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The International Writers Magazine

The Versions of the Babe
With apologies to J.L. Borges“One must destroy one’s opponent’s seriousness with laughter, and their laughter with seriousness.”
-Gorgias, fifth century B.C.E.
Thomas Foster

In Paris or in London, in the eighteenth century of our faith, when Voltaire constructed his Philosophical Dictionary and its distastes for improbable prodigies and pious myths, Dr. Rudolf Duncan would have held, with passionate intent, coffeehouse court. Jonathan Edwards in his own time would have cast him, with an angry flick of a bony finger at the tenuous strand that held him, into the abysmal fires. Instead, God afforded Duncan the turn into the twenty-first century and the college town of Boston. There, in 1991, he published the first edition of Barrow vs. The Sox, and in 2003, A Failed Nation.

Before going any deeper into an examination of the aforementioned works it is necessary to repeat that Dr. Rudolf Duncan, historian and amateur psychologist, was a perseverant Red Sox fan. Duncan’s theses, however, were blasphemy in the circles of the loyal Nation and are now considered frivolous and useless exercises, rarely found outside the dust-settled corners of exhaustive memorabilia shops. For Duncan they contained the central mystery of what for his lifetime was the conundrum of all New England. In 1967 Dr. Duncan, aged seven, was forged in the cauldron of the family den in Newton. The hulking, jerking bodies of his father and uncles as they lurched from couch to kitchen, from despair to the desperate ecstasies as the Sox fought back from three games to one only to fizzle out (7-2) in game seven, were to become primal ritual in his psyche, repeated twice again before he would write his first book on the subject.

The first edition of Barrow vs. The Sox bears the following demonstrative epigraph, whose meaning, years later, Dr. Rudolf Duncan would monstrously expand: “Any discussion that, in the nature of ridiculous superstition, the Babe and his storied trade, in 1920, to the Yankees possesses a thread of a Curse, is false.” At the time, it is noted, the belief in any sort of curse, per se, was in a very nascent stage in the years following the 1986 debacle and mostly the result of deadline-produced musings of Vescey and Shaughnessy. However, Duncan was proceeding from a hypothesis long in development. The facts, he makes plain, are thus: Harry Frazee, a theater producer, bought the Red Sox in 1916 and with a free-spending hand, assembled the era’s most talented team. Ban Johnson, president of the American league was bitterly opposed to Frazee, whether based on his misperception of Frazee’s religious identity (The Broadway mogul was often conveyed by other owners in the league, in a way that was not misunderstood, to be ‘too New York’.) or because he deeply resented Frazee’s flaunting of his iron rule over the League; Johnson forbid Frazee to trade star pitcher Carl Mays after Mays stormed out of the clubhouse disparaging his teammates lack of support. Frazee traded him promptly to the Yankees. Thereafter, Johnson forbade the teams in his American League to do business with Frazee, and with the exception of the Yankees, they did just so. Dr. Duncan tips us off to the barstool friendship of the Red Sox owner and Yankee co-owner Col. T. L. ‘Cap’ Huston for the uncomplicated channel. Mounting capital needs prompt Frazee to make use of this well-oiled relationship and over the next three years a battery of world class players, including Waite Hoyt, Wally Schang, Harry Harper, Mike McNally, ‘Bullet Joe’ Bush, and ‘Sad’ Sam Jones to say nothing of a George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth, whose play, while sensational, bore little resemblance to the legendary figure that he would become (arguments are also made that Ruth was highly unmanageable, though Dr. Duncan dismisses them primarily). It might be said, Duncan follows, that the winning Yankee teams of the twenties (beginning in ’23) were essentially Red Sox rosters.

At the heart of Dr. Rudolph Duncan’s thesis is the, while not overlooked, undervalued critical point of departure between the winning arrogance and swagger of the Red Sox of 1918, ‘16, ‘15, and ‘12 and the leviathan rise of the New York Yankees. Concurrent with the Bronx bound sleeper cars chugging out of South Station, Frazee recommended that Sox manager, ‘Cousin’ Ed Barrow, take the General Manager position made available by the passing of Harry Sparrow(a curious rhyme, Dr. Rudolph would note as he slipped further into delirium). Barrow took the job and a long and winding career, beginning with management in Detroit, then concessioning in Pittsburg, finding Honus Wagner in New Jersey, and winning the penultimate Red Sox victory, began to translate into legend; the development of the major leagues’ most sophisticated farm system, a storied fourteen pennants and ten world championships as a hated Yankee. Dr. Duncan postulates that herein lies the classic hero/anti-hero paradigm that has plagued the Red Sox Nation for hapless decades. He was reacting to the greedy acceptance by the Nation of Frazee as Villian, an easy fix to ease the pain of twenty-plus years of good but fruitless baseball. Rather, in Ed Barrow, we discover the Anti-hero, the man engendered with the virtues of determination, a yen for victory, the ability to produce under the aegis of a hated team that had all they seemed would never. The Blame belongs to the shedding of Barrow for in doing so a culture of winning was allowed to slip into the rival’s dish. The Babe’s own retort, “Without me, the Red Sox will never win another world series,” was not a prophetic finger pointed, rather the high water mark of the Red Sox will to win. It was the will of Barrow, Duncan concludes, in the decades that followed that drove his teams to success. In Boston, the will simply withered.

Fans and sportswriters of all description refuted him. Gavin Banek, of the Globe, accused him of phony psychological flimflammery; was not Duncan’s purported belief in the will of one man not tantamount to a curse of its own sort? Holden McNeil, Royal Rooters spokesman, in a pamphlet titled, If You Meet the Bambino on the Road, Kill Him, rattled on the litanies of algorithm and coincidental logic generated between Bucky and Buckner to disprove him.

These varied anathemas took their toll on Dr. Rudolf Duncan, who published a second and third edition of Barrow. These began to take a particularly sour tone about the homeland in particular. He ravaged the Sox front office; it’s years of institutionalized failure, the good old boy days of the drunken Yawkey era. He further attributed the crimes of a losing culture to a fan base that booed and hissed a young Ted Williams so, that after a hall of fame career that included the last time a four-hundred average was recorded, he refused to tip his cap after the home run of his final at-bat; that sent Roger Clemens packing to Toronto as washed up, accusing Pesky of holding the ball. Toward the end of 1999 an epilogue of Barrow vs. The Sox began to draw mysterious allusions to magnetic historical patterns repeating themselves again and again; Don Zimmer, manager in the year of the Dent homerun, residing beside Joe Torre at Century’s End; Boggs horseback at the stadium in ’96; Roger collecting another Cy Young and finally two rings in pinstripes. Who would be next?
Most have discovered post factum, which Dr. Duncan’s analyses, as the political situation in the country worsened along with his hair-pulling hysteria over his team’s rising and tortuous fortune, began to deteriorate after the year 2000. A Failed Nation is accepted as a perversion or exasperation of Barrow vs.
The Sox. He begins with a breathless refutation of a popular New England belief that the Babe prior to his career with the Yankees was unworthy of further investment, that Frazee had to trade this ‘clubhouse’ poison, his carousing and flaunting of club rules, his diminished play in 1919. This drove Dr. Duncan wild, for several reasons. One, it was pure rationalization, like the congregation preaching apostasy from the choir in some kind of anti-curse hocus pocus. It tried to employ false logic: the Babe slumped early in the year, then finished with a major league record twenty-nine homeruns; Barrow had already established his rule with Ruth.
The mangled logic of A Failed Nation reveals the flux of Dr. Rudolph Duncan’s heart; he was beginning to believe. Discussions of high on-base-percentage hitters and ground out pitchers bleed into a dystopic nightmare where the will to win and to lose become interchangeable in the caldera of Yankee Stadium and the Boston psyche of failure stretches back into the recesses of Jungian unconsciousness to literally spew Wakefield’s pitch from the plate into infamy.

He was reviled and dismissed. In the halls at Harvard he was avoided, left muttering to himself. An atheist since he was a teenager, he found himself in the front seat of his car outside the Broadway garage musing that were there any gods at all then there must be gods of baseball. And they were capricious gods whose demands were childishly unfathomable, turning on a finicky dime, rhythms subject to change without notice.
The season of 2004 rolled and jerked, Dr. Rudolph Duncan was irascible and distracted. That year’s team pagan and hairy, another beloved player dispatched in poor faith, a sagging ten and a half games behind in September. Dr. Duncan had difficulty focusing, jarred completely one afternoon at the Widener Library when he stumbled upon a photograph while preparing a paper on the upcoming election. At the ballpark at Yale University, on the mound the captain of the Yale team, George Herbert Walker Bush, receives an autographed copy of The Babe Ruth Story from the Babe himself. The photo was dated June, 1948, two months before he died. Dr. Rudolph Duncan fell apart completely. Hot truth stabbed at him from beyond; strange connective patterns became half revealed, he was at once aware of his proximity to some indecipherable sefirot maddeningly encoded repeatedly with the letter ‘B’. It could be no curse but the work of vile men and arcane magic! Boone, Bucky, Babe, and Bush! Wasn’t there a Leslie “Bullet Joe” Bush pitching for the Red Sox in ’18? 15-15, with a 2.11 era? 19-15 in ’23 with the Yankees? No connection, or so the records provided.

He watched with a disbelieving horror as the Red Sox dispatched the Angels in three straight. From behind split fingers cast before his eyes he watched as they crawled, inning after extra inning back against the Yankees, echoes of ’67 clamoring in his mind like steel barrels tossed around an empty warehouse. The specter of a Houston/Massachusetts series reared; Biggio, Berkman, Beltran, Bush! The series that year, as it is well-remembered, took place between the Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals.
A full moon loomed, a total lunar eclipse came upon it. Dr. Duncan collapsed outside a Cambridge tavern on the afternoon of October 26th, 2004, tripped it would seem by the heavy closing of the bar door.
Heresiologists, though, will perhaps remember him as caught, like a fleeing cuff, in the vise of history as the tide of arrogance and swagger returned to Boston.

© Thomas Foster November 2004
itstf at

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