Babe Ruth once got drunk while in Sudbury, Mass., and threw a piano into Willis Pond to show off his strength.
That, at least, is one legend. The other is that Babe and his friends pushed the piano down a hill onto the ice for a party. The Babe’s wife played the piano while everyone else danced and drank. When the party ended, the partygoers found the piano too heavy to push up the hill. So Babe Ruth just left it there to sink when the ice melted.
What isn’t a legend is that people spent a great deal of time and money to find the Babe’s legendary piano in the sludge at the bottom of the pond.
It’s also true that Babe Ruth tried his hand at farming in Sudbury, even after he was sold to the Yankees.
Babe Ruth in Sudbury
Babe Ruth was called up to pitch for the Boston Red Sox in 1914. He liked to eat breakfast at Landers’ Coffee Shop in Boston, where he met and wooed Helen Woodford, a 17-year-old waitress. They were married in the fall of 1914.
He got to know Sudbury because some of his Red Sox teammates owned hunting and fishing camps in Sudbury. He rented a camp in 1917 and 1918, the year the piano landed in the lake.
Ruth pitched the Red Sox to a World Series victory that year. Then in 1919, owner Harry Frazee sold him to the New York Yankees. The Red Sox failed to win a championship for decades. Fans came to blame the team’s losing ways on the Curse of the Bambino, a result of Frazee’s treason.
The Ruths, meanwhile, lived in the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway, home of many celebrities. Helen preferred Sudbury.
Bambino gained weight in 1922 and had a terrible season. He bought the Obadiah Perry Farm and renamed it Home Plate. Henry Ford bought the Wayside Inn a mile down the road. Ford complained that Ruth’s dogs were chasing his chickens. He was miffed the Babe drove a Packard rather than one of his company’s Lincolns, and unsuccessfully tried to sell him a tractor.
The Beery Babe
Babe Ruth told the press he spent the winter o 1922-23 at his new farm, where he chopped wood and tried to lose weight. He kept axes around the property in case reporters showed up, but as soon as they left he hired local teenagers to finish the chopping. He just sat, drank beer and talked to them.
After a snowstorm in January 1923, Babe Ruth nearly cleaned out a South Sudbury grocer, reported the Boston Globe. He and Helen drove to a general store in a one-horse sleigh and stocked up for the next storm. While his wife bought steak, potatoes and carrots, Babe Ruth collected cheese, fancy crackers, marmalade, oranges, chipped beef and bacon. Then he signed a check for $25 with his picture on it. So much for his diet.
He did bring orphaned children out to his farm by the busload. Several times a year he hosted a picnic and a ballgame. Then he sent each kid home with a bat, a ball and a glove. According to local history, Babe brought the piano onto the ice for a children’s party and no alcohol was served – he never drank in front of children.
Farming didn’t go so well for the Sultan of Swat. He bought hundreds of chickens but many died of disease. His pit bull ran loose and killed a neighbor’s prize cow. In 1926 a warrant was issued for his arrest because he didn’t pay his state taxes.
By the summer of 1925, he said he was through with farming, which was fine for a retired businessman but not an active ballplayer. “The place there cost me a good penny,” he told reporters. “When you are not around to supervise, you lose more money.” He sold the farm to Herbert and Esther Arkinson in 1927.
Though Babe Ruth left Sudbury, the legend of the piano persisted. Three sets of boys claimed to have seen it in the pond during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
In December 2001 a local Red Sox fan named Kevin Kennedy persuaded six divers from the Quincy Police Search and Rescue Team to scour the pond for the piano for four hours. They came up empty. Then the next year, John Fish of American Underwater Search and Survey used a magnetometer and sonar equipment to search the pond. Nothing.
A teenaged boy who lived on the site of the former Home Plate was struck by a batted ball in August 2004 during a game between the Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels. Some thought the incident presaged the end of the Curse of the Bambino. The Red Sox won that game and the Yankees lost 22-0 to the Cleveland Indians. The Red Sox then went on to win the World Series.
Jane Leavy, in her 2018 book The Big Fella, solved the mystery of the piano, or at least part of it. The Babe had, indeed, transported an upright piano downhill to the icy surface of Willis Pond one winter day. Helen apparently played it during some revelry al fresco. Then someone pushed it off the ice before the evening ended, but even the Babe couldn’t push it uphill. So there it sat for decades
What Happened to the Piano
In 1964, a first-grader named Charlie Barry and his brother Steve stumbled across the old piano in the woods by the pond. They told their mother, who told a neighbor, who remembered how someone had pushed it off the ice after a party. A few years later the boys built a clubhouse from plywood they borrowed from building sites around the pond. They used it for smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and reading Playboy. And they used the piano’s remains for a toilet.
When the clubhouse began to stink they decided to burn it down. The piano, though, wouldn’t burn, so they threw it into the lake.
In 2010, a local Red Sox fan named Kevin Kennedy persuaded some divers to try again. Charlie Barry, living in Grafton, called the Sudbury Historical Society to say they were looking in the wrong place. Then he drew a map. The divers found a piano leg and a six-foot-square piece of wood they believe belonged to the Bambino’s piano. Two experts — one on wood, one on old pianos — confirmed the wood could belong to a 1920s piano. The divers also believed they’d spotted the harp, but they couldn’t dig it up without an excavation permit and a certified archaeological diver on site.
They placed the wood into the custody of the Sudbury Historical Society, where it sits in storage.
This story about Babe Ruth was updated in 2021.