Musings: When The Legend Becomes Fact

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author

                                                 WHEN THE LEGEND BECOMES FACT
 

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That line, the most famous from what is arguably the greatest Western film ever made,
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” was brought to mind at the recent Red Sox
Alumni Reunion Game at Fenway Park.
First, to put the line in context, the film, directed by John Ford, starred James Stewart as a
high-minded, tenderfoot, Eastern lawyer; John Wayne as the ultimate John Wayne
character, a tough but fair-minded rancher; and Lee Marvin, who plays the title character,
Liberty Valance, with gusto and malevolence. They are backed by a supporting cast that
includes Vera Miles, Andy Devine, Edmund O’Brien, Ken Murray, and John Carradine.
Talk about bench strength!
The story opens with Stewart, a long-time senator from an unnamed Western state,
returning to the town of Shinbone for a for a little known rancher’s funeral. A newspaper
reporter asks why he has traveled all the way from Washington for an obscure man’s
funeral, and Stewart relates his story in flashback. The Marvin character, who has been
terrorrizing town residents for years, tells Stewart to get out of town or else meet him in
the street for a showdown. Rather than leave, the Stewart character, inept at using a six
shooter, goes ahead with the showdown. After first wounding him, Marvin’s character
brags that the next bullet will be “right between the eyes.” Stewart fires his gun and
Marvin falls into the street, dead. Stewart is hailed by the townspeople as a hero, “The
man who shot Liberty Valance.” It is only later that the John Wayne character reveals to
him that he had been hiddden in an alley, that he’d fired his gun at the same time as
Stewart, and that it had been his shot that killed Liberty Valance. But by then Sewart’s
reputation as a hero was firmly set in people’s minds. He went on to become governor
and then senator.
Stewart, as the elder statesman, explains to the newspaper reporter that the man in the
coffin, the John Wayne character, was the real hero of the story. The reporter then throws
his notes into the fireplace. “This is the West, sir,” he explains. “When the legend
becomes fact, print the legend.”
Which brings us to the Red Sox alumni game.

One of the participants was Wade Boggs, the Hall of Fame third baseman. When he was
introduced to the crowd he was warmly received, and when he took his position at third
he was clearly enjoying himself and he even wore a microphone so he could
communicate with the TV announcers as the game progressed. He was playing the role of
what he is, a Red Sox legend.
This, however, is an undeniable fact: when he played for the Red Sox he was never as
popular as he should have been. He had a .338 batting average over eleven seasons while
with the team, he won five batting titles, and he had seven consecutive seasons of more
than 200 hits. Yet he had his critics; there were those who claimed that he was too
wrapped up in his own statistics, others thought that he sacificed too much power for
singles and doubles. In addition, he was a bundle of superstitions and indiosyncracies;
eating chicken before every game was the least of them. He had a gargantuan appetite for
beer, laying claim to drinking more than 100 beers in a single session (think about that
for a moment). He was also, by his own admission, a sex addict. For several seasons he
had a “road wife,” someone he would take-along on road trips for – well, you know what
for. Amazingly, his marriage has survived all that and he and his wife Debbie remain
very close.
The end result is that with all those distractions, Boggs was vastly under-appreciated
when he was in Boston. He was a great hitter and, through hard work, made himself into
a gold glove defender. Despite that, when Boggs had an off-year in 1992, a contract year,
the Red Sox let him walk, not even making a contract offer. His relationship with the
only franchise for which he had ever played was broken.
Boggs signed with the Yankees for whom he had five productive seasons, including a
World Series championship. He finished up his career playing two seasons with the
Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
.
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005, but it wasn’t until eleven years
later, when the Red Sox finally chose to put his number 26 on the façade in right field,
next to the retired numbers of other Red Sox greats, that things changed. Something
happened that night and it was reaffirmed at the recent alumni game. Boggs became
emotional the night in 2016 that his number was retired, and the crowd seemed to
recongnize, at last, what a great player he had been. He had been bitter toward the Red
Sox when he left town, and the team and its fan base had been indifferent toward him.
Now all that was forgotten; he was part of the family once again.
To put it succinctly, he had become a Red Sox legend.
And when the legend becomes becomes fact, print the legend. It was about time.