The 'Curse of the Bambino,' explained

December 26th, 2023

Many examples of what is known as a “treaty curse” can be found in ancient Christian and Hebraic texts, where those who break an oath or covenant are damned with a malediction. One illustration of this idea is Esarhaddon, king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, threatening those who betray him by stating, “[May] your days be dark, your years be dim” and “May a foreign enemy divide your spoil.”

Which brings us to the story of the “Curse of the Bambino.”

On Dec. 26, 1919 (104 years ago), the Boston Red Sox made the controversial and eminently regrettable decision to sell Babe Ruth -- one of the great sports heroes in American culture and the so-called “Bambino” -- to the New York Yankees.

Many dim years followed for the Boston ballclub.

Prior to that point, the Red Sox had won five of the first 15 World Series titles in Major League history, with Ruth a member of three of those championship teams. A proficient pitcher and sometime-slugger, Ruth was the winning pitcher in two of the six games of the 1918 World Series, giving him the confidence to report late to Spring Training camp the following season and demand a big pay day from Red Sox owner Harry Frazee.

After Ruth negotiated a three-year, $27,000 contract, the Red Sox went on to finish a distant sixth in the American League in that 1919 season. Still, Ruth, well aware of his popularity within the sport, wanted to renegotiate his deal. He wanted to double his salary.

Frazee -- a theatrical producer and director who had, suspiciously, come to Boston from New York City -- was already in debt from his 1916 purchase of the team and was in need of cash to finance a play named “My Lady Friends,” which would go on to become the successful Broadway hit, “No No Nanette.” Facing those financial pressures, Frazee agreed to sell the rights to Ruth to the Yankees, who at the time had never even appeared in a World Series, for the then-staggering sum of $100,000.

That’s when the fortunes of the two teams swung dramatically.

While the Yankees went on to win four World Series with Ruth -- now fully converted to a power-hitting position player -- on their roster and another 22 before the close of the 20th century, the Red Sox plunged into a decades-long abyss of frustrating -- even eerie -- finishes. In the 84 seasons after the Ruth sale, the Sox reached the World Series just four times (1946, '67, '75, '86), losing each one in the seventh and final game. When a ball rolled through the legs of first baseman Bill Buckner for a crucial fielding error that cost them Game 6 of the 1986 World Series to the National League’s Mets (yes, another New York team), the supposed supernatural effects of the Ruth sale were given the formal “Curse of the Bambino” branding.

Red Sox fans tried to kill the curse in many ways, spray-painting a “Reverse Curve” street sign on an overpass to change the wording to “Reverse the Curse,” trying to unearth a piano Ruth had allegedly tossed into a pond outside of Boston after a rowdy party in 1918, and even staging an exorcism outside of their home stadium, Fenway Park.

But only on-field results could break the curse, and that’s what finally happened in 2004, when the Red Sox were matched against the Yankees -- the enemy that had divided their spoils lo those many years -- in the AL Championship Series, with a spot in the World Series on the line. Boston fell behind, three games to none, in the best-of-seven set, then became the first team in history to storm back from such a deficit.

When the Red Sox went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Series title in 86 years, the player who made the final out of the Series -- Cards shortstop Edgar Renteria -- wore No. 3. Ruth’s number.

For Bostonians who had suffered all too many dark days and dim years, the connection could not be considered coincidental. It could only have been sent from a god -- or Bambino -- above.