Hunting for Babe Ruth's piano where the turtles lurk

February 02, 2003|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

WHILE YOU'RE enjoying your comfortable, low-risk lifestyle, with your childproof aspirin bottles and your reduced-fat Cheez-Its, some brave divers are preparing to plunge into the dark, frigid waters of New England in a quest for a legendary object -- an object that, if found, could have a profound effect upon all humanity.

Or at least Red Sox fans.

That's right.

These brave divers are looking for what could be the single most important submerged legendary artifact (freshwater division) in all of baseball: Babe Ruth's piano.

I am not making this up. You may have seen it in the news: There is a serious effort afoot to retrieve an alleged piano that Babe Ruth allegedly caused to sink to the bottom of an alleged pond in Sudbury, a small alleged village in Massachusetts. I apologize for the cautious wording, but the details of this incident are hazy, as is so often the case with assaults on pianos.

I know about these things. I once owned an upright piano that found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time -- specifically, at a party in my home during which a group of people decided to sing an extreme version of the Dixie Cups' hit song "Chapel of Love." The next morning, my living-room floor was covered with what turned out to be important piano parts. To this day, none of the people involved can remember how this happened.

The Babe Ruth piano story is equally murky. What I have been able to determine, by painstakingly reading stories written by real journalists, is this:

In 1918, Ruth rented a cottage, with a piano, next to Willis Pond, which, like many ponds of that era, was filled with water. One version of the local legend is that Ruth, "possibly lubricated with alcohol," as The New York Times (a newspaper) put it, threw the piano into the pond to display his strength. This version is unlikely: Even a very strong, very lubricated man would be unable to throw a piano into a pond. An accordion, yes. In fact, more people should throw accordions into ponds. But pianos are in a different league.

The more realistic version is that when the pond was frozen, Ruth threw a party, and at some point, he and the other party-goers dragged the piano out onto the ice -- why not? -- for a songfest. (It is not known what they sang, though we can rule out "Chapel of Love," as the Dixie Cups had not yet been invented.)

When the party ended, they couldn't push the piano back up the bank, so they left it, and when the ice melted, the piano sank, Leonardo-DiCaprio-like, into the dark water of Willis Pond.

Or so the legend goes; nobody is really sure.

But a while back, a Sudbury resident named Kevin Kennedy had an idea: What if the piano really was in the pond? What if it was found, brought back up, and restored? Maybe that would end the "Curse of the Bambino" -- the legendary hex that has prevented the Red Sox from winning the World Series since the team's moron owner sold Ruth to the Yankees in 1919.

At first, this idea sounds ridiculous. But if you really think about it, you begin to realize that it makes no sense whatsoever. Nevertheless, the piano recovery is now a serious effort, sponsored by a fine (and serious) organization called Restoration Project, which helps mentally ill adults.

(For more about the organization, and the piano effort, check the Internet at http: / / restorationproject.org.)

I spoke with Chris Hugo, a marine biologist and diver involved in the piano search. I asked him whether it was scary, plunging into the murky depths of Willis Pond, knowing that a piano could be lurking anywhere.

He told me that, aside from snapping turtles, the worst thing is that the pond depths are quite shallow, so divers run the risk of leaping dramatically into the water, in full diving gear, only to stand up, with the water coming to maybe their waists.

Hugo also told me that serious underwater experts, using sophisticated equipment, have scanned the pond for the piano, and found some possible locations. He said divers would be going back down soon, while the water is cold and the turtles are sleeping.

I asked him, frankly, what he thought the chances were of finding the piano.

He told me, frankly, that he doesn't think there is a piano in there. But he's going to look for it anyway. Because that's the kind of project this is.

I know I speak for all Americans, except Yankee fans, when I say to these brave divers: Good luck. And Godspeed.

And, above all, if you find any accordions, just leave them, OK?

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