Most casual baseball fans know about the “Curse of the Bambino.” Now a sportswriter has written that the curse — which links the Boston Red Sox’s failure to win a World Series since 1918 to the sale of slugger Babe Ruth the following year to the New York Yankees — has anti-Semitic origins.
The publication of the story comes as the history of Jews in baseball is getting unprecedented publicity, including a recent two-day conference at baseball’s Hall of Fame celebrating Jewish players. The story also comes as Shawn Green, a player with the Los Angeles Dodgers, made headlines with his decision to sit out one of his team’s two games during Yom Kippur.
As writer Glenn Stout tells it, the story revolves around the anti-Semitic attitudes of pre-World War II America — and some previously unchallenged historical inaccuracies.
In the September 2004 issue of Boston Baseball magazine, Stout writes that the roots of the animus against Harry Frazee, then the Red Sox owner, lie in his battles with the president of the American League, Ban Johnson.
Knowing that Frazee was from New York and was a theatrical producer, Johnson assumed he was Jewish. But he was wrong — Frazee was Protestant, Stout writes.
Further, Stout writes, the popularly understood ‘facts’ behind the curse are not true: the sale of Ruth was not necessary to finance the Broadway show “No, No, Nanette,” and many sportswriters at the time thought the Ruth sale was a good move.
But the Frazee-was-Jewish story gained further traction when Frazee was blasted in automobile magnate Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic newspaper, The Dearborn Independent.
Frazee’s tenure as owner of the Red Sox amounted to “the smothering influences of the ‘chosen race,’ ” the Independent railed in 1921.
The problem, the Independent decided, was that Frazee was an unprincipled businessman, not a baseball purist.
“Baseball was about as much a sport to Frazee as selling tickets to a merry-go-round would be,” an article in the paper said, according to Stout, adding that “baseball was to be ‘promoted’ as Jewish managers promote Coney Island.”
The caricature was furthered by a sportswriter named Fred Lieb, who wrote histories of several teams, including the Red Sox. Published in 1947, Lieb’s history of the team paints a portrait of Frazee that is “as pointed as that of the Shakespearean character Shylock,” writes Stout, who told JTA he donated his pay for the article examining the curse to the Anti-Defamation League.
Fast forward about 40 years, to when New York Times columnist George Vecsey indirectly referred to a curse connected to Frazee’s sale of Ruth after the Red Sox let a 1986 World Series victory against the New York Mets slip through their grasp.
The curse was further etched onto the popular mind a few years later by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy in his book, “The Curse of the Bambino.” George Herman “Babe” Ruth was sometimes referred to as “the Bambino.”
Stout made sure to emphasize that neither Vecsey nor Shaughnessy is guilty of anti-Semitism.
To some, the link between anti-Jewish sentiments and the curse may seem tenuous. But to Stout, the anti-Semitism of Ford and Lieb set the stage for later interpretations of Frazee’s sale of Ruth as the onset of this decades-old curse.
For his part, Vecsey has since written a mea culpa. In a column printed last Friday in the Times, Vecsey wrote, “The Red Sox may indeed be haunted by some miasma dating from the sale of Babe Ruth,” but “it is time, however, to exorcise any image perpetuated by Henry Ford and his lot.”
Shaughnessy, however, isn’t convinced by the entire argument.
“I don’t see what this has to do with the history of the Red Sox,” he told JTA. He added: “The story is an enormous stretch.”
Fans appear to be equally split on how much time they want to give Stout’s article.
Since the piece appeared in Boston Baseball, Stout says he’s received several e-mails from readers.
One man wrote to tell him that he thought it was OK to read the article during Yom Kippur since it dealt with Jewish issues.
“I got a kick out of that,” Stout said.
But Martin Abramowitz, a Red Sox fan and the force behind the recently published set of Jewish baseball cards, has his eyes more fixed on worrying about the present, especially the upcoming baseball playoffs, than about baseball’s past.
Noting that the Red Sox and their longtime rivals from New York might meet in the playoffs, he said, “We’re too busy trying to beat the Yankees.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.