AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

1920 - JUST AN AVERAGE YEAR

I have to say that all things considered, 1920 started out as a typical year in Boston, Massachusetts.
America was a nation of 106 million that year. Boston had a population of over 100,000. The first World War had ended one year and one month before, and the world was still recovering from a flue pandemic that
had killed 3% of the world's population. Over 600,000 Americans had died, and over 45,000 Bay Staters.
Unemployement was at 5%, and the illiteracy rate was just 6%. and falling  And beginning at about six on the morning of Friday, January 2, and continuing throughout the day, officers of the Boston Police Department and the Federal government exploded through doors throughout the city with guns drawn, but without arrest or search warrants. They detained at least 400 people. In handcuffs and leg shackles the stunned prisoners were hustled aboard boats and transported to the aging Deer Island House of Corrections Prison in Boston Harbor. These raids, part of a nationwide sweep in 30 cities and 24 states, were meant to snuff out an incipient communist revolution, according to the Press Releases. Privately, they were also meant to get the Attorney General elected President of the United States.
The unlucky subjects were held in the unheated, overcrowded aging prison for several weeks, while the government tried to determine who they had actually swept up. One Boston woman, seized from her own bed because she was suspected of being an illegal alien and a communist, was found to be an American citizen and to have no ties at all to the Communist party. Most of those seized were legal Russian immigrants, members of labor unions or others labeled as dangerous by various questionable sources. In Detroit the police arrested every customer in a foreign-food restaurant and an entire orchestra, while in the city of Philadelphia, an entire choral society was imprisoned. In Hartford, Connecticut worried family members who inquired at the police station about missing relatives were also detained for a week.
During their incarceration many of the prisoners in Boston were beaten to force confessions from them. At least one of the prisoners went insane. There were several suicide attempts and one desperate successful five story plunge from the main cell block on Deer Island. In April, when one of the cases actually made it to trial, a Boston Judge commented on the level of infiltration of the Communit Party by Justice Department agents, by observing that the government "owns and operates part of the Communist Party."   Of the 4,000 "radicals" who had been seized nationwide, only 556 would ever be actually deported.
The raids were the brainchild of U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, “The Fighting Quaker”, and politician to the core. He had almost been the victim of a 1919 anarchist bomber (the man had blown himself up on Palmer's front porch).  AG Palmer had seen considerable public support for similar but smaller raids the previous November. But for the January raids, Palmer had turned their organization and execution over to the head of the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, the 20 year old J. Edgar Hoover.
Palmer and Hoover were effectively operating without supervision because President Woodrow Wilson had suffered a stroke the previous October, which had largely incapacitated him. In November, Palmer had conducted his first “Red Scare raids” to positive public support. But the January raids were more than twice as large, and had been so badly organized that even Hoover had to later admit they contained a few “clear cases of brutality”. Innitially the Justice Department claimed the raids produced several bombs, but in truth, the only weapons actually siezed were four pistols, from amongst the 4,000 suspects.
One U.S. Attorney, Francis Fisher Kane, even resigned in protest over the raids. He wrote,“By such methods we drive underground and make dangerous what was not dangerous before.” Palmer responded by insisting he could not use standard law enforcement techniques to fight an “epidemic” of communism in America. But worse for Palmer was that the raids kept his name in the headlines for just 48 hours. The news cycle remains the worst enemy of the ambitous politician.
The Palmer raids were superseded in the public’s mind on the following Monday, January 5th , with the stunning announcement that Babe Ruth, star left handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, had been sold outright to the New York Yankees for the unheard of price of $125,000, more than double the price ever  paid for a player.
There seemed little argument that he was worth it the money. In 1919 Babe Ruth the pitcher had suffered a slump, winning just 9 games to 5 losses. Boston Manager Ed Barrow had coaxed Ruth into shifting to the outfield, and coached him in hitting. And Ruth, becoming increasinly comfortable as a batter, had hit 29 home runs, breaking a 35 year old American League record, and hitting 3 times as many homers as the next nearest batter that year. Barrow was furious at Ruth's sale, and said bluntly that the owner must have been out of his mind to let Ruth go at any price.
The owner of the Red Sox since 1916 had been Harry Frazee. He had paid $675,000 for the championship club, which had won the World Series in 1912, 1915 and again in 1916. Under Harry and Manager Barrow, the Red Sox won the series again in 1918. But in 1919 the club had slipped to sixth place. On the plus side, Ruth had just signed a new contract, paying him $30,000 for the next three years. So dispite the disappointing season just passed, the future looked bright for the Red Sox.
But Harry Frazee was not a baseball man. His office was in the the Longacre Theatre on Broadway, and that was where he had made his money, in the theatre.  And America’s entry into World War One had produced a recesssion in entertainment. Harry was caught in the pinch between his shrinking box office and what he still owed on the Red Sox (almost half the original sale price). The solution to his problem was two blocks away from Harry’s office.
The solution was to be found in the offices of the Ruppert Brewery, owned by Colonel Jacob Ruppert. The beer maker was also a part owner of the New York Yankees, along with a Mr. Tillingham, who happened to a friend of Harry Frazee.
The year before this connection had facilitated the sale of the premire Red Sox right handed pitcher, the intimidating submariner Carl Mays, to the Yankees. So, it seemed only natural that Harry would again seek financial assistance from the beer magnet. The Ruth deal, actually signed in December of 1919, now financed Frazee’s production of the play “My Lady Friends.” Five years later that successful play would be turned into a musical called, “No, No, Nanette”.
A story is told that shortly after the sale of Babe Ruth, Harry was in a cab bound for Fenway Park seeking to impress a young woman with a display of his wealth. The cab driver overheard his passanger boasting to the woman about owning the Red Sox. The driver pulled the cab over, dragged Harry from the back seat and punched him in the face. That may be an apocrophal tale, since sources as respectred as the “Boston Evening Transcript” saw the sale as a hopeful sign. “Red Sox players doubtless will be pleased with the disposal of the incorrigible slugger, and team play should be in more evidence”. However the New York Times was slightly less sanguine over the transaction, saying, “It would not be surprising if Ruth surpassed his home-run record of 29 circuit clouts next summer.”
Oddly enough, on the same day the sale of Babe Ruth was anounced there was another announcement - on January 5th , 1920 - involving Colonel Ruppert. The Supreme Court held, in the case of Jacob Ruppert, Inc. v Caffey, that the Federal government did have the power and the right to outlaw all beaverages containing more than one half of one percent of alcohol. That decision removed the final barrier against prohibition. The great social experiment in legislating morality had begun.
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