Usually my “Boston’s History” posts relate to the pre-Revolutionary era, the period that serves as the backdrop for the Thieftaker books and stories. But today marks a very special occasion in the history of the city, one that I could not ignore, even though it has nothing to do with Thieftaker or the Revolution. Exactly one hundred years ago today, on April 20, 1912, Fenway Park opened with the Boston Red Sox playing the New York Highlanders. The Sox won the game 7-6, beginning their march toward a World Series Championship.
The Sox were led that season by future Hall-of-Famers Tris Speaker and Smokey Joe Wood, and were managed by their first baseman, Jake Stahl. Speaker had what was for him a typical season, batting .383, slugging .567, and scoring 136 runs. He was out-performed only by Detroit’s Ty Cobb, whose offensive prowess wasn’t enough to propel the Tigers even to a .500 season. They finished thirty-six and a half games behind Boston. Wood was even more impressive than Speaker. He won 34 games and lost five, had an earned run average of 1.91, and struck out 258 hitters. He pitched ten shutouts and thirty-five complete games — totals that seem utterly alien today, when starting pitchers are nursed through seven innings, and bullpens are stocked with millionaire relief specialists.
The Red Sox finished their first year in Fenway with a record of 105 and 47. The closest team to them, the Washington Senators, finished at 91 and 61, fourteen games back. Most satisfying to Boston fans, the Highlanders, who a year later would become the Yankees, finished dead last in the American League with a record of 50 and 102. They were fifty-five games out of first. Adding to New York’s humiliation, the Red Sox went on to beat the New York Giants four games to three in a tight World Series that also saw one tie game.
Now, this might seem like an odd tribute, given that I am a New Yorker, born and raised, and given that I root for the Yankees. But here’s the thing. I may root against the Red Sox at the top of my lungs; I may say nasty things about Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz; I may give no small amount of grief to my Red Sox-rooting friends. But the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry is good for sports, it’s good for baseball. Without the Red Sox, baseball for me would be bland and meaningless.
And without Fenway Park, the Red Sox would not be the same franchise. Fenway is a gem, a shining emerald in the midst of a wonderful, beautiful city. It is probably the best place in the world to watch a baseball game. It is redolent with tradition, with history, with tales of heroism and all-too-human futility. Tris Speaker and Smokey Joe roamed this field. So did Babe Ruth. So did Lefty Grove and Jimmy Foxx, Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio, not to mention the villains of my youth — Carl Yastrzemski and Luis Tiant, Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and Dewey Evans.
Sure, I hate the Red Sox. I have to. But I love baseball, and the truth is you can’t love baseball without loving the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry; you can’t love baseball without loving Fenway.
Tonight, the Red Sox will mark the stadium’s centennial by hosting the Yankees. Of course. I’ll root for my team. But I will do so with a healthy dose of admiration and even love for the venue.
Happy Birthday to the Green Monster. Long may baseballs careen off your sides onto the soft grass below.