Fenway Park: Images from Baseball's Oldest Major League Ballpark

Saul WisniaGuest ColumnistOctober 20, 2011

Fenway Park: Images from Baseball's Oldest Major League Ballpark

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    Its second straight baseball-free fall has sent shock waves reverberating through Red Sox Nation, but come next April, Fenway Park will be alive again with the sights, sounds, and smells of the game

    The oldest ballpark in the major leagues turns 100 in April 2012, and its rich history is told through the intimate reflections from players, fans, and employees in Fenway Park: The Centennial.

    This new book from St. Martin's Press, which comes with a DVD of rare Fenway footage narrated by Red Sox catching great Carlton Fisk, captures the people and moments that make this intimate, quirky place so unique.

    Here is a look inside.

A Grand Start

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    Fenway hosted its inaugural major league game on April 20, 1912, and while three straight rainouts and the sinking of the RMS Titanic threatened to subdue the event, the Red Sox sent folks home happy with a 7-6 victory over the New York Highlanders (now the Yankees) on Tris Speaker’s 11th-inning single.

    The 25-foot-high left field wall visible in this 1917 photo was a shorter predecessor to today’s Green Monster, and was fronted by a steep hill dubbed “Duffy’s Cliff” for the mastery with which Boston outfielder Duffy Lewis scaled it.

Timeless Classic

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    This postcard from Fenway’s inaugural season shows how little the ballpark’s front facade has changed in a century.

    Featuring red brick and Colonial-style architecture, it was a significant upgrade from earlier wooden parks that were often damaged or destroyed by fire.

More Than Baseball

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    Fenway may have been built for America's Pastime, but that was far from the only thing that went on there. Memorials for soldiers lost in action, political and religious rallies, boxing matches, and high school/college football games were all held at the new facility during its early decades.

    Here the Elks have devised a clever way to ensure people were not late for their athletic carnival at the brand-new ballpark—with a pennant featuring the starting time as well as the date and locale for their event.

Cheap Seats, Great Action

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    A quarter got you into Fenway Park in 1916, a year in which young left-hander Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox to their second-straight AL pennant.

    Fenway was a home of champions during its first decade; the Sox won four World Series titles from 1912-1918, and the National League’s Boston Braves—whose own ballpark seated far fewer fans—borrowed the larger venue for the stretch run and World Series during their “miracle” worst-to-first season in 1914.

Hailing Old Glory

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    Pregame flag raisings at Fenway were commonplace in the years after World War I. Interestingly, the park’s center field flagpole—approximately 390 feet from home plate—was actually in play until 1970. The combination of the pole and the double-angled wall behind it made for some challenging deep fly balls.

The Babe with Babes

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    The 1920s and early 30s were tough years to be a Red Sox fan, as the losses piled up and home crowds routinely fell well below 5,000.

    The mighty Yankees were the biggest Fenway draw, and none of the pinstrippers was more popular than former Sox standout Babe Ruth (shown here with young fans at the ballpark in 1933).

Fenway in Flames

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    Deep-pocketed Tom Yawkey bought the downtrodden Red Sox in 1933, and immediately began building up the team and ballpark. His reconstruction of Fenway put 750 Depression-era Bostonians to work, and even with this major fire midway through the project, “New Fenway Park” was ready by Opening Day of 1934.

The Kid Comes Home

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    A common sight at Fenway in 1939: enigmatic young rookie Ted Williams crossing the plate. “The Kid” played right field his first year in the majors before moving across to his familiar left field post, where he became a master at handling the tricky caroms of the 37-foot-high wall.

Best of the West

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    This trio of talented young Californians posing at Fenway Park in 1940 (left to right)—Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams, and rookie Dom DiMaggio—were regulars in the powerful Boston lineup from that season through 1952 (not counting years lost to military service). The lifelong friends each averaged well over .300 at Fenway, and none ever called another big-league park home.

No Ticket Necessary

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    As Tom Yawkey built up his team with stars like Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio, the crowds at Fenway began to grow. So did the creative means by which people would try and get a look at these All-Stars without buying a ticket.

    Here fans climb a Lansdowne Street billboard behind the ballpark's left-field wall to save themselves 50 cents sdmission. The practice would continue until the 1970s; today great-grandkids of these social climbers can get much the same view from the Green Monster seats.

The (Non) Green Monster

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    As this scene from a 1942 Red Sox-Yankees game shows, Fenway’s famous left field wall was not always green.

    Before owner Tom Yawkey removed them in 1947, the wall was plastered with colorful advertisements pitching razor blades, whiskey and more. “The Red Sox use Lifebuoy Soap!” one ad proclaimed, to which wise-guy fans retorted “And they still stink!”

The Real Curse

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    The idea that selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees could doom the Red Sox to 86 years of misery between World Series titles made for good headlines, but the real curse during much of the 20th century was the failure of Boston owner Tom Yawkey and his management team to embrace integration.

    In April 1945, under pressure from a local politician, the Red Sox offered a sham Fenway Park tryout to Negro League players Sam Jethroe (above), Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams. They told the trio they'd be in touch soon, but no calls were ever made.

    Two years later, Robinson broke the major league color line with the Dodgers and was National League Rookie of the Year—the same award Jethroe would win for the crosstown Boston Braves in 1950. The Red Sox? They were the last MLB team to field an African-American player, nearly a decade later. 

Post-War Revival

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    After never drawing even 750,000 home fans in a season before, the 1946 Red Sox brought 1,416,944 to Fenway and copped the team’s first pennant since 1918.

    During World War II the ballpark had also been home to several collegiate and professional football squads, along with hosting other events like President Franklin Roosevelt’s final campaign speech in November of ’44.

Close to the Action

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    Fenway has long had the least foul territory in the majors, with fans so close to the action that they can almost reach out and touch balls hit their way.

    The young men in this 1948 photo are seated on the third base side, where the stands jut out in short left field and patrons are always on the lookout for line drives and bounding grounders.

Let There (Finally) Be Light

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    The Red Sox were the third-to-last of the original 16 major league teams to add lights, turning on the towers at Fenway for the first time in 1947.

    In this photo taken during that era, the lights are on early (at 4:30 p.m.) due to darkness caused by smoke drifting down to Massachusetts from Canadian wildfires.

Look out for Mr. Rooney

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    A long dry spell between 1952 and ’66 saw the Red Sox fall from contending status to the lower rungs of the American League, but each year brought new optimism for young fans like these—who hoped their teachers would not see their photo in the paper the day after they skipped school to attend Opening Day.

Long Time Coming

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    After passing on the likes of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays years before, the Red Sox were the last big-league team to integrate when infielder Pumpsie Green and pitcher Earl Wilson joined the club in 1959.

    It didn’t take long for fans to see what short-sightedness by ownership had been costing them; Green tripled in his first Fenway Park at-bat, and Wilson threw a no-hitter at Fenway—the first ever by an African-American hurler in the American League. Wilson also homered in the game.

Patriot Park

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    The Red Sox of the early 1960s never came close to a league championship, but another Fenway Park tenant during the decade did.

    From 1963 to ’68 the Boston Patriots of the American Football League rented out the venue for the majority of their home games, capturing an AFL Eastern Division title in 1963 and finishing just short the next year when they lost a 24-20 heartbreaker to Buffalo in a snow-swept Fenway.

Plenty of Seats Available

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    The retirement of Ted Williams in 1960, coupled with a Red Sox drop to the bottom of the American League standings, had a profound impact on Fenway attendance.

    By the time Sox broadcasters (left to right) Ned Martin, Mel Parnell and Curt Gowdy called a game from the bleachers in 1965, the team had fallen so far that a pair of September contests with the Angels at Fenway drew less than 500 fans each—meaning that there were nearly as many people working at the ballpark as there were spectators.

    Boston finished 62-100 that year, its worst record since 1932.

Rebirth and Rejuvenation

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    Fenway Park was not always a well-maintained baseball shrine. Neglected through years of losing teams and low crowds, it was falling into disrepair by the mid-1960s.

    Early in the '67 season, owner Tom Yawkey went on record as saying he would move his moribund franchise away from Boston unless the city built a new stadium. But then came the "Impossible Dream" team, which Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski (left) led to new heights both at-bat and as a defensive whiz guarding the left-field Wall. 

    Ninth-place finishers the previous year, the 1967 Sox led the league in attendance and clinched a tie for the pennant on the season’s final day at Fenway—prompting thousands of ecstatic fans to rush the field and celebrate. Yaz copped the MVP Award, and Yawkey stopped his talk of moving.

Yaz Sir, It's a Great Country

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    Twins Henry (left) and Arthur D'Angelo came from Italy to Boston as 12-year-olds, and were soon peddling two-cent newspapers outside of Fenway Park. In time they added shoe shines and ice cream to they offerings, and when interest in the Red Sox exploded after World War II, they shifted their main focus to baseball.

    Routinely chased out of Fenway by police in the early days, the brothers eventually rented a modest 250-square-foot store with room for three counters across the street from the ballpark's main entrance. After the '67 "Impossible Dream" Red Sox captured the pennant, the D'Angelos were selling team pennants and "Yaz Sir, That's My Baby" buttons as fast as they could get them.

    More space was needed, and by the early 1970s they had moved into a much bigger store—which they named Twins Enterprises—on the same street. Today known officially as "Yawkey Way Store," it is open to fans holding tickets before, during, and after games.

Bleacher Loyalty

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    Even when the Fenway bleachers were true bleachers—long strips of wood with no back support support and numbers painted on them—Boston fans enjoyed sitting behind the outfield bullpens cheering on their team.

    These patrons could be rowdy when they had a few beers in them, especially if Yankee fans entered the vicinity, but their loyalty to the Red Sox was undebatable. Here, in 1969, bleacherites use banners to show their displeasure over a trade that sent popular outfielder Ken "Hawk" Harrelson to the Indians early that season.

    Notice the scoreboard—a far cry from the mammoth high-definition video board currently situated in the same spot.

Pudge and the Rat

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    This World Series pin was given to all media members lucky enough to be at Fenway for one of the greatest moments in World Series history. Game Six of the '75 Fall Classic ended with Red Sox catcher Carlton “Pudge” Fisk imploring that his long drive to Fenway’s left field stay fair in the 12th inning—a scene caught on film purely by accident. 

    NBC cameraman Lou Gerard, situated inside the Green Monster’s scoreboard, was planning to track the path of the ball wherever it was hit—until he saw a giant rat sitting atop his camera. Frozen in shock, he stayed focused on Fisk and captured his unbridled joy when the ball bounced off the foul pole (fair) to win the game.

    The “reaction shot” has since become commonplace in sports broadcasting, thanks to the rat.

Pitching in for Jimmy

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    When Red Sox management rebuilt and padded Fenway Park’s left field wall after the 1975 season, they devised a very unique way to rid themselves of the old tin scraps.They mounted and sold them to fans to benefit the Jimmy Fund of Boston-based Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

    It was a natural decision. Since 1953 the Jimmy Fund has been an official charity of the Red Sox, and for decades a Jimmy Fund billboard in right field was the only advertising owner Tom Yawkey allowed at Fenway. The billboard is now gone, but a Jimmy Fund logo graces a portion of the Green Monster left-field wall to show the team's continued support for cancer research and care at Dana-Farber.

Tracking a Legend—and His Successors

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    On April 29, 1986, young Red Sox fireballer Roger Clemens set a major league record with 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game at chilly Fenway Park. Fans not keeping score at Fenway that night could still check his total as it mounted thanks to a group of guys in the bleachers who put up a placard with a "K" on it for each strikeout.

    As the years passed the "K" cards became a familiar sight at Clemens games, and after he left and Pedro Martinez became the resident Boston ace, the trend continued. Thousands of fans now pick up free "K" cards handed out before each game, and the group seen here—which calls itself "The K Men"—selects one Sox pitcher each year to honor with their sign-waving service at home and (when possible) on the road.

An Anniversary Tarnished

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    Red Sox players wore this patch on their uniforms in 1987, and marked Fenway's diamond anniversary  by raising the 1986 American League Champions banner in the home opener.

    It was impossible, however, for Boston players (and fans) to shake memories of the awful way the '86 season had ended—with the Red Sox losing the World Series to the Mets after blowing a two-out, two-run lead in the 10th inning of Game Six. The '87 club struggled to a miserable 78-84 finish.

Hey, Peeeeeeanuts!

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    Although a hand injury limited him to beer duty here, Fenway vendor veteran Rob Barry can normally throw peanuts for distance and accuracy that would make Gold Glover Dustin Pedroia proud.

    A former collegiate pitcher for Northeastern University, Barry is so well known that people routinely yell out “HEY, PEEEEEEANUTS!!” when they see him away from the ballpark—even prisoners in jail cells that he encounters in his “day job” with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.

Save Fenway

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    During the 1990s, for the second time, Fenway Park looked to be on life support. An ownership group that had taken over after the death of Tom Yawkey and his wife, Jean, felt that the Red Sox needed a larger stadium to compete with big-market teams like the Yankees.

    Architectural models and computer simulations of a new Fenway were created, and grassroots groups like “Save Fenway Park” emerged with alternative designs to expand the existing facility. In the end, new owners came aboard in 2002 and soon unveiled a 10-year plan to renovate and preserve the ballpark.

    Fenway saved!

Come on Down

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    When the ownership group led by John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino acquired the Red Sox in early 2002, one of their first major renovations to Fenway was to turn the street (Yawkey Way) running by the front of the ballpark into a huge open-air concourse area accessible to fans before and during games.

    Since Sept. 5, 2002, fans have flocked to this 25,000-square-foot space for activities like face painting, balloon-making, and visits with Wally the Green Monster, as well as for a variety of food and beverage choices. You might even get to play catch with Big League Brian, the lanky fellow hamming it up with two young Yawkey Way visitors here.

Now They Could Die Happy

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    People have gotten used to seeing fans instead of nets atop the Green Monster in recent years, as Red Sox ownership has worked to cram as many additional seats into the tiny ballpark as possible.

    One thing many thought they would never live to witness, however, is another World Series championship flag. When this mammoth version was unfurled on Opening Day, 2005, after an 86-year title drought, the cheers that ensued nearly brought down the ballpark.

    Three years later, after Boston's 2007 World Series sweep, they got to do it again.

History from Any Seat

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    Not every season ends with a World Series win or starts with a championship banner ceremony, but even the most ordinary game can be special at Fenway.

    This couple came all the way from Las Vegas to see the Red Sox play a meaningless contest in the waning days of a non-playoff season, but they were delighted to secure seats right beside the Pesky Pole—the right-field foul pole named after legendary Red Sox infielder Johnny Pesky, who once hit a homer just inside it to win a game.

    When these folks added their names to the long list of autographs on the pole, they were putting their own mark on this jewel of a ballpark. 

    Saul Wisnia is a former sports and feature correspondent for The Washington Post and feature writer at The Boston Herald who is now senior publications editor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He has authored, co-authored, or contributed to numerous books on Boston and general baseball history, and his articles and essays have appeared in Sports Illustrated, The Boston Globe, and Red Sox Magazine. Wisnia, who lives 6.8 miles from his favorite ballpark, shares his own Fenway Reflections at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com/, and can be reached at saulwizz@gmail.com.

    You can buy Fenway Park: The Centennial here.