Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 1, 2011

Book Review: Looking Back On Friendly Fenway’s First Century

With the Red Sox into their second home stand of the season, fans from all over New England are once again making their way to the old stadium in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. Shoehorned into a dense urban district, Fenway Park opened in 1912, making it the oldest stadium in the major leagues. As the Red Sox and their fans get ready for a year-long celebration of the Park’s centennial next year, “Remembering Fenway Park” by Harvey Frommer, just published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, is an impressive history of the first century at the historic ball yard. Devoted members of Red Sox Nation will want to add the book to their libraries.

After an exhibition game against the Harvard squad on April 9, 1912, the Red Sox played the first major league game at their new field eleven days later. Given subsequent history, the opponent appropriately enough was the team from New York then known as the Highlanders. One year later they would change their name to Yankees. Boston won that opening game 7-6 in 11 innings, and Fenway Park’s history began.

As Frommer recounts, Red Sox ownership “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 would cost $650,000 (approximately $14 million today) and seat 35,000.”

He goes on to illustrate how at the beginning Fenway was both distinctive and modern. “An attractive red brick façade, the first electric scoreboard, and 18 turnstiles, the most in the majors, were all features being talked about” when the park opened. “Concrete stands went from behind first base around to third while wooden bleachers were in parts of left, right, and center field. Seats lined the field, allowing for excellent views of the game but limiting the size of foul territory.” A century later Fenway remains a place where one feels close to the game no matter where seated, and foul ground is still scarce.

Harvey Frommer is an accomplished author and historian who has written more than forty books on sports. But the best feature of “Remembering Fenway Park” is the product of his decision to let others, many others, do much of the telling of the stadium’s story. Supplementing Frommer’s narrative, more than 130 contributors offer their recollections and remembrances. They include many former players, sportswriters and broadcasters, current and former Red Sox employees, local politicians and just plain fans. Frommer even tracked down a centenarian who had been a Red Sox bat boy in the early 1920’s.

Throughout the book, these voices add context and character to the well-known history of the Boston Red Sox and their beloved home. There are the four world championships in the Park’s first seven seasons, followed by seven last place finishes in its second decade. There is the arrival of Tom Yawkey, a 30-year old heir to a timber and mining fortune when he bought the team in 1933. After a January fire caused major damage in 1934, Yawkey spent more than $1 million to repair and refurbish the stadium. The “new Fenway” opened that April, and featured a 37-foot high wall in left field. More than three-quarters of a century later the Green Monster remains one of the most distinctive features of any stadium in the land.

There too are first person accounts of the careers of Red Sox greats, from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Carlton Fisk to David Ortiz. Signature moments are recounted from multiple perspectives; Williams’ home run in his final at-bat, Fisk willing his drive down the left field line to stay fair in game six of the 1975 World Series, and of course the franchise’s considerable success in the new century.

Of course, to be complete this history of Fenway necessarily includes the many moments of frustration for Red Sox fans, such as the Bucky Dent home run in the one game playoff against the Yankees in 1978. Don Zimmer, then a coach with Boston, recalls “When Bucky hit the ball, I said, ‘That’s an out.’ And usually you know when the bat hits the ball whether it’s short, against the wall, in the net, or over the net. I see Yaz backing up, and when he’s looking up, I still think he’s going to catch it. When I see him turn around, then I know he’s going to catch it off the Wall. Then the ball wound up in the net.”

There are also accounts of lean years, such as 1965 when the Sox twice played before crowds of fewer than 500 paying customers. Those days are now distant memories, with the Red Sox still on a string of well over 600 consecutive sellouts dating back to 2003. With the addition in recent years of seats atop the Green Monster as well as on the right field roof, Fenway Park is now literally packed to the rafters for every game.

Along with the text “Remembering Fenway Park” is filled with hundreds of black and white and color photographs. They show how things have changed over the years but more significantly how many things about the old ball yard remain the same.

That’s true of Red Sox fans as well. In an early chapter Frommer recounts how a full house relentlessly heckled Yankee right hander Carl Mays at a game early in the 1920 season. Mays had helped the Red Sox win the Series in 1918, but had the temerity to leave Boston behind for the archrival in New York. It reminded me of the initial meeting between the two teams in 2005, when former Red Sox hero Johnny Damon made his first appearance at Fenway in pinstripes. As he led off for the Yankees in the top of the first boos cascaded down upon him. None were louder than from the young woman in the row in front of me. She was wearing a Red Sox jersey with Damon’s name and number 18 on the back. But she had taken the time to alter the souvenir of her one-time hero. She had carefully replaced the “a” in Damon’s name with an “e.”

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