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On Second Thought

Remembering a forgotten Red Sox owner — the one who acquired Babe Ruth

Joe Lannin (right) with his wife and American League president Ban Johnson (left) in a photo believed to be taken at the 1916 World Series, which the Red Sox won for their second straight title.
Joe Lannin (right) with his wife and American League president Ban Johnson (left) in a photo believed to be taken at the 1916 World Series, which the Red Sox won for their second straight title.Library of Congress

He abruptly sold the Red Sox, he said, because he came to realize he was just “too much of a fan” to own a big league ball club.

That might have been true. Joe Lannin loved baseball and was a hands-on businessman. In March 1915, the Globe ran a picture of the then-Sox owner playing catch in Little Rock, Ark., the club’s spring training home. He was trading tosses with rookie southpaw Babe Ruth.

Lannin, whose team won World Series titles in 1915 and ’16, said that he had heart trouble. The summer of 1916, his last as Sox owner, had doctors suggesting he would be wise to get out of the business. Only age 50 at the time, Lannin was dealing with heart issues and frayed nerves.

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“Which,” he confided to reporters the day he signed the franchise over to Harry Frazee late in 1916, “accounted for my outbursts from time to time.”

Spring training is upon us again, full of sunshine, storytelling, and promise. The likes of Lannin, a sportsman/owner rubbing elbows and playing catch with the woolen-clad working help, are long gone. Only Sox fans of a certain age might recall Tom Yawkey shuffling around Fenway Park during batting practice in the ’60s, chatting up the likes of Carl Yastrzemski and Rico Petrocelli, sometimes grabbing a bat for a game of pepper. Today, billionaire owners reach for iPads and analytics charts, not Louisville Sluggers.

Lannin’s name rarely gets mentioned in the retelling of Red Sox lore. His time was brief, his successes many, and if not for Lannin, there likely would be no Ruth story to tell in Boston, be it his arrival as brash wunderkind or his sale to the dreaded Yankees. Lannin was essential to both.

“A fascinating, Horatio Alger-like figure,” said Richard Johnson, for decades the curator of the Sports Museum. “And probably the best team owner nobody knows.”

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Or perhaps largely forgotten.

Born north of Quebec City in 1866, Lannin migrated to Boston in his teens. A century-plus later, some accounts today have it that he departed Lac-Beauport as an orphan and walked the 400 or so miles to Boston. Neither of those points, if true, were included in newspaper accounts of the day when he bought or sold the Sox, nor were they included in his obituary upon his frightening death in Brooklyn in 1928.

“Orphaned and on barefoot … interesting,” mused Johnson. “Print the legend, I guess, right? Never heard that before, but it sounds like it fits Joe Lannin.”

Based on myriad newspaper accounts during and after his Sox years, Lannin did arrive here as a teenager and began work in a downtown office job, believed to be arranged through Quebec connections involved in the province’s fur trade. He quickly left office work to become a bellhop at the Adams House, a luxury hotel on Washington Street that opened in 1846.

Lannin found his calling in the hotel, ascending to head bellman, then on to the dining room to become head waiter. Through connections he made with Adams clientele, he then moved on in his 20s to manage the Charlesgate Hotel, a luxury property built in 1891 at the eastern edge of Kenmore Square. A short walk from Fenway Park, the Charlesgate still stands, converted more than a quarter-century ago to condominiums.

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Lannin developed a passion for lacrosse, for checkers, and for investing in hotels and apartment buildings, both in and around Boston and New York City. He was a man of serious means, already a part-owner of the Boston Braves, when he purchased 50 percent of the Sox late in 1913, then became sole owner the following May upon buying out the other half from the Taylor family that also owned the Globe. Total investment: upward of $700,000.

It was only within weeks after taking full ownership that the ambitious Lannin landed Ruth, purchasing the 19-year-old hurler from the cash-strapped Baltimore Orioles, then of the International League. Other clubs pursued Ruth, but Lannin’s aggressive bid (possibly $30,000) won out — netting Ruth, fellow pitcher Ernie Shore, and catcher Ben Egan (later shipped to Cleveland).

No Lannin, no Ruth, and, ultimately, no Curse of the Bambino.

It was late in 1919, slightly more than a year after Ruth and the Sox won the Series amid the Spanish Flu pandemic, when Frazee failed on a $125,000 mortgage payment due Lannin, pegged on Frazee taking possession of Fenway Park. In large part to pay off Lannin, and also keep his Broadway endeavors afloat, Frazee shipped the 24-year-old Ruth to the Bronx for $100,000 and a loan of $300,000.

We know how the rest played out, painfully. Over time, Lannin eventually was made whole, Frazee finally sold the Sox in 1923, and the Sox didn’t win a World Series again until 2004.

Lannin, upon returning to Boston after his spring training visit in 1915, was excited about Ruth’s development on the pitching staff. Ruth appeared in only five games with the Sox in ’14, spending much of that summer leading Providence to the International League title. Lannin also owned the Grays.

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“The fans are going to enjoy the fine work of this young man this year,” Lannin told the Globe upon returning on the train from Hot Springs. “He is a fine natural ball player, and looks a lot different than last year, when he was crude.”

Lannin, a dozen years after selling the Sox, arrived at the Granada Hotel in Brooklyn at approximately 9:30 a.m. on May 15, 1928. Big league teams often stayed at Lannin’s prized hotel when in town to play the Dodgers. He was there that morning to inspect fresh plaster work on a ninth-floor room.

He would be out shortly, he said, asking his driver to wait at the curbside.

Minutes later, Lannin was dead, his head and chest crushed in a fall from Room 915 to the roof of the two-story restaurant that abutted the hotel. Though newspaper accounts didn’t raise the potential of foul play, the 6-foot, 200-pound Lannin had fallen from a window that was only 15 inches wide. A tough fit, even for a man known to be an expert negotiator.

The family attorney, who told reporters that Lannin’s net worth was some $7 million, figured that his client experienced a cardiac episode and had leaned out the window for oxygen. The assistant medical examiner and a police detective both theorized that Lannin “fell or jumped.”

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Joe Lannin, former Adams House bellhop and Red Sox owner, albeit too much of a fan, was 62.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.