Today in Baseball History: Fenway Park opens

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On this day in 1912 two new ballparks had their grand openings: the Red Sox’ Fenway Park in Boston and Tiger Stadium in Detroit. On this date in 1916 the Chicago Cubs played their first game at Weeghman Park — renamed Wrigley Field in 1926 — as well.

What a day for ballpark history, eh?

We’ve talked a lot about the Tigers lately, and we mentioned Weeghman/Wrigley in the Federal League post from last week. I’m sure will give both of those places some longer treatments later as well, so let’s focus today on Fenway, shall we?

The Red Sox, then known as the Boston Americans, began play as a charter member of the American League in 1901. Their park: a rickety wooden structure located at Huntington and Rogers Avenues in the Roxbury section of Boston. The site was previously a temporary location for carnivals and traveling circuses and, as such, it was commonly called the Huntington Carnival Lot. It was described at the time as “no more than an expansive wasteland made up of heavily weeded bumps and lumps.” There was a pharmaceutical company nearby and, if the wind was just right, you could smell chemicals. So that was promising.

The park itself was no great shakes either. Due to the size and shape of the parcel on which it sat, the right field fence was only 280 feet down the line and center field extended over 500 feet into the distance. To be sure, over-the-fence home runs were not a big part of the game back then, but it still created some issues. For example, there was a tool shed in center field that was in play.

You can’t see the shed here, in this photo from the 1903 World Series, but you can get the vibe of the place:

By the late aughts wooden ballparks were quickly falling out of vogue. Fires and rot made them not much more than temporary structures at a time when major league baseball was establishing itself as a permanent fixture in American life. Though only a decade old, Red Sox’ owner John Taylor considered the Huntington Avenue Grounds an embarrassment to the team and decided to build a new one.

Taylor, along with his father, Charles Taylor, were real estate magnates who owned some land in “The Fens” of Boston and sold it under the name Fenway Realty Company, giving the park its location and its name. Construction of the ballpark began in September 1911. It immediately caused the value of the team to increase, causing Taylor to sell most of his interest in the team to Jim McAleer and Robert McRoy before the place even opened up the following April.

Fenway is located along Lansdowne Street and Jersey Street in the Kenmore Square area of Boston, which then as now, includes many buildings of similar height and architecture, causing it to blend in with the neighborhood much more than your average professional sports facility does. On my first trip there — for the 2013 World Series — I walked to it from my hotel and, though I knew I was approaching it, I was rather stunned with how unassuming it is from the outside.

Fenway, like most older parks, was constructed on an asymmetrical block, which led to asymmetry in its field dimensions. It currently measures 310 feet down the left field line to the famous Green Monster, goes out to 379 feet in left center, ranges from 390 to 420 feet in center, 380 feet in right field and 302 feet down the right field line to the famous Pesky Pole. It has the smallest amount of foul territory of any park in the majors.

About those two famous traits:

  • The Green monster was not always green. Yes, the 37-foot-2-inch-high wall has been there from the beginning in order to compensate for the short distance to left, but until 1947 it was covered with advertisements (see photo below). Before being painted green that year it was simply called “the wall.” The Green Monster is famous for preventing what might be considered “cheap” home runs, while increasing the prevalence of doubles on balls off the wall. Of course, a lot of those doubles might’ve been homers in some places while a lot of high homers over the Green Monster might’ve been fly balls caught by fielders in other parks.
  • The Pesky Pole, named after Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky, is the very close-in foul pole down the right field line. Many people think it got its name by virtue of Pesky making a living by aiming hits in that direction and getting some cheapie home runs. Nope. Pesky only hit 17 career homers, only six of those came at Fenway, and only one of them, reliably anyway, can specifically be recalled as hooking around that pole. And it wasn’t even notable. Pesky had completely forgotten it until the 1960s when his former Red Sox teammate, Mel Parnell, started calling it “Pesky’s Pole” during Red Sox broadcasts, claiming that Pesky won a game for him with one of those homers late in a game. Parnell misremembered, though: Pesky hit one career homer in a Parnell start, and it came in the second inning of a Parnell no-decision. Oh well.

The first game at Fenway Park was played April 20, 1912, with mayor John F. Fitzgerald — President John F. Kennedy’s grandfather — throwing out the first pitch. The Red Sox beat the New York Highlanders 7–6 in 11 innings. Newspaper coverage of the opening of the park was below the fold, though, as continuing coverage of the Titanic sinking a few days earlier dominated the news. 

Though Fenway park was built quickly, it was also constructed very solidly, out of concrete and steel. It, along with Navin Field (eventually Tiger Stadium) in Detroit, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and Crosley Field in Cincinnati ushered in a new ballpark age. Fenway was also built with long-term life and expansion in mind. A major renovation took place in 1934, shortly after new owner Thomas A. Yawkey took over control of the ballclub. In 1946, when Fenway’s upper deck was added, the preexisting foundation required no additional reinforcement. Lights were added in 1947. Before the 2003 season seats were added above The Green Monster.

More recently — after widespread speculation that, like so many parks of its era, Fenway would need to be demolished in favor of a new park — the current ownership group led by John Henry, Thomas Werner, and Larry Lucchino mounted a multi-year renovation that is expected to add nearly another half century on to the ballpark’s usable life. Because of that, Fenway has gotten to host a lot of good baseball of late. Since 2004 the four Red Sox teams have had their names added to baseball’s list of World Series winners. Fenway Park, meanwhile, has since seen itself added to the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1910: Addie Joss of Cleveland pitched the second no-hitter of his career, a 1-0 win over the White Sox in Chicago. He’d be dead in less than a year.

1939: Ted Williams plays in his first major league game. He goes 1-for-4 and hits a 400-foot double as the Boston Red Sox lose, 2-0, to New York at Yankee Stadium. It’s also the only game in which Williams and Lou Gehrig share the field.

1988: The Baltimore Orioles set a major-league record with their 14th straight defeat at the start of the season, losing to the Milwaukee Brewers, 8-6. They will go on to lose 21 straight to start the year. Despite this bad start, they lose one fewer game that year — 107 — than the 2019 Orioles. That latter team started 4-1 and lost 108.

1990: Brian Holman of the Seattle Mariners loses a perfect game against the Oakland A’s with two outs in the ninth inning when former Mariner Ken Phelps hits a pinch-hit home run. It’d be Phelps’ only home run all season long and the second to last one he’d hit in his career.

 

(Photo shows baseball action in Boston’s Fenway Park. The pitcher has just thrown the ball — Getty Images)