Former owner Harry Frazee has long been portrayed as the biggest villain in Boston Red Sox history. After all, it was the portly theatre owner who sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920, initiating an 86-year championship drought that superstitious supporters attributed to “The Curse of the Bambino.”
But Bosox fans should keep in mind that just five years earlier, J.J. Lannin, the Canadian owner of the club at that time, completed an almost equally controversial transaction. Largely on the strength of Tris Speaker’s sparkling centre field defense and potent bat, the Red Sox had won the 1915 World Series. The talented Texan was the only Boston player to hit over .300 that season. Following that campaign, however, the Federal League, whose lucrative contracts had persuaded a number of American and National League stars to join their circuit, folded. Without competition from a third league, owners, like Lannin, vowed to roll back player salaries. Robert Creamer’s biography of Babe Ruth notes that Speaker had made $15,000 in 1915, but prior to the 1916 campaign, Lannin offered him a contract for $9,000 – a 60 per cent pay cut. Creamer writes that Speaker would’ve played for as low as $12,000, but Lannin was adamant that $9,000 was his final offer.
Without a contract, Speaker continued to train with the Red Sox in the spring of 1916. During the final week prior to the start of the regular season, fans and teammates were optimistic that Speaker could still be signed. Just five days before the season opener, however, Lannin stunned the baseball world by selling Speaker to the Cleveland Indians for $50,000. It was the most a player had ever been sold for until that point.
Red Sox fans were outraged and lashed at Lannin. Speaker was replaced by Tillie Walker, a middling outfielder acquired from Connie Mack and the Philadelphia A’s. It’s a testament to the skill of Bosox manager Bill Carrigan, who was also blindsided by the Speaker sale, that he was able to rally his club and win another championship in 1916.
Speaker would, of course, go on to star with the Cleveland Indians for the next 11 seasons and cement his reputation as one of the greatest defensive outfielders in big league history. In 22 major league seasons, he would hit .345, rap out 3,514 hits and record a major league record 792 doubles. He was also the player/manager of the 1920 World Series champion Indians and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.
Though it’s often reported that Lannin sold the Red Sox to Frazee because he was too much of a fan, Creamer reports that the backlash the Canuck owner received over the Speaker deal hurt him deeply. On November 1, 1916, Lannin, who had purchased the team for a reported $200,000 in 1914, would sell the team to Frazee’s team of investors for $675,000.