The window high over the door in the back of the Pennant Grille, at the corner of Lansdowne Street and Brookline Avenue in Boston, is painted opaque. The reason for the obscurity is obscure, but it may have saved any number of Boston Red Sox fans from acute depression. Through a clear window a drinking man in the Pennant Grille can see the Fenway Park wall, the principal reason why no pennant has fluttered over the Grille for 19 years, and only one in the 46 seasons since World War I. That 37-foot-high left-field fence, topped by its 23-foot-high basket of baseball-catching chicken wire, could make a fan on the outside feel—like a pitcher on the inside—a prisoner of Fenway Park.
The Fenway wall is the most famous of the structural idiosyncrasies so common in the major league ball parks that were built half a century ago, and now that the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field are gone it is one of the few remaining in this era of new, large and symmetrical stadiums. It starts near the left-field foul line, only 315 feet from home plate, and juts at a right angle 275 feet across the outfield until it meets the center-field bleachers. It is the most inviting target for a right-handed hitter in the major leagues; fly balls become base hits and would-be home runs that don't quite make it to the chicken wire ricochet off the wall below for doubles.
Hitters love it and pitchers hate it, and it drives managers crazy; both hitters and pitchers tend to alter their natural style of play to take account of the wall, and this too often adversely affects their play when they are away from Fenway and in a normal, unidiosyncratic ball park. Because abrupt adjustment from the incongruities of Fenway to the symmetry of other parks is almost impossible, Red Sox teams over the years have accepted consistent inconsistency (since World War II a .607 winning percentage at home compared to .446 on the road) as their manifest destiny. And Bostonians have bleakly but faithfully embraced the team as a poor thing but their own. Nobody gets hurt except 62-year-old Owner Thomas A. Yawkey, the only multimillionaire prisoner of the wall and slave to his own benevolence. Tom Yawkey may not be the last of the old-style patrons of baseball—those who bought teams simply because they liked the game—but he is the last of the long-sufferers. After more than half a lifetime of loving the game and his players not at all wisely and much too well, he sits in his gilded cage atop the Fenway roof and hopes. He listens for promises ("threats," he calls them) of the extravagant new Boston stadium that might soon be authorized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, liberating him to assemble the kind of team and play the kind of baseball he has wanted since he became the Red Sox' Daddy Warbucks in 1933.
"Hit and run," Yawkey says. "Steal a base. That's the way I like to play the game. Sure, the Yanks have been a power team, and when they hit a home run everybody says hooray. But they beat you with defense. They hold you close, then beat you with the home run. I say the hell with the fence and play as if you were in Comiskey Park."
But, Yawkey's advisers told him, he couldn't have that kind of team because the fence was there. Got to have right-hand hitters, pull hitters, hit the wall.
They hit the wall in 1946—Rudy York, Bobby Doerr, Mike Higgins, Dom DiMaggio—and proved the point. The Red Sox were 61-16 in Fenway, an overwhelming .792 percentage, and they won the pennant. They lost the World Series by dropping three of four games to the Cardinals in St. Louis, of course, but the formula had been established.
In 1948 they played .714 ball at home (the pace of the fabled 1927 Yankees) but lost the pennant to Cleveland in a one-game play off. By 1949 the Red Sox had obtained Vern Stephens, the American League's premier right-handed pull hitter of the time. He tapped the wall for 159 RBIs, the Sox hit .282 as a team and won 61 games at home again. But this time they were seven games under .500 on the road and the Yankees beat them out on the last day of the season.
The thunder increased in 1950. and so did the frustration. Now the Red Sox had Walt Dropo, still another very strong right-handed pull hitter, at first base. He and Stephens batted in 144 runs each and the Red Sox' team average was .302. Boston finished third. Fourteen years and seven managers have gone by, and only three times since have they finished as high.
"We've done very well at home." Yawkey says. "If we'd been able to play .500 ball on the road we'd have been a lot higher. But damn it, that wall hurts: it has an effect on the organization from top to bottom. We have to go after players who have that Fenway stroke, but then they get in the habit of pulling the ball and they try it on the road—in Yankee Stadium or Comiskey—and it's no good. Hitters' habits arc hard to break."
Other little flaws in the "Fenway stroke" theory became screechingly obvious. First of all, very few of the big, strong right-handed pull hitters are either deft fielders or swift runners. Secondly, even fewer feel that they have to be. Ted Williams' total of 521 home runs, hitting left-handed toward Fenway's elongated right field for half his career, has always seemed one of baseball's most remarkable records, but there is another that stands out. For a left-handed pitcher to win at all in Fenway is notable, but in 1949 Mel Parnell, now a rookie broadcaster for the Red Sox, won 25 games and had a 2.78 earned-run average.