Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A century ago, Red Sox christened Fenway with a title

Six hundred thousand dollars doesn't get you much in baseball these days. That's about nine games of Jayson Werth. Or a full season of Greg Dobbs. A hundred years ago it covered the cost of building a stadium in Boston.

When the Red Sox broke ground on their new home in the fall of 1911, no one envisioned Fenway Park would still be in use a century later. Most of its contemporaries, such as Ebbets Field, Tiger Stadium, Redland Field, Shibe Park, and Forbes Field are long gone. Several times over the past 100 years, support has grown-and faded-for a replacement venue.

So why has Fenway endured? Glenn Stout, in his new book Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year, cites the park's ability to adapt and change. Indeed, modern Fenway looks almost nothing like the original, which opened to a standing-room only crowd of nearly 30,000 on April 20, 1912. The official seating capacity was 24,400, including 11,400 coveted grandstand seats, a significant increase over the cramped quarters the team left behind at the Huntington Avenue Grounds.

Had the team constructed a second tier, it would have been even larger. In a cost-saving compromise, they chose instead to build the foundation with enough support to allow for the later addition of an upper deck. That decision, more than any other, argues Stout, has kept Fenway viable all these years later. A second deck of seating, added in 1946, boosted capacity as the sport roared back after World War II, though in the decades that followed attendance flagged, with crowds under 1,000 reported at times in the mid-1960s.

Fenway wasn't always revered as the shrine it is today. The preservationists who have staved off attempts to build a modern baseball facility in Boston are a relatively new phenomenon. Long before anyone loved it for its historic value, it was tolerated for its ability to evolve.

The changes began almost immediately, some set in motion by the team's on-field success in its very first season. During a September road swing, the club added 11,600 seats in preparation for a World's Series that even the most optimistic fans wouldn't have forecast back in April, when rain delayed the team's home opener two days.

Boston's roster was dotted with plenty of star power. But long before the "25 players, 25 cabs" line was first used to describe a divided Red Sox clubhouse, the team was split along religious and regional lines, with the mostly Catholic, New England-born faction (the KCs, or Knights of Columbus) frequently warring with the younger Protestant players (the Masons), who generally hailed from the West and South. Catcher Bill Carrigan led the KCs, while pitcher Smoky Joe Wood and center fielder Tris Speaker countered for the Masons. Off the field the two groups rarely interacted.

Jake Stahl, who came out of retirement to manage the squad and man first base, recognized the No. 1 obstacle facing him in spring training, when several players, including Wood, challenged his authority by loafing through drills. Eventually Stahl earned their respect, with Wood blossoming into a superstar, going 34-5 and winning 16 consecutive decisions late in the year. His famed September duel with Senators ace Walter Johnson drew anywhere from 29,000 to 40,000 spectators, depending on whose estimates one believed. With every seat having been sold, fans several rows deep rang the infield as well as the outfield. Wood prevailed, 1-0, to the delight of Boston's diehard fanatics, the Royal Rooters.

A month later, those same Rooters, who many might argue had too great an influence on the team, rioted when their left-field seats were given away to other fans for Game 7 of the World's Series against the Giants. Wood was pummeled by the visitors, tying the series (there had been one game earlier that ended in a tie), leading to an eighth and final game, again in Fenway, courtesy of a coin toss. With the Royal Rooters boycotting and the weather turning cold, Game 8 was sparsely attended. The stands were half empty as Boston capped its historic season with a championship in its new park.

There has been no shortage of books on both the Red Sox and Fenway Park. Stout, so fascinated by ballparks as a youth he'd spend hours sketching them precisely to scale, divined an opening for a title that captured the evolution of the stadium, even from the start of the 1912 season through the World's Series. His description of the Fenway's construction is so detailed one can actually picture the crew mixing the concrete on site, braving the dangers of the rusty rebar as the concrete was poured, and working night shifts to smooth the deck as they raced the clock to finish by Opening Day.

Stout spotlights head groundskeeper Jerome Kelley, who oversaw the harvesting of the infield sod from the Huntington Avenue Grounds for reuse in the new park. Through Kelley, architect James E. McLaughlin, and contractor Charles Logue, he personalizes the process of readying the new ballpark. They become as much a part of the tale as the wild bunch who raced to a huge lead in the American League standings that first season. Stout masterfully intertwines their stories, reflecting the role the birth of the park played in the team's success. Its quirky angles, the 10-foot embankment in left field affectionately known as Duffy's Cliff (after left fielder Duffy Lewis), and the short pole in right all made Fenway the unique home-field advantage then it is today, long before anyone envisioned Boston's signature Green Monster.

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