This is the story of a long-suffering franchise. Not the Cubs, Pirates, Padres, Bengals, Jaguars, Wizards, Nuggets or once-mighty Ducks of Anaheim but a baseball team born the Boston Americans in 1901.
Last year that franchise, now known as the Red Sox, won its third World Series since 2004. That sensational run makes up for (or does it?) a tradition of losing that stretches back through the 1990s and 1980s to the disco years, and before that to the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War II, the Great Depression, the Roaring Twenties and earlier. Long before Neil Diamond ever burbled “Sweet Caroline” and even before Neil Diamond was born, the Red Sox chased the American League pennant year after year for almost a century and always lost, usually to the New York Yankees.
Here’s the story of how Boston’s team reversed a curse that was almost as old as modern baseball.
In 1918 the Red Sox ruled the game. After Boston won the World Series to claim its fifth championship, former mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald—John F. Kennedy’s grandfather—declared, “The Red Sox dynasty lives, and there is no end in sight!”
The dynasty was dying as he spoke.
DENIS LEARY, actor, comedian, Sox nut: Yeah, dying because they sold Babe Ruth. Not traded him, sold him. To the New fucking York fucking Yankees.
MIKE VACCARO, New York Post columnist, author of Emperors and Idiots: The Hundred-Year Rivalry Between the Yankees and Red Sox: The Sox wanted to unload Ruth, who’d gotten too loud and obnoxious. And Ruth was a pitcher then—a pitcher who went 9–5 in the Red Sox’s lousy 1919 season. Sure, he also led the league with 29 homers, but to the Sox he would always be a pitcher first. And a jerk.
DOUG VOGEL, Society for American Baseball Research: Ruth could drive a baseball out of any park, but he sucked at driving a car. He swerved around corners, bumping pedestrians, going through cars as fast as he went through women. After one debauched night he tried to drive between two trolleys near Fenway Park and totaled his car. The Babe walked away without a scratch, but his female companion wound up in the hospital.
VACCARO: The day after Christmas 1919, Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 plus a loan for $300,000. Do you know what he put up as collateral for the loan?
LEARY: Fenway Park!
VACCARO: Fenway Park. And the “curse of the Bambino” was on.
BILL NOWLIN, author of 17 books on the Sox: Boston was called “baseball’s hometown,” but after the Sox traded Ruth, the losing began. Generations of fans grew up feeling cursed.
VACCARO: The next year, Ruth hit 54 homers for the Yankees. Harry Hooper led the Red Sox with seven. In the next 83 years the Yanks would finish ahead of the Sox 66 times and win 26 World Series titles to the Red Sox’s zero.
The Sox reached the 1946 World Series, only to lose when Enos “Country” Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals dashed all the way home from first base on a single. Boston was known for chowder, baked beans and bad baseball.
NOWLIN: My father was a hot-dog vendor at Fenway during the Great Depression. Bad work for a fan, because the game’s going on behind you. The bosses counted the hot dogs every day but not the buns, so the vendors would grab two or three buns and slop them with ketchup and mustard for a free “Depression lunch.”
My father loved Jimmie Foxx, the great slugger the Red Sox traded for in 1936. Foxx hit 198 homers in five years, but the Sox never finished better than second. Then came the Ted Williams era. Was Williams the best hitter ever? He’s sure the only one to win a Triple Crown without winning the MVP award. Twice. There were two reasons: Williams didn’t play in New York, and he didn’t butter up the writers who voted for the award. In 1942 he led the league in every department—a .356 batting average, 36 homers, 137 RBIs. The Yankees’ Joe Gordon hit .322 with 18 homers and 103 RBIs. Gordon also led the league in bad stats—strikeouts and grounding into double plays—and Gordon won the MVP.
Williams was edgy, touchy. Ballplayers always wore ties on road trips, but he refused to wear a necktie. He’d spit at fans who booed him. But he was a war hero—39 missions as a fighter pilot, shot down over Korea. He spent nights at the Children’s Hospital of Boston. He’d finally get up to go and the kid would say, “Ted, stay with me!” So Williams would have a nurse bring a cot and he’d sleep there, then play the next day. Nobody knew because he had a deal with reporters: “If you write about this, I’ll never do it again.”
LESLEY VISSER, Hall of Fame sportscaster: As a Boston child of the Kennedy years, I was seven when JFK was inaugurated. His first words—“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration”—made me think he was talking about the Red Sox. We’d stumbled through the 1950s with a manager named Pinky Higgins [third place in his best year]. Even with Williams in left, our team ranged from mediocre to lousy. But the Kennedy era promised passion, sparkle, new life. Alas, the Sox stayed awful. They once drew fewer than 100 fans to a game against Cleveland.
My brother and I sat in the bleachers and thought, Well, we might be losing, but we’re getting to see Frank Malzone and Bill Monbouquette and my beloved Ike Delock, who won two games in 1963.
NOWLIN: Then there was Jimmy Piersall, whose psychiatric problems were immortalized in a movie, Fear Strikes Out. Piersall would use a water pistol to wash home plate for the umpire. When he hit his 100th career homer, he ran the bases backward.