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WHEN, IN 1911, BOSTON RED SOX OWNER GEN. CHARLES Taylor asked Osborne Engineering and architect James McLaughlin to build him a ballpark, he ordered it to fit inside an irregular, angular chunk of property he purchased in the Fenway district, the former mudflats known as the Fens. It was the equivalent of commissioning a painting and handing the master the size and shape of canvas to fill. Boston's street system is so notoriously complex that legend has it (however untrue) that the streets arose from cow paths—the tramplings of wandering cows. Taylor's property fit the legend. It was defined by streets named Lansdowne, Brookline, Jersey, Ipswich, none of which intersected with the proper behavior of a 90-degree angle. Taylor gave McLaughlin one further piece of instruction: The third base line must point virtually due north so that the orientation toward the sun matched that of the Huntington Avenue Grounds, the home the Red Sox were leaving. This order left McLaughlin with little more than 300 feet between home plate and the hard stop represented by Lansdowne Street, which formed the northern boundary of the property; but it also mandated a veritable trolley ride of 550 feet to the northeast corner where centerfield would end.
One hundred years later what bound Fenway Park is what unbinds us. For when we sit in Fenway's precious few seats, and most especially the narrow, wood-slat ones behind home plate that have been there for more than 70 years, we are transported to places of history and of the heart unreachable anywhere else.
The beauty of Fenway is its very irregularity, what John Updike nimbly called "a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities." Its angles, nooks, crannies, quirks, doorways, ladders, slats, poles and pillars seem pleasingly human and without a hint of contrivance. When the American Institute of Architects put Fenway on its list of the 150 buildings that defined "The Shape of America," Gary Wolf of AIA noted, "The odd thing about Fenway is that probably of the top 150 buildings that we're dealing with on the list, this one exhibits the least sense of intentional design by one hand."
A century removed from McLaughlin, Fenway Park belongs not to one but to all, its physical shape nipped and tucked many times over but its soul—the game of baseball played in urban environs as a communal treasure—left untouched.
One day before a game in 2011, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia sat in the shoebox of a home dugout—where players must still navigate around pillars—and said in wonderment, "A hundred years. This place is a hundred years old? Imagine that." It was easy to imagine Tris Speaker or Ted Williams or Carlton Fisk or Roger Clemens taking in the same view from the same dugout. The ballpark has made for a rare unbroken line that connects those who have worn the Red Sox uniform, as well as those who have rooted for them.
AFTER ENDURING FOR A CENTURY SQUEEZED BETWEEN LANSDOWNE and Jersey (a portion of which has been renamed Yawkey Way in tribute to the former Red Sox owner Thomas A. Yawkey), Fenway has taken on a feeling of civic grounds. Fenway is more town hall than cathedral. When Taylor chose the spot for the ballpark, Kenmore Square was just beginning to grow. But it was Fenway that became the bigger public square, an American interpretation of Piazza Navona or Trafalgar, with the filigree of the smell of grilled sausages wafting through the elms of Yawkey Way.
As people gather inside Fenway, sitting in the seats sat in by their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, they can gaze upon what have become the physical shorthand notes of civic pride: the Yaz Door, Pesky Pole, Fisk Pole, DiMaggio Flag Pole, the Triangle, Canvas Alley, the hand-operated scoreboard, the Yawkey Morse Code, Williamsburg, the Williams Red Seat and, looming above all in size and theatrical value, the Green Monster—the Wall.
The Wall was an oddity when the park opened on April 20, 1912. Back then it was 25 feet high, made of wood and built atop a 10-foot embankment that would come to be known as Duffy's Cliff, in honor of Duffy Lewis, the Boston leftfielder who became expert at running up the hill to snag fly balls. The Wall had an important purpose, preventing fans from seeing games for free, keeping them from either climbing in without tickets or from observing the game from Lansdowne rooftops without having to pay.
Fenway is a child of the Dead Ball era. The 1912 Red Sox, for example, led the American League in home runs—with 29. Before a first baseman named Hugh Bradley hit the first Fenway homer on April 26 in the fifth game played at the Park (the shot onto Lansdowne was Bradley's sole home run that season), the Boston Herald reported that "few of the fans who have been out to Fenway Park believed it was possible" for a hitter to clear the wall. Now think about the home run derby at the 1999 All-Star Game, at the height of the steroid era, when people wondered if the baseballs that sailed over the Monster would ever come down.