Sagadahoc stories 132: 10/30/003

Cursed by the Babe

Weld invited me to go sailing with him and Dale back in August. They were taking the Beagle downeast, hoping to cruise up the St. John River in New Brunswick. I hadn’t been saltwater cruising for a couple of years, and was hoping to collect images for chapter illustrations to go in Highflyers (that potboiler set in Washington County I scribbled a few seasons back).Weld and Dale are excellent companions, so I signed on for a week or so.

The Crew

Turns out there weren’t too many images to be had. The Beagle was in haste to get downeast, and the weather was mostly thick fog. Aside from a few distant prospects of the mainland at dawn and dusk, and the offer islands appearing out of the murk, we didn’t see much landscape. The visuals were more in the order of GPS displays and the insides of the engine cooling system.


We had a dandy run, though. Harraseekit to Monhegan. Monhegan to Long Island. Long Island to Roque Island. Roque to Cutler. We did spend one night in Bunker Hole, by Roque Island, where I set much of the action in my yarn, so I managed to capture bits and pieces of that scene.

Manana at Dusk

Unfortunately I was suffering from a sharp pain in the gut, and had to jump ship in Cutler. But before I did, Weld and Dale managed to inflict a curse on me which is just beginning to wear off. Maybe. (Not the gut ache. That turned out to be my gall bladder reacting to a fat-heavy diet. The pain subsided when I stopped pigging out on roast turkey.)

Monhegan Morning

My sailing companions were avid Red Sox fans, and I got the whole history of the club in fine detail. Including the Curse of the Babe. Anyone who watched the recent playoffs between the Yankees and the Sox had to suffer through infinite retellings of that sad story, but back in August it was new to me.


If you are completely out of it: Babe Ruth was an up-and-coming young pitcher for the Red Sox when they won the World Series in 1918. Two years later the owner, Harry Frazee, who was also a showbiz promoter, needed cold cash to stage No, No, Nanette, so he sold The Babe to New York for a fist full of dollars. The Sox haven’t won a series since – while The Babe went on to become the Sultan of Swat, and the Yankees have dominated the Series year after year.

Fish Boat offshore

I’ve been working on my series of American Culture Heroes, and out in the fog I realized George Herman Ruth was right up there in our mythic pantheon. I decided The Babe would be my next Icon. Little did I know that he was another American Trickster, disguised as a ball player.

Dragger in the Glare

I don’t know if it was Weld, or Dale, or Dr. Bob, or whoever that got me thinking about trying to undo The Curse with this sculpture. Anyhow: somewhere in the visualization stage I began seeing this wooden Bambino as the old Babe, but still in a Red Sox uniform. As though he’d never been sold. Work a little white magic in the toyshop, perhaps.



Like the Sox, I procrastinated, until it was almost too late to get in the playoffs, but I was up and carving as Boston went into the post-season. Jeez didn’t it come hard, though. I couldn’t even collect basic info. Trying to get color images of the old Sox uniform was like finding bonded liquor during Prohibition. Nobody could tell me what Ruth’s Boston number had been. And each stage of the carving and construction was painful.

Moose Peak

I was determined to mimic the Bambino’s stance and swing, resulting in the most elaborate hidden mechanism I’d ever imagined. Each element depended on all the others, and I soon had handfuls of finicky fiddles tinkered together – none of which would cooperate. As the Sox went head to head with the Bombers the pressure intensified. Just how much shamanic clout could I wield out here in the willywags?

In the Hole

I had forgotten that the shaman is a wounded healer. I would have to take on The Curse, if I hoped to lift it. Well, I sure did a lot of cursing. It didn’t help to go watch the playoffs. I managed to walk in on the inning where Martinez threw a beaner, and stayed long enough to see him knock down a septuagenarian. After that I decided to take my luck home.

Green Water

It didn’t improve. I’d no sooner get an arm glued up with the rigging run through it than I’d pull out the rigging cord by mistake. I don’t know how many times I sawed sub-assemblies apart to re-compose them, only to find that the new alignment necessitated recarving a piece, or redesigning the mechanism. When I finally figured out how to get The Babe’s bat to drop as he swings, I couldn’t get the sequence right. I bet I took his torso apart a hundred times before the swing came close to working.

Looking out from Roque Beach

One trouble with this one-of-a-kind engineering is you never know if it will work until the whole kaboodle is assembled. I wanted the Bambino to stand at bat, take a swat, and follow through. His torso revolves, his wrists rotate, and his legs twist. To perfect the illusion, I wanted the device to go “whap” as his bat swings round, too. If this sounds like tapping your head and rubbing your belly, you have a picture of the illusionist at work. Only it was more like beating my head against the wall.

Light Show

I’ve never had a piece come so hard since I chopped up my first highwire act back in 1972. I was sorely tempted to put the ax to The Babe. But the more I read about Ruth, and thought about his role in the American Pantheon, the more my difficulties made sense.

Stone House on Brothers

Ruth was the Rude Rube incarnate. He was thoroughly intemperate: out drinking and whoring every night, up in the stands choking down hotdogs and beer when the team was at bat, running his roadsters at full throttle. But he had the gift. He could tell where a ball would land by the crack of the bat, and would be under it, and he could knock ‘em out of the park, even after he could barely hobble round the bases. Fabulously gifted, and completely unhouse-broken: the Bambino was the American male with a big stick. Of course he was difficult to portray.

Cutler Towers

And he was a Babe. Unsophisticated despite all his city nights. Generous despite his Yankee wealth. The worst practical joker in the locker-room. Ruth would do anything to benefit a kid in need, and duck the credit. Just look at his face in later years: the born innocent. How could the fans not love him.

Isn’t there a Babe deep in the American Grain? The big galoot wanting to be loved, knocking it out of the park, and trampling on the niceties. Reminds me of a Cowboy Country wanting to save the world, and be loved for it, while stirring the hornets’ nest with a big stick. The Babe was 100 proof USA.

The pieces eventually came together. Not before I spent weeks frigging with the rigging (and the Sox had gone down to ignominious defeat – again.)

I’m not sure if I swallowed the curse whole and spat it out, or simply embodied it. Maybe we’ll find out next season.

Ball sports are a serious New World ritual. Mayan ball players who lost were beheaded and ossuaries erected in their honor. Whole tribes would compete at lacrosse. And we’ve turned electoral politics into a Saturday afternoon spectacle. It’s small wonder we have a baseball team owner as president, and Mr. Universe as the Governator. Nigel Pennick in his Games of the Gods argues that sporting events were originally a form of divination, and still may function as such. Pay your money, take your choice, and fate will pick the winners.
Trying to undo history by conjuring The Boston Babe may be an affront to the sporting gods. It sure felt like batting against the dharma. Or, maybe, confronting the American Rube in us has to be like wrestling with an angel. We just have to hang on, and not sell out to the highest bidder.

Oh. Ball players didn’t have numbers until 1929. Just like a Trickster to have no number. Go Sox.

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