Forever reviled by Boston Red Sox fans as the man who sold Babe Ruth for a song, Harry Frazee's ownership of the beleaguered BoSox is a chronicle of isolation, selfishness, and shortsightedness which resulted in nearly a decade of incompetence for the team. Yet Frazee was also a successful man of the theater, and a savvy businessman to boot.
Harry Frazee was born June 28, 1880 in Peoria, Iowa. From his earliest days, he showed interest in the theater, and became an advance agent for a Midwest traveling show. By 1902, he had produced his first play, and over the next 10 years produced a number of shows - some successful, some not. One of his most notable productions was a vaudeville troupe featuring Jim Jeffries and Jim J. Corbett, the reigning and former heavyweight boxing champions. His success eventually led him to build the Longacre Theater in New York City, and he bought the Harris Theater on 42nd Street in 1913, renaming it the Frazee.
The Red Sox
After Boston's championship season in 1916, Frazee and partner Hugh Ward purchased the team for the then-staggering sum of $475,000 from owner Joseph Lannin. Manager Bill Carrigan retired to become a banker, and was replaced by Jack Barry, who also played second base for the squad. Besides having future Hall of Famer Harry Hooper in the outfield, the team boasted one of the best pitching rotations in the majors: Dutch Leonard, Ernie Shore, Rube Foster, and ace Carl Mays all boasted ERAs below 2.60, and a young pitcher named Babe Ruth was coming off a stellar 23-12 season with a scorching 1.75 ERA.
Frazee was a relatively hands-off owner, smart enough to sign the checkbook and cautious about paying his young stars too much. In 1917, the Red Sox won 90 games but finished second to the ill-fated Chicago White Sox. By 1918, the team had reclaimed their rightful place atop the American League (and won the World Series), and the young Ruth had proved himself to be a more than capable batsman - leading the league in home runs and becoming the only player in major league history to finish in the top ten in both ERA and batting average.
But by 1919, Frazee was desperate for cash - the smart savvy producer had made a few flops, and he had bills to pay. So when submariner Carl Mays began mildly complaining about his lack of run support, Frazee quickly took action, trading Mays to the Yankees for two small-timers and $40,000. American League president Ban Johnson intervened, saying Mays had yet to serve a suspension for an on-the-field blowup. The Yankees responded with a court order restraining Johnson from intervening, and Frazee's deal was done. Several players grumbled that Frazee's quick buck strategy was hurting the team, and the Red Sox finished 6th. Their lone bright spot was Ruth, who still dominated as a pitcher, but proved even formidable at the plate, hitting 29 home runs, higher than four team totals in the league.
By now, Frazee's debts were paid, but he had other musicals to fund on his hand. They each cost a pretty penny to produce, something he didn't always have. So Frazee did the unthinkable: he sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. He was paid $125,000, and the Yankees helped him secure a $300,000 loan on Fenway Park. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the curse of the Bambino began with that fateful trade, and they have not won a World Series since the Babe's departure. Frazee's ownership of the team from then on was a rocky one, and other Red Sox stars such as Herb Pennock and Everett Scott were shipped to the Yankees whenever Harry needed a quick influx of cash.
Finally, Frazee elected to get out of the baseball business for a good, and in October of 1923 sold the club for nearly $1.5 million - a 400% increase over his buying price.
The Final Years
Frazee used his profits from the sale of the team to produce his most successful musical ever, No, No, Nanette. (Contrary to popular myth, he did not fund this musical with the sale of The Great Bambino.) However, his fortune was just as dismal with his followup to the smash, as Yes, Yes, Yvette flopped on Broadway. Still, he was a noted personality in New York, often seen hobnobbing with the stars of Broadway and Hollywood. He even held a congratulatory dinner for Charles Lindbergh after his famous transatlantic flight.
Sadly, Frazee suffered from Bright's disease, a debilitating kidney disorder, and on June 4, 1929, at the young age of 48, Frazee lapsed into a coma, and passed away. He left one son, Harry Frazee Jr., from his first marriage, and his wife, Margaret.