02/15/2004 7:56 PM ET
Babe to A-Rod: Yanks' big deals
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
There was that wild, 17-player trade with Baltimore in 1954. There were all those landmark signings in the new free-agency era, such as Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield. There were the acquisitions of such players as Roger Clemens and Tino Martinez as another Yankee dynasty took shape.
|Babe Ruth spent six seasons in Boston before his trade to the Yankees before the 1920 season. (AP)
But now that it appears the Yankees will acquire Alex Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers and remove the creeping doubt about their elite status heading into the 2004 season, this feels like something much more -- like a really big deal, a throwback to the biggest acquisition in the Bronx Bombers' long history.
The list of the biggest acquisitions by this club still begins on Jan. 3, 1920, the day the Yanks also acquired the unquestioned premier player in the game and in the process sent a message to Red Sox fans up the coast. Babe Ruth, who helped make Boston a World Series winner with his bat and his pitching arm, was purchased from the Red Sox for $125,000 and a $350,000 loan against the mortgage on Fenway Park.
Sox owner Harry Frazee was struggling financially and, according to lore, needed funding for the production of his play, "No No Nanette." The Red Sox had won more World Series than any other team up to then, but they have not won since. Meanwhile, Ruth defined a franchise and a sport -- perhaps even a country -- by slugging his way to 714 career home runs, leading the Yankees to the first four of their 26 world championships, and making Yankee Stadium possible.
It is hard to compare any Yankee move to that one, but there are many inflection points over the years when one studies the club's most noteworthy acquisitions. There has been immeasurable impact from a number of Major League Baseball transactions, including trades and signings, but you can also throw in a notable transaction that happened on Nov. 21, 1934. The Yankees purchased an outfielder named Joe DiMaggio from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League for $50,000.
The biggest move in Yankee history might not have been the one that happened in November 1954, but it certainly was the biggest in terms of player volume. Seventeen players were swapped in a deal with Baltimore that was so big it had to be announced over two different days. The Yankees benefited especially from pitchers Bob Turley and Don Larsen. Turley won the 1958 Cy Young Award (there was only one given then, instead of one for each league) and he also won that year's World Series MVP Award as the Yankees avenged their 1957 World Series loss to the Milwaukee Braves. Larsen's defining moment was his 1956 World Series perfect game, leading to his MVP Award for that Fall Classic. So it was unquestionably a good deal for New York, especially considering that Larsen originally had been a player to be named later.
The Yankees have a habit of acquiring pitchers and then watching them enjoy no-hitters. They picked up Allie Reynolds from Cleveland in 1946, and in 1951 he fired two no-hitters. Many years later, they would sign already-established pitchers Dwight Gooden, David Wells and David Cone and watch all three of them throw no-nos. Wells and Cone, like Larsen, retired all 27 opposing batters in their gems.
If Ruth was one who got seriously away in Boston, then a trade 10 years later would have similar, if lesser-known, impact. Red Ruffing had been a perennial losing pitcher for the Red Sox early in his career, and he was traded to the Yankees for Cedric Durst and $50,000 cash. That seemed to be all Ruffing's career needed. He became a dominating pitcher in pinstripes, going 231-127 for the rest of his career (excluding a 3-5 final season with the White Sox). There were similarities in the way they dominated and won after going from Boston to New York, but the key difference is that Ruth had been spectacular as a Sox player and Ruffing had given Boston every reason to move him.
Most acquisitions appear more important when viewed well after the fact, and one example is the Yankees' signing of Elston Howard as an amateur free agent before the 1950 season. He became the club's first African-American player in 1955, and he also became an impact player -- the first African-American to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award and a key member of several World Series teams.
Although the machine has constantly churned out the kind of talent over a century required for regular World Series contention, many landmark acquisitions by the Yankees occurred in the 1970s with the explosion of free agency. The first notable signing was in December 1974, when pitcher Catfish Hunter was signed to a then-record free-agent deal after leaving the A's dynasty. An even bigger Oakland name would follow to the Bronx in November 1976, when Reggie Jackson signed a five-year deal and became the straw that stirred the drink in the Bronx Zoo.
Jackson was such a big payoff that Dave Winfield, signed in December 1980 to a then-record free agency contract over 10 years, would have to endure owner George Steinbrenner's criticisms that Reggie had been "Mr. October" but Winfield was "Mr. May." Winfield might not have won a World Series in New York, but he did join Jackson in the Hall of Fame in 2001.
Although the Rodriguez-Alfonso Soriano deal still evokes disbelief in many corners, Yankee fans today have grown accustomed to annual big deals. Last year it was Hideki Matsui's signing, one that came with hype of Godzilla proportions. When pitcher Jose Contreras, a Cuban defector, was added as well, it heated the intensity of the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry and provoked Sox management to recall Cold War language and deem the Yankees "the evil empire."
Before the 2002 season, the big news was the signing of free-agent slugger Jason Giambi to a seven-year contract with a club option for an eighth year. The Yankees now had their biggest home run threat since Reggie.
"This is my best fit," Giambi said after his signing. "This was the team I was hoping would come after me. I got the opportunity to play with them and I jumped at it. This is a dream come true."
Many players have shared that sentiment after joining the Majors' most dominant franchise over the years. Rodriguez no doubt will have similar things to say now that he has a chance to win it all. What remains to be seen now is whether the Yankees' latest acquisition of baseball's best player will result in a legacy even remotely approaching the one left on the game after a 1920 acquisition.
Mark Newman is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.