IN THE SPRING OF 1934 AMERICA WAS A DEEPLY WOUNDED NATION, IN THE DEPTHS of the Great Depression, but April 17 in Boston dawned sunny and unseasonably warm. Opening Day had arrived, and there was another reason why the streets of the Hub buzzed with excitement: The gates at Fenway Park were to swing open again after a much-anticipated renovation. The record 33,336 fans who arrived at Fenway for the Red Sox' game against the defending AL champion Washington Senators squeezed into a transformed, and gorgeous, ballpark.
There were new concrete grandstands in left- and rightfield. The old wooden rightfield bleachers, now also concrete, had been expanded to centerfield, and the roofs over the main grandstands down the first and third base lines had been extended. The ballpark was larger—the new capacity was around 37,000, up from 27,642—and had been given a new coat of paint, the now famous shade of Dartmouth green. Duffy's Cliff, the 45-degree hill in leftfield, was gone, and just beyond it, where a 25-foot wooden fence had been, there was now a massive 37-foot high wall. Made of wood, it was covered in tin and concrete, and plastered with colorful, billboardlike advertisements (for Calvert gin, Gem razors and Lifebuoy soap), as well as a scoreboard that included slots for out-of-town results and lights that flickered red and green, signaling balls and strikes. The fans gawked at this mysterious and mammoth fence that would become one of the most famous walls in America.
The game was unremarkable. Washington's player-manager Joe Cronin—this was a year before he would join Boston—drove home the winning run with a double, and the Sox lost 6--5 in 10 innings. But the refurbished ballpark rekindled the Boston faithful, who had endured 15 straight losing seasons since the team's 1918 world championship. More than 100,000 fans attended the Red Sox' first five home games that season—greater than half the team's attendance for the entire '32 season.
On that balmy April afternoon in '34, no one in the ballpark felt more pride than the well-dressed millionaire sitting in the owner's box: Thomas Austin Yawkey, the man who made this new Fenway Park possible.
THERE WERE TWO TOM YAWKEYS. THERE WAS THE BASEBALL MAN who has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, the visionary who made the Red Sox and Fenway Park what they are today. There was also the man people called an absentee owner and a racist.
But even his harshest critics cannot refute this: For the Red Sox, Tom Yawkey was a savior.
At the beginning of 1933 Boston was coming off the worst season in franchise history, during which it went a miserable 43--111. The team was losing games and losing money. Attendance was minuscule—the games were drawing an average of 2,366 fans. Among those who had suffered during the hard economic times was team owner Bob Quinn, who was $350,000 in debt. On Feb. 25, 1933, he called a press conference. "I haven't got the money to continue," Quinn said. With those words the 62-year-old baseball executive announced the sale of the Red Sox for $1.5 million, several hundred thousand more than he and his group had paid for the team 10 years earlier.
Few in the room knew who the pudgy, baby-faced individual sitting next to Quinn was until the owner identified him and introduced 30-year-old Thomas Yawkey as his successor. The press was in disbelief that someone so young would be taking over the Red Sox and the ballpark. "He's just a kid," said Boston sportswriter Joe Cashman.
Asked why he bought a losing team with a crumbling 21-year-old park, Yawkey replied, "I don't see how any man can get any real satisfaction out of taking a success and merely running it along. That's like landing a fish that somebody else hooked. The big kick comes from taking something that's down and seeing if you can put it up and across. That's what my daddy did. I want to see if I'm as good a man as he was."