In 1920, Major League Baseball giants Boston Red Sox sold George Herman Ruth Jr — better known as Babe Ruth — to New York Yankees, setting off an 86-year-long dry spell known as the ‘Curse of the Bambino’. In 2020, Red Sox let go of another generational talent in Markus Lynn ‘Mookie’ Betts, who won the championship with LA Dodgers last Wednesday, leaving Bostonians fearing if the curse is back.
What is the ‘Curse of the Bambino’?
Boston Red Sox were MLB’s first perennial champions, winning the inaugural World Series in 1903, amassing a total five titles over the first fifteen editions. Then, after the 1919 season, the team decided to offload Babe Ruth for $100,000.
Ruth — then a talented lefty pitcher who had helped Red Sox win two titles, including one in his second-last season of 1918 — became a slugging legend with New York Yankees. Curse of the Bambino struck, and Red Sox failed to win a championship until 2004. This drought included several embarrassing losses in the World Series. Yankees meanwhile made it to the World Series 40 times and won 27 titles in that period.
What’s with the name?
Bambino was Ruth’s nickname. The superstition’s nomenclature, however, was formalised by the 1990 book ‘Curse of the Bambino’ by Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy. So iconic was this book detailing Red Sox’s post-Ruth travails that it became a key part of Bostonian lore and required reading in several schools in the New England state.
The curse was referenced across Saturday Night Live episodes and WrestleManias, video game titles such as Fallout and Team Fortess 2, numerous books and documentaries and 2011’s Oscar-nominated Moneyball, where Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane gets in touch with the Red Sox management to help them “end the Curse of the Bambino”. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
Has the curse returned?
Fans and pundits seem to think so. Since the historic win in 2004, Red Sox have added three more MLB titles to their cabinet. But in the spirit of Halloween, the curse has roared back like a monster in a horror sequel. The World Series finals, played between Los Angeles Dodgers and Tamba Bay Rays from October 20-27, ended with former Red Sox star ‘Mookie’ Betts shining the brightest.
— MLB (@MLB) October 28, 2020
In February — 100 years and a month since the Ruth departure — Red Sox sold Betts to LA Dodgers, a season after the right fielder won Boston their fourth title in 14 years. The 28-year-old signed a 12-year $365 million extension in July.
LA Dodgers got an early return on their investment on Thursday as Betts hit the final home run to win the team their first World Series title since 1988.
Just like Ruth in 1918, Betts had helped Red Sox win the championship in his second-to-last season with the team. The similarities don’t end there.
100 years apart and money is the issue in both cases
Red Sox trade Mookie Betts to the Dodgers on February 4, 2020
Red Sox trade Babe Ruth to the Yankees on January 5, 1920
— Boston Sports Info (@bostonsportsinf) February 5, 2020
During Game 2, Betts became the second player in World Series history with a walk and multiple stolen bases in an inning since Ruth in 1921.
He also became the first to record two steals, two runs and a home run in a World Series game. This is after he finished 2018 as the first player in MLB history to win the Most Valuable Player, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, batting title, and World Series in the same season.
Red Sox, meanwhile, finished last in the American League East in 2020 with a 24-36 record after selling Betts. “Here’s the good news,” The Times quoted sports talk show host Tony Massarotti as saying. “If Mookie is the next Ruth, the Sox are a lock to win the championship in 2104.”
Why was Betts sold?
Between 2015 and 2019, Betts was statistically the second-most successful MLB player, behind only Mike Trout of Los Angeles Angels.
So, why did Red Sox sell a star?
Well, Betts reportedly turned down extension offers and was set to leave Boston as a free agent after this season. The Red Sox offered Betts to Dodgers, added David Price (a bad investment relief pitcher) to sweeten the deal, and got three prospects in return.
Why a team — which features in the top five spenders with estimated payrolls at $200 million dollars — failed to offer enough money to Betts is bewildering.
Okay. But why was Ruth sold?
This one’s more of a head-scratcher and requires ditching the cold numbers and multiple-revenue streams of modern baseball and travel a hundred years back.
Harry Frazee — a theatrical agent, boxing promoter and all-around showman from New York City — purchased the Boston Red Sox after their title win in 1916. He won over the sceptic fans and journalists by shelling out for replacements when several stars were drafted for World War I. Red Sox triumphed in 1918. A year later Ruth came into his own as a hitter with 29 home runs. And then Frazee sold him.
— Jeff Nichols (@backwards_river) August 9, 2020
“Prohibition was eleven days away when Frazee made this move, which would drive Sox fans to drink,” writes Shaughnessy in Curse of the Bambino. “Ruth had been instrumental in bringing three World Championships to Boston, in 1919 had hit an unthinkable twenty-nine homers (tops in major league history), and yet Frazee traded him for cash. Frazee pocketed $100,000 plus a $300,000 loan for a mortgage on Fenway Park. The Sox owner compounded the calamity by saying that the Yankees were taking a gamble and that he planned to use the cash to replenish his team.”
While the modern franchises are reliant on television deals and revenue-sharing, owners back then truly financed their teams. Frazee owned several theatres and was perennially struggling to finance the theatrical productions. His bigtime musical ‘My Lady Friends’ opened in 1919 and later was adapted into the successful play ‘No, No, Nanette’.
Frazee was also an adversary of Ban Johnson, founder and president of MLB subsidiary American League (AL), and the two butted heads on political and financial ideologies.
Part of the reason was Ruth himself. Soon after signing on for $10,000 per year through 1921, the superstar wanted his salary doubled. That in turn promoted his teammates to ask for more money.
The NFL was 2 years away, NBA 29. Baseball was the American pastime and Ruth the singular sporting hero. And Frazee decided to sell the golden goose.
Are there any similar baseball curses?
The ‘Curse of the Billy Goat’ on the Chicago Cubs comes closest.
During a 1945 World Series game, Billy Goat Tavern owner William Sianis was stopped at the gates of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The reason: His pet goat Murphy wasn’t allowed inside on account of the foul stench. An enraged Sianis supposedly declared, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” Thus began a 71-year-long drought for the two-time champions. Cubs finally reached a World Series in 2016 and prevailed to break the curse.
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