The Boston Red Sox home at Yawkey Way – Fenway Park – has suffered three major fires in its history. This is a glance at the impact.
“America’s Most Beloved Ballpark” is the PR slogan dreamed up by the Boston Red Sox to create the illusion that a visit is something special and – in its own way – it is since the park is now firmly entrenched on the National Register of historic places. Of course, that also allows the Red Sox the advantage of tax credits.
At a game at Fenway Park during the 2015 season, an alarm went off during the fourth or fifth innings – a fire alarm. No smoke, no notifications and no anything. The alarm continued for a few minutes and on the stadium system came the “Talking Heads” classic song – “Burning Down the House.” A clever response but Fenway Park has been influenced significantly my fire.
When the park opened in 1912 it was state of the art with the use of brick, structural steel and wood – lots of wood. In fact, the park was part of a baseball building boom as city after city constructed privately financed stadiums with Yankee Stadium being the most notable the following decade. A pattern that we have seen repeated.
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The Fenway of 1912 was significantly different from the current version. The “Green Monster” was not really green and was wood with some concrete. The upper decks were non-existent and the bullpens were decades away. I will not even attempt to describe the men’s restrooms that were finally renovated a decade or so ago.
This first notable change happened in 1926 and it was not instituted by management, but by fire. The fire happened on May 5th and the wooden bleachers became aflame and that quickly spread to wooden left field stands. The resulting mess was simply carted away and the park remained in business since owner Bob Quinn had no money for repairs and most of a $25,000 insurance settlement went for payroll.
The Red Sox of the 1920s were a dismal team that was best noted for supplying the Yankees with the core talent that became the first great Yankee teams and for managing to finish last with remarkable consistency. From 1922-1932, the Red Sox finished in the baseball basement a staggering nine times, including a streak of six in a row.
If you wanted Boston baseball success you could follow the Braves, who managed to finish last only three times in the same time period, but never managed to get into the first division. For the Red Sox attendance in 1926 was 285,155 for a park that could hold 30,000 fans. So a rebuild was not a priority. And that attendance continued to sink each season.
What saved the Red Sox was Thomas Yawkey, who bought the team one day after his thirtieth birthday and came into a Midas-like inheritance. The first order of business was a respectable place to play baseball and that means a “new” Fenway Park.
Fenway Park 1934 has little in common with the Fenway Park of today and certainly the Fenway of 1912. . The front façade is intact, but the interior structure was being totally refurbished after years of neglect. The left field wall would be tin covered and stand 37’ instead of 27’, Duffy’s Cliff – a hill that sloped in left at a steep angle – was almost totally removed, stands rebuild and upgrades for fans throughout the park. In the era of the “Great Depression,” this was the second largest project in the city after the construction of the Tobin Bridge.
The 1934 fire decimated much of what had been built but unlike 1926, there was an item that meant this was merely a setback and that was Yawkey money. Construction crews were on site 24/7 and the “new” park was generally ready for the 1934 season and some new additions to the roster thanks to more Yawkey green. The fire itself forced a reconsideration on materials so that a repeat would not happen – a lot less wood.
There have been notable attempts to replace Fenway Park. In the late 1950s, an all-purpose stadium was proposed in the Fenway area – where the park gets its name – that would be built and then the old park removed for parking. Eventually, Yawkey passed on it.
In 1999 another Fenway proposal surfaced and it would be a typical retro park that would incorporate many of the Fenway features – a Faux Fenway. This would also become somewhat of a template for two other proposals. The first would be by Frank McCourt – the “Parking Lot King” – to construct a park on waterfront property he owned. That failed when McCourt failed.
A second proposal was the new Red Sox ownership also sought out support via some “feelers” about a new Fenway. Again, the support would not be present for taxpayer dollars so the ownership wisely looked to an almost yearly pattern of improvements and additions. The reported investment has been somewhere in the 250 Million range and continuing the dramatic changes that Yawkey instituted in 1934.
Fenway has had its share of minor fires through the years – usually the result of some type of concession disaster. I also remember seeing pictures of the lights on at Fenway thanks to fire – in this instance massive Canadian forest fires that caused smoke and ash to reach Boston.
What you see as Fenway Park today is significantly different from the past; walls have changed, decks added, seating expanded, lights added and greatly reduced parking – no more driving to the park and leaving your car in an open lot as would be done in 1912.
Sources I would recommend: Images of America: Fenway Park/Fenway Park: A Salute to the Coolest, Cruelest, Longest-Running Major League Baseball Stadium in America/Fenway Park at 100/100 Fenway/Ballparks Yesterday and Today