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Exit, stage left

Damon just latest talent to depart city

You can't call the departure of Johnny Damon for Yankee Stadium a case of brain drain because there isn't much brain to drain. Any doubts about that were put to rest with the removal of his tresses in a tony Manhattan hair salon, and we now see he closely resembles an early hominid of the Middle Paleolithic Era.

Still, his exit is the latest in a long list by local talent, native or otherwise, who for centuries have quit Boston for greener pastures in every sense of the term. Beyond the eclat and afterglow of our revolutionary moment, this place has rarely been considered the big leagues.

Consider Sir David Ochterlony, born here in 1758, who became a general in the army of Britain's East India company and helped conquer Nepal. He picked up a baronetcy along the way.

John Singleton Copley, the Bostonian who painted some of the most exquisite portraits of the 18th century, hightailed it for England, where he remained for the rest of his days. Henry Adams, despite his echt Boston lineage, left town for Washington and Paris.

Samuel F.B. Morse, the telegraph guy, began in Charlestown and skedaddled for brighter lights in New York and beyond. Movie producer Joseph E. Levine couldn't find enough juice in his native Boston. John Cheever of Quincy and Leonard Bernstein of Lawrence fled the area to pursue their art and never looked back. The list goes on and on. (Can you imagine Bostonian Barbara Walters spreading her wings at a network affiliate here?)

When we're talking Boston brain drain, though, nothing rivals the departure in 1723 of 17-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who, on a slow day, made Thomas Jefferson seem learning-impaired. The Hub just wasn't big enough for the kid, who also found life unamusing as an apprentice to his dictatorial older half-brother, James, publisher of the city's first opposition newspaper, the feisty New-England Courant.

Ben wanted to run with a group of writers called ''the Hell-Fire Club" who lived to criticize government.

Before he left Boston for New York and then Philadelphia, he began writing essays published in the Courant under the pen name of a fictitious widow called ''Silence Dogood." There were 14 in all, rippling with parody about the strictures of what was then still a Puritan society.

Unlike its tamer competitors, the Courant delighted in taking potshots at the hypocrisy of the Puritan establishment. ''The Franklin brothers went right after Samuel Sewall," says my man Peter Drummey, librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, about the powerful Boston merchant and one of the judges who presided over the heinous Salem witch trial.

Acting for the legislature, Sewall in turn signed the complaint in 1722 against the elder Franklin and his paper after it alleged government collusion with pirates. Sewall told Franklin he could continue to publish only if the paper were examined in advance by authorities. (This was probably Boston's first case of prior restraint.)

James Franklin, to his everlasting credit, said nuts and was jailed. Before entering the slammer, though, he transferred the title of publisher to Ben to keep the paper running. But James kept another document still holding Ben in apprenticeship upon James's release. ''His brother made it impossible for Ben to work elsewhere in Boston," says Drummey. Facing more apprentice misery, he bolted.

Franklin was the worst case of brain drain in Boston's history. He began as one of ours and we lost him, but we should still celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth next month.

Like so much else in life, though, this is harder than it looks. Philadelphia, his adopted home, along with every historical reference I could find, puts his arrival in a house on Milk Street at Jan. 17, 1706. But this date comes after the conversion of the Julian to the Gregorian calendar here later in the 18th century.

Drummey contends that the big day is really Jan. 6, his actual date of birth under the Julian calendar in play at the time. I'm with him. Let's stay with the original, not some fatuous Gregorian makeover.

So it will be Jan. 6 when the historical society opens its doors to an exhibit on Franklin, native son.

Among the documents on display will be all the ''Silence Dogood" offerings as well as the memorable letter Franklin wrote on May 12, 1784 as an old man from the lovely Paris suburb of Passy to his friend Samuel Mather in Boston. Then 79, he expressed his affection for our city: ''I long much to see again my native place, and once hoped to lay my bones there."

He notes that he visited the city every 10 years since his departure through 1763, after which war and public duties prevented him from doing so. ''And now I fear I shall never have that happiness."

These may be wistful displays of deep emotion or simply the polite reflections of someone living in comfort an ocean away about a place and time in his distant past that are easy to romanticize. Maybe both. Who knows?

''It's perfect Franklin," says Drummey.

Sam Allis can be contacted at allis@globe.com

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