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There are still three months to go before spring training, but the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park begins in a little over a week. Author Glenn Stout's new book, "Fenway 1912: The Birth Of A Ballpark, A Championship Season And Fenway's Remarkable First Year," marks the centennial.
And what a remarkable first year it was. The Red Sox won the World Series, and, according to Stout, that had a lot to do with Fenway.
- Glenn Stout, author, "Fenway 1912: The Birth Of A Ballpark, A Championship Season And Fenway's Remarkable First Year"
-- Excerpt (Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):
"Who sows a field. . . is more than all."
— John Greenleaf Whittier
On an early October morning in the fall of 1911, Jerome Kelley rose and, after his customary cup of tea, left his home on Palmer Street in Roxbury and began his walk to work.
The morning was cool, yet the air was crisp and carried a hint of winter. As he turned up Ruggles Street the smell of breakfast cooking drifted from the houses and small apartments of the Village, the close-knit Irish American community nestled around the foot of Tremont Street. A few sleepy horses already plodded slowly down the street, pulling carts, carrying ice and other necessities of the day. In the distance automobiles coughed and sputtered as the city began to awake. On the stoops and front porches, older men—and even a few women—already sat watching the day unfold, puffing on their pipes. Wearing his cap, work pants, and plain thin jacket, Kelley gave a nod and quick word to the other workmen he saw as he walked through the neighborhood before reaching Huntington Avenue and turning north.
Boston. In the Village it was easy to pretend—almost—that you were still in Ireland. Not that anyone would mistake the Village for the green fields of Erin, for apart from the small gardens squeezed into the back lots, there was nothing green about the Village, yet it was a place where everyone knew everyone else, and if you were not already related, well, after the next wedding you might be. If a fellow had the time he could spend all day walking down the block, stopping at nearly every house, catching up on the news of the day, and then drop into McGreevey’s saloon on Columbus Avenue for a beer to soak up even more information.
But as soon as Kelley made the turn onto Huntington Avenue it was as if he entered another world. Streetcars screeched and rattled up and down the middle of the street, while the sidewalks bustled with activity. Now most of the faces he saw were those of strangers.
Here Boston was on display. Virtually every block of Huntington Avenue featured another of the city’s cultural assets: The Museum of Fine Arts. The Opera House. Symphony Hall. All had been built in the last ten years, and in the clear autumn air the grand buildings stood magnificent and austere, perfectly framed by the colorful gardens and fading greenery of the nearby Back Bay Fens, Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece of architectural landscaping and engineering.
Kelley was impressed—everyone was—but he was not overwhelmed by the scene, which was now so familiar to him that he barely noticed. After all, while many of the men in Kelley’s neighborhood had worked on those buildings as they were being built, few felt welcome inside once they were completed. The buildings were for the well-to-do, the Brahmins who until recently had run Boston and still had most of the money. Workingmen like Kelley, particularly Irish workingmen, well, they worked for the people who built the museums.
As Kelley walked up the Avenue that October morning his mind was not on the opera or the symphony or the great masters, but on a building that, to him, was more beautiful and more important than any of the grander edifices. For each of the last eight years this particular building had provided both his livelihood and his lifestyle, a place that many of his friends in the neighborhood considered a second home.
As he passed Tufts Medical College at the corner of Rogers Avenue he saw a ramshackle, wooden cigar stand, and then a towering, rough-hewn wooden fence, heavy with paint, bearing the scars of a hundred handbills and a huge advertising sign for “Dr. Swett’s Original Root Beer.” He then turned down a dusty footpath that paralleled the rough fence. Until recently there had been a large wooden sign that arched over a walkway and read “Huntington Avenue Base Ball Grounds.” Since 1904 he had gone there nearly every day, summer and winter, to work on the grounds.
But the sign had come down recently, and no one had bothered to replace it. It was obsolete anyway. The park was closing—it was now a “base ball grounds” in memory only. The next event at the park would be a charity soccer game. Baseball season was over, and not just for 1911. For the Huntington Avenue Grounds it was over forever.
Kelley had not been looking forward to this day. The Red Sox had finished the regular season only a few days before, drubbing Washington 8–1 to inch into fourth place ahead of the Chicago White Sox, but still some twenty-four long games behind the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics. Each day since then, as always, Kelley had kept an eye on the weather, waiting. He had one last job to do before the soccer players chewed the field to pieces.
Kelley, age forty-one, had come to Boston from Ireland more than twenty years before and had lived much of the time since with his widowed sister Rose. At first he worked in a nearby piano factory, laboriously stringing wire through the tuning pins. It was honest work, but dreary. He much preferred to be outdoors, and when an opportunity arose to work at the ballpark in 1904, he had jumped at the chance. Since arriving in the States, like most of his neighbors, he had become quite the baseball fan.
For most of the past eight years the weather had determined his work. So, too, would the weather define this day. But instead of forecasting whether he should water the grass or send his men out with push mowers and rakes to cut the grass and smooth the dirt, on this day the weather told him that the time was right, not to prepare the field for a game, but to strip the park of the only feature that would travel the short half-mile across the Fens to the new home of the Red Sox, now just a sea of mud and bare earth along Jersey Street.
The infield. Nearly every day for the last eight years Kelley had groomed and worried himself half-sick over that diamond-shaped piece of turf, making sure it was watered and fertilized and free of rocks and weeds. While the outfield turf required little maintenance apart from a good cutting once or twice a week, the infield, just under ninety feet square, was different. It was in the infield that games—and livelihoods—were won and lost.
Kelley knew full well that a simple ground ball that found a pebble or a bump could cost the Red Sox a ball game, and him his job. When Jimmy Collins, the old Red Sox third baseman, had chosen to leave the bag and play his position on the turf, digging in with his cleats until he exposed bare ground, Kelley had dutifully patched over and seeded the bare spots, time and time again, without complaint. And when Tris Speaker, Boston’s fleet young outfielder, had dragged a bunt down the first-base line only to watch it roll foul, Kelley had been out on the field after the game before the stands had emptied, adding a bit of dirt to the baseline, tilting it ever so slightly toward the field, making the transition from dirt to sod, brown to green, smooth and nearly seamless. And when Heinie Wagner, the shortstop, had bobbled a ball and shot him a dark look afterward, Kelley had made sure to walk the line that the ball had taken from the bat, feeling with his foot and then his fingers for a soft spot or a stone, adding a sprinkling of earth here, tamping down a rough spot there. It had taken eight years to get the infield looking the way it did now, lush and green and, since no ball had been played on it for the last week, thick and healthy. Grass grew best this time of the year, favoring the cool days and nights over the scorching heat of the summer.
That was why, of all things, only the sod of the infield of the Huntington Avenue Grounds would make the half-mile journey to the site of the new park. Although groundbreaking had taken place only a few weeks before, on September 25, Kelley’s first task there, even as workers were already leveling the site and installing drainage pipes, had been to lay out the infield. And today, Kelley’s last day at Huntington Avenue, his task was to take the old ground and lay it down in the new place. He would then water and feed it through the fall before covering it over during construction so that when the snows melted and spring came and a new ballpark burst forth like a daffodil, the infield would be trim and green and smooth.
He had already spent several days at the new place preparing the soil, raking it over and over again, sifting the loose dirt through a wire sieve to remove rocks and roots, adding loam and clay and sand in the right proportion, turning it over again and again. The work crews clearing the site had erected a fence around the infield to protect the space so no wheelbarrow or workman would tread across the bare ground and scar it with ruts or divots. It was ready now, and all Kelley had left to do was supervise the removal of the sod from Huntington Avenue and truck it to its new location.
He gathered his small crew of men and tools and handcarts and made his way toward the field, stopping just short of fair territory. Only a week after the end of the season the field already looked a bit ragged. Sawdust was pressed into the ground around home plate and the pitcher’s box, left over from Kelley’s effort to make the field playable on its final day, when a deluge had soaked the field overnight. Tufts of new grass had already sprung up in the dirt portion of the infield, and the outfield turf, left untended, was long and shaggy. Pigeons swooped and flocked beneath the grandstand roof, the only spectators amid the empty seats, and a few stray papers swirled before the dugout. The breeze still carried the smells of the ballpark—a mix of peanut shells, tobacco juice, and cigars that over the last decade had penetrated the fibrous wood and now remained, even when the crowd was gone.
Kelley and his crew worked slowly and methodically as they cut the sod into strips, loosened it from the soil beneath, then used a sharp spade to cut the strips into squares. The work was familiar, not unlike the cutting of sod many of them had done in Ireland, where for generations men had worked the bogs, peeling back the surface to uncover peat, which they had cut and stacked and dried to burn for fuel.
It took most of the morning to remove the sod and wheel it to the horse carts waiting behind the grandstand, but by noon the work was done and the green space that had once been the focus for thousands of sets of eyes and the home for legends like Collins, Buck Freeman, Chick Stahl, and Cy Young was now stacked in layers, like the pages of a history book.
One after the other, as Kelley and his crew climbed on board, the wagons pulled out and followed one another up Huntington Avenue, then down Massachusetts Avenue toward the new place. Thousands of Bostonians had spent much of the summer obsessed with what had taken place on the field, but now they were oblivious as it passed by them.
Less than an hour later, the wagons turned onto Jersey Street and made their way down the rutted pathway to a bare open lot dotted with piles of rock and debris. Knots of workmen wielding shovels and wheelbarrows scurried about amid surveyors eyeballing grade stakes and men rushing in and out of a makeshift construction shack, carrying plans and barking orders. The site was on the edge of what had once been a mud flat occasionally overrun with brackish water, the ancestral holdings of the Dana family, whose roots in and around Boston predated the American Revolution. The filling of the Back Bay and the Fens, finished only a little more than a decade earlier, had turned the useless marsh into raw land, undeveloped and potentially lucrative. And for most of the last decade it had sat there, undeveloped, used as an occasional dump, awaiting its fate as Boston grew out to meet it.
Kelley’s men steered their wagons to the small fenced-off area on the southwestern corner of the property, near Jersey Street, opened a gate, and began unloading their precious cargo. As they laid the sod a few workmen stopped and watched for a moment as, piece by piece, over the course of the next few hours the bare ground, apart from a narrow strip that ran from the pitcher’s mound to home plate, changed from brown to green. As it did the emerging infield made it possible to imagine a grandstand rising around it, then the outfield and a distant outfield fence, followed soon by the five senses of a ballpark: the crack of a bat, the smell of cut grass, the taste of plug tobacco finding its place in your cheek, the feel of a worn glove wrapping the hand, the sight of long cool shadows cutting across the infield, and the muffled hum of the crowd slowly filling in the space between the wisecracks of the players.
Square by square, a new page was turned open to the sun. Something was passed from Huntington Avenue to the new place. It would soon take root there and then, in time, flourish every spring.
This program aired on December 22, 2011.
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