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Opening the local Centennial


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In its first salvos the Red Sox have regaled us with their "modest" observance of the 100th birthday of their "lyric little bandbox of a ball yard." For better or worse, we are assured the hosannas have only just begun, although whatever else they intend to cook up will have trouble competing with the opening number.

Even hardhearted New Yorkers were charmed by the quaint parade of their ancients and honorables marching out of the nooks, crannies, and closets of the old relic. Too bad there isn't a corn field in the neighborhood out of which they could have sprung the ghosts of Foxx, Grove, Wood, and even the Grey Eagle, Speaker, and the Mighty Masher, the Babe Himself. No doubt Dr. Charles Steinberg, the alleged maestro of these gaudy moments, gave that notion considerable thought.

There is no fear here that in the course of this season-long festival the Red Sox will miss paying tribute to many of the more wonderful things they've done for us over the ages. It's the lesser and more colorful if not quite so sacrosanct details that one worries could get lost in the shuffle and that would be a shame.

So here, if only to balance the record a bit, are some quaint factoids and gritty details having to do with the lusty saga of your beloved ballpark and the wild and crazy kids who have cavorted there that might otherwise go unrecalled. We'll start in our quite informal historical rendering with some observations on the early years and offer further installments on subsequent era's as the celebration continues throughout the summer. Should be fun and do hope it adds a bit of spice to the on-going bombast.

Beginning with Fenway Park itself and those "glorious" early years

The fact is that in its original form it wasn't much to brag about and rather a low-budget job that bears hardly the faintest resemblance to what stands today. Actually, the new and old Yankee Stadiums look more alike than the original and modern Fenways. Tom Yawkey's major overhaul in 1933 was no mere refurbishment but a total "rebuilding:" required to be much more extensive than intended by the fire that interrupted the process.

So, what we're actually commemorating this year is the 100th anniversary of "the original site." But it's essentially only the 79th anniversary of the ballpark itself which has been further revised, re-renovated, expanded, and tinkered with many times since Yawkey laid the groundwork in 1933. The new owners don't like to emphasize this preferring that you believe they alone deserve credit for preserving the place, however doubtful that distinction might be. But modifications and improvements done in the early and late '40s (lights), mid-seventies and late-eighties (boxes, press box, walls, and deck) were more crucial to its fundamental maintenance and modernization than the more recent upgrades and frills.

Maybe the most fetching feature of the original was that silly business of "Duffy's cliff" out in left field. It was a dirt slope leading up to a much shorter (25 foot) wall. Quite difficult to navigate, it was named for the nimble Duffy Lewis who played it stylishly as a charter member of the fabled "Hooper-Speaker-Lewis" outfield of early times. Alas in later years, when the team went into the pits, less gracious left-fielders like the immortal Smead Jolley had an awful time with the cliff. The affable Smead could climb it okay but he would invariably fall en route and roll down the thing. Without the ball, of course. It would have been interesting to see how Ted Williams might have played the cliff.

Certainly when the Taylor ownership produced the original park at the Fenway site it was a significant improvement over the glorified playground that had hitherto served them but subsequent owners were not impressed. Joe Lannin's champions of 1915 and '16 moved their World Series dates to the Braves' equally new but larger and more comfortable home up Comm Ave featuring 50 percent more seating capacity.

Effectively, within just three years Fenway was spurned which would seem to be an early hit on the legend of the place. When first opened fans were allowed to stand on the ball field and there could be three thousand of them hovering behind Tris Speaker in centerfield at a big game; hence the overflow crowds of the 1912 post-season epic. But once patrons were banned from occupying the field of play, tiny Fenway was in trouble. In the 1918 World Series average attendance was little more than 20,000.

That was, of course, arguably the ugliest "fall classic" ever played aside from the next year's which was bagged outright by gamblers. Indeed, the entire 1918 season had been understandably upstaged by World War I's last throes and there had even been talk of cancelling the World Series after the regular season was suspended a month early. In the end they played, but the mood was sullen. To make a long and unpleasant story short, when the Red Sox and Cubs realized their Series' bonuses would be historically and pathetically small they threatened to strike. Needless to say in a world haunted by a terrible war and its brutal by-products this did not go over well.

An hour before the final game -- played at Fenway before only 15,000 disenchanted patrons -- Boston's players were still hiding in a Kenmore Square Hotel vowing not to play. But when league officials threatened not only lifetime banishment but arrest as wartime "slackers" they churlishly budged. The game -- played halfheartedly by both teams and believed by some to possibly have been fixed by a couple of Cubs -- was won by the Red Sox in what -- as has been ingrained in the hearts and minds of every New Englander in childhood -- would be the last they'd win for 86 years.

Hence introduces "the curse of the Bambino" though that year's antics had little to do with Babe Ruth, a young and not very happy star on that team of malcontents but hardly one of its ring-leaders. Such honors were held by older, more distinguished, teammates like Harry Hooper, Joe Bush, Carl Mays and Dutch Leonard. It was one of the sorriest moments in Fenway's history and it remains amazing to realize how few appreciate what really happened in 1918. The fact that it would become so romanticized is fairly ridiculous. Keep in mind, that "classic" may have been fixed!

Of course, by 1918 the infamous show-business dandy from New York, Harry Frazee, is in his second year as owner, and destined to become the bane of Fenway and ultimate villain of all New England's sports history. But those who knew him well always insisted Harry was a helluva guy and a regal character. When he died in 1929, no less than Jimmy Walker -- Beau James Himself, the most colorful mayor New York City ever had -- was weeping at his bedside.

There was nothing new, startling, or criminal about selling ballplayers in those days. It happened every day. In 1916, Lannin had sold Speaker. The year before Connie Mack sold Eddie Collins. A year later the Giants sold the incomparable Christy Mathewson. A whole wing at Cooperstown would be needed to accommodate the alleged "immortals" who were crassly peddled mainly for mere cash in "the good old days." Mack sold whole teams jammed with stars again and again. It was the way it was. Very few teams disdained the practice. The Yankees were one of those few.

Moreover, Frazee had reasonable excuses for selling Ruth. When it happened it was an unpopular move but hardly considered the moral outrage History would make of it. Indeed, had Frazee stopped with the Ruth deal it would not have become such a big deal. But he went on selling every quality player he had his mitts on, most of them to the Yankees.

Crassly dispersed accordingly were Lewis, Leonard, Bush, Mays and Hooper. Sam Jones, Wally Schang, Jumping Joe Dugan and Herbie Pennock. Waite Hoyt, Everett Scott, Ernie Shore and Stuffy McInnis. Mike McNally, Harry Harper, and Amos Strunk. They march down through the ages to the tune, "Tea for Two."

We'll continue this merry tale as the summer proceeds.

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