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The Curse That Ruth Built
November 10, 2004
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November 10, 2004

The Curse That Ruth Built


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AFTER THE RED SOX LUKED THE YANKEES' EVIL EMPIRE IN THE BEST comeback in the annals of baseball and then drove a stake through the heartland by beating a St. Louis franchise that once bedeviled Boston in the fall (presumably you're a Red Sox fan and any further explanation of those references would be gratuitous), the Curse of the Bambino is deader than a boiled lobster. � So what happens now that Sisyphus has finally gotten that boulder to the top of the mountain? What happens now that the Red Sox are the champions? � To those of you who are under the age of, say, 92 with no memory of the last time Boston won the World Series, the recent dispatching of the Angels, the Yankees and the Cardinals surely made history. But in a cosmic sense--and there is nothing more cosmic than a curse--the tumultuous events of October merely revised history. Nevertheless, in granting New England's fondest wish, the Red Sox' self-proclaimed band of idiots has taken something away. This franchise was grounded in the narcissistic conceit that the baseball gods had singled it out with a malediction, and its bedrock assumption was that next year would always be better than this one. Now there can be no better next year.

Dance in the town square like Tim Wakefield's knuckler and sing your hosannas to Saint Johnny in centerfield, but these times are as parlous as they are sublime. One of the tenets of life in Calvinist New England--Calvinist as in John Calvin, not Calvin Schiraldi, who in 1986 figured in the gory 10th inning of Game 6 against the Mets--has been exposed as a fraud. R.I.P., Curse of the Bambino, 1920-2004: In the end you turned out to be Al Capone's secret vault,although far more entertaining.

But wait--here's the really scary thing. If the Curse was only temporal, then all the spiritual underpinnings of life in Red Sox Nation are suddenly suspect. Next some heretic might announce that those were aromatherapy candles, not lanterns, in the Old North Church, or that a legitimate clam chowder can be made with a tomato base.

On its face the Curse was always more myth than magic. To have treated it otherwise, as many New Englanders have done, demanded that all Red Sox misfortune since 1920 be attributed to Harry Frazee's sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees. (Maybe the most bizarre aspect of the Curse was that, until this year, it inhabited the same universe as the empirical, sabermetric Red Sox general manager, Theo Epstein.) A rational man might blame less-metaphysical forces--quotidian baseball stuff such as managerial decisions (what was Grady Little thinking when he left a fading Pedro Martinez on the mound in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series?) or pitch selection ( Bill Lee, what about that eephus pitch to Tony Perez in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series?)--rather than some unseen hand guiding Destiny's Doormats down the path to damnation.

Of course a rational man might choose to winter in someplace warmer than New England.

Like any rousing myth, the Curse of the Bambino was probably never meant to be taken literally. Over time, though, it turned into something more solid than the gossamer connecting the both sad and silly events of Boston baseball history after 1918. Mike Torrez, of Bucky Bleeping Dent infamy, was only seven weeks old when Johnny Pesky held the ball in Game 7 of the 1946 Series as the Cardinals' Enos Slaughter scored from first on a double. But the minute the well-traveled Torrez tugged on the Boston jersey, he acquired Red Sox DNA. The Olde Towne Team players are all children of the Curse, like it or not. The occasional protest from a player who swore he'd never heard of Dent and couldn't pick Bill Buckner out of a police lineup may have been literally truthful, but it was still disingenuous. Nurtured by Bostonians, including those in the media, the Curse guaranteed failure to anyone who ever played at Fenway Park. As much as Martinez wanted to exhume the Babe and "drill him in the ass" in 2001 in an effort to help the franchise move on, only the spectacular vanquishing of the Yankees and then the Cardinals could extirpate the virus.

If Red Sox fans were the true heirs of the rollicking Bambino and the high-spirited Frazee, they probably deserved a lot more laughs and a lot less angst. The Babe and his boss--the showman and the Broadway producer--were the lives of their respective parties. Frazee's success on the Great White Way would be cyclical, but Ruth's on the diamond was perennial. In 1915, his first full season with Boston, Ruth, then principally a lefthanded pitcher, won 18 games and had a 2.44 ERA. He also batted .315 and hit a creditable four home runs despite appearing in just 42 games. That year the Red Sox won the World Series (the first of three titles in four years), although Ruth did nothing more than pinch-hit. The next season, in Game 2 of the Series, Ruth did not allow a run in the final 13 innings of a 14-inning, 2-1 win over the Brooklyn Robins. The man who would soon be recognized as the greatest hitter in baseball history won 23 games as a pitcher in 1916, leading the American League with a 1.75 ERA and beating the nonpareil Walter Johnson four times.

Boston won the World Series again in 1918--as Yankees fans long have reminded us. Ruth, now an outfielder on days he did not pitch, led the league in home runs and ran his Series shutout string to a record 29 2/3 innings. But his relationship with Frazee deteriorated the following year. The reason was money, as it always seemed to be with Frazee. The producer was strapped for cash, and the slugger was looking for a salary of $20,000 a year after initially agreeing to a three-year, $30,000 deal with Frazee. As the estimable Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy noted in his 1990 book The Curse of the Bambino, Frazee's financial problems were habitual. Frazee did not, as legend has it, need the money to produce No, No Nanette--that future chestnut of U.S. musical theater did not open until 1923--but his plays and lifestyle always demanded propping up.

On Dec. 26, 1919--Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Boston!-- Ruth's sale to the Yankees was completed. Frazee received $25,000 in cash, three promissory notes worth $25,000 each and a promise of a $300,000 loan with Fenway Park as collateral. The deal was announced at a press conference on Jan. 5, 1920. So for $100,000 plus the loan, which Frazee would take that spring, Ruth was shipped to the team that probably had the most money and certainly had the closest geographical and cultural links to Boston. That hundred grand would be worth about $1 million in 2004 dollars, but over the years it came to seem like little more than a pittance.

There is no record of Ruth's ever placing a curse on what eventually would become known as Red Sox Nation, or of anyone else doing it. But the Curse of the Bambino seemed obvious from the moment the ink dried on the bill of sale. The fortunes of the Yankees rose almost immediately--in 1920 Ruth hit an astonishing 54 home runs and the Yankees became the first team in major league baseball history to attract more than one million fans--and never stopped rising. Meanwhile, Boston bumbled. Losing four Game 7s in the World Series certainly contributed to the legend of the Curse. (Although, in truth, no one in New England views the 1967 Impossible Dream, which ended in a World Series loss to the Cardinals, as anything but charmed.) The tipping point was the success of New York teams against the Sox: the Mets in 1986, obviously, but principally the hated Yankees, who, under George Steinbrenner's spendthrift stewardship, stretched their post-1920 World Series lead over Boston to 26-0.

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