Curse of the Bambino explained
The Curse of the Bambino was a superstition cited as a reason for the failure of the Boston Red Sox baseball team to win the World Series in the 86-year period from 1918 until 2004. While some fans took the curse seriously, most used the expression in a tongue-in-cheek manner.
The curse was said to have begun after the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth, sometimes called The Bambino, to the New York Yankees in the off-season of 1919-1920. The Red Sox had been one of the most successful professional baseball franchises, winning the first World Series in 1903 and amassing five World Series titles prior to selling Ruth. After the sale, the once-lackluster Yankees became one of the most successful franchises in North American professional sports.
Talk of the curse as an ongoing phenomenon ended in 2004, when the Red Sox came back from a 0-3 best-of-seven deficit to beat the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series and then went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2004 World Series.
The curse had been such a part of Boston culture that when a road sign on the city's much-used Storrow Drive was vandalized from "Reverse Curve" to "Reverse The Curse", officials left it in place until after the Red Sox won the Series in a 4-0 sweep.
Although it had long been noted that the selling of Ruth had been the beginning of a down period in the Red Sox' fortunes, explicit mentions of the curse are rare before the mid-1980s. The curse was publicized by Dan Shaughnessy in his 1990 book, The Curse of the Bambino, and became a key part of the Red Sox lore in the media thereafter. The degree to which ordinary Red Sox fans ever believed in the curse has been questioned, e.g., by Bill Simmons in his 2005 book, Now I Can Die in Peace.
Although the title drought dated back to 1918, the sale of Ruth to the Yankees was completed January 3, 1920. In standard curse lore, Red Sox owner and theatrical producer Harry Frazee used the proceeds from the sale to finance the production of a Broadway musical, usually specified as No, No, Nanette. In fact, Frazee backed many productions before and after Ruth's sale, and No, No, Nanette did not see its first performance until five years after the Ruth sale and two years after Frazee sold the Red Sox. In 1921, Red Sox manager Ed Barrow left to take over as general manager of the Yankees. Other Red Sox players were later sold or traded to the Yankees as well.
Neither the lore, nor the debunking of it, entirely tell the story. As Leigh Montville discovered during research for his book, The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth (Random House, 2006, p.161-164), No, No, Nanette had originated as a non-musical stage play called My Lady Friends, which opened on Broadway in December 1919. His research indicated that that play had, indeed, been financed as a direct result of the Ruth deal.
Various researchers, including Montville, have rediscovered the fact that Frazee had close ties to the Yankees owners, and that many of the player deals, as well as the mortgage deal for Fenway Park itself, had to do with financing his plays.
Prior to Ruth leaving Boston, the Red Sox had won five of the first fifteen World Series, with Ruth pitching for the 1916 and 1918 championship teams (he was with the Sox for the 1915 Series but the manager used him only once, as a pinch-hitter, and he did not pitch). The Yankees had not played in any World Series up to that time. In the 84 years after the sale, the Yankees played in 39 World Series, winning 26 of them, twice as many as any other team in Major League Baseball. Meanwhile, over the same time span, the Red Sox played in only four World Series and lost each in seven games. Each time the Red Sox visited Yankee Stadium, they were taunted with demeaning chants of "1918!"
Even losses that occurred many years prior to the first mention of a curse in 1986 have been attributed to it. Some of these instances are listed below:
- In 1946, the Red Sox appeared in their first World Series since the sale of Babe Ruth, and were favored to beat the St. Louis Cardinals. The series went to a seventh game at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the score tied at 3-3, the Cardinals had Enos Slaughter on first base and Harry Walker at the plate. On a hit and run, Walker hit a double to very short left-center field. Slaughter ran through the third base coach's stop sign and beat Boston shortstop Johnny Pesky's relay throw to home plate. Some say Pesky hesitated on the throw, allowing Slaughter to score, but Pesky has always denied this charge. Film footage is inconclusive, except that it shows Pesky in bright sunlight and Slaughter in shadow. Boston star Ted Williams, playing with an injury, was largely ineffective at bat in the Series.
- In 1948, the Red Sox finished the regular season tied for first place, only to lose the pennant to the Cleveland Indians in the major leagues' first-ever one-game playoff.
- In 1949, the Red Sox needed to win just one of the last two games of the season to win the pennant, but lost both games to the Yankees, who would go on to win a record five consecutive World Series from 1949 to 1953.
- In 1967, the Red Sox surprisingly reversed the awful results of the 1966 season by winning the American League pennant on the last weekend of the season. In the World Series, they once again faced the Cardinals, and just as in 1946, the Series went to a seventh game. St. Louis won the deciding contest 7-2 behind their best pitcher Bob Gibson; Gibson defeated Boston ace Jim Lonborg, who was pitching on short rest and was ineffective. Gibson even hit a home run off Lonborg in the game.
- In 1972, the Red Sox lost the division title to the Detroit Tigers by a half-game. The season began with a 13-day strike that resulted in some teams playing up to nine fewer games that season. Additionally, the Red Sox lost a game when it was rained out and the decision was made not to replay it. In the second-to-last game of the season, they lost to the Tigers, 3-1, after a potential run was lost when Luis Aparicio slipped rounding third.
- In 1975, the Red Sox won the pennant and met the dynastic Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. The Red Sox won Game 6 on a famous walk-off home run by catcher Carlton Fisk, setting the stage for the deciding Game 7. Boston took a quick 3-0 lead, but the Reds tied the game. In the top of the ninth, the Reds brought in the go-ahead run on a Joe Morgan single that scored Ken Griffey, Sr., winning what is regarded as one of the greatest World Series ever played.
- In 1978, the Red Sox held a 14-game lead in the American League East over the Yankees on July 18. However, the Yankees subsequently caught fire, eventually tying Boston atop the standings on September 10 after sweeping a four-game series at Fenway Park, an event known to Red Sox fans as the "Boston Massacre." Six days later, the Yankees held a 3½ game lead over the Red Sox, but the Sox won 12 of their next 14 games to overcome that deficit and force a one-game playoff on October 2 at Fenway Park. The memorable moment of the game came when light-hitting Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent cracked a three-run home run in the seventh inning that hit the top of the left field wall (the Green Monster) and skipped out of the park, giving New York a 3-2 lead. The Yankees held on to win the playoff game 5-4, then defeated the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS and won their second straight World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
- In Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Boston (leading the series three games to two) took a 5-3 lead in the top of the 10th inning. In the bottom half of the frame, Red Sox reliever Calvin Schiraldi quickly retired the first two batters, putting the team within one out of winning the World Series. However, the New York Mets scored three unanswered runs, tying the game on a wild pitch from Bob Stanley and winning it when Boston first baseman Bill Buckner allowed a ground ball to roll through his legs, hit by the Mets' Mookie Wilson, scoring Ray Knight from second base. In the seventh game, the Red Sox took an early 3-0 lead, only to blow it and lose 8-5. The collapses in the last two games prompted Vecsey's articles. As it has turned out, this would be the most recent time that the Red Sox lost even a World Series game.
- In 1988 and 1990, the Red Sox advanced to the American League Championship Series, only to suffer four-game sweeps both times at the hands of the Oakland Athletics. They were also swept by the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 and 1998 AL Division Series, and were defeated by the Yankees four games to one in the 1999 ALCS.
- In 2003, the Red Sox were playing the Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Boston held a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning, and manager Grady Little opted to stay with starting pitcher Pedro Martínez rather than go to the bullpen. New York rallied off the tired Martínez, scoring three runs off a single and three doubles to tie the game. In the bottom of the 11th inning, Aaron Boone launched a solo home run off knuckleballing Boston starter Tim Wakefield (pitching in relief) to win the game and the pennant for the Yankees.
Attempts to break the curse
Red Sox fans attempted various methods over the years to exorcise their famous curse. These included placing a Boston cap atop Mt. Everest and burning a Yankees cap at its base camp; hiring professional exorcists and Father Guido Sarducci to "purify" Fenway Park; spray painting a "Reverse Curve" street sign on Storrow Drive to change it to say "Reverse the Curse" (the sign wasn't replaced until just after the 2004 World Series win); and finding a piano owned by Ruth that he had supposedly pushed into a pond near his Sudbury, Massachusetts farm, Home Plate Farm.
In Ken Burns' 1994 documentary Baseball, former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee suggested that the Red Sox should exhume the body of Babe Ruth, transport it back to Fenway and publicly apologize for trading Ruth to the Yankees.
Some declared the curse broken when, on August 31, 2004 a foul ball hit by Manny Ramírez flew into Section 9, Box 95, Row AA and struck a boy's face, knocking two of his teeth out. 16-year-old Lee Gavin, a Boston fan whose favorite player was and remains Ramirez, lives on the Sudbury farm owned by Ruth. That same day, the Yankees suffered their worst loss in team history, a 22-0 clobbering at home against the Cleveland Indians.
Some fans also cite a comedy curse-breaking ceremony performed by musician Jimmy Buffett and his warm-up team (one dressed as Ruth and one dressed as a witch doctor) at a Fenway concert in September 2004. Just after being traded to the Red Sox, Curt Schilling appeared in an advertisement for the Ford F-150 pickup truck hitchhiking with a sign indicating he was going to Boston. When picked up, he said that he had "an 86-year old curse" to break.
In 2004, the Red Sox once again met the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. After losing the first three games, including a 19 - 8 drubbing at Fenway in Game 3, the Red Sox trailed 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 4. But the team tied the game with a walk by Kevin Millar and a stolen base by pinch-runner Dave Roberts, followed by an RBI single off Yankee closer Mariano Rivera by third baseman Bill Mueller, and won on a 2-run home run in the 12th inning by David Ortiz. The Red Sox would go on to win the next three games to become the first Major League Baseball team to win a seven-game postseason series after being down 3 games to none.
The Red Sox then faced the St. Louis Cardinals, the team to whom they lost the 1946 and 1967 World Series, and won in a four-game sweep. Cardinals shortstop Edgar Rentería - who wore number 3, Babe Ruth's uniform number with the Yankees - hit into the final out of the game. The final game took place on October 27 during a total lunar eclipse - the only post-season or World Series game to do so. It also took place exactly 18 years to the day the Red Sox last lost a World Series game. Three years later, the Red Sox would sweep the Colorado Rockies to win another World Series.
The Curse in popular culture
- At WrestleMania XIV, guest ring announcer Pete Rose taunted the Boston crowd about the curse (Rose was on the Cincinnati Reds team that beat Boston in the 1975 World Series).
- In an episode of Cheers, a loudmouth Yankee fan at the bar taunts Sam (an ex-Red Sox pitcher) about the Curse.
- In the movie 50 First Dates, Adam Sandler reminds his girlfriend about what happened in 2003 including a screencap showing the Red Sox winning the World Series, until the next clip shows the title 'just kidding'.
- After New York's defeat, the Curse was poked fun at during the "Weekend Update" segment of Saturday Night Live, when the ghost of Babe Ruth explains that he left during Game Four with the ghosts of Mickey Mantle and Rodney Dangerfield to go drinking.
- The Ben Harper song "Get It Like you Like It" includes the lines "But Johnny Damon swung his bat. Grand Slam. That was that. An 86 year curse is gone."
- On the television show Lost, Jack and his father often use the phrase "That's why the Sox will never win the damn series" to describe fate. In season 3, Ben shows the end of the game to convince Jack that the Others have contact with the outside world.
- The British memoir Fever Pitch, about author Nick Hornby's obsession with the Arsenal FC English soccer team, was adapted into an American film of the same name by the Farrelly brothers. The American adaptation was about an obsessive Red Sox fan. It was made during the 2004 World Series, which forced the filmmakers to rework the story; the Red Sox were originally supposed to make the World Series and lose.
- The entire 2004 Red Sox season was detailed in Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King's book Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. O'Nan and King decided to write the book before the season began.
- An episode of the children's TV series Arthur titled "The Curse of the Grebes" has Elwood City's baseball team losing its first two of three chances to win the world championship due to events based directly on Bucky Dent's homer and Bill Buckner's error. The episode states that the team hadn't won a championship in 87 years and that their opponent had won 25 since then. Johnny Damon, Edgar Renteria, and Mike Timlin all have cameos.
- The upcoming release of an update for the Scout class in the PC game Team Fortress 2 references the date the "curse" was beaten in the achievement "A Year to Rememeber" requiring a scout to kill 2004 opponents. http://www.teamfortress.com/scoutupdate/energydrink.htm
Notes and References
- Brian McGrory, "Taking teeth out of curse? Teen hit by Ramirez foul ball lives in Babe Ruth's former house", Boston Globe, September 2, 2004