“Baseball is a business, and you’ve got to be ready for anything.”
It would be easy to imagine those words being spoken by Mookie Betts in the wake of the controversial trade this week that sent one of the game’s brightest young stars from the Boston Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But they were actually uttered more than 100 years ago, by outfielder Tris Speaker, according to “Spoke,” a biography of Speaker.
The baseball world has rushed to compare the Betts deal — which also sent pitcher David Price to Los Angeles for prospects and payroll relief — to the infamous sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees on Dec. 26, 1919. But there is an argument to be made that the closer precedent is Boston’s sale of Speaker, a future Hall of Famer, to the Cleveland Indians in 1916.
Comparing the relative talent and importance of players across eras can be difficult, but consider this: Just 27 position players have had a season valued at 10 or more wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference’s formulation, and only four — Speaker, Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx and Betts — were traded away by the club they recorded the feat for while still in their 20s. At the heart of each deal were financial concerns for the selling team.
While Ruth will forever be the player most associated with a fire sale, he began his career as a starting pitcher and his best days as a hitter came with the Yankees, making him an awkward comparison to Betts. Speaker, however, has some eerie parallels.
Like Betts, the 28-year-old Speaker was an outfielder squarely in his physical prime, had recently won both a Most Valuable Player Award and a World Series title, and was viewed by many as the heart and soul of one of the most talented teams in the American League.
At the time of the trade, The New York Tribune’s Grantland Rice poked fun at Speaker for saying he had been “sold like a slave,” but the columnist also castigated the Red Sox for not understanding the significance of Speaker, comparing his talent and leadership to that of Detroit’s Ty Cobb and Philadelphia’s Collins.
“A great ballplayer on a club, such as Cobb, Speaker or Collins, is a moral force as well as a physical one,” Rice wrote. “Which is to say, such a star operates in the capacity of a psychological uplift. He lends encouragement by his acts, to the rest of the cast.”
— J.D. Martinez (@JDMartinez28) February 5, 2020
Though separated by more than a century, both deals came about because of concerns about Boston’s finances. The Betts deal helps the Red Sox avoid luxury tax penalties, rids it of Price’s bloated contact (worth $96 million over the next three years) and allows the team to avoid the issue of re-signing Betts when he becomes a free agent. Speaker had become a concern for Boston because his salary swelled to $17,500 as a result of a bidding war with the Federal League. When that competing league dissolved, Speaker was unwilling to return to the $9,000 salary he made in 1913.
Rather than engage in an extended fight with their star player, the Red Sox sold him to Cleveland for $55,000 and two young players.
Speaker continued to dominate for Cleveland, and in 1920 he helped lead the Indians to the team’s first championship. And while Boston won the World Series two more times without Speaker (in 1916 and 1918), by 1922 the team had jettisoned three more future Hall of Famers — Ruth, Harry Hooper and Herb Pennock — and the Red Sox finished no better than fourth from 1919 to 1935, with nine last-place finishes.
In 1936, Boston attempted to flip the script on the Speaker and Ruth deals by taking advantage of the financial struggles of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. For $150,000 and a minor leaguer, Boston purchased the rights to Foxx, whose only peer as a slugger was Ruth.
Foxx remained a terrific all-around player in Boston, despite research suggesting he was playing with a severe head injury during his time with the team, and he provided a strong early on-field role model for Ted Williams. But the outrageously expensive acquisition — Lou Gehrig was baseball’s highest paid player in 1935 at $31,000, roughly one-fifth of Foxx’s purchase price — did not result in a single pennant.
Players like @mookiebetts don’t come around very often. If you have it, keep it.
— Will Middlebrooks (@middlebrooks) February 5, 2020
Still, much like the Red Sox this week, Mack took a great deal of flak for selling off Foxx and several other stars in the 1930s. But unlike the current Boston club, listed by Forbes in 2019 as the third-most valuable MLB club at $3.2 billion, Mack at least had a unique excuse for his fire sales: It was frequently said in the 1930s that Pennsylvania’s blue laws kept the team from playing lucrative Sunday games, thus limiting Mack’s ability to invest in the team.
For his part, Mack felt that the Foxx deal, which was the final straw in the collapse of a dynasty from earlier in the decade, had not affected his team all that much.
“I was the object of a lot of criticism for selling so many star players,” Mack said in 1936. “But the public didn’t seem to realize that you don’t have to have stars to finish last. If we finished last with Foxx and all those other fellows, what was the point of having them?”
Boston was not in danger of a last-place finish with Betts, and probably won’t be without him, either. But for Red Sox fans, who have watched their favorite club follow an 86-year championship drought with a stretch in which they won four World Series titles in 15 years, the sudden focus on financial flexibility over on-field play has to feel somewhat like the reopening of Pandora’s box.
The Betts deal, and the effect it could have on everyone involved, offers a reminder that while the Ruth trade is Boston’s most famous fire-sale transaction, the jettisoning of Speaker got things started. Red Sox fans in 2020 will have to hope that Boston’s other young stars, like Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, do not follow Betts out the door, as Ruth, Hooper and Pennock did after Speaker.