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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Everything you think you know about "the Curse of the Bambino" wrong.

So goes the provocative thesis of Glenn Stout's impeccably-researched essay, A "Curse" Born of Hate. An instant classic, and one for the Snopes files.

The notion of the "Curse" rests on several pillars, most of them false. In brief, the story claims that Boston owner Harry Frazee, a failed theatrical producer, sold Ruth to line his own pocket, bail out his theatrical productions, and eventually bankroll his successful production of the musical "No, No Nanette," earning him a fortune. Furthermore, the Yankees provided Frazee with a second mortgage on Fenway Park worth $350,000, turning the $100,000 cash sale into a larger transaction of nearly a half million dollars. Over the next few years the cash-strapped Frazee gleefully sold the guts of his club to the Yankees, receiving little of value in return, making the Yankees a dynasty and forever dooming the Red Sox to also-ran status. After finally selling the club in 1923 and making millions on "Nanette," the inept Frazee squandered his fortune on more failed productions and died in 1928 with an estate worth less than $50,000.

Virtually none of this is factually accurate. As I have written in detail in "Red Sox Century," "Yankees Century," and in several articles subsequently here and on, the only "facts" that withstand scrutiny are that, indeed, Frazee was a theatrical producer, he did sell Babe Ruth and he did make several million dollars on "No, No, Nanette." The rest resides between utter fiction and imagination.

So, the facts about the principals are wrong, the timing is wrong and even the phrase itself only dates back to Dan Shaughnessy's 1990 book, itself based upon the first articulation of a curse by a New York sportswriter.

Two nights later, when the Mets won the [1986] World Series, [NY Times sportswriter George] Vecsey better articulated that premise. "All the ghosts and demons and curses of the past 68 years continued to haunt the Boston Red Sox last night," he wrote. He then evoked Babe Ruth and 1918, writing, "Yet the owner sold him to the lowly New York Yankees to finance one of his Broadway shows, and for 68 years it has never been the same." Now Vecsey added his own headline, "Babe Ruth Curse Strikes Again."

There, for the first time, he articulated the "Curse" that blamed Boston's failures on the sale of Ruth by Harry Frazee. Today Vecsey admits that, "I kind of thought I invented it [the Curse] but it never meant anything to me." He does not recall precisely where he got the notion. "It was just a device," he says. "I had no sense of creating something. We're all magpies in this business. You're always picking something out of somebody else's nest whether you know it or not. It's in your brain, but you easily could have gotten it from [sportswriters such as] Dick Young or Fred Lieb. Call it collective wisdom, whatever you want." However it happened, Vecsey inadvertently gave a villain to a franchise that needed one -- Harry Frazee.

Until that moment, no one ascribed Boston's failure to win a World Series since 1918 to anything resembling a curse connected to Babe Ruth and Harry Frazee. After each previous painful loss no one evoked the names of Ruth and Frazee. To be fair, local sportswriters occasionally floated the notion of a Red Sox-related curse, from Peter Gammons' 1981 reference to "the Fenway Park curse of the Yankees" and Dan Shaughnessy's 1986 mid-season mention of a "dueling curse" involving both California Boston, but the concept had no protagonist and little traction. Only Boston Globe editorialist Marty Nolan previously intimated the Ruth sale caused the Red Sox serial failure. In 1983 he mentioned the "Curse of gonfalis interupptus," and in an October 6, 1986 story on Fenway Park, Nolan made the first (and erroneous) claim that Frazee sold Ruth to finance "No, No, Nanette," adding, "Pinstripe paranoia has been a Boston curse ever since." Now, Nolan can't recall where he came up with the "Nanette" connection but admits he may actually have been responsible for that bit of misinformation. Yet at the same time these and other writers also referred to Boston "jinxes" and various other vexations, the term "choking" among the most popular. Calling it a "Curse" was just another way to phrase frustration.

Vecsey's Ruth and Frazee-based curse took a while to gain a foothold, for over the next two years no one blamed Harry Frazee for anything. Although Boston Globe sportswriter and columnist Dan Shaughnessy later wrote the notion of the "Curse" had been kicking around for "seven decades," Vecsey was the first to put the words on the page -- Shaughnessy himself did not mention it in his 1987 book, "One Strike Away," and a database search of the Globe from November 1986 until the summer of 1990 reveals that the words "Frazee" and "Curse" appeared together only once, as an aside in a story by Peter Canellos.

As detailed in Shaughnessy's "The Curse of the Bambino," the impetus for his book came from Red Sox fan and Dorchester native Arthur Davidson. He mimicked Vecsey's headline in a conversation with his niece, Meg Blackstone, mentioning a "Curse of the Bambino."
Blackstone, a publishing editor, smelled a book in the title. In August of 1988 she asked Shaughnessy to write it. He agreed.

There's also a fascinating recounting of the strong stench of Jew hatred which permeated baseball ownership at the time, and the role of the rabidly anti-Semitic Henry Ford and his deservedly-dead Dearborn Independent newspaper in helping to drive Harry Frazee (a truly decent man, from the account) from the game.


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