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Fenway at 100: Park’s quirky design due in part to rushed delivery, happenstance

04.18.12 at 1:15 pm ET
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Following is an excerpt from “Fenway Park, The Centennial,” by Saul Wisnia. The book chronicles 100 years of Red Sox baseball. Visit the author’s blog for more information about the book.

The grand opening

The rain had finally let up, and Peter Davis was busy. Standing beside his green pushcart in front of brand-new Fenway Park, he was handing bags of peanuts to fans as fast as they could slap coins into his hand. His powerful arms, which had already been takes by pushing the cart several miles to Jersey Street from its downtown holding pen, were starting to ache. He didn’t mind a bit.

Davis had never seen this many people in one place. It reminded him of the lines he had encountered at the docks after coming over from Greece years before. When the Red Sox played at the smaller Huntington Avenue Grounds in previous seasons, the most fans they ever drew to a game was approximately 10,000. This crowd had to be at least double that, and it seemed like all of them were walking right by his cart.

It was nice to see folks smiling as they looked up at the beautiful red-brick facade of Boston’s first steel and concrete ballpark. But with three straight rainouts and the distressing news about the RMS Titanic unfolding over previous several days, the excitement leading up to Opening Day of 1912 had been largely subdued — even with the added factor of Fenway’s grand unveiling. People were more concerned with scanning the lists of survivors the appeared in each day’s newspapers, hoping they would find their relatives and friends among them, than reading how Tris Speaker and Joe Wood had fared during the season’s first five games at New York and Philadelphia. For a week, basketball wasn’t much discussed. But now, with the shock of the disaster having set in and the Red Sox and New York Highlanders set to play under sunny skies, Bostonians could fully focus on Fenway.

As Davis kept up his work outside the ballpark, John Fitzgerald took a good look around the inside. As mayor of Boston, he had been asked to throw out the first ball before that afternoon’s game. Unlike many politicians who have performed this task before and since, the charming, flamboyant “Honey Fitz” was a true fan who was genuinely interested in watching the on-field action rather than just courting votes in the stands (although he enjoyed that, too). Born in Boston during the Civil War and the son of Irish immigrants, he had been devoted to his city’s baseball teams for most of his 49 years.

As a rising young congressman in the 1890s, Fitzgerald had joined up with the “Royal Rooters” fan club headed by his qually ebullient friend, saloon owner Michael “Nuf Ced” McGreevy. A top-hatted Honey Fitz had led the Rooters in their march down 165th Street to New York’s Polo Grounds during the final days of the 1904 pennant race, and his Irish brogue could often be heard singing “Tessie” and other favorites during home games. He had been denied an opportunity to purchase the Red Sox in their early years — done in by shrewd maneuvering on the part of a political rival — but he never stopped being a fan.

Fitzgerald felt immense pride watching the new park fill up. Boston was a city known for cultural and educational achievements, and here was a sports venue it could hold up alongside its renowned universities, public library, opera house, and art museums as a symbol of that status. It was a place that generations of families would enjoy, and in future years he would delight in taking his own grand owns — Joe, Robert, Ted and John Fitzgerald Kennedy — to see games there.

A “Mammoth Plant”

When it hosted its first major league game on April 20, 1912 — the same afternoon that Navin Field (later Tiger Stadium) opened in Detroit and just days after Titanic survivors reached New York — Fenway Park represented the latest in ballpark design and safety. Fires had destroyed numerous wooden ballparks in the years just before and after the turn of the century, including the majestic, double-decked South End Grounds that was home to Boston’s National League club. Fenway and Navin Field were part of a new wave of steel and concrete parks built from 1909 to 1915, including Comiskey Park, Ebbets Field and Wrigley Field. Each venue had its own distinctive appearance and character, and each was made to last.

Considering its longevity, it is interesting to note how quickly Fenway went up. Almost immediately after Red Sox owner Charles Taylor sold half the club to James McAleer and Robert McRoy in September 1911, his son John I. Taylor (former team president and now nice president under the new arrangement) began overseeing construction of the new ballpark on a parcel of land purchased in the Fenway. A largely underdeveloped part of town, “the Fens” were located just a few blocks from the intersecting point of two major thoroughfares — Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street — in growing Kenmore Square. Though they no longer held the majority interest in the team, the Taylor family would own the new park and call the shots on how it went up.

Because of the off shape of the 365,308 square feet on which it was built and how that space fit into the surrounding neighborhood, architect James McLaughlin‘s already-completed design had to be altered. In fact, the quirks that are such a big part of Fenway’s appeal today were more the result of happenstance than anything else.

As explained by Dick Johnson and Glenn Stout in their seminal history of the team, “Red Sox Century”: “[McLaughlin] could have easily created a more symmetrical park on only a portion of the parcel, but the Taylors were dumping the entire plot. McLaughlin was ordered to design a park that completely enclosed the site, resulting in the field of play being much larger than required by the way the game was played at the time. He was further ordered to retain the orientation of the Huntington Avenue Grounds in relation to the sun, with the third-base line pointing almost due north. This placed the left-field fence hard against Landsdowne Street, barely 300 feet from home plate.

“But that distance was of no concern, for at the time no one hit the ball that far. Had it been an issue, the street could easily have been acquired. This is the only reason Fenway Park is so misshapen today.”

Distance was of no concern because this was the Dead Ball Era, roughly a decade before Babe Ruth and subsequent sluggers redefined the home run and made it a far more common part of the game. Frank Baker had led the American League with just 11 homers in 1911, a season in which entire teams his fewer than 20. Much of the reason was the baseballs they were hitting, which were scuffed, muddied and otherwise beaten up by pitchers and general wear-and-tear but were seldom replaced during a game. As a result, they were rarely struck great distances. Yet nobody really minded. Line drives and hit-and-run plays were the preferred style carried out by pre-1920 clubs, and short outfield fences were not considered a major deterrent in a ballpark’s design.

Besides, Fenway really wasn’t that small. It was still well over 380 feet to the right-field fence, and the deepest center-field corner fence was nearly 550 feet from home plate. The wall running from left field to center was considerably closer, but it was also 25 feet high. The wall served as a long, wooden smorgasbord of ads that pitched everything from whiskey to biscuits. This was the predecessor of today’s Green Monster, which would replace it in 1934.

Fenway’s cozy image stems in large part from its lack of a second deck, and this was due to circumstance rather than planning. Perhaps thinking about both the majesty of the old South End Grounds and the potential for bigger paydays, Taylor initially envisioned building a double-deck ballpark like Navin Field and many of the other new venues. But since he wanted to be ready by the home opener — just six months away — such plans had to be put on hold.

For the time being a single, uncovered grandstand would surround the infield, while a roofed pavilion would run down the right-field line. There would also be a naked bleacher section in deepest right field, and the design left provisions for a second deck to be added later. Original capacity was about 29,000, nearly three times what the Huntington Avenue Grounds could “officially” hold but less than most other parks built during the period. To meet a growing demand for reserved tickets, management offered a “special price” of four box seats to all 77 home games for $250.

One sign of the times noted by author Michael Gersham in “Diamonds,” his excellent anthology of ballparks, was the decision to add a parking lot behind the outfield. The automobile had exploded in popularity in recent years. Car ads dominated the Boston newspapers, and dealerships were popping up all around the city — including in Kenmore Square. The Boston Post even ran a daily feature, “Gossip for Motorists, which let drivers know which streets had the worst potholes anyhow to avoid accidents.

With these and other revised plans in place, ground was broken for the new facility on September 25, 1911, a week before the Red Sox finished their last season Huntington Avenue. Major design and civil engineering work was undertaken by Osborn Engineering of Cleveland, a large firm that was simultaneously designing Navin Field and a few years later would aid in the construction of Boston’s other modern major league ballpark: Braves Field. (Ironically, Osborn in the early 1920s would also help design Yankee Stadium — so long a house of pain for Red Sox teams and fans.)

As a way of honoring the team’s former home, sod from the Huntington Avenue Grounds was removed and replanted in Fenway as construction continued through the winter of 1911-12. By the time the Red Sox completed their long train ride up from spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the new facility was ready for action. The first game played at Fenway was an exhibition match on April 9 between the Sox and Harvard University, which the big leaguers won 2-0 amid a cold wind, snow flurries and 3,000 shivering fans.

The park’s regular-season opener with New York was slated for April 17, but warmer climes merely turned the snow to rain and forced its cancellations. Three more games, including the traditional Patriots’ day morning-afternoon doubleheaders held in concurrence with the Boston Marathon, were also wiped out. At least one of these contests could have been played were the field properly covered, but a new tarp ordered from Detroit had not yet arrived. This resulted in more than 10,000 frustrated fans heading home in the bright sunshine after the water-slogged field was declared unplayable.

When the inaugural contest finally came off on April 20, it didn’t disappoint. Although the Red Sox looked flat in falling behind the Highlanders 5-1 in the early going — as noted on the park’s newfangled electric scoreboard — they rallied to tie and then win 7-6 on a single by Tris Speaker in the 11th inning. The outcome delighted the mayor and most of the 24,000 fans on hand, who had passed through 18 turnstiles — which, noted The Boston Globe, were “more than at any ballpark in the country, with the exception of the Polo Grounds in New York.” The bad views that had hampered standing room-only fans at the Huntington Avenue Grounds were less of a factor here, thanks to a sloping hill that ran up to the base of the tall outfield wall and allowed those watching in back a better glimpse of the action. The 10-foot knoll created a defensive challenge. Because it was expertly guarded most often in its early years by Red Sox left fielder Duffy Lewis, it was quickly dubbed “Duffy’s Cliff.”

“The mammoth plant, with its commodious fittings, met with distinct approval,” Paul Shannon reported in The Boston Post the next day. However, not all early reviews were positive. Although Fenway is praised for its intimacy today, fans in 1912 were not yet used to having seats so far from the playing field as those in the new center-field bleachers. One Boston Globe cartoon showed two patrons using telescopes to take in the action, and a front-page story in The Sporting News, the weekly national publication knows as the “baseball bible,” was entitled “Boston’s Odd Ways — Reasons for Patronage at New Fenway Park: It’s Too Big for Fans to Exchange Pleasantries About Weather and They’re Used to Going in Another Direction.”

“The fact that the park is not as handy to reach and get away from as as the old park has hurt some and will until people get accustomed to journeying in the new direction,” T.H. Murnane reported in the article. He asserted that “the kings of the bleachers … resent the idea of being pushed back to make room for the big grand stand.” Because the new park featured two separate entrances on its opposite ends, rather than one long passageway like at the Huntington Avenue Grounds, Murnane worried that there was less opportunity for fans to run into friends. Even the length of the games was seen as a culprit; more drawn-out contests were causing patrons to miss their trains.

Still, Murnane saw hope: “I am sure … with improved weather and everything else connected with the running of the establishment, the old crowds will come back, and the fans will grow warmer to the new park.” He also anticipated that Fenway’s formal dedication ceremonies on May 17 would draw “25,000 or 30,000 red blooded fans, from the finest base ball fan army in the country.” The crowd wasn’t quite that big in the end, but it was a great event nonetheless, with the grandstands draped in tri-color bunting, potted plants lining the walkways, and a band that plead throughout the afternoon. Before the contest, Red Sox and White Sox players marched to the flagpole and raised Old Glory as the fans sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The only thing keeping it from being a perfect day was a ninth-inning comeback win by Chicago, but such outcomes would be a rarity during Fenway’s maiden summer.

Read More: Babe Ruth, Joe Wood, John Fitzgerald, Tris Speaker
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