The Virtual 1916-1925 Boston Red Sox (Part 1:  1916-1919)

Babe Ruth, Harry Frazee, Red Sox, Yankees, No, No, Nanette, Curse of the Bambino, blah, blah, blah. It’s a part of American folklore, really.

But what is less well-known (yet perhaps even more significant) is the fact that the Boston Red Sox sent away a huge number of other excellent players in the late teens and early twenties, and all too often, the New York Yankees were the beneficiary. The 1923 Yankees—the franchise’s first World Series-winning team—featured ex-Red Sox Ruth, catcher Wally Schang, third baseman Joe Dugan, shortstop Everett Scott, and fourth outfielder Elmer Smith. And those are just the hitters: Of the eight pitchers to appear in a game for the Yankees that year, six had previously been with Boston, including four-fifths of the starting rotation.

Time and again, the Red Sox sold or traded some of the best talent in the game, and they almost always came up short in the exchange. After capturing four pennants (and four World Series titles) in the seven-season span from 1912 through 1918, by the early 1920s they had sunk to the bottom of the American League, and they wouldn’t become a champion again until after World War II.

And who oversaw the collapse of the Red Sox dynasty? Mostly, it was the much-maligned Frazee. He bought the team from Joseph Lannin in November 1916, and was the principal owner until 1923. During that period, the Red Sox made an alarming number of regrettable transactions, though Frazee would sell at more than double his purchase investment (a $1.2 million sale price after buying in at $500,000), in addition to more than a quarter million yielded in cash from the sales/trades with the Yankees.

But it didn’t have to be that way. What if Lannin, and then Frazee, had focused on maintaining the best team in baseball, rather than dismantling it and selling the parts for scrap? What if the Red Sox had resisted pulling the trigger on all those lopsided deals?

Treder:

Okay, Matthew. There’s a whole lot for us to chew on here, so how about if I elbow my way in and grab the first bite?

Frazee was indeed the primary villain in this piece. But Lannin wasn’t blameless. He was responsible for an enormously important deal, enacted on the cusp of Opening Day in 1916: he traded 28-year-old superstar center fielder Tris Speaker to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for young right-handed pitcher Sam Jones, minor league infielder Fred Thomas, and $55,000.

Now, Jones was a seriously excellent prospect; indeed after a few years of development he would emerge as a star in Boston (and then, of course, he would be traded to the Yankees, but I’m sure we’ll get to that). But good as he became, Jones would never be anything close to as valuable a performer as the inner-circle all-time great Speaker. And Thomas was marginal; he would remain in the minors until 1918. Obviously the key to this deal was the huge sum of cash.

How huge was that sum of cash? Well, $55,000 in 1916 was equivalent to over $1 million in today’s dollars. Clearly, Jones was a nice sweetener, but for all practical purposes this was a sale, not a trade. Lannin would pocket the loot (or more accurately, haul it off in a wheelbarrow), and, as we know, sell out his interest in the franchise later that year.

But let’s assume Lannin was more interested in sustaining the success of his ball club on the field (the Red Sox had, after all, captured the pennant and the World Series in 1915) than in liquidating his assets. Let’s assume he turned down the Indians’ offer to take Speaker off his hands.

Such a scenario would logically eliminate a related transaction the Red Sox undertook the same week they were unloading Speaker: in the absence of the Speaker deal, there would be no reason for Boston to purchase journeyman center fielder Tilly Walker from the St. Louis Browns for the sum of $3,500. (So, hey, in our fantasy we take the 55 grand away from Lannin’s bank account, but at least we let him keep the three-and-a-half G’s he spent on Walker—he winds up only $51,500 poorer!)

We can assume that every other roster move the Red Sox made in 1916 stands as it did. With Speaker in center field instead of Walker, and without the 23-year-old Jones contributing his 27 innings of mop-up work, how would the Red Sox have done that year? Probably about like this:

1916

 Pos Player        B Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
 1B  D. Hoblitzel  L 27   130  417   61  108   17    1    0   40   47   28 .259 .338 .305   92
 2B  J. Barry      R 29    94  330   28   67    6    1    0   20   17   24 .203 .277 .227   51
 SS  E. Scott      R 23   123  366   38   85   19    2    0   28   23   24 .232 .283 .295   73
 3B  L. Gardner    L 30   148  493   48  152   19    7    2   66   48   27 .308 .372 .387  127
 RF  H. Hooper     L 28   151  575   80  156   20   11    1   38   80   35 .271 .361 .350  113
 CF  T. Speaker    L 28   151  546  101  209   40    8    2   73   82   20 .383 .456 .496  185
 LF  D. Lewis      R 28   152  563   57  151   29    5    1   60   33   56 .268 .313 .343   96
  C  P. Thomas     L 28    99  216   21   57   10    1    1   21   33   13 .264 .364 .333  109

 S2  H. Janvrin    R 23   117  310   33   69   11    4    0   26   32   32 .223 .299 .284   74
  C  H. Cady       R 30    78  162    5   31    6    3    0   13   15   16 .191 .264 .265   58
 1B  D. Gainer     R 29    56  142   14   36    6    0    3   18   10   24 .254 .303 .359   98
  P  B. Ruth       L 21    67  136   18   37    5    3    3   15   10   23 .272 .322 .419  121
 23  M. McNally    R 22    87  135   28   23    0    0    0    9   10   19 .170 .228 .170   19
 OF  C. Shorten    L 24    40   75    9   21    1    1    0    7    7    6 .280 .337 .320   97
 OF  O. Henriksen  L 28    51   66    9   13    1    1    0    7   13   10 .197 .317 .242   67
  C  S. Agnew      R 29    40   67    4   14    2    1    0    7    6    4 .209 .293 .269   68
  C  B. Carrigan   R 32    33   63    7   17    2    1    0   11   11    3 .270 .378 .333  113

     Others                     26    7    7    2    0    0    2    7    3 .269 .424 .346  131

     Pitchers                  339   17   59   10    2    0   23   30   83 .174 .233 .215   34

     TOTAL                    5027  585 1312  206   52   13  484  514  450 .261 .321 .330   99


     Pitcher       T Age    G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   SV    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
     B. Ruth       L 21    44   41   23  324   24   11    1  224    0  118  170 1.70  163
     D. Leonard    L 24    48   34   17  274   19   11    6  238    6   66  144 2.30  120
     C. Mays       R 24    44   24   14  245   19   12    3  202    3   74   76 2.31  120
     E. Shore      R 25    38   28   10  226   17    9    1  215    1   49   62 2.55  109
     R. Foster     R 28    33   19    9  182   15    6    2  169    0   86   53 3.01   92

     V. Gregg      L 31    21    7    3   78    2    5    0   69    0   30   41 2.90   96
     H. Pennock    L 22    14    2    0   41    0    3    1   29    0   12   18 4.63   60
     W. Wyckoff    R 24    12    0    0   35    0    0    1   35    0   27   27 3.07   90

     M. McHale     R 29     2    1    0    6    0    1    0    7    0    4    1 3.00   92

     TOTAL                156  156   76 1410   96   58   15 1188   10  466  592 2.41  115

Walker was a good ballplayer, but he was, of course, no Tris Speaker. And the absence of Jones on the pitching staff that year would be of no consequence. So we can conservatively estimate that the Red Sox, who actually repeated as AL pennant winners in 1916 with a record of 91-63, would also do so in our scenario, but far more comfortably, at 96-58.

Namee:

The Red Sox didn’t make any bad moves in 1917, but Speaker remains a big improvement over Tilly Walker and company in center field.

One thing we haven’t yet discussed is Speaker’s defense. Until Willie Mays came along, Speaker was almost always cited as the greatest defensive center fielder in history. Bill James concurs in Win Shares, giving him an A+ grade. Walker, on the other hand, was mediocre, earning a C+. Let’s be conservative and call that a five-run advantage for Speaker overall. (But we can spread it out proportionally: let’s credit Speaker with a 30-hit, 10-run reduction from Boston pitchers’ records in his peak seasons, and wind that down to zero by the time he’s in his late 30s.)

Fenway was a tougher park for hitters than Cleveland’s League Park, so Speaker’s offense takes a hit. In 1916, he makes up for it by not having to face the awesome Red Sox pitching staff. But he has no such advantage in 1917: while the Red Sox remained outstanding, Cleveland’s pitchers were nearly as good. So while he’s just as great, Speaker’s raw numbers suffer from the switch, with a decline of nearly 20 points in batting average.

1917

 Pos Player        B Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
 1B  D. Hoblitzel  L 28   120  420   50  108   19    7    1   49   46   22 .257 .336 .343  108
 2B  J. Barry      R 30   116  388   45   83    9    0    2   31   47   27 .214 .305 .253   71
 SS  E. Scott      R 24   157  528   40  127   24    7    0   51   20   46 .241 .268 .313   78
 3B  L. Gardner    L 31   146  501   53  133   23    7    1   66   54   37 .265 .341 .345  110
 RF  H. Hooper     L 29   151  559   91  143   21   11    3   47   80   40 .256 .355 .349  116
 CF  T. Speaker    L 29   142  525   85  175   40   10    2   57   65   15 .333 .404 .459  164
 LF  D. Lewis      R 29   150  553   56  167   29    9    1   70   29   54 .302 .342 .392  125
  C  S. Agnew      R 30    85  260   17   54    6    2    0   17   19   30 .208 .267 .246   57

  C  P. Thomas     L 29    83  202   24   48    7    0    0   25   27    9 .238 .333 .272   86
 1B  D. Gainer     R 30    52  172   28   53   10    2    2   20   15   21 .308 .374 .424  144
 2S  H. Janvrin    R 24    55  127   21   25    3    0    0    8   11   13 .197 .266 .220   49
  P  B. Ruth       L 22    52  123   14   40    6    3    2   12   12   18 .325 .385 .472  162
 OF  J. Walsh      L 31    38   86   12   23    3    1    0    6   11    7 .267 .347 .326  106
 OF  C. Shorten    L 25    35   67    4   12    2    1    0    6    4    4 .179 .213 .239   38
 3S  M. McNally    R 23    42   50    9   15    1    0    0    2    6    3 .300 .375 .320  113

     Others                    106   11   18    2    1    0    4   12   16 .170 .240 .208   37

     Pitchers                  365   22   67   10    3    0   26   25   75 .184 .232 .227   41

     TOTAL                    5032  582 1291  215   64   14  497  483  437 .257 .310 .333   97


     Pitcher       T Age    G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   SV    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
     B. Ruth       L 22    41   38   35  326   25   12    2  244    2  108  128 2.01  128
     D. Leonard    L 25    37   36   26  294   17   16    1  257    4   72  144 2.17  119
     C. Mays       R 25    35   33   27  289   23    8    0  230    1   74   91 1.74  148
     E. Shore      R 26    29   27   14  227   14    9    1  201    1   55   57 2.22  116
     R. Foster     R 29    17   16    9  125    9    6    0  108    0   53   34 2.53  102

     H. Pennock    L 23    31    6    4  114    6    5    1  102    2   26   40 3.32   78
     L. Bader      R 29    17    1    0   41    2    0    1   51    1   19   15 2.41  107
     W. Wyckoff    R 25     1    0    0    5    0    0    0    4    0    4    1 1.80  143

     TOTAL                     157  115 1421   96   56    6 1197   11  411  510 2.19  118

Still, the Gray Eagle is way better than real-life center fielders Walker, Jimmy Walsh, and Chick Shorten, and the Boston ‘pen is ever-so-slightly better off with the departure of struggling youngster Sam Jones. I estimate that the Red Sox would improve from 90-62 to 96-56, but they’d still be in second place, three games behind the White Sox.

Treder:

Then comes 1918, and the plot thickens.

In the winter of 1917-18, with Frazee a little over a year into his ownership, the Red Sox swung two blockbuster deals, both with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. The first, occurring in Dec. 1917, was more a purchase than a trade, sending three journeymen and a whopping bundle of $60,000 to Mack in exchange for Wally Schang (one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball), “Bullet Joe” Bush (a 25-year-old pitcher who was developing into one of the league’s better starters), and Amos Strunk (a fine all-around outfielder). Obviously Mack’s motivation was financial, as it was an entirely one-sided talent exchange, and just as obviously for our purposes it’s a deal we’re happy to allow to go through.

But the second transaction, completed two months later, was less satisfactory for Boston: the Red Sox traded their star third baseman Larry Gardner, their primary center fielder Tilly Walker, and a backup catcher to Philadelphia, and received first baseman Stuffy McInnis. The 27-year-old McInnis was a strong talent (featuring defensive prowess in an era when first base defense mattered a lot), but not a major star; Boston surrendered far too much to get him. This is a deal we’re going to assume didn’t take place (and since we don’t have Walker on hand anyway, perhaps it’s a moot point).

The other major issue with 1918 is that this was when Red Sox manager Ed Barrow, in one of the most momentous decisions in baseball history, in mid-season shifted his sensational 23-year-old ace pitcher Babe Ruth out of the mound rotation, and began playing him as an everyday hitter instead. Initially Barrow played Ruth at first base, and then tried him in center field, before settling on left field as his position at which to play full time.

By no means will we argue with the logic that the Bambino, terrific pitcher though he was, would add more value focusing on his incredible hitting. But our Red Sox roster is different than the one Barrow actually dealt with: we have that guy named Speaker handling center field, which bumps Strunk over to left, while Harry Hooper continues to have right field locked down. Thus there’s no vacancy for Ruth in the outfield.

But meanwhile we didn’t acquire Stuffy McInnis to play first base. Instead we have incumbent Dick Hoblitzel still there, and not hitting a lick. So in our scenario Barrow won’t just experiment with Ruth at first base: that’s the position he’ll play on a regular basis, where as a left-handed thrower (making the force-out throw to second easier) accustomed to handling ground balls as a pitcher, there’s no reason to imagine Ruth wouldn’t have performed quite adequately.

1918

 Pos Player        B Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
 1B  B. Ruth       L 23    95  317   50   95   26   11   11   70   58   58 .300 .411 .555  194
 2B  D. Shean      R 34   115  425   58  112   16    3    0   35   40   25 .264 .331 .315   97
 SS  E. Scott      R 25   126  443   40   98   11    5    0   44   12   16 .221 .242 .269   55
 3B  L. Gardner    L 32   126  463   50  131   23    6    1   55   45   20 .283 .336 .365  113
 RF  H. Hooper     L 30   126  474   81  137   26   13    1   45   75   25 .289 .391 .405  142
 CF  T. Speaker    L 30   126  471   73  144   32   11    0   65   64    9 .306 .384 .420  145
 LF  A. Strunk     L 29   114  413   50  106   18    9    0   36   36   13 .257 .316 .344  101
  C  W. Schang     B 28    88  225   36   55    7    1    0   21   46   35 .244 .377 .284  101

  C  S. Agnew      R 31    65  179   10   30    7    0    0    5   10   23 .168 .218 .207   29
 1B  D. Hoblitzel  L 29    47  139   14   29    4    0    0   11   16    8 .209 .291 .237   61
 OF  G. Whiteman   R 35    36   71    8   18    4    0    0    9    6    3 .254 .305 .310   87

     Others                     62    7   11    2    0    0    4    6    5 .177 .254 .210   41

     Pitchers                  327   22   75    7    5    0   23   23   58 .229 .276 .281   69

     TOTAL                    4009  499 1041  183   64   13  423  437  298 .260 .324 .347  107


     Pitcher       T Age    G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   SV    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
     C. Mays       R 26    35   33   30  293   25    9    0  222    2   81  114 2.12  127
     J. Bush       R 25    36   31   26  273   19   12    2  233    3   91  125 2.01  134
     B. Ruth       L 23    20   19   18  166   15    5    0  121    1   49   40 2.16  124
     D. Leonard    L 26    16   16   12  126    9    5    0  115    0   53   47 2.65  102
     L. Bader      R 30    14   11    5   74    6    6    0   68    3   32   27 3.16   85

     J. Enzmann    R 28    30   14    8  137    6    6    2  128    2   29   38 2.24  120
     W. Kinney     L 24     5    0    0   15    0    0    0    5    0    8    4 1.80  149
     V. Molyneaux  R 29     6    0    0   11    1    0    0    3    0    8    1 3.38   80

     Others                      2    1   25    0    2    0   31    1    8    7 3.24   83

     TOTAL                     126  100 1120   81   45    4  926   12  359  403 2.27  118

The actual Red Sox won the 1918 pennant in a war-abbreviated season (and the World Series as well, the last one they’d capture for, well, quite a while). Our Red Sox, with the Gray Eagle soaring in center and Gardner still in bloom at third, are an even better version of that ball club. The actual Bosox went 75-51; our boys run away with it at 81-45.

Namee:

The undone transactions are now piling up so fast it’s hard to keep track of them.

In Dec. 1918 the long string of deals with the Yankees commenced: Boston traded pitchers Dutch Leonard and Ernie Shore along with left fielder Duffy Lewis to New York for a bunch of mediocrities (including pitcher Slim Love) and $15,000. Cancel that one.

Then in January, they traded with the Tigers for weak-hitting third baseman Ossie Vitt, surrendering Slim Love, outfielder Chick Shorten, and backup catcher Eddie Ainsmith. With Larry Gardner at third and Love not on the roster, we can safely nix this trade.

The biggest mistake of all came in July 1919, when Boston sent ace Carl Mays to the Yankees in exchange for two unexciting players and (more to the point) $40,000. Mays would proceed to post a 1.65 ERA the rest of the season, and win a combined 53 games over next two years. We’re definitely nullifying this one.

1919

 Pos Player       B Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
 1B  B. Ruth      L 24   130  432  105  139   34   12   29  115  101   58 .322 .456 .657  219
 2B  R. Shannon   B 22    80  290   36   75   11    7    0   17   17   42 .259 .313 .345   89
 SS  E. Scott     R 26   138  507   41  141   19    0    0   38   19   26 .278 .306 .316   79
 3B  L. Gardner   L 33   138  525   63  148   27    6    2   74   36   32 .282 .332 .368  101
 RF  H. Hooper    L 31   128  491   76  131   25    6    3   49   79   28 .267 .374 .360  112
 CF  T. Speaker   L 31   134  496   78  138   36   11    2   59   71   13 .278 .377 .407  126
 LF  B. Roth      R 26    57  167   24   43    6    3    0   17   17   24 .257 .337 .329   92
  C  W. Schang    B 29   113  330   43  101   16    3    0   55   71   42 .306 .436 .373  134

 OF  A. Strunk    L 30    46  157   21   43   10    2    0   13   11   11 .274 .325 .363   98
 OF  D. Lewis     R 31    64  144   17   37    6    1    2   22    4   11 .257 .277 .354   81
  C  E. Ainsmith  R 29    53  142   16   38    7    4    1   12   17   12 .268 .346 .394  113
 OF  C. Shorten   L 27    63  134   18   41    4    2    0   11   11    7 .306 .359 .366  109
 2B  J. Barry     R 32    31  108   13   26    5    1    0    2    5    5 .241 .293 .306   72
 2B  D. Shean     R 35    29  100    4   14    0    0    0    8    5    7 .140 .189 .140   -5
 1B  D. Gainer    R 32    27   67    3   16    3    1    0    8    7   15 .239 .320 .313   83
 S3  M. McNally   R 25    33   42   10   11    4    0    0    6    1    2 .262 .279 .357   82

     Others                    71   13   22    2    0    0    8    7    5 .310 .363 .338  102

     Pitchers                 367   26   62    8    0    0   24   16   59 .169 .202 .191   13

     TOTAL                   4570  607 1226  223   59   39  538  495  399 .268 .346 .368  113


     Pitcher      T Age    G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   SV    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
     C. Mays      R 27    34   29   26  267   19   11    2  215    5   75  109 1.99  152
     H. Pennock   L 25    32   26   16  219   17    8    0  217    2   48   70 2.67  113
     D. Leonard   L 27    29   28   18  218   17   11    0  195    7   62  104 2.56  118
     B. Ruth      L 24    17   15   12  133    9    4    1  144    2   58   30 2.90  104
     W. Hoyt      R 19    13   11    6  105    4    5    0   96    1   22   28 3.16   95
     E. Shore     R 28    18   11    3   90    5    8    0   93    4   40   23 3.90   77
     B. James     R 32    13    7    4   73    3    5    0   73    2   39   12 4.09   74

     J. Enzmann   R 29    14    4    2   55    3    2    0   66    0    8   13 2.28  133
     G. Dumont    R 23    13    2    0   35    0    4    0   45    1   19   12 4.33   70

     Others                     5    1   29    0    2    0   37    0   11   14 4.97   61

     TOTAL               138  138   88 1225   77   60    3 1181   24  382  415 2.83  107

The real-life Red Sox—the defending champs—went just 66-71 in another war-shortened schedule, and finished in the second division for the first time in over a decade. Our version still doesn’t catch the Black Sox, but they’re a more-than-respectable 77-60, and well-positioned to contend in 1920.

You know what’s coming next: Two days after New Year’s in 1920, Boston sent George Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 (as well as a very-low-interest loan of $350,000). I know you won’t let them make that deal, so we now face the question of questions: What if the Red Sox had never sold the Babe?

Treder:

Hmmm … give me a week to think about it!

Next installment

Part 2: 1920-1922

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