For Boston, a living Curse

SUN JOURNAL

Kismet: As the Red Sox meet the hated Yankees, long-suffering Boston fans feel their fate is inevitably entwined with the infamous sale of Babe Ruth.

October 09, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees opened the American League Championship Series last night, which means two things: Workplace productivity in the Northeast has plummeted, and the airwaves are clogged with talk of the dreaded Curse of the Bambino.

For fans, this piece of baseball lore needs no explanation; indeed, many roll their eyes at the mere mention of it by bloviating broadcasters. However, those unfamiliar with the curse - and such people do exist, hard as it might be for Sox fans to believe - may require a primer to appreciate the drama playing out in Boston and New York.

So, in the interest of universal understanding of Red Sox suffering, here are answers to nine questions (nine being the number of fruitless visits Boston has made to the playoffs while under the curse; the numeral that adorned the jersey of Ted Williams, the greatest Red Sox of all time; and the magnitude earthquake that a Boston victory over New York would register on the Richter scale):

1. What is the Curse of the Bambino? Once upon a time - back when Henry Ford was putting the buggy industry out of business - the Red Sox were, believe it or not, winners. Between 1912 and 1918, they won four World Series, thanks in part to a young Baltimore-bred pitcher/slugger by the name of George Herman Ruth.

Then, after the 1919 season, team owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000 plus a $300,000 loan that, according to a dubious legend that Frazee's family disputes to this day, helped finance Frazee's 1925 Broadway musical No, No Nanette. The Bambino went on to set the career home run record and establish himself as the best player ever.

It is historically appropriate that the infamous sale occurred not long after world powers signed the Treaty of Versailles, for the events proved to have equally disastrous results. The treaty helped plunge Europe into war 20 years later. The sale of Ruth, meanwhile, appeared to bring a horrid curse upon Boston: Since the sale, the Yankees have won 26 championships. The Red Sox have won none.

2. Does the curse involve a goat? No. That's the other curse - the one supposedly hanging over the Chicago Cubs, who have waited even longer than the Red Sox to win a World Series (since 1908) and are also playing for a shot at this year's championship. When the Cubs made it to the 1945 World Series, William "Gus" Sianis, owner of the famous Billy Goat Tavern, brought his pet goat to Wrigley Field as a good luck charm.

But Sianis was barred from bringing the goat into the park - even though it had a ticket. As the story goes, Sianis stormed off in fury and, in a Sleeping Beauty fairy godmother-type snit, put a curse on the Cubs. Chicago lost that series to Detroit and hasn't been back to the Series since.

What the Red Sox curse does involve, however, is a piano. Last year, a group of divers searched a pond in a Boston suburb looking for a piano owned by Ruth that had fallen into the water while the slugger was living in a rented cottage there. (Like much of the curse myth, the details are murky - some versions say he threw the piano in.) Raising and then playing the piano, it was reasoned, might lift the curse. No piano was found, but there is talk of another try.

3. What sets Boston's curse apart from the travails of other failing teams? The agony of near-misses. Plenty of teams have been plain lousy for decades. But the Red Sox have, again and again, assembled good teams only to drop the Grail at the last moment, as if struck by celestial intervention.

For instance, many Boston die-hards scoff at comparisons between their pain and that endured by Cubs fans. The Cubs haven't won in 95 years, but then they've almost never been good enough to come close and thereby break believers' hearts.

Losing has lent the Cubs a certain cuddliness, as befitting their cute bear logo; in Boston, it has produced only bitterness, disillusionment and misery. Allen Barra, sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Slate, put it best this week: "The Red Sox are the team God dislikes; the Cubs are the team God merely forgot about."

4. What are the hallmark moments of the curse's spell? Amateur Red Sox historians have spent many an hour over their Sam Adams debating which failures at victory's door bear the Babe's fingerprints. But it is agreed that two thunderbolts from above stand out.

One is the pop-up, game-winning home run, in the one-game 1978 playoff, by the Yankees' pipsqueak shortstop, known fondly ever since in New England as Bucky "Bleeping" Dent. The second is the team's unspeakably excruciating loss in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, when, with Boston one out from the title, the New York Mets came back to win in a rally capped by a ground ball rolling through the legs of Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.

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