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April 23, 2012
From the moment it opened in April 1912, Fenway Park has been a muse for poets and a monster for pitchers and modernists. What, you never thought it would see its 100th birthday? It might have 100 more
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April 23, 2012

A Lyric To The Little Bandbox

From the moment it opened in April 1912, Fenway Park has been a muse for poets and a monster for pitchers and modernists. What, you never thought it would see its 100th birthday? It might have 100 more

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"It would be easier to straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa," Red Sox owner John Harrington said that season, when the park hosted its valedictory All-Star Game, which in turn hosted Fenway's greatest star, Ted Williams, who later would himself prove remarkably resistant to conventional modes of death.

Thirteen years later, the Leaning Tower still leans in Pisa, and Fenway Park in Boston remains upright, flourishing at 100, impossible to kill by fire, by old age or even by its own hand. As ballparks go, it is The Un-Dead, though devotion to it has seldom been undying.

BY THE time Tom Yawkey purchased the Red Sox, for $1.5 million in 1933, the ballpark was already familiar with near-death experiences, and was sinking into a deep decrepitude at age 21. Yawkey set about rebuilding Fenway entirely that winter, but in the course of doing so, on Jan. 5, 1934, another fire spread from a building across the street and burned the ballpark for five hours. The new grandstand in leftfield was ravaged, as were the centerfield bleachers, requiring $575,000 in repairs and the construction of steel-and-concrete replacements. The park's walls were likewise fireproofed in tin and concrete, including the new leftfield wall, built to a height of 37 feet. Tom Yawkey had, albeit unwittingly, done what Bram Stoker did 37 years earlier: He had created a timeless monster.

Only nobody called it that yet. The wall wouldn't be painted until 1947, giving birth to its nickname, the Green Monster, a mythological creature from some Gothic novel. Every decade for the next half century, Fenway Park would be stalked by baying mobs—of real estate developers, government officials and even its own proprietors—bearing metaphorical torches and pitchforks, wanting to do away with the beast. That same year, 1947, seven light towers were installed, the first step in Fenway's becoming, like Stoker's count, a largely nocturnal creature, often unloved and forever under siege.

And so what nature could not achieve with fire, man set out to do. The willful demolition of Fenway Park was being proposed since at least its early middle age. In 1958, when the Giants and the Dodgers left New York in part for want of parking near their urban ballparks, the president of the Metropolitan Coal Company in Boston proposed to build a domed "dream stadium, [an] ultra-modern sports palace" on Route 1 in Norwood, Mass. The financial backers of this privately funded Xanadu would move ahead only if the Red Sox agreed to serve as tenants in this stately pleasure dome.

Had the dream come to pass, Ted Williams would have ended his career not in "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark," as John Updike famously described Fenway in 1960, but beneath a synthetic sky, spectators ensconced in $5,000-a-year "delux boxes," in a suburban redoubt replete with a 100-tee driving range and "bowling alleys with glassed-in nurseries" for "pin-minded mothers."

Think of Williams, in his final at bat, hitting a home run and refusing to do what the stadium could—which is to say, doff its cap. For this was to have been a retractable-roofed Red Sox park, to replace the obsolescent Fenway, which was 48 years old and with scant parking, and thus doomed in the automotive utopia of Eisenhower's America, with its carhops and drive-ins and nascent interstate highways.

THE SOX stayed, of course, but the dream of the dome would not die. In the 1960s—the decade in which America resolved to visit the moon—the Greater Boston Stadium Authority planned another dome, suitably space-aged, near South Station. That stadium and an adjacent arena would be home not just to the Sox but also the Patriots, Bruins and Celtics, ridding the city of blighted Fenway and the benighted parquet of Boston Garden with one progressive sweep of the wrecking ball.

The new ballpark would resemble the other state-of-the-art stadia going up in St. Louis, Atlanta, Oakland and Washington, D.C., big, round symmetrical quadruplets, multipurpose and multi-parking-spaced, without Monsters or Pesky Poles or hand-operated scoreboards.

In the absence of winning teams, these dream proposals were lovely to contemplate, and so such proclamations were issued—almost exactly—at 10-year intervals. In 1969 the club considered a $40 million proposal to expand Fenway to 50,000 seats by "knocking out the leftfield wall," vanquishing the Monster within the monster, killing the vampire by staking its heart. A decade later, in '79, the Sox made a veiled threat to Boston mayor Kevin White that the club would move to a multiuse stadium in suburban Wilmington.

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