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Nature Takes Its Curse

Times Staff Writer

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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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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“Larger than life,” says Stout, who wrote “Red Sox Century.” “He always has been, always will be, a magnet for this kind of magical thinking.”

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‘Real Humdingers’

In Sudbury, the tales date back to when Ruth was drawn to Willis Pond by his love of ice fishing, the pickerel and bass that could be had when the pond froze over in winter after baseball ended.

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Old photographs show him standing on the ice, hands on hips, an Ivy League cap tugged down over that mug.

Townsfolk thrilled at the celebrity in their midst, even when he bustled into the general store and asked to cut in front of the line. They chuckled at newspaper accounts of him keeping fit in the country because they knew he hired local youngsters to chop his firewood while he drank beer. They gossiped when his pit bulls charged onto neighboring property owned by Henry Ford and killed a prized cow.

“He was a character and a rube,” says Curtis Garfield, another local historian. “No one ever saw him drunk, but they said that some of his parties were real humdingers.”

The tale of the piano was a favorite.

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In the late 1950s, when drought left the pond low, two boys rushed into the general store and breathlessly reported finding gold underwater. They drew a picture of what they had seen and the shopkeeper instantly recognized it as a piano harp, the cast-iron plate that holds piano strings in place and is often painted gold.

The boys lost interest and no one else looked, but the story was rekindled.

It was still being told in the 1960s when Kevin Kennedy was a Boy Scout in Sudbury. The image stuck in his head like a piano in ice as he grew up and raised a family of his own.

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A year or so ago, Kennedy -- no relation to the former Red Sox manager of the same name -- was playing with other parents and kids in a neighborhood ballgame near the pond.

“I was thinking about old-time baseball,” he says. “I was thinking that Babe Ruth would love this game.”

Bespectacled and exuberant, Kennedy works part-time for the Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization that teaches mentally ill people to refinish furniture. He went to his director, Eloise Newell, with an idea.

What if we found Babe Ruth’s piano and restored it? he asked. We might draw attention to the program and raise some money.

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A Little Exaggeration

In soft and careful words, Newell explains that she worked as a physicist until her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Thus began a new career helping the mentally ill. So when Kennedy came to her, sheepishly, she liked the idea of rescuing something from the depths.

First, they needed to answer a fundamental question: Was the piano story true? When it comes to Ruth and his folklore, that is an entirely reasonable concern.

Begin with the myth of his sale to the Yankees. Legend has owner Frazee needing the cash to rescue his struggling Broadway production of “No, No Nanette.” In fact, Frazee was a millionaire and the play did not open until five years later.

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Another story suggests the Yankees adopted their famous pinstriped uniforms to make Ruth look slimmer. But they were already wearing stripes when he arrived.

The most famous myth involves the “called shot” in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Standing at the plate, Ruth supposedly pointed his bat toward center field moments before smashing a pitch over the fence.

Witnesses and movie footage suggest something else happened.

Some insist he was waving at the stands because a fan had earlier tossed a lemon at his feet. Others suspect he was gesturing toward the opposing dugout. There is disagreement -- with Ruth, isn’t there always? -- as to why he might have been angry with the Cubs.

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Perhaps they had taunted him. Perhaps it was because a former teammate, Mark Koenig, had joined Chicago late in the season and was voted only half a share of the playoff money.

“Many of the stories about [Ruth] seem to be a little exaggerated,” says Greg Schwalenberg, curator of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore. “You have the story of him eating all these hot dogs. Did he really eat 19 or maybe just nine?”

Even the so-called curse was an invention, Stout says, conjured by sportswriters in the aftermath of the 1986 World Series. Yet these stories endure and the author wonders if, on some level, fans yearn to believe.

Ruth “was the ultimate adolescent ... he did whatever he wanted,” Stout says. “It harks back to our own adolescence.”

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Convinced

Like other spots in the New England woods -- the famed Walden Pond is nearby -- Willis Pond has the feel of utter solitude. Trees grow thick enough to mask houses along the shore. In winter, the surface is blank and white as a sheet of paper. It makes sense that a relic could lie here undisturbed for decades.

Still, Kennedy and Newell needed evidence. At the Ruth museum, Schwalenberg has a letter from a man who recalled visiting the cabin where “Mrs. Ruth would play the piano and we would all sing along, including the Babe.”

That was enough to put the search in motion. They visited the Registry of Deeds to locate Ruth’s cabin -- it is now a modest home -- and met with state administrators who regulate historic artifacts. Their quest drew volunteers such as underwater researcher Chris Hugo, who says “this was just weird enough to get me interested.”

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Along the way an idea was born that, by recovering the piano, they might lift the curse.

Some fans rooted them on. Others -- particularly old-timers -- scoff at the curse as a fad among newcomers and out-of-towners. But even they showed interest in glimpsing at the past.

It was hard to know what might be left in Willis Pond. One expert guessed only metal parts. Another said that if the piano sank quickly into the silt, some wood might be preserved.

In December 2001, Hugo dragged an infrared camera behind a skiff and spotted an odd lump. He brought the volunteer dive team in February but found only debris.

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The divers returned in April for two days of scouring a wider area. This time, a crowd watched as they came up with the rudder and turtles.

“We were so convinced we’d get the piano,” Newell says. “We felt like we got caught with egg on our face.”

Residents began to mutter under their breath. A local newspaper wrote, “one more minute spent scouring the bottom of Willis Pond for the Bambino’s rotted piano is, in our minds, another minute wasted.” Kennedy and Newell persisted.

They enlisted a specialist who had searched for wreckage of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island and guided rescuers through flooded basements after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In November, the aptly named John Fish brought his side-scan sonar and sub-bottom profiler, among other equipment, to locate several possibilities.

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“We’re not going to let this thing die,” Newell says.

Later this month, divers will chip through the ice for another foray. They will swim down where the water is now too cold for algae, down where the muck is as deep as a man can reach with his arm.

The ghost of Babe Ruth, it seems, can survive anything.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Babe Factor

Breaking down the World Series championships of the two franchises:

1901-1918

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(before the sale of Babe Ruth)

*--* YANKEES RED SOX 1903 1912 1915 1916 1918

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1919-PRESENT

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(after the sale of Babe Ruth)

*--* YANKEES RED SOX 1923 1927 1928 1932 1936 1937 1938 1939 1941 1943 1947 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953 1956 1958 1961 1962 1977 1978 1996 1998 1999 2000

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Cursory Glance

Since Babe Ruth was sold, the Red Sox have been to the postseason nine times in 84 years:

*--* YEAR OPPONENT ROUND RESULT 1999 Cleveland Division Series 3-2 Yankees ALCS 1-4 1998 Cleveland Division Series 1-3 1995 Cleveland Division Series 0-3 1990 Oakland ALCS 0-4 1988 Oakland ALCS 0-4 1986 Angels ALCS 4-3 N.Y. Mets World Series 3-4 1975 Oakland ALCS 3-0 Cincinnati World Series 3-4 1967 St Louis World Series 3-4 1946 St Louis World Series 3-4 1918 Chicago World Series 4-2 1916 Brooklyn World Series 4-1 1915 Phila World Series 4-1 1912 New York World Series 4-3-1 1903 Pittsburgh World Series 5-3

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