This Day in Jewish History

2011: Red Sox Manager Who Removed 'Curse of the Bambino' Moves On

Theo Epstein led the Sox to their first World Series win in 86 years, and later took on a bigger challenge: to do the same with the Chicago Cubs.

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On October 21, 2011, Theo Epstein - the man who in 2002 made the baseball record books by becoming the youngest general manager in the history of the game, and who two years later led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series win in 86 years - announced his resignation from the team. It soon became apparent that Epstein had accepted an offer to become president of the Chicago Cubs, probably the only Major League team with a worse curse hanging over it than the one Epstein had helped the Red Sox shake.

In a rare interview, the publicity-shy Epstein told journalist Mark Leibovich, who profiled him last year in the book “Jewish Jocks,” that he had long felt some guilt over working in sports instead of doing something “more worthwhile.” His twin brother, Paul, for example, is a social worker, and Theo told Leibovich that he serves as his "moral compass.”

When he decided to end his contract with Boston a year early, in fact, he was considering leaving baseball altogether, and maybe, for example, going to work for a group lobbying for handgun control (this was in the wake of the January 2011 shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, in which she was severely injured and six others killed). In the end, however, the position with the Cubs had opened up – and a five-year contract worth more than $18 million for Epstein – and he decided to stick with the not-so-worthwhile life.

Theo Nathan Epstein was born December 29, 1973, the youngest (by 60 seconds, after Paul, his fraternal twin) of the three children of Leslie and Ilene Epstein. Ilene is the co-owner of a women’s clothing store, The Studio, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the town where Theo grew up and his parents still live. Leslie is a novelist and the head of the creative writing program at Boston University. Leslie’s father was Philip Epstein, who, together with his brother, Julius, wrote – and won the Oscar for – the screenplay of “Casablanca,” in 1942.

Theo Epstein attended Brookline High School (he was a pitcher on the school’s baseball team) in the prosperous, largely Jewish Boston suburb of the same name, although he has said that he was raised with very minimal exposure to Jewish practice or education – no brit and no bar mitzvah, according to Leibovich. This is a little surprising, if only because his father is so strongly identified as a writer who deals with Jewish themes, including in, most famously, his 1978 novel “King of the Jews,” about a Judenrat head in a Polish ghetto during the Holocaust, loosely based on the real-life figure of Chaim Rumkowski, who ruled over the Jewish ghetto in Lodz.

Paul Epstein told Mark Leibovich that, because he and his siblings (there is also an older sister, Anya, a television screenwriter) were not interested in Hebrew school, their father had them read books by Jewish writers. “Sort of a homeschooling attempt,” he’s quoted as saying in “Jewish Jocks.” “We had to memorize an Isaac Bashevis Singer passage or some s[---] like that.”

Theo was educated at Yale University, and he attended, and received a law degree from, the University of San Diego. He studied law, full-time, while he was working at the San Diego Padres, the city’s National League team, where he started doing publicity and soon became director of baseball operations, a position that has responsibility for contract negotiations with players.

When Padres president Larry Lucchino was hired as CEO and president of the Red Sox, in November 2002, he invited Epstein, then 28 years old, to join him as general manager of the team. Within two years, the team had won the World Series, breaking the so-called “Curse of the Bambino” – referring to the fact that the team had not won a championship since shortly before it traded Babe Ruth (to the New York Yankees, no less), in 1919. Understandably, Boston fans had developed some fairly severe psychological issues in the near-century that ensued, and the World Series victory served as a major breakthrough for the city.

The frustration of Boston fans was in large part due to the fact that their team was overall a strong one, and that there were many seasons where the Red Sox allowed defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory.

Taking on the challenge of the Cubs was something else entirely. The team, founded in 1870, has not won a World Series since 1908. The Cubs haven’t even competed in the World Series since 1945. That was the year that the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern placed a curse on the team, after he and his pet goat were asked to leave a series game. Specifically, what Billy Sianis said was, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”

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As of October 2013, the curse is still in full force; the Cubs ended the season with the worst record in the National League Central Division, with 66 wins and 96 defeats. On September 30, a day after their final game – a 4-0 loss to the Cardinals, winners of this year’s NL pennant – the team fired Dale Sveum, the general manager brought in by Epstein two years earlier. Epstein’s rebuilding work with the team continues.

In the meantime, while Epstein continues to dabble in baseball, he also oversees a charitable foundation, together with his brother, Paul: The Foundation to Be Named Later (the name is a play on the phrase frequently heard in baseball transactions, when a trade between teams includes a “player to be named later”). It raises money for programs aimed to help disadvantaged youth in the Boston area.

Theo Epstein married Marie Whitney, a Roman Catholic, in 2007. They have a 5-year-old son.