For a decade or more, Fenway Park in Boston has been the hottest sports arena in the United States. Since the mid-1980s, when the Red Sox finally shook off nearly a century of lassitude and metamorphosed into one of sport’s most glamorous teams, not merely getting into the World Series but actually winning it twice, in 2004 and then again in 2007, for the first time since 1918, they have been on an incredible roll, one that ended this fall with a sickening thud. In a park with seating capacity of approximately 37,000 — the smallest in the major leagues — they have averaged above-capacity attendance for the past five years. A seat in Fenway is a rare and precious commodity, and as Glenn Stout points out in “Fenway 1912,” it is “now the most expensive ballpark in the country, with the average ticket price topping $50.”
It wasn’t always thus. In 1968, when I saw Fenway for the first time, attendance averaged under 24,000, and the glow of the miraculous 1967 season, when the team came out of nowhere to make the World Series and attendance more than doubled, threatened to wear off. A couple of friends and I bought tickets a few minutes before game time and had the park almost to ourselves. Ditto for later that fall, when I saw the Boston (now New England) Patriots of the American Football League play the New York Jets: plenty of empty seats and lots of leg room. Fenway was charming (it had been immortalized in 1960 by John Updike as “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark”) but down at the heels; many people in Boston wanted to replace it with one of those circular, multi-purpose stadiums much in favor at the time.
In the more than four decades since I first saw it, Fenway has been remodeled and modernized to a fare-thee-well, its lovely field and eccentric measurements well preserved but its quaintness shoved aside by “an ever more efficient delivery system for food, beverages, merchandise, and memorabilia,” making it a kissing cousin of Nationals Park and other ballparks of more recent manufacture. Still, it is one of the few truly magical places in American sports — the others that come to mind are Wrigley Field in Chicago, Lambeau Field in Green Bay and Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia — and watching a game there is an experience not soon forgotten, one that I have been privileged to enjoy perhaps two dozen times.
Stout, who edits the annual volume of “Best American Sports Writing,” takes as his subject not Fenway today, however — the quotes above are from his book’s penultimate page — but Fenway as it came into existence in the winter of 1911-12 and as the scene of five games of the 1912 World’s Series (as it was then called), one of the most thrilling in the long history of what sportswriters call the Fall Classic. It’s a fascinating story, and Stout tells it very well. To be sure in “Fenway 1912,” as in almost all books about sport, there’s more play-by-play than is really necessary to the tale, but too many years of reading too many books about sport have accustomed my eyes to glazing over during these passages, and no doubt yours can do the same.
Fenway was built at a crucial point in baseball history. Competition between the older National League and the young American League (in which the Red Sox played) had settled into an orderly rivalry that climaxed each year with the series, and the old ramshackle ballparks were being replaced by sturdier concrete-and-steel structures less susceptible to fire. Stout writes:
“The construction of so many concrete-and-steel ballparks in such a brief time period provided evidence of just how deeply the game of baseball had become ingrained into the fabric of American life and how important it had become. Prior to the concrete-and-steel era ballparks had been less permanent, wooden structures that after only a few years were destined to decay. Although investments in concrete-and-steel structures were made primarily because of insurance and safety concerns, the decision to invest in such a durable structure was also emblematic of baseball’s permanence. Baseball franchises like the Red Sox had come to represent the character of their city and were now worthy of homes that reflected their place in the hearts and minds of their people. The concrete-and-steel ballpark era provided evidence that baseball was a lasting part of the culture. Like public buildings, they were built to last. The game was here to stay and so, presumably, were its structures. These ballparks became homes for the aspirations of the game, and they would evolve to fit their cities and grow in importance to the fabric of the surrounding communities.”
Two aspects of Fenway’s construction will strike today’s reader most forcibly: It was built without public funds, and it was built in under five months. Professional sports teams were decades away from learning how to bully cities into paying for their immensely profitable playpens, and construction techniques were considerably less sophisticated than they are today. Designed by a respected-if now-forgotten architect named James McLaughlin, it had three sections: a one-level grandstand seating 11,400, a roofed pavilion seating 8,000 and bleachers seating 5,000. It had to fit into the “eight-plus-acre plot of land” acquired by its owners, hence the odd layout of the field and the looming presence of the famous left-field wall, now known as the Green Monster. When the Red Sox opened for business there on April 20, 1912, against the New York Highlanders (as the Yankees were then called), “the fans were impressed.” As well they should have been:
“From start to finish, the park had been built in four and a half months; construction officials calculated that poor winter weather had shut down most work on the park for the equivalent of two months. Seven thousand barrels of cement and 270 tons of structural steel had been used during construction, plus hundreds of thousands of board lumber in the concrete formwork, the construction of the bleachers and pavilion, and the fences. All told, the cost was $600,000, a cost per capita of only $24 per seat, making the Fenway stands, on a cubic foot basis, some of the most lucrative real estate in the city of Boston.”
The Red Sox got off to a slow start but by mid-season began to pull away from the pack, just as the New York Giants were doing in the National League. These were the Red Sox of “Smoky” Joe Wood and Tris Speaker, the Giants of Christy Mathewson and John McGraw. The World’s Series between the two was so feverishly anticipated that new seats were hastily added to Fenway, closing in the park on all sides and “bringing the seating capacity of Fenway Park to 36,100 — 38,600 when one included standing-room space at the back of the grandstand.”
Not merely did the series go the full seven games, it actually went eight, because the second game ended in a 6-6 tie due to darkness. The deciding game went down to the final out in the bottom of the 10th inning. The Red Sox won 3-2, with Wood defeating Mathewson in one of the great pitching matchups in baseball history. Mathewson’s teammates committed grievous errors behind him. It was the beginning of the end of his epic career, a heartbreaking moment for him if a thrilling one for all Boston fans, who proceeded to paint the town as red as the socks the players wore.
The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Year
By Glenn Stout
Houghton Mifflin Harcout. 392 pp. $26