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John Henry’s Legacy Is On The Line

What if the same man who helped break the curse ends up ushering in a new one?

John Henry sits and ponders how he’ll be judged for his baseball sins.
Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Of all the lasting and iconic images from the fall of 2004, there’s one particular Red Sox related memory that will forever be burned into my brain. It didn’t happen on the field, nor was it part of the raucous celebrations that occurred thereafter. Instead, it was quiet, cathartic, and, at first glace, seemingly unspectacular. But then I realized the scene was playing out over and over again; not just in front of me, but simultaneously throughout all of New England and, for that matter, likely beyond it.

“Isn’t it odd” I thought to myself, “that the greatest sports moment many people will ever experience in their life is most palpably projected in a place known for death?”

The cemeteries had transformed!

Bill Nemitz

All across the region, gravestones were covered in Red Sox memorabilia; and after seeing enough to ensure this wasn’t a coincidence, the epiphany arrived. The Red Sox experience transcended death! The baseball bond between generations of New Englanders was so strong, tens of thousands of people felt the urge to visit their deceased family and friends. People who had spent their entire lives rooting for the Red Sox, yet never saw them win a single World Series. They did it just to place something Red Sox related by the plot. To provide a token of kinship, as if to say “The Red Sox actually won the World Series! Now you can finally rest in piece.”

Twenty years later, the concept seems almost foreign. The Red Sox have more World Series trophies than any team in baseball since the turn of the century, and nothing like 2004 could ever happen again. The Curse of the Bambino is broken, and it’s been dead for two decades.

Only that’s not quite accurate. The reality is the Curse of the Bambino was really the Curse of Harry Frazee. The hex of an owner who decided that other endeavors were not only more important than his baseball team, but were apparently so important that he was going to use his baseball team to funnel cash into those outside pet projects. For Frazee, it was theatre ventures. And in order to cover those expenses, he not only sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, but a whole bunch of other players as well.

If you visit the baseball reference page of the 1918 Red Sox, you will find the pictures of the top twelve players ordered by WAR (Wins Above Replacement) posted for that season. The pictures of the men who propelled the Red Sox to what would be their fifth and final World Series victory of the 20th century. I’ve listed them here:

Babe Ruth, Harry Hooper, Carl Mays, Bullet Joe Bush, Dave Shean, Stuff McInnis, Everett Scott, Amos Strunk, Sad Sam Jones, Wally Schang, Fred Thomas, George Whiteman

Why are six of those names in bold? Because all of those players were also on the 1923 Yankees, the first World Series winning team ever for that loathsome franchise. The balance of power between the Red Sox and Yankees shifted not just because the greatest player in the game was sold off to the Yankees, but because Harry Frazee decided to use the Red Sox as a cash machine and sell off ALL of the good players to fund his other interests. In total, he sold twelve players to the Yankees, but he didn’t stop there: Every other player on that list who continued to play baseball after the 1918 World Series ended up playing for another team afterwards. Frazee burnt the operation to the ground and sent the franchise into a tailspin that it would take decades to recover from.

So let’s fast forward 100 years. If you visit the baseball reference page of the 2018 Red Sox, you will find the pictures of the top twelve players ordered by WAR (Wins Above Replacement) posted for that season. The pictures of the men who propelled the Red Sox to what would be their fourth and ... [gulp]. Let’s just get to the names:

Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, David Price, Rick Porcello, Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Rodriguez, Craig Kimbrel, Mitch Moreland, Ryan Brasier.

Why are five of those names in bold? Because all five of them ended up on the Dodgers at some point following the 2018 World Series. (And we’re not even including Joe Kelly.)

Upon closer look, something else is also sadly similar to the 1918 list above. All twelve of the players listed here from the 2018 Red Sox ended up on other teams. Once again, after starting the century off as the best franchise in the sport, the operation appears to be getting stripped to the ground because the owner wants to use the ballclub as a mechanism to funnel cash into his other ventures. Namely Fenway Sports Group (FSG) and all the features that come along with that bloated conglomerate.

Now to be fair, Mookie Betts is not Babe Ruth, the 2018 Red Sox are not the 1918 Red Sox, and the 21st century Dodgers aren’t last century’s Yankees (they haven’t even figured out the month of October, never mind 100 years of dominance), but the parallels here are alarmingly similar.

Los Angeles Dodgers vs Tampa Bay Rays, 2020 World Series Set Number: X163437

Along those same lines, John Henry is not Harry Frazee — but boy could he end up destroying his legacy to the point that he ends up far closer to Frazee than once ever thought possible. Like Frazee, Henry grew up on the outskirts of Illinois. Henry in Quincy, a town with a population of around 40,000 when he was growing up, and Frazee in Peoria, a town with a population of around 40,000 when he was growing up in the 1890s.

But their paths diverged wildly from there until you reach the point where they both became owners of the Red Sox. Even so, most of their tenure atop Boston’s most prestigious post were polar opposites, or at least they were until recently. Frazee failed to put the Red Sox first during his entire brief but destructive stint with the Sox. Henry on the other hand presided over two wonderful decades, and then morphed into Frazee.

In one sense, Henry’s actions make perfect sense from the perspective of a billionaire. (Just keep growing that portfolio baby!) But on another, far more important and longer lasting scale, Henry’s actions are mind boggling. Without following in Frazee’s footsteps, Henry has a chance to be known as the man whole piled up so many championships in Boston during his few decades as leader of the club that they ultimately couldn’t be caught in the battle for the team of the century. Just like they were 100 years ago, the Red Sox are leading the pack in that race right now.

Henry would not only be known as the man who broke the curse, but as the man who revitalized the franchise to the point that he wrestled back what Frazee stole from fans a century ago. And he could preside over all of it as undisputed king!

Instead, he’s penning his own Flowers for Algernon story with the Red Sox as the test subject. He’s exposing himself to the ideology of a cancer cell, where nothing matters except the endless growth of his mismatched empire, where he leaves only a soulless corpse behind where the once vibrant original host stood. He’s leaving his legacy vulnerable to become Harry Effing Frazee!

Maybe being a billionaire just breaks your brain. Maybe the money consumes you with such a tight grip that you’re unable to see the importance of anything else in the world. But wow is it hard for me to conceive that anybody who’s soared to the heights Henry has in this sport would jeopardize their legacy the way he’s doing now. True madness!

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Later on this year, John Henry will celebrate his 75th birthday; that’s a pretty significant milestone, which one might use to realign their priories. The final act will soon be upon him, just as it eventually comes upon us all.

However, there’s a key difference here. Few will ever have the potential variance in a legacy that John Henry has as he approaches this age. Right now, he could still be more Ebenezer Scrooge than Harry Frazee, and a good reflection of Red Sox past, present and future might be in order here. But either way, how he handles the next decade or so is going to make a monumental difference in the way he’s ultimately perceived. Does he reengage and become the engine to another Sox title(s)? Or does he continue down the road he’s on now and let the franchise rot out the way it did in the 1920s and 1930s?

Ultimately, John Henry won’t be taking any of his money with him when he dies. But his Red Sox legacy? That’s going to transcend death. Just as the Red Sox experience did for so many fans two decades ago.