For most Americans, the end of October signals the arrival of two American traditions: the World Series and Halloween. You might excuse fans of the Boston Red Sox, however, for thinking that the two are one and the same.
With only a couple of exceptions, Autumns have been truly scary for fans of the Red Sox. This September’s historic collapse not only extended the team’s legacy of failure, but has also reawakened the specter of Bambino’s Curse.
The “Bambino,” of course, is Babe Ruth, and the “Curse” refers to the seemingly supernatural record of Red Sox futility from 1920 to 2003.
Ruth played for the Red Sox from 1914 through 1919. During that time, he established himself as the best left-handed pitcher in the game, winning 89 games with only 46 losses. His 2.19 ERA over this period is even more remarkable. If that weren’t enough, the Babe also demonstrated an astounding ability to hit the ball. In his last two years with the Red Sox, he led the league in home runs, setting the single-season record in the process.
His performance translated to wins. With the Bambino, the Red Sox were the best team in baseball, winning the World Series three times in five years.
But Ruth was also a headache. He treated curfews and other team rules much the way he treated opposing pitchers. The Red Sox wanted him to pitch full time; he wanted to hit and, sometimes, he hit people instead of the ball. He once threatened to hit his manager in the head, and he did actually hit an umpire in the head.
But it was his annual demands for more money that finally drove the Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, to the point of exasperation. When Ruth followed his 1919 season by demanding that his salary be doubled, Frazee balked, and then he dealt.
The Red Sox owner always claimed that selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees was a baseball decision. Tired of Ruth’s hangovers and headaches—both suffered and caused—Frazee dealt Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000. With the money, he argued, he could build a strong team of solid professionals and improve club morale in the process.
But that’s only part of the story. Before Frazee was a baseball man, he was a man of the theater, and that was his first love. Accordingly, the Red Sox owner negotiated that the Yankees also include a $300,000 personal loan (with Fenway Park as collateral!), money that was used, at least in part, to build a winning team on Broadway, if not in Boston.
The same month that the Babe was sold, Frazee opened “My Lady Friends” which, a few years later, was put to music as “No, No, Nanette.” Babe Ruth, it seems, was traded for a Broadway Musical. The curse was on.
With the Bambino, the Yankees thrived. They made their first trip to the World Series in 1921, and won it all in 1923. Since then, they have won 40 pennants and 27 World Series, becoming the most successful franchise in sports history.
But while the Yankees got the Bambino, the Red Sox got the curse. When they sold the Babe, the Red Sox had won more World Series than any other team. For the next eight decades, however, the team lost, often spectacularly. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Red Sox even reached .500, and it took until 1946 for the team to return to the World Series. They lost that contest in a heart-breaking seventh game, something they would do again in 1972, 1975, and in 1986.
Mostly, though, the Red Sox broke their fans’ hearts before they ever got to the World Series. In 1949, the Red Sox lost a doubleheader to the Yankees on the last day of the season to lose the pennant. In 1978, they enjoyed a 14 game lead over the Yankees, only to end up tied by season’s end. In the one-game playoff the Yankees’ light-hitting short-stop, Bucky Dent, hit a three-run home run to put the Yankees up 3-2 and help them, ultimately, win the game. In 2003, the Red Sox lost the American League Championship Series (ALCS) to the Yankees after leading three games to none.
Meanwhile, the fans often seemed to try harder than the players to “reverse the curse.” One fan climbed Everest and placed a Red Sox cap on the summit. Another recruited a “professional exorcist” to chase off the team’s demons. Singer Jimmy Buffet fought fire with fire, bringing a witch doctor on to one of his stage shows to “hex” the “Curse.” Others proposed exhuming Ruth and forcing the Red Sox to apologize to his corpse.
In 2004, the players finally got into the act, beating the Yankees in the ALCS and the Cardinals in the World Series. The curse was broken.
Of course, the team’s epic collapse at the end of 2011 has sparked talk of a new curse. But even in this Halloween season, that’s unlikely. The Curse of the Bambino was, literally and figuratively, the Babe Ruth of Curses and, therefore, unlikely to be equaled.