Jane Leavy, the author of New York Times bestsellers Sandy Koufax, a Lefty's Legacy, and The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, takes on baseball's greatest legend in The Big Fella, a biography of Babe Ruth published this week by HarperCollins. Using the 21-day barnstorming tour that Ruth took with Lou Gehrig following their 1927 season as a prism, Leavy not only brings the Bambino to life but also provides new insights into just how much he meant to baseball and America. There's one story, however, that she had to leave out of the book. And here it is: The legend of the piano at the bottom of The Curse of the Bambino. On Thursday, the Red Sox advanced to the World Series for the fourth time in the 21st century, proof positive that The Curse is dead.
So, about that piano. The upright one that Babe Ruth hurled into legend and the once-pristine waters of Willis Pond in Sudbury, Massachusetts, a redoubt favored by the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Red Sox revelers, Jewish mobsters and teenage boys evading parental oversight.
"Did you dig up anything on the piano?"
That's what everyone wanted to know when I began work on "The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created." That and, "Why another book about the Babe?" After eight years on the job, I had a ready reply to the former: "To extricate the truth of the piano from the muck and murk of history."
It was a deep dive.
To review: While in the Red Sox employ, Ruth & Co. spent their free time cavorting in rustic cottages set in the woods around the pond, partying in happy isolation. Ruth liked it so much that he and his bride, Helen, wintered there in 1917-1918 in a cabin called "IHateToQuitIt" on Butler Road, described at length by Melville E. Webb in a Jan. 20, 1918, Boston Globe ode to the country life: "Wear your old clothes." It had a Franklin stove, a new-fangled record player and a pump organ. Helen served hot chocolate and cookies to local children who came to play with the Babe. Ruth served something hotter to adults.
There was another, smaller, more rustic camp a couple of thousand feet down the shore on The Point, which, according to local lore, featured an upright piano and a rowdy reputation. It was from this bucolic promontory, the highest point on the lake, that Ruth hurled the damn thing off the porch either because he could or because he was drunk and angry at a sportswriter who said he didn't look as strong as all that. Or: he rolled, carried, dropped or lowered the instrument onto the frozen ice to entertain guests gathered around a bonfire, a party that lasted late into the night, then left it to sink to the bottom when the ice thawed. The ivories would never be tickled again. "A disgrace to the neighborhood," tut-tutted one elderly resident.
After pitching the Red Sox to a World Series victory over the Chicago Cubs 100 years ago, Ruth returned to IHateToQuitIt, to consider how much he would be worth to club owner Harry Frazee in 1919, when he would win nine games as a starting pitcher and start 106 games in left field. He demanded $10,000 a year for three years and reported late, a holdout. After the Sox finished sixth in 1919, the profligate wastrel was sold to the Yankees, and the cursed Red Sox plunged to the nether regions of the American League, not to rise again until a new century had begun.
Turns out the Babe had more influence than he knew. He had the power to cast spells and curses traditionally ascribed to potentates and kings, specifically what scholar John Limon calls a "treaty curse." In a 2001 essay for the Yale Journal of Criticism, "Beautiful Failing: Franz Kafka and the Curse of the Bambino," Limon wrote that in Hebraic tradition, the abrogation of an agreement between a prince and his subjects could be punished in a variety of ways, including the "removal of joyful sounds."
Which pretty much describes Red Sox Nation after the Babe was sold to the Yankees.
By the dawn of the new millennium, the piano had become the Holy Grail of Ruthian research. Enter Kevin Kennedy. No, not the manager of the Red Sox during their disappointing 1995 and 1996 seasons. This Kevin Kennedy was a master upholsterer from Sudbury who became the knight errant of the piano. Kennedy convinced himself that if he could find the piano, restore the piano, and play the piano at Fenway Park -- "The Star-Spangled Banner" or "Sweet Caroline"? -- the darkness would be lifted and melody would return to the Fens. In the process, he hoped to raise money for The Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization created by Eloise Newell to train adults with brain injuries in the art of furniture restoration.
Upon hearing of this quest, Charlie Barry, who grew up down the road from Willis Pond, observed, "This is some Davey Crockett, Paul Bunyan-sized bulls--- now, right?"
Barry should know: He's the guy who put the piano by the lake.
In the summer of 1964, as he was about to enter first grade, Barry, the sixth of seven children, was granted his first taste of autonomy, the right to explore Willis Pond with his brother Steve. Going down a trail one day, looking for blueberries, they came upon the piano -- intact, upright, and bleached to a whitewashed sheen by the elements. The keys were in place, though the black ones had turned white. Most of the strings were broken, but you could still hit a note or two.
The brothers made a pact not to tell anyone, and then went right home and told their mother. She was a pianist and church organist, so she immediately dispatched them to recover any surviving ivory -- several of the keys on the piano in her parlor were lacking in that department. There wasn't any. A few weeks later, she raised the subject with an old-timer named Barney Maenpaa who had lived in the Pine Lakes neighborhood since the 1930s, while he was hoisting a beer in the Barrys' parlor. "That's when I heard the story," said Barry, who is now 60. "Barney said someone had pushed the piano off the ice and left it on the beach. He knew exactly where we were talking about."
The cove where they found the beached piano sat some 100 feet above the water, at the bottom of a rough set of stairs. Over the years, the water had receded, partly because of dry conditions and partly because of all the junk people had thrown in the pond. Barney said the piano was left to rot on the beach when getting it back up the hill proved impracticable even for the Babe.
Four years later, Charlie bragged to a new kid in the neighborhood that he knew the resting spot of Babe's piano. Naturally, he had to make good on his boast. By then, the piano had come unglued. "Disassembled itself," Barry said. "It was just basically a pile of wood. He and I were going to take the strings to make bows and arrows. We moved the harp and soundboard, which was an effort. We put the harp against the hillside, and put the soundboard over it, and buried it with leaves."
The kid moved away, and the Barry boys grew more ambitious, breaking into the camp on the Point in search of evidence of the Babe. There was none. Old metal cots with wire netting were chained to the wall. A pot-bellied wood stove stood sentinel in the center of the room. Fifties-style linoleum lined the counters and horrendous red and orange paisley wallpaper covered the walls. The porch had rotted and fallen off.
Five years later, they built a clubhouse on the shore below. They "borrowed" plywood and two-by-fours from building sites on the lake and dragged a fold-out couch down the shoreline. "It started out as a clubhouse for ice fishing," Barry said. "Then it was for smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and reading Playboy."
The remains of the piano provided a convenient if inadvertent pissoir.
As Kennedy says, "The Babe would have loved that."
After two years of exposure to the elements and teenage boys, the clubhouse stunk like holy hell. Worried that the neighbors might catch wind of it, they resolved to burn the place down.
They built a bonfire and chucked everything in -- ductwork, car wheels, pipes. The couch caught fire and smoldered, attracting the attention they had been trying to avoid. The fire department was summoned. The boys hustled to rid themselves of the remaining detritus.
But the piano wouldn't burn. The wood veneer was waterlogged and dark with mold. The keyboard was still intact. Only the few remaining keys were combustible.
"That's when we put everything in the water," said Charlie. "All the side panels, the back panel, everything."
They left the harp at the edge of the swamp, where it sank into a cluster of weeds, he said, and dragged the soundboard, as heavy as an engine block, to the water's edge and watched it go. "Bubbles were coming out of the hole," Barry said. "Just before it went out of sight, it banked off like a huge airplane or something, churning and banking before it disappeared into the darkness."
"I said, 'If that's the Babe's piano, it's the end of an era.'"
But it wasn't.
As the decades passed, the Red Sox invented new ways to lose, the most torturous in 1986 when Bill Buckner allowed Mookie Wilson's tepid ground ball to trickle through his legs in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6 of the World Series against the New York Mets. "Babe Ruth Curse Strikes Again!" declared New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey.
That was the first time The Curse, the stuff of oral history, appeared in print -- a 20th-century linguistic construct, authored by a New York sportswriter, to boot, invoking the "ghosts, demons and curses" passed from generation to generation of Red Sox fatalists. One warm, firefly-lit summer nights, Meg Blackstone would implore her grandfather, "'Tell us about The Curse of the Bambino.' He made it a beautiful story."
In 1988, as executive editor of E.P. Dutton & Co., Blackstone commissioned Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy to write the history of Beantown misery. "The Curse of The Bambino" was an immediate best-seller. "It's so Boston," Blackstone said. "There's a reason why the Salem witch trials and The Curse of the Bambino existed in the same area."
The Curse gathered strength. Red Sox players shilled for "Reverse the Curse" ice cream. Students painted the legend on Storrow Drive overpasses. HBO produced a 2003 documentary. The Lyric Stage mounted a play. Father Guido Sarducci of "Saturday Night Live" conducted an exorcism. Pedro Martinez issued an ultimatum: "Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I'll drill him in the ass."
The Curse endured in part because the Red Sox kept losing, but also because it captured the either/or-ness of the Babe: reckless and generous; impetuous and kind; weak when it came to temptation but strong enough to hurl a 400-pound upright piano into a lake and cast New England into 86 years of darkness.
In December 2001, Kennedy recruited the Quincy Police Dive Unit to conduct the first search of the pond, now called "Root Beer Lake" thanks to the munitions that seeped into the water from the Army base on the opposite shore, as well as the Model T's that locals raced on the ice -- then bet on how long they would take to sink. Another equally unproductive dive followed two months later. Then Kennedy persuaded John Perry Fish, of American Underwater Search on Cape Cod, to donate his time for another dive. Fish used the same advanced magnetometer at Willis Pond that he employed in his search for TWA Flight 800, which crashed off Long Island in 1996, identifying 10 to 12 "targets of interest" for investigators to pursue. When a reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked, "Is this going to change the luck of the Red Sox?" Fish replied, "I don't know. I'm a scientist."
By June 2004, all Kennedy had to show for his efforts was a white resin chair pulled from the water near the Babe's Butler Road cottage, later featured in a Smithsonian magazine ode to this ubiquitous fixture of American backyards.
Then, two months later, on the last night of August, a foul ball off the bat of Manny Ramirez flew into Section 9, Box 95, Row AA, at Fenway Park, knocking out two teeth from the mouth of a 16-year-old-boy named Lee Gavin, who lived in Ruth's one-time Sudbury homestead, Home-Plate Farm. Also, that night, the Yankees suffered the worst loss in team history, 22-0 to the Cleveland Indians.
When the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the American League Championship series, after falling behind three games to none, and then defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, Gavin appeared on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart to claim credit for busting the curse with his two front teeth.
Thus empowered, a Red Sox player taunted Kennedy at a postseason banquet: "See, we don't need no effin piano."
One April day in 2010, three years after the Sox claimed their second world championship, Lee Swanson, then curator and archivist at the Sudbury Historical Society, got a telephone call from Barry, now a building contractor living in Grafton, Massachusetts. Barry told him that the divers had been looking for the wrong thing in the wrong part of the pond. The photo of the Babe and the Missus sitting at the keyboard of the pump organ that had appeared in the 1918 Globe story was taken at IHatetoQuitit, not at the cabin on The Point. Says Kennedy, "He said he knew it was an upright piano because 'We took it apart.'"
The Barry brothers drew a map of the peninsula and a sketch of the cabin. Another dive, this time in the correct location, was scheduled for June 20, 2010. The scummy, polluted water was so opaque that the crew called it a "Braille dive."
The divers pulled up a black-and-white TV and a miniature 1960s Citgo sign like the one that hovers over Fenway Park. A portent, for sure. Then they dredged up something they figured for a log, which Swanson recognized as part of a piano leg, and a thin 6-foot square piece of wood perhaps an eighth of an inch thick. It looked like some of the delaminated plywood that Barry and his buddies had used to build the clubhouse. It was on its way to the trash can when Swanson intervened. Kennedy sent the sample to David Sanderson of Sanderson Piano in Littleton, Massachusetts, who identified the piece as piano veneer used in the 1920s. (A West Concord, Massachusetts, wood expert concurred.)
Emboldened by the find, dive team leader Chris Hugh kept looking. Twenty feet off shore, he found himself standing on the roof of a 1982 Subaru. Swanson contacted the Sudbury police: "Caller reports while diving for Babe Ruth's piano they discovered a vehicle in the water. Cars 12 and 10 sent."
The white sedan was hauled onto the shore of the neighborhood beach. The keys were still in the ignition. An infant's car seat was buckled in the rear behind the passenger seat. There was another car seat in the trunk, from which emanated an awful smell. Maybe the place really was cursed. It was now a crime scene.
"We were frantic," said Detective Sgt. Wayne M. Shurling Jr., who supervised the search of the car. "We wanted to make sure there were no bones in the car. We hand-shoveled all of the silt out of the car to make sure -- that was a fun day."
The police found no human remains and no suspects. The case was closed on July 2.
Six days later, Kennedy returned to the lake with a self-described "forensic medium." He couldn't give up. He had invested most of his disposable income, not to mention more than a decade of free time and all his wife's patience in hopes of raising the piano and lifting The Curse. And: A piano museum had pledged to rebuild the instrument in a sister case if he retrieved the harp. Sheila Marie Gerard, the forensic detective, told reporters that the Babe guided her to the location of a large metal object stuck in the mud five feet off shore. But removal and identification would have required an excavation permit, a certified archeological diver on site, a crane to lift it out of the water, and an airtight box large enough to prevent further degradation of the metal.
Meanwhile, the compromised veneer had split into eight 48-inch-long pieces. It was impossible to display without risking further degradation or spending money the historical society lacked, as Swanson explained when I visited in 2014, hoping for a peek at the sacred relic. But it was locked away in a lightproof, plywood box. "In distilled water in its own little pond," Swanson said.
By the summer of 2017, with my research for "The Big Fella" all but done, I was fielding weekly inquiries about Ruth's piano. I called Sally Hild, executive director of the Sudbury Historical Society, for an update. "The last time I saw it, it was in a Tupperware pan with a lid," she said.
She thought Kennedy had assumed custody of the relic. Kennedy didn't have it and didn't want it. He had long since come to feel cursed by The Curse -- having raised only $10 for the Restoration Project. "I'd have been better off opening a lemonade stand," he said.
He sent me to Swanson, who is no longer affiliated with the historical society. "We let the water dry up and put it in dry storage between cardboard," he said.
Hild declined to say how or where the artifact is currently being stored. There are no current plans to display it.
The Point where the Bambino's piano went into Willis Pond is now the site of the Lt. Scott F. Milley Reflection Area in honor of a Sudbury Army Ranger killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010. At the dedication of the park in May of 2014, Steve Milley, Scott's father, said the site was chosen because his son "loved this place, as most kids do" -- kids like Charlie Barry and The Babe.
And then music returned to The Point, as "Amazing Grace" whistled through the pines, carried aloft by a single, mournful bagpipe.
"The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created," by Jane Leavy was released this week by HarperCollins Publishers.