The difficulty in chronicling 85 years of Red Sox misfortune is that it’s impossible to cover all the bases in an hour. So HBO has chosen a tone that is part documentary and part tongue-in-cheek for its “Sports of the 20th Century” special “The Curse of the Bambino.” Presumably to dull the pain.
Folksy first-person narrator and noted Sox fan Ben Affleck, plus a Greek chorus of celeb Bostonians — Steven Wright, Mike O’Malley, Denis Leary, Michael Chiklis — wax philosophical on life, loss and the national pastime. Docu tells the story of how the Red Sox won five of the first 15 World Series before owner Harry Frazee, a Gotham theater mogul, sold Babe Ruth, the best left-handed pitcher in the game, to the sorry New York Yankees in 1920, ostensibly to finance the tuner “No No Nanette.” Ruth became the best slugger in the game, and the championship tally since then is Yankees 26, Red Sox 0.
While “Bambino” breaks no fresh ground, it entertainingly collects what’s available, recalling that after a curse-doubting Pedro Martinez called out the Babe, threatening to “drill him in the ass” with a pitch, he didn’t win a game for the rest of the season.
Among expert witnesses to the curse, producer George Roy and writer Steve Stern wisely include historian/contrarian Glenn Stout (whose “Red Sox Century,” written with Richard Johnson, is a must-read for any Sox fan).
Well-documented efforts to “reverse the curse” include one fan attempting to raise Ruth’s sunken piano from a local pond and another who climbed Mt. Everest, consulted a holy man and planted a Red Sox cap on the summit while burning a Yankee cap back at base camp. The latter sadly admits his efforts were in vain.
To make room for the panoply of off-the-field antics, doc chronicles most of the ironies on the field via quick flashes that will play to fans familiar with the drill, but are likely to just wash over the uninitiated.
“Bambino” lingers on just two of the most famously accursed moments in Sox history — the team’s 1978 playoff loss to the Yankees and the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, capped by the ground ball that trickled between Bill Buckner’s legs.
The docu draws out the moment to full advantage, apportioning the pain among three sets of fans, including a man who awakened his small son to witness historic triumph and instead introduced him to improbable despair.
But “Bambino” also acknowledges more concrete reasons for the curse, noting the team’s woeful history of race relations. For instance, given the chance to integrate the team with a young Willie Mays, they curtly declined.
Repeated hazy interstitial cutaways to an actor in a baseball uniform, circa 1918, waste time that could have been better spent elsewhere. Music, by Brian Keane, strikes just the right tone between grim foreboding and Keystone Kops incompetence.