Fenway Park At 100: Still A Big Draw For Baseball Fans

Download Audio
Fenway Park in Boston (AP)
Fenway Park in Boston (AP)

Baseball season is well under way, and the Red Sox are off to a somewhat rocky start. Regardless, thousands of fans are still heading to Fenway to watch the team play — as they have for 100 years — as the park marks its 100th birthday this week.

For a look at why this ballpark has withstood the tests of time and continues to pull fans forward, we met up with Ron Driscoll and John Powers inside Fenway recently. They wrote the book "Fenway Park: A Salute to the Coolest, Cruelest, Longest-Running Major League Baseball Stadium in America."

And on that sunny day, we looked out over the empty stadium, reminiscing about our own experiences in Fenway. I asked John Powers why it holds such a strong connection to so many people after 100 years.

John Powers: There were other ballparks that were made of concrete and steel that predated this — they're all gone now. So this is the last remaining relic. And yet here is a place they wanted to literally bulldoze as recently as about 12 years ago. And the outcry was huge. Because people feel as though there are certain things about Boston that we can't see ever leaving — whether that be the City Hall, the State House, the old Boston Garden — this is one of them.

Bob Oakes: Today, on this gorgeous sunny day, we see the preparation. The crews are almost done putting the finishing touches of a new coat of paint on the Green Monster. They're working on the field and we can say that the grass is beautifully green. The seats are as tiny as ever. They await thousands of butts that will try to cram into them over this season. But paint another picture for us: Fenway 1912.

John Powers: There was a lot of standing room. People used to stand on the field. They actually weren't considered bad seats, there was an intimacy to it that was even more intimate than what you have here. You could literally be two or three feet from Duffy Lewis in the outfield.

Ron Driscoll: That's right. Also, when Fenway Park was built, the left field wall was not exactly as it is now; it was a little shorter. But it was built initially to keep people from peeping through the fence or over the fence and watching the game. They did not expect a lot of balls to reach the left field fence because of the way the game played back then. It was obviously more of a hit-and-run type game, a lot of stolen bases before Babe Ruth came along and changed the face of baseball.

As you look around, what stayed the same and what's important in terms of that thing that's stayed the same, in terms of maintaining the flavor and the ambiance of this place?

John Powers: One thing that has never changed: it's still a manual scoreboard in the wall. They literally have to pull down and put up numbers. And that is the one thing: if Bostonians came in and saw it gone, they'd say, "What happened to Fenway?" You could do almost anything else.

As I was flipping through the pages of the book, I flashed several times to that speech that was delivered by the actor James Earl Jones in the film "Field of Dreams." And he's talking to another character in the film played by Kevin Costner, trying to explain the pull of baseball and the pull of the park. And he says:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game is part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. People will come, Ray, people will most definitely come.

You say several times in the book that the ballpark is the star, that Fenway Park is the star. What makes it so?

John Powers: What is unique about this place is, in spite of all amplification, the improvements, the enlargements, it's still the same dimension. My great-grandfather could probably come in here and say, "I remember this place. This looks familiar."

Ron Driscoll: For many years, the Red Sox had something of a sad history. In wake of the Babe Ruth trade, they went for more than a decade as the worst team in baseball. And the ballpark is why you came here, not necessarily to watch the Red Sox limp to another eighth- or ninth-place finish.

And isn't that so true for so many people who come here — whether they've played for the Red Sox or whether they're just longtime fans — people mark the passage of time by what they see and what they've experienced in this building?

John Powers: Everybody remembers the awful things. They remember Bucky "bleeping" Dent, as we say, hitting the home run for Yankees for the pennant. There's a feeling here: "Oh my goodness, this is a place of pain for so many of us."

Ron Driscoll: And a place of salvation obviously, when 2004 finally came. They won the World Series in St. Louis, and yet this was where people wanted to come after they won that World Series. They wanted to celebrate it at Fenway Park.

The book makes extensive use of archive photos in The Boston Globe collection, including 200, as I understand it, that were never published before. What's your most favorite picture in the book, both of you?

John Powers: There are some great photos; for example, we show the two guys inside the wall that changes the scoreboard. That is a great shot. Only Manny Ramirez, who goes in once in a while, knows what it looks like, but all of us will say, "You know what, I was there for that."

Ron Driscoll: I recall one photo which I had never seen before and which I love. Probably taken in the mid-1960s is a photo — it's actually taken in the locker-room — and it's Ted Williams and Tony Conigliaro. And he's being tutored by Ted, who's the ultimate student of hitting. It's Tony taking his stance and Ted watching him. It's just a wonderful moment that for Red Sox fans, I think just captures a real emotion of Tony and his career, and how it was cut short so tragically, and also Ted, who dominated the headlines around Fenway Park for probably four decades.

Outside of the two of you writing professionally when you come to a game, what's your most enduring memory yourself about the ballpark?

John Powers: The greatest thrill for me was the first day I walked into the Red Sox clubhouse. As intimate and small as this ballpark is, there are parts that most people never get into. So more than any game or moment, I remember walking in there and saying, "Aha. I've just been allowed into the great secret here."

Ron Driscoll: As a kid coming here with my older brother. He was all of 10 or 11, and I was 7 or 8 years old. And we watched the entire parade from batting practice to the preparation of the field. The game was almost secondary to just the whole ambiance and the event that was a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.


This program aired on April 18, 2012.


More from WBUR

Listen Live