My new book, “The Selling of the Babe,” essentially updates and concludes a story I first encountered when writing about the Red Sox 1918 world championship in 1988 when my research showed me that the “Curse of the Bambino” was not just a myth, but factually incorrect almost in its entirety.
This re-telling focuses more on Frazee rather than the sale, which ios the larger subject of the book.
NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH:
The Untold History of the “Curse”
By Glenn Stout
(Copyright 2004, 2011. All Rights Reserved)
Note: This is the original version of this story. It appeared in somewhat reduced form in Boston Baseball, on ESPN.com and in The Elysian Fields Review. For souces and more, see the end notes.
“ . . . many 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 uncontrollably squealed with glee. Then it was over and there was only silence. Local taverns packed with people watching game six 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 seven 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.
Sox fans were at a crisis point as Buckner’s gaff sent the whole history of the team careening across the consciousness. The championship seasons of 1903, ’04, ’12, 15, ’16 and ’18 were too remote to remember, but most fans knew of 1946, when Pesky held the ball, and 1948 when Galehouse pitched. More recent wounds, like 1978 and Bucky Dent had not yet healed.
Red Sox fans lacked an explanation. For all the gooey verbiage the Red Sox 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 thru oral shorthand distilled from generation to generation, an almost random series of dates and names from ’46 and Pesky all the way through 1978. Now ’86 and Buckner was added to the list, burned into the skull like a brand, Boston’s scarlet letter.
The rest of Red Sox history was just one huge hole. In truth, apart from a few brief seasons after World War II from 1918 until 1967 nobody gave a damn about the Red Sox. Before ‘67 the Red Sox were only the summer soundtrack in the car or front porch, a reason to grab a “ ’Gansett” with a neighbor.
Game six exposed the hole and now it needed 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 to explain their loss rapidly evolved.
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 six 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 six 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 and Dent’s fly ball, a story with a happy ending about the Red Sox first world championship since 1918, 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.”
There, for the first time, he articulated “curse” that blamed Boston’s failures on the sale of Ruth by Harry Frazee. 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. It’s in your brain, but you easily could have gotten it from [sportswriters such as] Dick Young or Fred Lieb . . . call it collective wisdom, whatever you want.” However it happened, Vecsey inadvertently gave a villain to a franchise that needed one – Harry Frazee.
Until that moment, no one ascribed Boston’s failure to win a World Series since 1918 to anything resembling a curse connected to Babe Ruth and Harry Frazee.[Note: subsequent to publication I learned that San Francisco journalist John Carroll made note of a similar concept at about the same time, during the 1986 World Series. It appears that VEcsey’s notion, however, is where the fable first gained traction.] After each previous painful loss no one evoked the names of Ruth and Frazee. To be fair, local sportswriters occasionally floated the notion of a Red Sox-related curse, from Peter Gammons’ 1981 reference to “the Fenway Park curse of the Yankees” and Dan Shaughnessy’s 1986 mid-season mention of a “dueling curse” involving both California Boston, but the concept had no protagonist and little traction. Only Globe editorialist Marty Nolan previously intimated 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 the first (and erroneous) claim that Frazee sold Ruth to finance “No, No, Nanette,” adding, “Pinstripe paranoia has been a Boston curse ever since.” Now Nolan can’t recall where he came up with the “Nanette” connection but admits he may actually have been responsible for that bit of [mis]information. Yet at the same time these and other writers also referred to Boston “jinxes” and various other vexations, the term “choking” among the most popular. Calling it a “Curse” was just another way to phrase frustration.
Vecsey’s Ruth and Frazee-based curse took a while to gain a foothold, for over the next two years no one blamed Harry Frazee for anything. Although Boston Globe sportswriter and columnist Dan Shaughnessy later wrote the notion of the “curse” had been kicking around for “seven decades,” Vecsey was the first to put the words on the page – Shaughnessy himself did not mention it in his 1987 book, One Strike Away, and a database search of the Globe from November of 1986 until the summer of 1990 reveals that the words “Frazee” and “curse” appeared together 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, Boston Red Sox was the only comprehensive narrative history of the club in existence, and virtually the only source, albeit a secondary one, in book form in regard to Harry Frazee. 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 of the same name appeared in the summer of 1990 and struck an immediate chord. Sox fans still reeling from the loss to the Mets devoured the “Curse” like so much Prozac. Rather than confront the franchise’s prickly and painful past and admit 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, fans fell for 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 bedtime story.
Since then the “Curse” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, worming its way into the psychology of this team. Broadcasters and sportswriters regularly credit the “Curse” for every misstep by the Boston front office and every miscue on the field, and the notion is now as common as a cliché. The book remains in print. Thousands of references to “Curse” reside on the Internet. Local radio stations pass out signs calling for its reversal. Web sites tout its details. The “Curse” has been set to music and inspired documentaries. Publicity hounds climb mountains, burn hats, search ponds, and hold seances and exorcisms in desperate and vain attempts to lift the spurious affliction. The Red Sox even use 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 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; dead and a New Yorker, a patsy no one knew and 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 his successful production 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 the Yankees, receiving little of value in return, making the Yankees a dynasty and 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 accurate. As I have written in detail in Red Sox Century, Yankees Century, and in several articles subsequently here 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 between utter fiction and imagination.
The truth is more complicated and not as easily packaged. Real history cannot be distilled to a simple phrase. Readers who wish for more detail should refer to the work cited above, for space prevents re-telling the entire story in detail here once again. In fact, however, the self-made Frazee was one of the giants of Broadway, one of the most successful innovative and progressive producers and theater owners of the era – he pioneered the “road show,” was the first producer to use a song written by the Gershwin brothers and the first Broadway theater owner 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. [Note: Recent documents recently uncovered appear to call Frazee’s financial situation into question, but I still stand by my original belief that Frazee was never in serious financial difficulty. I think it is important to keep in mind that his string of theatrical successes – and his ability to produce new shows – never flagged, and that from 1916 to 1918 the top tax rate went from 7% to 77% and did not drop appreciably until 1922. Like most men of wealth – then an now – I think it is reasonable to believe that Frazee was adept at making the tax codes work in his favor, particularly given the fact that he also divorced during this time. Ted Williams, for instance, once “retired” until after his divorce settlement was finalized and only unretired and signed anew contract afterwards.]
Frazee sold Ruth for reasons beyond money that stemmed from the fact that from the moment Frazee bought the Red Sox after the 1916 season, American League president Ban Johnson tried to drive him 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 from the game.
Yet Johnson disliked Frazee for an even less savory reason. Just as an unwritten 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 an Episcopalian, 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 season, in 1919, Ruth wanted to hit, not pitch. The Sox agreed but Ruth slumped over the first six weeks of the seasons and the Red Sox fell out of the pennant race. Although Ruth recovered to hit a record 29 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 lobbied for Johnson’s removal. All parties ended up in court and the league split into two factions, with Frazee, the Yankees and White Sox a minority.
The ensuing sale of Ruth in late December took place in this context. Frazee did not even own Fenway Park and the deal was not dependent on any mortgage, although after he Frazee purchased the ballpark from the Globe’s Taylor family he quickly secured a second mortgage from the Yankees. Over the next few seasons every American League team but the New York refused to do business with Frazee. His option was either to deal with New York or make no deals at all. But the resulting trades were not considered one-sided at the time by a consensus of the press in either New York or Boston or by the players of either the Yankees or the Red Sox. A sophisticated statistical analysis of the deals by Steven Steinberg and presented 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 sixth with Ruth in 1919 and fifth without Ruth in 1920 and 1921 before collapsing to finish last 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 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 dollars. 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. After Frazee died the flags at Fenway Park hung at half-mast in honor of the man that, to this day, delivered the Red Sox their last world championship.
So how then did Harry Frazee become the bad guy?
The Mass Production of Hate
During Frazee’s tenure in Boston automobile pioneer Henry Ford was one of the richest and most influential men in America. He’d not only built the Model-T but also created the assembly line, the most brutally efficient method of industrial production ever devised, changing American life forever. But he also mourned for the non-mechanized paradise he helped destroy.
Ford believed his business success qualified him for national office. He lusted for a bully pulpit to lead a return to the traditional values he helped destroy. In 1916 the Democratic Party placed his name in nomination for the presidency and in 1918 Ford narrowly lost a campaign for the U.S. Senate representing Michigan.
Ford was not deterred and still had his sights on the presidency. To promote his candidacy and his ideas he published his own weekly newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Initially, the rustic newspaper was a bland melange of sentimental, homespun advice and features about the world Ford mourned, and Ford’s own ponderous, ghostwritten pronouncements on world affairs. But by 1920 the tenor of Ford’s publication changed.
Ford concluded that all the world’s problems could be traced to the influence of what he termed the “International Jew,” a worldwide Jewish conspiracy that controlled finance, culture and politics. He delivered that anti-Semitic message in the same way he produced automobiles, by mass production. The Dearborn Independent became the Model-T of anti-Semitism. Ford buyers even received a free subscription.
Ford staffed the newspaper with some of the best men in the business. He directed respected journalist W. J. Cameron to pen a series of articles for the Independent to expose Jewish influence in America. In Ford’s view a Jewish conspiracy infected all elements of American life and put the nation at risk. In the most virulently anti-Semitic terms imaginable, Cameron “exposed” Jewish influence throughout American society from politics to the courts, the banking industry and the theater, blaming the Jews for all society’s real and imagined ills.
Ford was pleased and periodically published the essays in anthologies under the title The International Jew, leaving them in the public domain to hasten their spread and influence. Quickly translated and reprinted around the world the books resonated among the downtrodden, including the young Adolph Hitler. Even today, the collections are widely distributed both in print form and on the Internet, considered gospel by a huge number of hate groups ranging from Islamic extremists to “white power” advocates.
In September of 1921 Cameron took a look at the National Pastime, the game of baseball. His first essay on the subject, entitled “Jewish Gamblers Corrupt American Baseball,” blamed Jews for the recent Black Sox scandal. In the second, “The Jewish Degradation of Baseball,” Cameron repeated the charge and attacked the new single commissioner system (first advocated by Harry Frazee) as a Jewish-inspired plot. He concluded that Jewish influence turned the game into a sideshow controlled by Jewish gambling pools. The trouble baseball was the trouble with America – in Cameron’s Ford-approved phrase, the problem was “too much Jew.”
Yet the articles identified by name only a few Jews in baseball, primarily attorneys involved in the Black Sox scandal and Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss. Only one other club owner was attacked as a Jew – Harry Frazee.
The second article, in particular, excoriated him. Frazee was attacked for promoting boxing matches featuring Negro fighters, for encouraging “sensuousness” in the theater, for the demise of the Red Sox and for his undermining of Ban Johnson.
“Baseball,” opined Cameron for Ford, “was about as much of a sport to Frazee as selling tickets to a merry-go-round would be. He wanted to put his team across as if they were May Watson’s girly girly burlesquers. Baseball was to be “promoted” as Jewish managers promote Coney Island.” The article concluded that baseball’s essential problem was that Frazee and other Jews were “ . . . scavengers, [that] have come along to reduce it [baseball] to garbage. But there is no doubt anywhere, among either friends or critics of baseball, that the root cause of the present condition is due to Jewish influence . . . If baseball is to be saved, it must be taken out of their hands.”
The Dearborn Independent was not an insignificant publication that went unread. Distributed nationally and sold for less than cost, for a time it may well have been the most influential weekly publication in America. By the fall of 1921 the weekly circulation of the paper was at is peak – estimated at between 250,000 and 400,000 copies – a considerable amount at a time when the U.S. population was barely seventy million people, nearly half of whom were illiterate. While many enlightened readers dismissed the publication’s anti-Semitism, thousands more were not as sophisticated. Ford was widely respected, the best-known industrialist in the country. Ford’s political aspirations were no pipe dream and the Ford imprimatur lent the paper a certain veracity. Although Ford’s anti-Semitism eventually wrecked his political aspirations, for a time the notion that he could run American life with the same efficiency with which he made Model-T’s intrigued million of Americans.
Yet his International Jew series was intellectually bogus, based on hate, innuendo, rumor, distortion and lies. In regard to Harry Frazee, the Episcopalian and Mason, the Independent was, in fact, dead wrong on all counts.
In 1916 Harry Frazee produced a hit play entitled Nothing But The Truth, which eventually ran for 332 performances. The cleverly written comedy (later a film of the same name starring Bob Hope) featured an artifice as old as the theater itself, for the thinly veiled morality play considered the consequences of always telling the truth. The play struck an immediate chord with New Yorkers, for it took place in a brokerage house at a time period when even tradesmen and clerks were beginning to dabble in the stock market.
The protagonist is a broker. His virtuous girlfriend, the daughter of firm’s shady president, is raising money for an orphanage. If she raises $20,000, her father promises to match it. Halfway to her goal she asks her broker boyfriend for help. He foolishly accepts a $10,000 bet from his co-workers that he can go a full 24-hours without telling a lie.
The stage is set. Over the course of three acts, the situation turns predictable. The co-workers coerce the boyfriend into a series of uncomfortable situations in which he is forced to tell the truth without regard to the consequences, an excruciating experience. By the third act his serial honesty leaves the brokerage firm in near financial ruin, his employer’s marriage on the rocks and his own romance in tatters. But he wins the bet. In a rapid denouement, the boyfriend tells a string of lies that saves his bosses’ marriage, rescues the firm from ruin and delivers him the bosses’ daughter in marriage. The boyfriend learns a cynical lesson– people much prefer comforting lies to the more painful truth. As one character opines, “An attractive lie sounds infinitely better than a mere statement of truth . . .If they believe you are telling the truth, they’ll buy.”
That would become Harry Frazee’s epitaph, for the public bought the “attractive lie” that Frazee was a Jew. So, too, did the sporting press and the men who ran baseball. Now they had proof. The whispered secret was confirmed. After all, it was in the paper.
Prior to publication of “The Jewish Degradation of American Baseball,” local and national press coverage of Harry Frazee’s tenure as owner of the Red Sox was relatively balanced. Once by the Independent “outed” Frazee, that changed. The tenor of the coverage of Frazee both in Boston and the national press turned increasingly strident, and Ban Johnson’s determination to rid himself of Frazee became more pointed. For if one believed the Independent, Frazee was not just incompetent, but evil, a dirty Jew doing the bidding of others, the front man of a vast conspiracy. Boston Herald writer Burt Whitman soon graphically described Frazee’s repeated deals with the Yankees as the “rape of the Red Sox.” Johnson aped the Independent’s assessment of Frazee and called him the “champion wrecker of baseball.” Frazee was excoriated at every turn and there were ever more frequent references to him as a “New Yorker” and to the “mystery” of his religion – none-too-subtle references to Frazee’s purported Jewish roots.
Anti-Semitism was rampant in American Society in the first decades of the twentieth century with deep roots in the American pastime. The few Jewish players were often the object of prejudice by teammates and fans. Some of the games biggest stars, such as Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby, openly reveled in bigotry – they were the best known of the dozens of major leaguers who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, which operated without shame. Anti-Semitism was as American as apple pie. Baseball reflected society and mimicked its intolerance.
Despite the occasional presence of Jewish ownership in the National League, between 1902 and 1946 no Jew owned an American League team. A New York Times feature on baseball oral historian Lawrence Ritter, author of the classic The Glory of Their Times, recently underscored anti-Semitic influence in the game. In the early he 1960s Ritter traveled the country interviewing dozens of early twentieth century baseball stars. He told the Times that one of the reasons his subjects spoke so candidly was because, “I was a Midwesterner. They liked that. I wasn’t a New York Jewish person, so it was a whole different ballgame.”
Had Frazee refuted Ford’s allegation he may have stopped the story in its tracks. But at the precise moment the essay appeared in print, Frazee was distracted by both his divorce trial and the death of his father – he may not have even known of the article for some weeks and by then his silence inadvertently lent it some credence. Similarly, Frazee may have consciously chosen not to correct the record. Supremely confident and self-assured, he always looked forward, far more concerned with what lay ahead than what lay behind. He even delighted in others misconceptions. In one popular anecdote, during his final days as Red Sox owner he got a great kick out of pulling his hat down over his face and asking strangers in Boston what they thought of him. When they responded with a string of curses, Frazee laughed. He had another story to tell his friends.
At the same time, Frazee was fast on his feet and may have used the misinformation to his advantage. According to the stereotype, having people believe he was a Jew may have given him a certain cache and financial acumen in New York theatrical circles and at contract time with ballplayers. For those who knew he was not Jewish, Ford’s slur made him a sympathetic figure.
Like Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky, who was wrongly blamed for holding the ball and costing the Red Sox the 1946 World Series, Frazee stayed silent and never bothered to defend himself. He knew the truth. Still, the charge got Frazee’s attention. He preserved a tattered copy of the issue of the Dearborn Independent in his personal papers.
Despite Johnson’s best efforts, Frazee hung onto the Red Sox for almost two more years, but after the article in the Independent Frazee didn’t stand a chance. A constant drumbeat of criticism from the Boston press killed public interest in the team. The ballclub floundered and attendance dropped.
Frazee held out until he got his price in August of 1923 and sold the Red Sox for $1.2 million dollars – nearly twice what he had paid for the team in 1916 – to a syndicate fronted by baseball insider and Johnson crony Bob Quinn. The price is telling, for Frazee doubled his investment in less than eight years, an incredible return for a franchise in decay. The American League paid a dear price to rid itself of Frazee, and, presumably, of the Jewish influence he represented.
Frazee turned his attention back to the theater, producing another string of hits, culminating in 1925 with the musical “No, No, Nanette.” [Note: according to the Internet Broadway Database, throughout his theatrical career, Frazee never went more than a year and half without a major success, and in fact, he was more successful as a producer after he bought the Red Sox than before.] It became the most successful musical of the decade, toured worldwide, and earned Frazee millions. Back in Boston, the Frazee name faded from the sports page. Under Quinn the Red Sox decline continued and few blamed Frazee for that. Most observers correctly blamed the franchise’s failures on the unfortunate death of Quinn’s financial backer, Palmer Winslow. When he died so did Quinn’s opportunity to rebuild the club, for Quinn didn’t have the cash to do so himself.
The story of Harry Frazee and the Red Sox should have come to an end. After his death in 1929 Frazee should have become a footnote in Red Sox history like previous owners Charles Somers, William Killilea, James McAleer and Joe Lannin.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. It was only the beginning.
“Lieb” Means “Love” in German
Fred Lieb is certainly one of baseball’s most beloved writers. In a career that began with the New York Press in 1911 and included stints with several other New York papers and a lucrative free-lance arrangement with The Sporting News, Lieb covered sixty-five consecutive World Series and dubbed Yankee Stadium “The House that Ruth Built.” But the primary reason he was inducted into the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 is due his authorship of six team biographies.
They are perhaps the most influential series baseball history books ever written and have long been considered the standard historical accounts. They include the first narrative history of the Red Sox, his highly collectable and still highly regarded Boston Red Sox, published in 1947 and still in print today. A number of baseball historians still worship at the altar of Lieb. In 2001 best-selling author and Red Sox senior baseball operations advisor Bill James even told CNN in 2001 that, “If fifty people remember me the way I think of Fred Lieb, I’ll be doing all right.”
But neither James nor anyone else in baseball ever bothered to read Fred Lieb’s other books. If they had, Lieb’s Hall of Fame plaque might be at risk. In regard to Harry Frazee, Fred Lieb finished what Henry Ford started.
By all accounts the slight, fine-featured Lieb was an exceedingly genteel and pleasant person, mild-mannered and personable. Yet underneath his button-down exterior, Lieb was, like many men of his time, rife with prejudice, compromised by his relationship to baseball’s power elite and eager to do their bidding. An avowed occultist, he believed he possessed healing powers and communicated with the spirit world.
Throughout his career Lieb consistently backed baseball’s ruling class, becoming a powerful and influential voice in the game. An unabashed fan of Ban Johnson, Lieb’s books are littered with instances where he used his bully pulpit to further Johnson’s aims and attack his enemies.
Yet beneath his genteel veneer, Lieb wielded a sharp ax. He wasn’t afraid to lie in order to smear baseball figures he disliked. In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract even James admits that “many, many of Fred Lieb’s stories don’t check out if you back track on them,” but few baseball historians have ever bothered to check Lieb on the facts. For example, in one of his books Lieb charges that notorious first baseman Hal Chase threw games while a member of the Yankees and cites Chase’s fielding record and performance in specific games as evidence. While Chase unquestionably threw games later in his career – and perhaps with the Yankees – in this particular instance Lieb was not only wrong, but he knew he was wrong. Chase played errorless ball during those specific games, got several big hits and the Yankees played their best stretch of baseball all season. In another instance a Lieb acquaintance told him that during the 1922 World Series pitcher Carl Mays’ wife signaled the pitcher from the stands that a payoff had been made, after which Mays’ effectiveness rapidly disappeared. Based on such scant evidence Lieb concluded Mays threw the game and later bragged that this story and his influence later kept Mays out of the Hall of Fame.
Lieb saved his best hatchet job for Harry Frazee in Boston Red Sox. The conversational, anecdote-laden history rescued Frazee from obscurity and delivered him into infamy.
Lieb gives Frazee plenty of ink in the book, all of it critical. He castigates Frazee for selling Ruth and making a series of disastrous trades with the Yankees that Lieb mis-characterizes as being made as part of some nefarious plot to help the Yankees at Boston’s expense. Lieb even resurrects Burt Whitman’s notorious phrase “rape of the Red Sox” as a chapter title and identifies Frazee as the architect of the alleged assault on the franchise. The book glosses over Frazee’s political battle with Johnson, ignores Frazee’s many successes and misrepresents him as a theatrical failure operating on a financial shoestring. Lieb also alludes to the spurious notion that Ruth was sold to finance “No, No Nanette.” In short, virtually nothing Fred Lieb writes about Frazee is true. As history, it fails entirely. As character assassination, however, it is thoroughly brilliant.
The portrait Lieb paints is shrewd, yet once one is aware of it, unmistakable. He turns Frazee into a caricature with obvious Jewish overtones. [Note: For space reasons, much of the following six or eight paragraphs were excised by my editors at the time of publication.]
The nature of that caricature is not surprising. At the time of anti-Semitism was commonplace, even mainstream within the baseball world. In a Sporting News story of September 12, 1935 entitled “Oi, Oi, Oh Boy, Hail that Long Sought Hebrew Star,” Lieb wrote “For centuries the Jew, in his individual business, had to fight against heavy odds for his success. It sharpened his wit and made him quick with his hands. Therefore he became an individualist in sport, and skillful boxer and ring strategist, but he did not have the background to stand out in a sport which is so essentially a team game as baseball.” Such assumptions were shared by most Americans and drew no comment from either baseball’s power elite or fans.
The impression created in Boston Red Sox is clear – his portrait of Frazee is as pointed as that of the Shakespearean character Shylock. But Lieb is also cautious. In 1947, in the wake of the Holocaust it was no longer acceptable even to infer anti-Semitic sentiments. Indeed, like the Boston press a generation before, Lieb never boldly states that Frazee is Jewish. His barbs are more subtle. The nearest he comes to calling Frazee a Jew is a reference to him as an “evil genie.” The phrase is a knowing wink to the crowd, for the term “evil genie” was an obscure and now archaic anti-Semitic slur.
For the next fifty years Lieb’s book stood as the standard history of the Red Sox. Yet all the while a more disturbing side of Lieb’s personality remained hidden, one that underscores his slander of Harry Frazee. Although it is impossible to state with absolute certainty that Lieb was anti-Semitic, for like Harry Frazee, Lieb who died in 1980 at age 92, cannot defend himself, there is disturbing evidence that at the very least Fred Lieb was a latent anti-Semite.
An unabashed occultist, Lieb was a quasi-Christian spiritualist who believed in faith healing and regularly consulted a ouiji board for insight, claiming to communicate with the “other side” through none other than the historical figure of Marc Anthony, Cleopatra’s consort. In his off-season home in St. Petersburg, Florida, Lieb and his wife briefly operated a faith healing center and treated patients. Lieb wrote two books on the subject, Sight Unseen: A Journalist Visits the Occult (Harper and Brother’s, 1939) and his self-published Healing Mind, Body and Purse (1941).
Both books are a hodgepodge of personal memoir and Lieb’s own personal philosophy. He borrows freely from a variety of religions and creeds, from mainstream Protestantism and Christian Science, to Yoga, Rosecrucianism, and from a number of obscure smaller spiritualist sects that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s such as the UNITY movement and the virulently anti-Semitic I AM cult. He picks and chooses from each and in the end he creates his own peculiar, oddly amoral metaphysic that can dismiss the death of a half million Americans in the Spanish influenza epidemic after World War I, including his own sister, as an example of the victims’ own spiritual weakness and a worldwide “mental miasma.”
A close reading of each book is telling. Lieb is preoccupied with the religious and ethnic orientation of virtually everyone he meets, most of whom he assigns stereotypical character traits.
From today’s perspective, his depiction of the Jew is particularly disturbing. At best Lieb is patronizing viewing Jews as spiritually uninformed and, in comparison to Christians, spiritually “immature.” Although Lieb is cautious not to make overt anti-Semitic statements, each book contains an unmistakable strain of the easy anti-Semitism so rampant within American society during the era between the wars. At one point he admits that “I must not despise the Jew; if some of his mannerisms irk me I must realize that centuries of Christian persecution have placed him on the defensive.” In another example he recounts in some detail an encounter over the ouiji board in which Marc Anthony offers that he “is more friendly to Hitler,” than Mussolini, and informs Lieb that “Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was partly justified.” Lieb then adds, “Inasmuch as I am of German descent, psychologists might attribute this favorable attitude toward Hitler to personal leanings in my subconscious mind,” a perception he dismisses. But this may be a case of “one doth protesteth too much,” for while Lieb rejects the notion, few psychologists would. Anti-Semitism such as that expressed by Henry Ford still had its proponents in America. Lieb was simply expressing the status quo.
Lieb’s latent anti-Semitism and ethnic prejudices even crop up occasionally in his other baseball books. He repeatedly notes the ethnic background of players and often assigns character traits according to those backgrounds. He writes about Jews only when they are unavoidable, such as in passages about Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss in his Pittsburgh Pirates and Hank Greenberg in Detroit Tigers.
After a close reading of Lieb’s books, and taking into consideration Lieb’s portrait of Frazee in The Boston Red Sox, one must conclude that Fred Lieb, whether he was aware of it or not, consistently expressed the anti-Semitism of the time in his own work, including in his portrayal of Harry Frazee. Like most other Americans, Lieb was almost certainly was aware of the Independent. He was well read and the first editor of the Independent was journalist I.W. Pipp, brother of New York Yankee Wally Pipp, who Lieb regularly covered on the Yankee beat. Although Pipp later broke with Ford over anti-Semitism, he was still in control when the hateful rants first appeared. Detroit sportswriter H.G. Salsinger, a close friend of Lieb, occasionally contributed innocuous baseball features to the Independent, and Lieb himself periodically wrote about Ford in glowing terms.
Lieb underscores the degree to which the specious story of Frazee’s Jewishness was believed in the baseball community and persisted after his death. Lieb’s twisted portrait then became the standard account of Frazee’s baseball career, taken as gospel by subsequent baseball historians and sportswriters. Over time, as Lieb’s contemporaries passed on and changes in society made it even less acceptable to express anti-Semitism and baseball shed it’s anti-Semitic past, the notion that Harry Frazee was a Jew faded from the forefront of memory. Today, a number of teams are Jewish owned in whole or part, including the Red Sox. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig is Jewish, as is Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, several other prominent members of the Red Sox front office, outfielder Gabe Kapler and infielder Kevin Youklis. But the slanderous caricature of Harry Frazee first created by Henry Ford and Fred Lieb remains.
It lay dormant until 1986. Although George Vecsey did not read Lieb’s book, it was the standard history of the Red Sox at the time. It’s anecdotes and ideas insidiously permeated written Red Sox history. As Vecsey recalls now that, “I’ve known his name [Lieb’s] since I was a kid but I have no memory of him and never read any of his books. It’s fascinating to learn about his complicated life.” Vecsey’s column inadvertently tapped into Lieb’s portrait and unintentionally repeated the charge first made in Lieb’s book that Frazee sold Ruth to finance his plays. Boston’s 1986 loss to the Mets restored Harry Frazee to life, and in 1990 Dan Shaughnessy’s Curse of the Bambino completed that accidental resurrection.
Nearly seventy years after Ford tarred Frazee, and more than forty years after Fred Lieb turned Frazee into a caricature, those two slanders combined with circumstance to form the “Curse.” They have haunted the franchise ever since, infecting the ballclub and its fans with a perverse expectation of loss and, on occasion, robbing the experience of a measure of joy.
This does not mean that George Vecsey, Dan Shaughnessy, or anyone else who writes or speaks of the “curse” today – as a journalist or a fan – is either anti-Semitic or even remotely aware of the anti-Semitic roots of the “curse.” They are all totally and completely blameless and should not be tarred in any fashion by their role in inadvertently advancing the notion. Most view it, as Shaughnessy himself has said, as simply a “fun way to look at Red Sox history.”
Yet now that the sordid history of the idea is known, can such an idea truly be considered “fun?” Everyone who adheres to the “Curse” or makes note of it may now wish to ask that question. As George Vecsey recently commented, “”I’m stunned. I’ve been following baseball for over half a century and I’ve never heard this version of why Frazee was disliked. This theory certainly fits into some of the prejudiced parts of the American soul, particularly of that time. I’ll never think of the ‘Nanette’ connection the same way.”
At best proponents of the “Curse” are ignorant of its history. They have done the bidding of others as unknowing pawns in a legacy of hate that dates back centuries, bit players in a larger, older drama far more significant than any ever contemplated by Harry Frazee. Stripped of its source, the hate and misinformation spewed by Ford and later revived by Fred Lieb that survives today in latent form in the “Curse” says nothing at all of value about Harry Frazee, or why the Red Sox have ever won or lost a single game. It does, however, say a great deal about the insidious and sinister nature of hate – the influence of which lasts generations – and the danger entailed in believing in anything without ever examining the basis of those beliefs. In today’s world people die every day due to the prejudice born in misconceptions. If any “Curse” deserves to broken, that one does.
If one must blame Harry Frazee for anything, blame him for his inability to foretell the future. Just as former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette failed in 1996 to foresee that Roger Clemens was not in the “twilight,” of his career, Frazee failed to divine that as a Yankee Babe Ruth would hit another 659 home runs and change the game of baseball forever. Frazee was not alone. No one in baseball knew what Ruth would do, not even the Babe himself.
As of this writing the Red Sox and Yankees once more seem poised to battle into September and perhaps beyond. On August 29 and 30 the National Baseball Hall of Fame hosted an event entitled “Jews in Major League Baseball” the first time the contribution of Jews to the national pastime has ever been formally recognized. According to Amazon.com, a new edition of the The Curse of the Bambino, featuring a cover photograph Ruth, is due to appear in September. A second, illustrated version of the book subtitled “A Baseball Legend,” is scheduled to be published in January of 2005.
It will be a children’s book.
Note: In addition to the book titles mentioned in the text, significant sources for this story include Neil Baldwin’s extraordinary study Henry Ford and the Jews, and Stephen Reiss’s essay “From Pike to Green with Greenberg in Between” which appeared in the collection The American Game: Baseball and Ethnicity edited by Lawrence Baldassaro and Richard A. Johnson. The Widener Library at Harvard University retains a file of the Dearborn Independent.
Since this article was first published on several occasions others have attempted to reconstitute the curse by offering that Frazee’s tax records, held by the University of Texas, demonstrate that he was in financial difficulty, and that since No, No, Nanette was the musical version of a play first produced by Frazee in 1919, that the proceeds of the Ruth sale did in fact, provide the finding for No, No, Nanette. Both contentions, however, conveniently disregard significant information.
In regard to the former, when considering Frazee’s tax records it is important to note that due to US involvement in World War I, the top marginal tax rate rose from only 7% in 1915, to 77% in 1918 and 73% in 1918. I think it is reasonable to assume that Frazee, like other wealthy men of that or any other era, was probably adept at avoiding tax liabilities. To assume Frazee’s financial status through tax records alone while ignoring circumstantial evidence of his wealth is naïve at best and probably misleading. By that same criteria, for instance, Red Sox owner John W. Henry would likewise have to be considered a financial failure, because from November of 2006 through August of 2007 his investment firm lost fully 75% of its assets, yet no one claimed that Henry was in financial difficulty.
In regard to the second point, author Leigh Montville in his fanciful biography of Ruth, The Big Bam uses convoluted logic to claim that Frazee used money from the Ruth sale to finance his play My Lady Friends, which much later evolved into the musical No, No, Nannette. While Nannete was inspired by My Lady Friends, Montville’s contention is still a falsity easily disproven. For one, according to the Internet Broadway Database, the accepted authority, My Lady Friends debuted on December 3, 1919 and was already a hit before the Ruth sale took place, eventually running for 214 performances. How then, could money from the Ruth sale be used to produce a play that had already made its’ debut? Secondly, from that time until 1925, when No, No, Nanette debuted, Frazee produced two more very successful productions; George S. Kaufman’s Dulcy, which ran for 241 performances in 1921 and 1922, and Her Temporary Husband which ran for 92 performances in 1922, both evidence of Frazee’s continued financial liquidity. All hard evidence suggests that Frazee kept his theatrical business separate from his baseball business. Had Frazee never produced No No, Nannete his legacy in the theater shows marked financial and critical success both before, during and after the Ruth sale. Unless and until Frazee’s full and complete financial records are recovered, one must consider all the evidence and there is a wealth of factual data that demonstrates Frazee’s financial health.
Others have taken issue with my characterization of Fred Lieb. For that reason, I restored those portions of this story which were deleted for space reasons in earlier printings, which provide more evidence of Lieb’s disturbing world view.