Saturday, March 24, 2012

Harvey Frommer Reviews: Duke vs. Kentucky, Hack Wilson, Summer of '68 & More

Who would have thought about it? The Irish and their impact on the national pastime? I did in my book Old Time Baseball. Now along comes The Emerald Diamond by Charley Rosen (Harper, $25.99, 305 pages). Its subtitle says it all: "How The Irish Transformed America's Greatest Pastime."

Rosen, known for his writings about the NBA, is in top form here dishing out data and passing out anecdotes about many of the known and under-publicized facts and factoids as well as another area of important Irish contributions in sports.

The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds that Changed Basketball by Gene Wojciechowski (Blue Rider Press, $26.95) is a riveting inside look at the legendary game in 1992. The gang's all here and we can all enjoy the flashbacked, riveting read and the talented writing of Gene Wojciechowski. Especially for college hoop fans.

Hack's 191 by Bill Chastain (Globe Pequot Press, $24.95) is a look back to the epic 1930 season of slugger Hack Wilson and his Chicago Cubs team. A good friend of Al Capone, an imbiber of booze and good times, Wilson was one of baseball's most colorful all-time characters. The "Hacker" comes to life in this splendid book, as does his day-by-day RBI record exploding to a still-unbroken 191.

Wheels of Change by Sue Macy (National Geographic, $18.95, only 98 pages) is a slim volume that packs a lot of charm and content. It offers the point of view that before the bicycle in the 1880s, the lives of women were restricted. With "wheels," women became emancipated. They set records cycling and explored the world. Page after page of archival images and apt observations make this tome terrific--HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Tim Wendel's Summer of '68 (DaCapo ($25.00, 272 pages), like the Hack Wilson book and many others, is a look back at one specific baseball season and the events in the culture surrounding it. The year was one of tragedy, broken dreams, horrible events and turning points--rioting in major American cities, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It was also the "Year of the Pitcher" (Tiant, Gibson, Drysdale, McLain and others). The times today are fraught with peril. Back then, things were even worse, but baseball was a constant support for many. Full disclosure: As the author of Remembering Fenway Park: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Boston Red Sox, I was looking ahead to read Richard A. Johnson's Field of Our Fathers (Triumph, $35.00, 288 pages). It does not disappoint. Whereas my book focuses only on baseball at Fenway, the Johnson tome includes non-baseball events. I leaned heavily on oral history with 140 individuals telling the story of the oldest MLB park. Johnson features clippings, ephemera and mini essays from folks such as Bob Ryan and Glenn Stout.

Wilt, 1962 by Gary M. Pomerantz (Three Rivers Press, $16.00, 267 pages) is a slim tome that slam dunks the story of the much misunderstood and unappreciated Wilt Chamberlain.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Beginnings of Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park 100 Years Ago

All kinds of hype and hoopla and ballyhoo will take place this year n the Boston area. The 100th anniversary of the birth of Fenway Park is upon us, whether we are fans of the team or not.

So, let us now celebrate with a flashback to the beginnings at that little ballpark in Beantown.

It was damp and chilly throughout New England for most of the spring of 1912, and in Boston, it took a few attempts before baseball could be played in decent weather.

On April 9, the Red Sox and Harvard's baseball team met in an exhibition game in football weather “with a little snow on the side.” About 3,000 braved it. Boston won, 2-0. Both runs were driven in by their pitcher, Casey Hageman.

The scheduled official Opening Day match on April 12, however, was rained out. Finally on April 20, the weather improved; Fenway's first big league contest: the Sox versus the Yankees (then known as the Highlanders), was on tap on soggy, lumpy grounds and infield grass transplanted from the Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds, the team’s former home.

Boston Mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald threw out the ceremonial first ball. The man, whose grandson would become the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was a devoted member of the "Royal Rooters"—a group of Red Sox fans who staged pre-game parades accompanied by the singing of "Tessie" and "Sweet Adeline."

Ordinarily the game would have been the stuff of front-page headlines in New England dailies. But this was no ordinary time. Six days earlier the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage and the accompanying loss of 1,517 lives eclipsed all other stories.

Nevertheless, it was good news in Boston that the Red Sox finally had a modern ballpark in the Fenway section bordering Brookline Avenue, Jersey Street, Van Ness Street and Lansdowne Street. It would cost $650,000 (approximately $14 million today), and seat 35,000.

An attractive red brick fa├žade, the first electric baseball scoreboard and 18 turnstiles, the most in the majors, were all features being bragged about. Concrete stands went from behind first base around to third; wooden bleachers occupied parts of the outfield. Seats lined the field allowing for excellent views of the game but limiting the size of foul territory. The park was 20 feet above sea level. Barriers and walls broke off at different angles. Center field was 488 feet from home plate; right field was 314 feet away. The 10-foot wooden fence in left field ran straight along Lansdowne Street and was but 320 ½ feet down the line from home plate with a high wall behind it. There was a ten-foot embankment making viewing of games easier for overflow gatherings. A ten-foot high slope in left field posed challenges for outfielders forced to play the entire territory running uphill.

This was the Opening Day Lineup for the 1912 Boston Red Sox.

Harry Hooper


Steve Yerkes


Tris Speaker


Jake Stahl


Larry Gardner


Duffy Lewis


Heinie Wagner


Les Nunamaker


Smoky Joe Wood


The Sox, with player-manager first baseman Jake Stahl calling the shots, nipped the Yankees, 7-6, in 11 innings. Tris Speakerwho would bat .383, steal 52 bases and stroke eight inside-the-park home runs at Fenwaydrove in the winning run. Spitball pitcher Bucky O’Brien got the win in relief of Charles “Sea Lion” Hall. Umpire Tommy Connolly kept the ball used in that historic game, writing “Opening of Fenway Park” and brief details of the game on it.

Hugh Bradley hit the first home run in Red Sox history over the wall on April 26 in the sixth game played at home. “Few of the fans who have been out to Fenway Park believed it was possible,'' the Boston Herald noted. It was not possible the rest of the seasonthat was Bradley’s only dinger in 1912.

Joe Cashman, long time sportswriter in Boston, liked the “Golden Outfield” of Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis. Hooper wore the first sunglasses used in baseball, bought from Lloyds of Boston.

“Outfielders never played near the wall in those days,” Cashman noted. There was no one Tris Speaker’s equal going back for a ball. He was almost like a fifth outfielder. A base runner on second base would check out the shortstop and second baseman. Tris Speaker would sneak in from center field and pick him off.


S is for Speaker,
Swift center-field tender,
When the ball saw him coming,
It yelled, "I surrender."


Hooper played in a tough right field, worst in the majors. Left fielder Duffy Lewis never bounced the ball to the infield. Lewis skillfully managed the incline named for him—"Duffy's Cliff."

Before an overflow crowd on May 17, 1912 Fenway Park was formally dedicated, but the home town fans had their day spoiled as the White Sox trimmed the Red Sox, 5-2.

Hall of Fame-hurler-to-be Walter Johnson, on a 16-game winning streak and en route to a 33-win season, was in Boston with his Washington teammates on Sept. 6, 1912. Clark Griffith, the Washington manager said that Red Sox ace “Smoky” Joe Wood would be a coward if he did not face Johnson. No coward was Wood—he was ready on short rest. A 22-year-old from the Kansas plains and the mining towns of Colorado, Wood—it was said—could throw a baseball through a two-by-four.

The Wood-Johnson match up was one of the most dramatic of all time by two top of the tier hurlers. Built up like a championship boxing match in the newspapers, hype and hullabaloo preceded it.

An estimated 30,000 showed for the battle of the superstar pitchers. It was the first and only time fans were allowed to ring Fenway’s infield walls.

“The playing field,” wrote sportswriter Manville E. Webb, Jr., “was surrounded by a triple, even quadruple, rank of humanity, at least 3,000 on the embankment. So thickly were the spectators massed, and so impossible was it for the squadron of police to keep them back, that the players’ pits [dugouts] were abandoned, the contestants bringing their war clubs out almost to the baselines.”

Possessor of a 13-game winning streak, Wood gave up six hits. Johnson allowed five. But the “Big Train,” as he was called, yielded a sixth-inning, two-out ground-rule double to Tris Speaker. Duffy Lewis flared a ball to right that skipped off the glove of the Senators’ right fielder. Speaker scored. Wood won his 14th straight.

Business in Boston virtually shut down on Sept. 23 as 100‚000 cheered the Red Sox returning from a western trip by train into South Station. So popular and so successful were the Sox that on the Boston Common, Mayor “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald gave the team the keys to the city.

Boston posted its second best home record in history, 57-20, a .740 winning percentage and copped the American League pennant. The Giants of New York would compete against them in the World Series.

The Boston Royal Rooters, Red Sox fanatics , traditionally paraded on the field before games in step with the rhythms of a big brass band. Now, on the eve of Game One of the World Series, having traveled down to New York City, hundreds of them accompanied by two brass bands and led by Mayor Fitzgerald and by “leading man” "Nuff Ced" McGreevey, they marched around Times Square in Manhattan, singing to the tune of Tammany:

Carrigan, Carrigan,

Speaker, Lewis, Wood, and Stahl,

Bradley, English, Pape, and Hall,

Wagner, Gardner, Hooper, too;’

Hit them! Hit them! Hit them! Hit them!

Do boys, do.

The word in the street was that if John J. McGraw’s Giants could beat Joe Wood, they could win the series. Before the opening game, Wood received death threats in letters postmarked "New York." One, written in red ink and containing a drawing of a knife and gun, proclaimed: “You will never live to pitch a game against the Giants in the World Series. We are waiting to get you as soon as you arrive in town.”

But the 22-year-old right-hander who threw “smoke” was not the type to be intimidated. Pitching and prevailing, 4-3, in Game One at the Polo Grounds going the distance, striking out eleven Giants, Wood stood up to all challenges. After the game, he said: "I threw so hard I thought my arm would fly right off my body."

The Royal Rooters followed the team to the Polo Grounds and back to Fenway Park as the series alternated between both venues, singing such songs as “Tessie” and “When I Get You Alone Tonight," angering Giant fans and charming Red Sox partisans.

But on October 15th, as the Royal Rooters prepared to take their seats at Fenway for the seventh game of the World Series, they discovered their usual accommodations had been sold out from under them, a consequence of some box office confusion. Ignoring pleas that they leave the ballpark, their bands blaring “Tessie,” they remained in place until their “stay-in” was resolved by ranks of mounted police who swept across the field, nudging them out of the park. One Royal Rooter, as disoriented as he was disenchanted, tumbled over the right-field fence on his way out and bellowed "To hell with Queen Victoria!"

The “Rooters” fumed and postured outside the park until they were presented with a compromise: view the game from along the left field foul line.

Winner of Games One and Four, Wood was on the mound for Game Seven. Seven of the first nine Giants in the first inning reached basesix of them scored. The Giants romped, 11-4, knotting the series at three games each, one tie.

Game Eight was for the world championship—October 16 at Fenway Park. The Red Sox won the coin flip and were awarded the home field advantage. The riveting finale of the 1912 World Series would be played before a half-capacity crowd as a result of it being scheduled at the last minute as a makeup due to the Game Two tie, as well as the game-fixing rumors that swirled about and the Royal Rooters' rhubarb.

Ace Christy Mathewson of the Giants, winless in this Series, after going the distance in the tie game and dropping Game Five, matched up against Boston’s 22-year-old Hughie Bedient. The game was 1-1- after nine tense innings. Wood took over in the eighth for Bedient.

In the top of the tenth New York scored a run. Boston pinch-hitter Clyde Engle started the 10th inning off hitting a routine fly ball to center field.

"And now the ball settles,” The New York Times reported. “It is full and fair in the pouch of the padded glove of [Fred] Snodgrass. But he is too eager to toss it to Murray and it dribbles to the ground."

Engle reached second base. Harry Hooper was robbed of a hit when Snodgrass made a neat grab of his long drive. Engle moved to third base. Yerkes walked. Speaker singled. Engle scored. The game was tied. Duffy Lewis was walked intentionally, loading the bases. A long poke by Larry Gardner to Josh Devore in right field. Yerkes tagged up and scored.

And the Red Sox had their second world championship. Fred Snodgrass' error would go down in history as "the $30,000 muff."

And Fenway Park was off to a glorious start.