The Red Sox Nation is about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of Fenway Park, the oldest Major League Baseball stadium in use. The Boston landmark, which hosted its first American League game on April 20, 1912, has since achieved a status in America sports history unrivaled among inanimate legends. Praise for Fenway runs the gamut from literary understatement to wry humor to dead-on accuracy."Fenway Park is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark," John Updike wrote in 1960.
"As I grew up," offered A. Bartlett Giamatti, commissioner of baseball in 1989, "I knew that as a building it was on the level of Mount Olympus, the Pyramid of Giza, the nation's capital, the czar's winter palace, and the Louvre -- except, of course, that it was better than all of those inconsequential places."
"To generations of Americans, going to Fenway Park has been like coming home," ballpark expert Curt Smith concluded in 1999.
The history of baseball in Boston is long and colorful. Hub fans revel in their horsehide heritage, which parallels that of professional baseball in the United States. Despite a rough patch without a World Series championship, 1919-2003, Beantown fans have a right to be proud.
CHARLES TAYLOR. The Cincinnati Red Stockings led the way in American professional baseball in 1869. Two years later, their outfielder and captain Harry Wright moved the team to Boston, and joined the brand new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. The Boston Nationals won four straight association championships, 1872-1875, while drawing large crowds to their home field, the South End Grounds. The park was located near the current Ruggles train station at Northeastern University.
The National League of Professional Baseball Clubs replaced the fading Association in 1876, and the Boston club became known by a series of names, including Red Caps, Beaneaters and Braves. They also played in three different versions of the South End Grounds as fire destroyed numbers I and II.
This team was not a Red Sox ancestor, despite the footwear connection. The NL club finally settled on the name Braves, moved to Milwaukee in 1953, and then again in 1966 to become the Atlanta Braves.
In 1901, snake oil salesman and promoter extraordinaire Ban Johnson opened the American League for business. He installed a team in Boston, bankrolled by Cleveland coal baron Charles Somers. In turn, Somers built a ballpark for the team on Huntington Avenue near the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed wetlands park, the Back Bay Fens, just a few blocks from the flammable South End Grounds.
A number of NL players jumped ship to the new league, including Boston Nationals third baseman and captain, Jimmy Collins, and a decent St. Louis pitcher -- Cy Young. Success bloomed quickly, and in 1903, the "Americans" won the inaugural World Series over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"Boston Globe" publisher and Civil War veteran Charles "General" Taylor bought the Americans in 1904 and installed his playboy son, John, as president. Prior to the 1908 season, Johnny named the team the Red Sox, pinching the nickname variation from the Nationals. The nearby rivals had ceased wearing red stockings in 1907, reportedly because team officials feared the red dye might cause spike wounds to fester.
It sounds farfetched today, but generations of players wore "sanitaries," white calf-high socks under their colored stirrup socks for that reason. Sox are a mystery now for the many players who favor long, droopy pants that obscure both ankles and important shoe manufacturers' logos.
The team's popularity soon merited a larger ballpark, and the Taylor family went to work on that in 1911.
JAMES MCLAUGHLIN. General Taylor bought an eight-acre land parcel on Feb. 26 for $120,000 in Boston's Fenway area, named for the Fens Park. Just east of Brookline Avenue, the lot was bounded on the north by Lansdowne Street, on the east by Ipswitch Street and the Fenway Garage, and on the west by Jersey Street. Industrial buildings sat on the adjacent property to the south. After the park's construction, Taylor added Van Ness Street on the southern property line, naming it for his wife Cornelia's family.
Taylor commissioned Boston architect James McLaughlin to design a ballpark that used every bit of the property. The land easily accommodated huge outfield dimensions, at least in terms of the "dead ball" era when a 300-foot fly ball was a jaw-dropper. According to author Glenn Stout, McLaughlin could have laid out a symmetrical park, but gave the idea little thought. "The notion that Fenway is misshapen owing to the restriction of surrounding street is a perception that developed long after the park was built."
Taylor also wanted a fireproof, concrete and steel grandstand, a testimony to the 20 baseball parks consumed by fire in the 1890s. He also asked for an exterior facade that resembled a regular city building, a trend pioneered by Philadelphia's Shibe Park in 1909.
While McLaughlin put pencil to paper, the Taylors sold a half-interest in the team in September 1911 for $150,000. Jimmy McAleer, the Washington Senators' manager, kicked in $50,000 and Robert McRoy, Ban Johnson's secretary, paid $25,000. A couple of Johnson cronies, including Chicagoan H. W. Mahan, added $60,000. Mahan's daughter Jeanie was then married to a recently retired Red Sox player, Jacob Garland "Jake" Stahl, who ponied up $15,000 and agreed to become the team's player/manager.
Taylor added the $150,000 to the construction budget, which ultimately would total $600,000. He planned to lease the park to McAleer and McRoy, and use Fenway Park as the anchor for his other real estate holdings in the area.
CHARLES LOGUE. Taylor faced the usual budget limits, as well as a time crunch. Site work started in October 1911 and the park had to be ready for "Play Ball!" the following April. The stiff Boston winter would soon curtail concrete work, so the rush was on. General contractor Charles Logue, an Irish immigrant who built churches and schools for the Catholic archdiocese, teamed with Osborn Engineering of Cleveland to translate McLaughlin's design into a ballpark.
The grandstand, which would seat 11,400, was made of reinforced concrete. Wooden forms defined the vertical columns, cross beams and even the seating deck. Crane-delivered buckets dumped concrete into the forms as the structure rose above the ground. Concrete walls separated the field from the concrete box seats, and concrete ramps moved the fans to the upper section of the one-level grandstand. Steel posts supported the grandstand roof, which had a wood plank deck covered with tar and slag. A small press box perched atop the roof above home plate made like a hungry pigeon watching the peanut vendors.
To save time and money, the Taylors elected to use wood for the first base "pavilion" and centerfield bleachers, some of which was recycled from Huntington Avenue. To minimize a possible fire from spreading beyond the wooden structures, McLaughlin left an alleyway between the grandstand and the cheap seats. The pavilion and bleachers offered a total of 13,000 unreserved spots on wooden planks.
Logue finished the field grading in mid-October and the grounds crew broadcast the first stand of grass seed. A problem remained in deep leftfield, however. Since the surface of Lansdowne Street, which defined the leftfield property boundary, was higher than the graded field, Logue, McLaughlin and Taylor decided to leave a raised earthen terrace in place at the base of the leftfield wall between the centerfield bleachers and the leftfield foul line. About 10 feet above the rest of the field at the fence, it sloped down toward home at about a 30 to 40 degree pitch, according to Stout in his book "Fenway, 1912." Fans and reporters called the long mound Duffy's Cliff in honor of the Red Sox leftfielder, Duffy Lewis.
In that era of soft, spit-covered balls that the umps used for the entire game, no one expected any batter to hit one deep enough that the terrace would come into play. Similarly, the wooden leftfield wall, which was 25 feet high and sat atop the 10-foot-high Duffy's Cliff, wasn't necessarily there to deny home runs. It was plastered with revenue-producing advertisements and kept any building across Lansdowne Street from becoming a distant seating venue.
Little precise information survives on the original park dimensions, according to Stout, but the angled first base pavilion crossed the right field foul line at just under 300 feet. The flagpole, in play immediately in front of the centerfield bleachers, stood 468 feet from home plate. The leftfield wall was 320 feet at the foul line and in the dead-ball era, seemed more in the adjacent county than a short porch for power hitters. Parks in those days didn't feature distances painted on the outfield fences.
The crews largely finished the concrete work before winter's first blizzard arrived on New Year's Eve. The men shifted to the steel and wooden construction matters and worked straight through to April.
JAKE STAHL. The opportunity to own a piece of the team coaxed Stahl out of his one-year retirement. The player-manager assembled a team of new additions and returning veterans, including the inestimable Tris Speaker, and headed for spring training in Hot Springs, Ark. The players loved the sin-soaked spot. Get in shape during the day, take a quick soak in the springs, and then gamble and chase the, um, local talent at night.
When the club headed north in early April, Stahl had a solid team. He and Hugh Bradley would play first base, Steve Yerkes at second, Heinie Wagner at short and Larry Gardner at the hot corner. Speaker, Lewis, Harry Hooper and Olaf Henriksen would patrol the outfield. Catchers Bill "Rough" Carrigan, Forrest "Hick" Cady and Les Nunamaker would share the "tools of ignorance."
Howard Ellsworth "Smoky Joe" Wood led the mound corps, and his nickname arose from his smokin' hot fastball. Other pitchers included Buck O'Brien, Ray Collins, Hugh Bedient and Charley "Sea Lion" Hall. The latter's real name was Carlos Luis Clolo and the Mexico native reportedly gained his nickname because he had "the voice of a walrus." Alas, nicknaming ball players is a lost art today as video makes word pictures unnecessary.
Boston played an exhibition game on April 9 against Harvard College. On a cold and snowy afternoon, only 3,000 people showed up, a stroke of luck because Logue's crew was still hammering, sawing and installing seats. Stahl started pitcher Casey Hageman, who was on the cusp of making the team. Boston won, 2-0, but it wasn't much of an exhibition.
The Red Sox opened the season on April 11 in New York against the Highlanders, later the Yankees. Boston swept the three-game series at Hilltop Park, and then split two games in Philadelphia against the defending World Series champion Athletics. The team boarded a train for Boston and looked forward to the scheduled home opener at Fenway Park on April 18.
A steady rain forced the cancellation of Fenway's first major league game between Boston and New York. Team officials quickly rescheduled an unusual morning-afternoon split doubleheader the following day. April 19 was Patriot's Day and the annual running of the Boston Marathon was the featured sports event in Beantown on that holiday. Since the race occurred at midday, fans could double-up between baseball and the marathon.
Another rainout ensued, and the fans turned to the newspapers for other baseball news. They read that two other concrete and steel ballparks opened that month. Cincinnati's Redland Field, later Crosley Field, opened April 11, and Detroit's Navin Field -- later Briggs Stadium and finally Tiger Stadium -- hosted its first game on April 20.
Clear skies and a spring sun finally greeted Boston baseball fans on April 20 as Fenway's gates opened at noon. All 24,400 seats were soon full and the club sold another 2,500 tickets to standing-only patrons.
At 3:15 p.m., with Highlander leftfielder Guy Zinn at the plate, Buck Baker threw his first pitch -- a ball. He quickly served up three more and Zinn drew the first walk in Fenway history, became the first base runner and so on. It was a day full of firsts in the Red Sox Nation.
Boston won in the eleventh inning, 7-6, when Speaker's infield hit scored Yerkes.
The Red Sox won the 1912 American League pennant by 14 games with a sparkling 105-47 record. Speaker led the team in batting -- .383, 222 hits and 10 home runs. Wood smoked the league with a 34-5 record, and O'Brien, Bedient and Hall each won at least 15 games.
In anticipation of the World Series, Taylor had McLaughlin and Logue add 11,600 additional seats in wooden stands during the final three weeks of the season. New bleachers in rightfield and along the leftfield foul line added 9,500, and seven rows atop Duffy's Cliff contributed 1,200. The rest came from three rows in front of the center and rightfield bleachers and the first base pavilion.
On Oct. 8, the Red Sox beat the New York Giants in the first game of the World Series in New York's Polo Grounds, and the umps called the second game because of darkness the following day in Boston. The teams were tied 6-6 after the 11th inning, and the game was a wash. The game's most modern sports venue shared the same daylight restrictions as Rome's Coliseum.
Boston ultimately won the Series, 4-3, with Wood winning three games, including the decisive seventh at Fenway. The championship capped a monumental first year for Fenway Park.
THE GREEN MONSTER. A fire at Fenway on Jan. 5, 1934 prompted team owner Tom Yawkey to undertake a major remodeling of the park. Among other changes, construction crews raised the leftfield wall to 37 feet 2 inches, remaking it of concrete and steel. Players and fans called it "the Wall" for years, and the term Green Monster did not see widespread use until the 1980s.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
Bohn also wrote "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.