My No-Longer Lovable Red Sox
As the Boston Red Sox get ready to play another World Series, for the first time in several decades their players will do so without the added burden of overcoming someone else’s history. While the 2004 Red Sox likely had the support of most fans around the country, this support has largely evaporated in the intervening three years. In fact, a growing number of people now find the team and its fans tiresome and insufferable. How could this have happened? Do we really deserve this scorn?
I first started following the Red Sox in earnest in 1968, known in New England as “The Year After,” very much in the glow of The Impossible Dream. I was seven years old and a fourth generation rooter of the Old Towne Team. I recall listening to the radio with my great-grandfather in the early 1970s, talking about the long-ago days when the team won pennants regularly. I did not choose to become a Red Sox fan, any more than I chose my brown hair, blue eyes, or allergies. Sure, maybe I took to the game more than the rest of the family did, preferring the Game of the Week over a trip to the beach, but it wasn’t like I picked which team I was going to root for. I am sure if I had grown up in a family of Yankee fans I would today be self-absorbed and have an enlarged sense of entitlement. (I kid, I kid.)
Although I did not choose my team, and though my team always lost at the end, the Red Sox were something I wore with pride. I grew up in southeastern Connecticut, where Red Sox fans held a majority position among many dissenters. The Red Sox did not win, but they were good enough so that every year you could construct a plausible case for how they could win. (I know, because I would write up the case, longhand, with tables and charts, in a spiral notebook. “Luis Alvarado will take over at 3B and capture the rookie of the year award, Sonny Siebert will win 18 games, Jerry Moses will club 18 home runs …”). The Red Sox did not finish below .500 until I was out of college. They generally ended up finishing 2nd or 3rd, just good enough so that winning next year seemed possible. I considered myself lucky. I got to root for Tony Conigliaro and Reggie Smith and Luis Tiant, and they won more games than they lost every year. How great was that? I listened to most of their games on the radio, and (by the age of 10) kept score.
This seemed perfectly normal, though perhaps a bit excessive. I was a Red Sox fan, and we were the smartest and best fans in baseball. I knew this because the announcers on the Game of the Week said it, and the national magazine writers wrote it. We never left the game early, knew all the strategy and rules, and cheered good plays by opposing players. Roger Angell, who wrote baseball essays for the New Yorker, regularly mused about Boston’s beautiful ballpark and faithful fans. Even though I only went to a game or two a year, it seemed they were speaking or writing about me. When I became an adult and moved near Boston, I began going to more games and keeping score at the ballpark, proudly sitting amongst my fellow smart and faithful fans. It seemed we were better looking than other fans, too.
The near-misses and disappointments began to pile up, surely. The year-end setbacks of 1972, 1977 and 1978 each hurt in its own way, and the 1974 collapse was a particularly tough blow. But the fun always, always, outweighed the grief. The 1975 World Series is remembered just as much for the great performance of the Red Sox as it is for the champion Reds, the seven-game defeat celebrated more than mourned. After the Series, I wrote a thesis on baseball for my sophomore English class, which was well received by my baseball-loving teacher. When I went away to college in upstate New York in 1978, I was among a lot of Yankees and Mets fans, but I never thought, “Gosh, you guys are lucky that you got to experience a World Championship.” I watched the Bucky Dent Game a few weeks later, in a dormitory lounge surrounded by Yankee hats. I am sure I was hassled about this, but it was (mostly) good-natured. Your team was your team, and I could still talk baseball until 3:00 in the morning with Yankees and Mets fans.
After the brutal loss in the 1986 World Series, the worm began to turn on Red Sox loyalists. For the first time, stories began to appear that we were not only loyal and smart, but also “long suffering” and “wallowing in misery.” (Who, me?) In 1990, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote the book The Curse of the Bambino, which described the history of the Red Sox as a torturous trail of tears, and their fans as cynical brooding people whose identities relied on the pain caused by their team. In Shaughnessy’s world, Red Sox Nation (a term he coined) would crumble to dust if the Red Sox ever won the World Series. And he blamed all of it, especially the 71-year championship drought, on a “curse” placed when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Although most of the premises of the book were nonsense, it sold very well, has been the basis for an HBO documentary, and is still in print 17 years later.
Had the term “Red Sox Nation” been in vogue in 1975, it would have been used to describe a loyal, friendly, intelligent group of fans. There was no wallowing that I was aware of. I recently re-watched the 1975 World Series, and the announcers never mentioned any suffering. The Red Sox were a proud and storied franchise who had not won in 57 years—many teams (the Cubs, the White Sox, and the Phillies) had gone longer, and the great Reds in the opposite dugout had waited 35 years themselves. I believe that the fans Shaughnessy described in his book (“Oh, woe is me”) did not exist in appreciable numbers until he created them. With The Curse, it began to dawn on a segment of Red Sox fans that, by golly, we have suffered. Blaming it all on a curse, or on the sale of Ruth, seemed therapeutic, and more satisfying than passing it all off as a bunch of bad juju.
I moved away from the city in 1993, going clear to the other side of the country. When I told my mother I was moving West, she was mainly amazed that I could leave the Red Sox. In some ways, I have not left them at all, though I have been to Fenway Park less than 10 times since moving. Within a few years I began hearing from friends back in Boston that Red Sox fans had become intolerable. Naturally, I came to their (our?) defense. “You are imagining this,” I told them. “Dan Shaughnessy does not speak for us, stop reading his column.” The good-natured rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees, I was told, had become truly hateful. “Yankees Suck” (or “Jeter Swallows”) T-shirts were being worn by children. Keep score? Nah, they were too busy screaming obscenities about the opposing players.
In 2000, Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson wrote Red Sox Century, an impressive history of the team’s first 100 years. Stout and Johnson rightly ridicule the “curse”, bringing the Red Sox fan back to his or her rightful place of dignity. Instead, they roast the team for 82 years of incompetence and bigotry, in essence claiming the team has not deserved its loyal fans. The problem with the team had not been the sale of Ruth at all. In fact, using tortured and fanciful reasoning, the Ruth sale was proper and defensible, and the ensuing deals which created the first Yankees dynasty were smart trades that just happened to not work out. The holes in their theory are too plentiful for an article of this size, but the book has many things to recommend it, and gives many unknown stories and players their due.
Although a more impressive piece of research than Curse of the Bambino, its tone was unsatisfying in a different way. Tom Yawkey was not the loveable old coot from my youth—he was a racist. For that matter, so were Eddie Collins, Joe Cronin and Mike Higgins. The Red Sox should have had Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, but instead we got Don Buddin and Tommy Umphlett. The authors concluded that the team did not win because they were not good enough to win, and they did not deserve to win.
This is not right either. The Red Sox had lost four World Series in Game 7. Obviously they were good enough to win any of those games, as they had beaten their opponent three times in the Series already. And although it is true that the team was the last to integrate, this sad fact still makes them only marginally more onerous than the team who was second-to-last, or seventh-to-last. When it comes to race, there was a lot of shame to go around in the America of the 1950s, and I am not willing to lay it all on Tom Yawkey.
What was most unsatisfying is that neither book captures all of the fun I have had following the Red Sox. Shaughnessy presented me as living a life of agony, and Stout as wasting my time on a bunch of bigots and losers. In fact, I have enjoyed nearly every minute of it. There are plenty of things about the world that get me aggravated. Following baseball, rooting for the Red Sox, is basically a hell of a lot of fun. My memories of sitting in the stands with my grandfather, or listening to the radio at our cabin in Maine, are not marred by what might have happened in 1949. There was no wallowing.
So in 2004, you may have heard, the Red Sox finally won the World Series. For those who wondered what would happen when this blessed event finally occurred, the answer was: Unconstrained Joy. The biggest celebration in the history of the city. And not just in Boston. The team’s triumph was a great national baseball story.
And now? If the team was ever the “lovable loser,” those days are long gone. The Red Sox have the second highest payroll in the game, which makes its fans’ continued complaints about the Yankees higher payroll seem a bit tacky to the followers of the other 28 teams. Many Red Sox fans who were quick to defend their team’s “choker” label now happily pin the label on the Yankees instead, while reveling in their own team’s show of grit and character. The breaks of 1978 (Lou Piniella’s miracle stab in the playoff game) were just bad luck, while those of 2004 (Tony Clark’s double bouncing into the stands) were forgotten in the rush to make fun of the Yankees.
But that’s not right either. Reading those last sentences over, I see that I am also guilty of painting the picture with too fine of a brush. If there is a Red Sox Nation, it is very fractious and complicated. There is no unanimity of opinion or attitude about the team or anything else. At the end of the day, I should only speak for myself.
“It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived … as a professional sports team,” Roger Angell once wrote. That was 32 years ago, and since then I have taken on a career, a home and a family, and put away (most) childish things. Not all of them. It was the “business of caring,” Angell concluded, that justifies the affiliation. It does not so much matter what one cared about, he wrote, as long as one could retain this feeling in their soul. “Naiveté—the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball—seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”
As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, I submit that the team is no more, and no less, worthy of my caring than they were five years ago, or thirty years ago. The winning has changed the labels applied to me, but the new labels are no more accurate than the old labels. Winning is fun, don’t get me wrong. But I had fun in 1969, when we finished a gentleman’s third. Maybe it was even more fun—I was eight years old, after all. But in thinking it over, I admit that I miss the days when Red Sox fans were admired and thought to be the smartest guy in the room. Maybe we weren’t, but I liked hearing it.
But really, I just want to be treated like any other fan. I know faithful Indians followers, smart Pirates nuts, proud Phillies loyalists, and, yes, kind Yankees fans. My wish is that they all experience the occasional championship banner, but also that they enjoy the journey every year. But none of them, and certainly not I, can represent a Nation, or be made to pay for the sins of their team.
Mark Armour writes baseball from his home in Corvallis, Oregon. He was the co-author, with Dan Levitt, of the award-winning book Paths to Glory, the editor of Rain Check: Baseball in the Pacific Northwest, and the director of SABR's Baseball Biography Project. His next large project is the life of Joe Cronin.