For sale: famous Babe Ruth contract

Sotheby's auction punctuates a shift in Red Sox-Yankees rivalry

In New York a year ago, when Boston fans would wear those faded, faux-aged Red Sox caps, they'd usually have to endure the familiar taunt: "Nineteen-eighteen! Nineteen-eighteen!"

Few New York Yankee fans are taunting now, of course, after the Red Sox completed their unprecedented comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit in last year's American League Championship. Their World Series win ended 86 years of futility - putting to rest the so-called "curse of the Bambino," the fateful sale that sent Boston's pitching and slugging phenom to the then-hapless New York club.

So Friday, when Sotheby's plans to auction off the original 1919 contract that brought Babe Ruth to the Yankees, it will be missing some of the aura that had come to define the most lopsided and bitter rivalry in sports.

See, it is not that the Yankees finally lost. It was the way they lost, an epic collapse that was, well, positively Bostonian - but an order of magnitude worse. It was as if the baseball universe had been altered, decades of self-definition had been skewed, an established baseball aesthetic forever changed.

Consider the Boston baseball aesthetic: Beat-up blue and scarlet-lettered hats, worn as a monk would wear a cilice, seeming to symbolize a self-flagellating devotion to a team paying a heavy price for selling the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Or the Yankee aesthetic: Sharp pinstripes set on white, worn as a successful CEO would wear a suit, seeming to symbolize the swagger of a team reaping the benefits of a shrewd investment in the greatest baseball player who ever lived.

So, while the yellowed five-page contract, still stained with the rust of a paper clip that held it together, remains the record of a deal that changed the course of American sports and helped define popular culture by creating the first superstar, it no longer has the mystical power that some had given it.

In some ways, the rivalry, though still fierce, has forever changed. It's become more normal. The Yankee pinstripes, the Yankee mystique first brought by Babe Ruth, must bear the fact of having lost in a way no other team has. Boston need not fear another Buckneresque collapse, given its epic comeback.

The current owner of the contract, Alan Feinstein, a Rhode Island philanthropist, always said he would sell the papers when the Red Sox won the World Series. He plans to use all the profits to help fund organizations that assist the needy. When he bought it 12 years ago for $99,000, he made thousands of copies, selling them and using the proceeds to help fund hunger-relief agencies around the country.

"I figured that maybe we could bring some good back to New England out of that awful sale," Mr. Feinstein says. Over the years, he says, he has made more than $1 million for charity by giving out copies of the contract in exchange for a $30 donation.

Sotheby's expects the Babe Ruth contract to sell for approximately $500,000, possibly more.

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