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IT MAY be the most famous transaction in U.S. sports history: On Jan. 5, 1920, the Yankees announced that they had purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for $125,000. The deal set the franchises on divergent paths for decades. When Boston owner Harry Frazee decided to part with the game's best player, a feud with American League president Ban Johnson had left him few suitors. Yet he did have at least one other offer—one that, if taken, would have dramatically altered baseball history.

Frazee, a bold Broadway showman, came into the league on the wrong side of Johnson, who had unsuccessfully sought to block Frazee's 1916 purchase of the team. The two then disagreed over Johnson's management of the war-shortened '18 season and sparred over Frazee's attempts to have Johnson replaced with former U.S. president William Howard Taft. Meanwhile, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and Yankees owners Tillinghast l'Hommedieu Huston and Jacob Ruppert had their own disputes with Johnson, leading them to align with Frazee. The eight-team league cleaved into an anti-Johnson faction and the so-called Loyal Five. A breaking point came in '19 when frustrated Red Sox ace Carl Mays left the team, vowing to never pitch for Boston again. Johnson insisted Frazee suspend Mays, but the owner instead dealt him to New York. When Johnson tried to block the trade, the Yankees successfully fought the league president in court.

After the season, Ruth announced that he wanted his salary doubled to a league-high $20,000. Fed up with Ruth's carousing and confrontations with management, Frazee decided that the Babe's time in Boston was up. With the Loyal Five teams out as trading partners, Frazee had two offers: New York's cash, or the White Sox's 32-year-old star outfielder, Shoeless Joe Jackson (below, right, with Ruth).

Frazee took the former. According to Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson's 2000 book, Red Sox Century, Frazee's choice was made in part to raise a war chest for a potential legal battle with Johnson. Had Frazee chosen the Chicago deal, the Red Sox would have taken a hit a year later when Jackson was banned in the fallout from the Black Sox scandal. But had Ruth never donned pinstripes, the dynastic Yankees (seven pennants in 15 seasons with the Babe) would surely have been surpassed by the Indians and the A's. Ruth would have toiled on an afterthought Chicago squad, and with Comiskey's rightfield line 70 feet deeper than Yankee Stadium's, the season (60) and career (714) home run records that for so long lorded over baseball would have been smaller, and sooner surpassed. With less gaudy stats on a mediocre team, Ruth might not have been the ambassador of goodwill that helped restore the popularity of the sport after the Black Sox scandal. Baseball would have entered the 1920s looking for a new hero.