Baseball's Greatest Rivalry: Red Sox vs. Yankees (Part I)

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Baseball's Greatest Rivalry: Red Sox vs. Yankees (Part I)
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I was a lifelong New Yorker until about 16 years ago. And then, I moved on to teach and write and live in New England.

Back in the Big Apple, I had always been a keenly interested onlooker to the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. But it wasn't until I was living in the mountains of New Hampshire that I realized, via conversations at the gas pumps, town dump and in the general store just how important "The Rivalry" is...especially to Red Sox Nation.

As the story up here goes, there was a get-together in the woods of a Red Sox fan, a Cubs fan and a Pirates fan. They all wondered when their teams would make it to the World Series again and decided to call on God for advice.

The Cub fan asked first: “When will my team return to the World Series?”

And God replied: “Not in your lifetime."

The fan of the Pirates popped the same question next.

And God replied: “Not in your children’s lifetime.”

The Red Sox fan, who had listened quietly, finally worked up the nerve to ask: “When will my beloved Red Sox return to the World Series?”

God thought for a moment and then answered: “Not in my lifetime.”

But, that answer was incorrect. As all of us know, the guys from Fenway broke the curse in 2004 and followed that up with a championship in 2007.  For six straight seasons through 2003, the Sox finished second to the hated New York Yankees—a combined total of 58½ games behind. So it was a big deal for the BoSox to show up their enemies from New York.

The roots of the rivalry extend all the way back to the first time the teams faced off on May 7, 1903, at the Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston. They weren't the Yankees and Red Sox then, but instead, had more geographically correct names: the Highlanders (played on the hilly terrain of upper Manhattan) and the Pilgrims (in tribute to their New England heritage).

Boston won that first game, 6-2, as well as baseball's inaugural World Series that year. New York finished fourth, 17 games off the pace.  In 1904, Boston won another world championship, and through the first 19 years of its existence, continued to be one of baseball’s most successful teams.  

It was damp and chilly throughout New England for most of the spring of 1912. Boston fans hungered to break in their new ballpark against their rivals from New York in decent weather. It took a few tries before that happened.

On April 9, the Red Sox and Harvard's baseball team faced off in an exhibition game in football weather—“with a little snow on the side,” as one who was there said. Just 3,000 braved the elements. Boston won, 2-0.

The scheduled official Opening Day match on April 12, however, was rained out. Finally, on April 20, there was a bit better weather. Fenway's first major-league game, the New York City vs. the City of Boston, was on tap.

A crowd of 27,000 showed up. Soggy, sad-looking grounds greeted them with infield grass transplanted from the Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds, the team’s former home.

Boston Mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, whose grandson would become the 35th President of the United States, threw out the ceremonial first ball. "Honey Fitz" did not like the Highlanders. He was an active and ardent member of the "Royal Rooters," a group of Red Sox fans who staged pregame parades, most of the time singing "Tessie" and "Sweet Adeline."

The game (Opening Day at a brand-new park, New York against Boston) would have been the stuff of front-page headlines in New England newspapers. But six days earlier, the news of the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage and the loss of 1,517 lives was still eclipsing all other stories.

Boston's owner, General Charles Henry Taylor, a Civil War veteran and owner of The Boston Globe, had decided back in 1910 to build a new ballpark in the Fenway section bordering Brookline Avenue, Jersey Street, Van Ness Street and Lansdowne Street. It cost $650,000 (approximately $14 million today) and seated 35,000.

An appealing red-brick façade, the first electric baseball scoreboard and 18 turnstiles (the most in the big leagues), were all talked about.  Concrete stands went from behind first base around to third, while wooden bleachers were located in parts of left, right and center field. Seats also lined the field, providing excellent views of the game, but limiting the size of foul territory.

Elevation was 20-feet-above sea level. Barriers and walls broke off at different angles. Center field was 488 feet from home plate; right field was 314 feet away. The 10-foot wooden fence in left field ran straight along Lansdowne Street and was but 320½ feet down the line from home plate, with a high wall behind it. 

There was a 10-foot embankment there to make viewing of games easier for overflow gatherings. A 10-foot-high slope in left field posed challenges for outfielders who had to play the entire territory running uphill.

This was the Opening Day lineup for the 1912 Boston Red Sox:

Harry Hooper

RF

Steve Yerkes

2B

Tris Speaker

CF

Jake Stahl

1B

Larry Gardner

3B

Duffy Lewis

LF

Heinie Wagner

SS

Les Nunamaker

C

Smoky Joe Wood

P

The Sox nipped the Yankees, 7-6, in 11 innings. Tris Speaker drove in the winning run for the home team. Spitball pitcher Bucky O’Brien got the win in relief of Charles “Sea Lion” Hall. New York's Harry Wolter smacked the first hit in the new park.  

Umpire Tommy Connolly kept the ball used in that historic game, writing “Opening of Fenway Park” and brief details of the game on it.   

And that was how the great, storied and stormy Red Sox vs. Yankees rivalry started. It has never ended.

Harvey Frommer has written many sports books, including Fenway Park: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Boston Red Sox.  Visit his website.*

(To Be Continued)

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