Fenway Turns 100, Accept No Substitutes
Every real baseball fan loves their team. Not every real baseball fans loves their baseball stadium. Therein lies a critical difference in a single word. Football is played in a stadium: War Memorial Stadium, Gillette Stadium, Met Life Stadium, Cowboys Stadium.
Baseball is designed to be played in a park or a field. When you think about some of baseball’s greatest venues – Comisky Park, Wrigley Field, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and more recently Comerica Park – the lines of distinction between stadium and park or field are drawn in ever-sharper relief. The exception to the rule is Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, an abomination beyond imagination made all the more absurd by assigning the name “field” to a sterile, heartless monstrosity.
Fans in the Bronx can take me to task for similarly lumping Yankee Stadium into the same also ran runners up to baseball royalty. Don’t get me wrong, Yankee Stadium is a shrine – as much as red Sox fans don’t want to admit it – to excellence and winning. But Yankee Stadium is the second incarnation; something that got blown up, torn down and built again across the street. That doesn’t count.
"Then there’s Fenway Park; the cornerstone of baseball’s foundation. One hundred years old this year. The crown jewel in baseball’s field of diamonds. Fenway is an epic story of the structure, the connection with it fans, the rise, decline, fall and rebirth of a great park and franchise."
Fenway Park opened April 20, 1912. That day they defeated the New York Highlanders – who the next year would become the New York Yankees – 7, 6 in 11 innings. They were knocked out of the headlines the next day when news of the Titanic’s sinking on April 14-15 eventually reached America’s newspapers. The team went on become baseball’s first dynasty, winning the World Championship in the inaugural Fenway season of 1912 and, in rapid succession, championships in 1915, 1916 and 1918. That run came to a screeching halt when the Sox dealt Babe Ruth to the Yankees during the 1919-1920 offseason.
For nearly the next 86 years the fortunes of the team and, in close parallel, the park were a source of both agony and ecstasy – mostly agony. While Boston made World Series appearances in 1946, 1967, 1975 and 1986 – each time losing in seven games – the team could never put a season over the top and bring home the brass. Little did Tom and Jean Yawkey know when he bought the team in 1933 after an abysmal 111-loss season that they would own the Red Sox for 44 years and still never see a championship.
After two Yawkey financed renovations – one immediately following a fire that destroyed much of the original renovation – the ballpark and team fell into serious disrepair. Near miss seasons paired with wretched campaigns were exacerbated by the continuing stain of racism. Boston was the last team in the Majors to integrate when Pumpsie Green pinch ran and hit a triple in his first at bat at Fenway in a 2-1 loss to the White Sox in 1959, fully 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Dodgers after he tried out in Boston and Sox management snubbed him. By the 1960’s, The Old Towne Team’s magic had largely diminished. Ted Williams was at the end of his career and the team was simply awful. For two games in a row in 1965, the paid attendance at Fenway was 500 per game.
The Impossible Dream Season of 1967 stirred old passions and Boston fans responded to a rejuvenated team who the year before has finished dead last in their division. It was a dizzy run that nevertheless ended, as usual, in despair as the Sox were mowed down three times by Bob Gibson and lost the series 4-3.
"Although the Sox and Fenway Park had it’s moments in the 70s and 80s, Boston would not return to the World Series again until 2004, eventually winning it all in a wild orgy of emotional outpouring by both fans and players alike."
Laying that groundwork were current owners John W. Henry, Tom Werner and partner Larry Lucchino, who formed New England Sports Ventures in 2002, bought the Red Sox and set about not only restoring the team but Fenway as well. New drainage systems, Green Monster seats (just looked up from Lansdowne Street to see an architectural masterpiece), additional right field seating, a new third base deck, new plumbing and bathrooms and dozens of other enhancements are just a few of the thoughtful strokes that make Fenway a thoroughly modern ballpark that still evokes deep history.
The old park of Duffy’s Cliff, the Green Monster (replete with Tom and Jean Yawkey’s initials written vertically in Morse code on the wall), the Triangle, Williamsburg (Boston’s right field bullpens erected by Yawkey after Ted Williams’ rookie season that brought the fence in another 23 feet for Boston’s left-handed slugger), the Pesky Pole, the Fisk Pole (so dedicated in 2005 to commemorate Carlton Fisk’s dramatic game six wining home run in the series against the Cincinnati Reds) is 100. It’s celebrated this month in the excellent PBS special, Inside Fenway Park: An Icon at 100.
After all that, there’s just one thing to say. Play ball!
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