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Nature Takes Its Curse

If Ruth's piano is salvaged from New England pond, will Red Sox win again?

February 09, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

SUDBURY, Mass — SUDBURY, Mass. -- The divers who ventured into Willis Pond found themselves in water thick with algae, red as well-steeped tea. Even on a sunny afternoon, dim light beneath the surface toyed with perceptions of depth and distance.

When the searchers reached bottom, a dozen feet down, they hit a blanket of silt that forced them to dig blindly with their hands.

"You'd see all these bubbles and muck churning in the water," team member Suzanne Reynard says. "They'd come back up and say 'Rock' or 'Log.' "

As the hours passed, the search turned up a measure of fire hose and an old milk bottle, a wooden rudder and several turtles. The divers persevered. At least, Reynard says, "we weren't looking for a body."

They were looking for a ghost. The ghost of Babe Ruth.

To some folks in New England, anything involving the legendary slugger -- the man who broke their hearts long ago -- is tantamount to life-or-death.

So a small crowd of residents from this pre-Revolutionary War town watched intently from shore, near where Ruth once kept a cabin. Newspaper reporters and television crews had made the hour's drive from Boston, out through the suburbs, west along a highway into the woods.

They watched for the better part of two days last spring as divers groped through the sludge. Everyone wanted to see what might come out of the pond.

The Bambino

The man was cut from the cloth of his era, a boxer's pug nose and stevedore's barrel chest, an ample belly propped on skinny barstool legs.

It wasn't only statistics -- 714 home runs, 60 of them in a prodigious season -- that made George Herman Ruth a star of the Roaring '20s. Fans marveled at his appetite for porterhouse steaks and booze, his ability to carouse all night, then smack a homer the next day.

The Bambino, they called him. The Sultan of Swat. In Sudbury, his legend took the shape of an upright piano.

While playing for the Boston Red Sox in 1917, Ruth often drove out in his big Packard to spend time amid the hemlock and white oak. The piano came with a cabin he and his wife, Helen, leased from a local fan.

How it might have ended up in the pond is a matter of debate.

Some say a drunken Ruth became enraged when the instrument slipped out of tune, heaving it out the door, off the porch and down a grassy slope to the water. Others claim he was trying to prove his strength.

Local historian Lee Swanson -- the town of 18,000 has more than one historian -- favors another explanation.

Not long ago, a woman called to say that her father spoke of a winter party at Ruth's cabin that spilled outside. Revelers lighted a bonfire on the frozen pond, which stretches almost a mile, then pushed the piano onto the ice for a sing-along.

By the time the party ended, the instrument had become lodged. It remained there until spring thaw, and one day plopped under. No one thought much of it, because, in those days, the locals abandoned their old Model T's on the pond and took bets on when they would sink.

But this explanation comes with a caution. "Remember, this is an oral history," Swanson says. "There are as many versions as there are people who knew something."

The question is: Why would anyone care?

*

The Curse

On Storrow Drive, near Fenway Park in downtown Boston, a road sign warns drivers of a "Reverse Curve." Someone has revised the wording with white paint. "Reverse the Curse," it reads.

The Curse of the Bambino.

In the early years of the American League, the Red Sox won five World Series, a young Ruth contributing to victories in 1916 and 1918. But after the 1919 season, owner Harry Frazee sold his slugger to the rival New York Yankees for $100,000. The balance of power shifted, the Yankees dominating the next two decades, their new stadium christened "The House that Ruth Built."

Eighty-four years later, the Red Sox have yet to win another World Series.

They came agonizingly close in 1986, a ground ball squirting through first baseman Bill Buckner's legs, opening the door for another New York team -- the Mets -- to win in seven games.

"The futility," says Joseph Conforti, a Red Sox fan and professor of New England studies at the University of Southern Maine. "It's part of the cultural history of this region."

Conforti believes that memories of Ruth and the notion of a curse, like other modern myths, help people define themselves and their shared experience.

"New England was shaped by the Puritans and the Puritans were killjoys," he says. "It's just like them to produce a team that would only make its fans suffer."

The curse also gives the media a sound bite, a catch-all for every Red Sox batter who strikes out in the ninth inning, every pitcher who serves up a homer, every grounder that sneaks through the infield. As author Glenn Stout says: "It is a great hook, but it's not history."

Perhaps it takes a man of Ruth's eminence to sustain such thinking. He ranked among baseball's greatest sluggers and, with all his antics, dazzled the New York media.

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