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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Nothing but the Truth: The Untold History of the "Curse"
By Glenn Stout

[M]any people wonder how Harry Frazee became owner of the Boston American club. It is very simply explained: the agreement was not observed in Boston's case, and thus another club was placed under the smothering influences of the "chosen race." The story is worth telling.
—from "The Jewish Degradation of Baseball," The Dearborn Independent

An attractive lie sounds infinitely better than a mere statement of truth.
—from the play Nothing But the Truth, Harry Frazee, producer

 

Curses, Foiled Again
The instant the ball rolled between Bill Buckner's legs, New England broke into a collective moan. Mets fans squealed with uncontrollable glee. Then it was over, and there was only silence. Local taverns packed with people watching Game 6 of the 1986 World Series suddenly filled with malice, and fans walked away, leaving money on the table. Boston's long awaited World Championship was there—and then it was gone. All that remained for Red Sox fans was the grim certainty of an inevitable loss in Game 7 and more proof that this was not the year.

The Red Sox didn't have a chance. This team and its fans didn't recover from such defeats. Never had and never would.

Buckner's gaffe sent the whole history of the club careening across the consciousness. The championship seasons of 1903, 1904, 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918 were too remote to remember, but most fans knew of 1946, when Johnny Pesky held the ball as the Cardinals' Enos Slaughter scored the winning run, and 1948, when Danny Galehouse inexplicably pitched—and lost—a one-game playoff to Cleveland. More recent wounds, like 1978 and Bucky Dent, had not yet healed.

Red Sox fans lacked an explanation. For all the gooey verbiage the team inspired, few Sox fans truly knew the history of their own team. Most climbed on board in the summer of 1967 and had patiently waited for the flower of that season to blossom again. The rest of Red Sox history came through oral shorthand, distilled from generation to generation, an almost random series of dates and names from 1946 and Pesky all the way through 1978. Now 1986 and Buckner were added to the list, burned into the skull like a brand; Boston's scarlet letter.

But the rest of Red Sox history was just one huge hole. In truth, apart from a few brief seasons after World War II, between 1918 and 1967, nobody gave a damn about Boston. Before 1967, the Red Sox were only the summer soundtrack in the car or front porch, a reason to grab a 'Gansett with a neighbor.

Game 6 exposed the hole, and now it needed to be filled. Red Sox fans did not yet know it, but a quick fix that filled the breach and eased the pain was on its way. Two nights later in the Shea Stadium press box, as Mets fans celebrated and Sox fans started a winter hangover, a twisted logic rapidly evolved to explain their loss.

 

A Columnist's Deadline
Like every other writer on deadline that October morning, the Mets' remarkable comeback caused New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey to start again. Before Game 6 he had written a column he described as "about gloom-and-doom in New England contrasting with having a 3–2 lead going into the Saturday night game." During Game 6 he started writing a column about a victory that provided retribution for decades of failure, from Enos Slaughter's mad dash to Joe Morgan's slap hit off Jim Burton in 1975 to Dent's flyball. It was a story with a happy ending, recalling the Red Sox' first World Championship since 1918, a time when Harry Frazee was the best owner in baseball, Babe Ruth was a pitcher who could hit a little, and the Red Sox—not the Yankees—had a reputation for arrogance and winning. But when Buckner missed the ball, that story went into the trashcan.

According to Vecsey, "I kind of gargled in the back of my throat and then proceeded to rewrite that column totally backwards, and totally turned around what my lead had been." Redemption turned into a "haunting." "Sixty-eight years and counting" became both a headline and theme.

Two nights later when the Mets won the Series, 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."

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. . . . Call it collective wisdom, whatever you want." In fact, just one week before, this "collective wisdom" had appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Writer Jon Carroll interviewed Gene Sunnen, then the president of the Society for American Baseball Research. In passing, Sunnen spoke of "the curse of Harry Frazee," saying, "the Yankees purchased the destiny of the Red Sox, which is why the Sox haven't won a Series since 1918." He then added, "But the fifth game of the Angels series [in which Boston stormed back to win the ALCS] proved that the curse of Harry Frazee has been broken." However the notion made its way to Vecsey, his column underscored the point to a wide audience, and he inadvertently delivered a villain to a franchise that, in the wake of the Game 6 debacle, desperately needed one.

Until then, no one had 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 in Red Sox history, no one had evoked the names of Ruth and Frazee. To be fair, local sportswriters occasionally had floated the notion of a Red Sox-related curse: Peter Gammons in a 1981 reference to "the Fenway Park curse of the Yankees" and Dan Shaughnessy's 1986 midseason mention of a "dueling curse" involving both California and Boston. But the concept had no protagonist and little traction. Only Globe editorialist Marty Nolan had previously intimated that 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 perhaps the first (and erroneous) claim that Frazee sold Ruth to finance No, No, Nanette, adding, "Pinstripe paranoia has been a Boston curse ever since." Today, Nolan cannot recall where he came up with the Nanette connection but admits he may actually have been responsible for that bit of [mis]information.

The Ruth-Frazee curse took awhile to gain a foothold because, during the next two years, no one blamed Harry Frazee for anything. Although Shaughnessy later wrote that the notion of the "curse" had been kicking around for "seven decades," the Boston Globe columnist himself did not mention it in his 1987 book One Strike Away, and a database search of the Globe from November 1986 through 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.

At the time, Fred Lieb's 1947 history of the team, The Boston Red Sox, was the only comprehensive narrative history of the club in existence, and virtually the only book source, albeit a secondary one, regarding Harry Frazee's time as owner. Shaughnessy didn't doubt Lieb—everyone who had ever written about the Red Sox, Ruth, or Frazee had first turned to Lieb. Shaughnessy effectively embellished and enhanced Lieb's unflattering portrait of Frazee in his book until all Red Sox history was tied up into a neat bow with Harry Frazee and the sale of Babe Ruth bound securely within the knot. Bad management, bad luck, financial largesse, cronyism, and even institutional racism were all imaginatively subsumed under the catch-all phrase, "Curse of the Bambino," with what Shaughnessy called the "shameless sale" at its core.

The book appeared in the summer of 1990 and struck an immediate chord. Sox fans, still reeling from the loss to the Mets, devoured The Curse of the Bambino like so much Prozac. Rather than confront the franchise's prickly and painful past and admit that those defeats all had real explanations, ranging from the policies of longtime owner Tom Yawkey, to the crony-infested front office that institutionalized failure between drinks, the Red Sox faithful accepted a soothing fairy tale that assured them that all was right with their world.

The "curse" was cute, a clever, near perfect cure-all that made losing a badge of honor and every Sox fan a martyr on a crusade to right a wrong. It quashed the nightmare of 1986 like a pleasant bedtime story.

Since then, the "curse" became a self-fulfilling prophecy, worming its way into the psychology of the team. Broadcasters and sportswriters regularly credited the "curse" for every misstep by the Boston front office and every miscue on the field, and the notion became a clichÈ. Publicity hounds climbed mountains, burned hats, searched ponds for pianos, and held seances and exorcisms in desperate and vain attempts to lift the spurious affliction. Local radio stations passed out signs calling for its reversal. Websites touted its details. The "curse" was set to music and inspired documentaries. Until last year's World Championship, the Red Sox even used the idea in their own promotions.

The "curse" fit Boston, a parochial place that always goes after the new guy, the outsider, perfectly. It made everyone an insider. Just as Boston's Brahmins once blamed the Irish for Boston's ills and the Irish blamed the Yankees and Southie blamed busing and the Boston Globe, the "curse" gave Red Sox fans someone to blame, that rat bastard Harry Frazee. He was perfect for the role: a New Yorker, a patsy no one knew, and a dead man who couldn't fight back.

The curse was narcotic. The curse explained everything. The curse made everybody an expert. The curse worked. See, it was somebody else's fault after all.

In reality, however, the "curse" was just the modern manifestation of a larger, older tragedy dating back decades, the result of a single lie that, over time, hijacked Red Sox history. For within the "curse," a faint but persistent whisper still asked, "Wasn't Harry Frazee a Jew?"

Go Sox. Yankees suck.

 

Frazee and Johnson
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 the successful run 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 New York while receiving little of value in return, thus helping transform the Yankees into a dynasty, while 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 correct. As I have written in detail in Red Sox Century, Yankees Century, and in several subsequent articles in Boston Baseball and on ESPN.com, 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 somewhere between utter fiction and imagination.

The truth is more complicated and not as easily packaged. [Readers who wish for more detail should refer to the works cited above, for space prevents retelling the entire story in detail here once again.] In brief, the self-made Frazee was one of the giants of Broadway and one of the most successful, innovative, and progressive producers/theater owners of his era. He pioneered the "road show," was the first producer to use a song written by the Gershwin brothers, and the first to open his door to work by an African American playwright. He was a millionaire when he purchased the Red Sox and never ran out of money.

Contrary to popular belief, Frazee sold Ruth for reasons that went beyond money. From the moment he bought the Boston franchise after the 1916 season, American League President Ban Johnson had tried to drive Frazee out of the game. Johnson ran his league like a private club, and Frazee hadn't asked permission to join. Over the next few years, everything Frazee said and did went against the wishes of Johnson—among other things, he wanted the league presidents replaced by a single commissioner—and everything Johnson did was designed to run Frazee out of baseball.

Apart from Johnson's general dislike of Frazee, there was an even less savory reason for his enmity. Just as a gentlemen's agreement kept baseball white, a similar policy prevented Jews from buying into the American League. Like many in the game, Johnson looked at Frazee's New York-based theatrical background and assumed he was a Jew. Thereafter, Johnson and Frazee's detractors sometimes referred to him in code, criticizing him for being too "New York" and referring to the "mystery" of his religion. Few observers at the time missed the inference.

In fact, Frazee was not Jewish. He was a Presbyterian and a Mason.

During World War I, Frazee's Red Sox won the 1918 World Championship and star pitcher Babe Ruth caused a minor sensation with his slugging. The next year, Ruth wanted to hit, not pitch. The Sox agreed, but Ruth slumped the first six weeks of the 1919 season, and the team fell out of the pennant race. Although Ruth recovered to hit a record twenty-nine home runs, over the course of the year he became increasingly problematic—lobbying for a new contract, undermining the manager, flaunting team rules, and then jumping the club in the final days of the season. The 1918 World Champions finished sixth. At the same time, Frazee angered Johnson by shipping suspended pitcher Carl Mays to the Yankees and lobbying for Johnson's removal. All parties ended up in court, and the league split into two factions, with Frazee, the Yankees, and the White Sox a minority.

The ensuing sale of Ruth in late December took place in this context. Frazee saw the Yankees' cash offer as too lucrative to pass up, given that Ruth's individual talent had not kept the Red Sox from a dismal finish in 1919. He also believed that the cash infusion from New York could be used to acquire other players who might bolster Boston's chances of again fielding a championship-caliber ball club. Frazee did not even own Fenway Park, and the deal was not dependent on any mortgage, although after he purchased the ballpark from the Globe's Taylor family, he quickly secured a second mortgage from the Yankees. In fact, New York was the lone American League club willing to do business with Frazee. His only option was to deal with the Yankees—or make no deals at all. But the resulting trades were not generally considered to be one-sided at the time by either the New York or Boston press, or by team members of either the Yankees or the Red Sox. (A sophisticated statistical analysis of the deals presented by Steven Steinberg at the 2002 convention of the Society for American Baseball Research in Boston came to the same conclusion.)

But luck went against Frazee. Boston's stiffs became stars in New York, while ex-Yankees sent to the Red Sox suffered strokes, sore arms, and other injuries. The Red Sox hung around .500, finishing fifth without Ruth in 1920 and 1921 before collapsing to last place in 1922 and 1923. Midway through the 1923 season, Frazee sold the club to a syndicate led by Bob Quinn.

Between the sale of Ruth and the production of Nanette in 1925, Frazee mounted a number of mostly successful theatrical productions, just as he had done in the years immediately prior to the sale of Ruth. When he died of Bright's disease in 1929, his estate was valued at approximately $1.5 million. While his obituaries in the Boston papers all made note of the sale of Ruth, and many decried it, they did not blame Frazee for the club's current dismal position under Bob Quinn, who ran the club into the ground after investor Palmer Winslow became ill and died. Upon Frazee's death, the flags at Fenway Park hung at half-mast in honor of the man who, until 2004, had delivered the Red Sox their last World Championship.

So how did Harry Frazee become the bad guy?


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2005 issue.

—EFQ

GLENN STOUT has served as series editor of "The Best American Sports Writing" since its inception. He is co-author, with Richard Johnson, of Red Sox Century, and author of the text for Yankees Century and The Dodgers: 120 Years of Dodger History. A slightly different version of "Nothing but the Truth" was first published in the September, 2004 edition of Boston Baseball, and the article has also been featured on ESPN.com.

© 2005 Glenn Stout

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