that he would employ the money he got for Ruth on theatrical productions (including No No Nanette, the source of "Tea for two"). In fact, it seems clear that from the time he bought the Red Sox in 1916, he wanted to loot the team of its cash value, turning a great team (the Red Sox won the American League in 1915, 1916 and 1918) into a perennial loser by 1920.

Moreover, it is curious as to what Charles Comiskey knew about the Black Sox Scandal and Joe Jackson's involvement in it. Kid Gleason (the Sox manager) may have told Comiskey about the fix as early as after Game 1 of the 1919 World Series. So if Comiskey thought Jackson was involved, he would have had a powerful motivation to get Jackson off of his team (especially if he thought a suspension was coming) and pick up Ruth. It is also curious as to why, if Comiskey knew of the fix, why he didn't start trading the suspects out of pure disgust.

But in the same regard, Ruth's raucous reputation and notoriety (highlighted by Frazee) may have given Comiskey pause as well. If he was suspicious of a fix, he may have been cautious in bringing in a player who he might see as having low character on the thought that Ruth might be susceptible to a fix himself.

It also would have been interesting to see how Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Baseball's Commissioner in 1920, would have handled the ban of Jackson knowing that he had been traded to the Yankees. Since the ban was against the player, and not meant to hurt the team, he may have been less willing to harm the Yankees - perhaps forcing a trade on the White Sox.

In the end, it would have been a blockbuster trade of two star outfielders, and one that would have dramatically changed the fortunes of two of the top teams in the American League. The hardest part is putting yourself in Comiskey's shoes in 1919 to mull over this trade. If we could shout across the decades to Comiskey, we would tell him to make the trade.

Next - part 2, what might have been.

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