Commentary

Opening Day, at last

Sox-Yankees on April 20 marks the 100th anniversary of Fenway's first game

Updated: April 19, 2012, 8:10 PM ET
By Glenn Stout | Special to ESPNBoston.com

The following is an excerpt from "Fenway 1912" by Glenn Stout (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011):

[+] EnlargeFenway 1912
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Finally, on the morning of April 20, after rain caused the first regularly scheduled American League game at Fenway Park to be cancelled due to rain on both April 18 and 19, dawn revealed baseball weather at last, the sun blazing and the sky a deep blue. The gates opened at noon and as soon as they did fans began to fill the stands. Today there would be no rain out. Fenway Park was ready for its christening.

The Red Sox had been at the ballpark since earlier in the morning taking batting practice, as player manager Jake Stahl worried that after three days of waiting they had lost their batting eye. As fans milled around the stands the player from both squads wandered the field, playing catch and loosening up in according to baseball custom. Apart from the bunting that still hung from the stands and the size of the crowd, there was nothing to distinguish the game from any other. The delays had led the team to cancel all inaugural ceremonies. The Letter Carrier's Band and singing quartet originally hired to provide entertainment were nowhere to be seen, and many baseball officials who had travelled to Boston for Opening Day, like Ban Johnson, had since grown tired of waiting and returned home.

Still, after seeing so many contests at the Huntington Avenue Grounds or the South End Grounds, Fenway seemed huge to the fans. They stood pointing and craning their necks to take in as much of the park as possible, waving and hallooing, trying to get the attention of friends they spotted elsewhere in the immense grandstand. The official seating capacity was 24,400 -- 11,400 in the grandstand, 8,000 in the pavilion and 5,000 in the distant centerfield bleachers -- standing room capacity was not included. From start to finish, the park had been built in four and a half months, as construction officials calculated that poor winter weather had shut down most work on the park for the equivalent of two months. Seven thousand barrels of cement and 270 tons of structural steel had been used during construction, plus hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber, in concrete formwork, the construction of the bleachers and pavilion, and the fences. All told, the cost was $600,000, a cost per capita of only $24 per seat, making the Fenway Park stands, on a cubic foot basis, some of the most lucrative real estate in the city of Boston. Each of those seats, none of which can be occupied today for even a single game for what it originally cost to construct, has earned its cost back many, many, many times over, and continues to do so 81 times each summer.

[+] EnlargeFenway Park ball grounds exterior, 1910-1915.
Bain News ServiceFenway's first regular-season game was supposed to be played on April 18, 1912, and then the next day, but rain pushed the opener back to April 20.

As game time approached, each and every seat was occupied but the team kept selling tickets regardless, filling the promenade along the upper reaches of the grandstand with 2,500 fans willing to stand and watch the game while peering around columns and under the roofline. Then, with the center field bleachers and the pavilion filled to sardine can capacity and still more fans pushing their way in, the cramped and claustrophobic fled. First one and then another climbed over the railing and onto the field. Soon dozens and hundreds of fans fled the stands, racing to secure spots on the field, first filling the incline in left field and then staking claim to the nether reaches of the outfield in front of the towering flagpole in the deepest portion of the playing field, on the western edge of the wedge of the bleachers in center field. The club sent ushers and police out to maintain order, and the crowd was hustled behind ropes that were hastily stretched from one foul line to another as fans stood in the outfield six or eight feet deep, just as they had for so many big games over the years at Huntington Avenue. Meanwhile both teams took infield and loosened up, taking time now and again to look around and take in the scene, amused, delighted and amazed by the scene.

After the dull muted tones of winter, the bright blue sky, puffy white clouds, mostly green grass and red, white and blue bunting made it seem as spring had come on all at once. Atop the grandstand, eight color-coded pennants snapped in the breeze, one representing each team, arranged in the order of the standings. On this day Boston's red and white flag led the pack.

Although Stahl had indicated earlier that Charley Hall would pitch the opener, he changed his mind. Brockton native and rookie Buck O'Brien and catcher Les Nunamaker started making their warm up tosses in foul ground along the first base line, while their New York counterparts, Ray Caldwell and Gabby Street, did the same along third. As game time approached, umpires Tommy Connolly and Eugene Hart strode onto the field, held a quick conference and then waved Jake Stahl and New York manager Harry Wolverton to meet with them at home plate to exchange lineups and go over the ground rules. The umpires decided that due to the close proximity of the overflow crowds, there would be no possibility of home runs during the game. Any ball that reached the crowd, either on the ground or in the air, would be ruled a double. By definition that included any ball hit over the fence, but that possibility seemed so remote and unlikely that it was not even discussed.

The men dispersed and the crowd, which was already cheering and chanting and singing the old songs just the way they had at Huntington Avenue, raised the volume another notch. As the Red Sox took their positions on the field, hardly anyone noticed or even saw Les Nunamaker trot over to the third baseline at the front of section J, where John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, the mayor of Boston, threw him the first pitch.

Nunamaker caught the ball and after a quick handshake and an encouraging word, Honey Fitz gave a wave to his constituents and Nunamaker trotted out to his place. O'Brien toed the rubber, raised his hand to his mouth to apply saliva to his fingertips, and made the first of several warm up throws to his catcher. As he did Jake Stahl rolled a few ground balls to his fielders -- Steve Yerkes at second, Charlie Wagner at short and Larry Gardner at third -- while Harry Hooper in right, Tris Speaker in center, and Duffy Lewis in left all found their places only a few dozen feet from the overflow crowd.

Tommy Connolly held up his hand and O'Brien stood behind the rubber, ball in glove, and then the umpire called out the words so many had been waiting so long to hear. "Play ball!"

New York left fielder Guy Zinn, batting from the left side, stepped into the batter's box and waved his thick, dark bat in the air. O'Brien wound up, stepped toward the plate and threw the first official pitch in the history of Fenway Park. Nunamaker reached for the pitch and Connolly kept his right arm at his side, indicating a ball.

[+] EnlargeTris Speaker
Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty ImagesTris Speaker (pictured sliding) starred for the 1912 Red Sox team.

Up in the press box, a club employee manned the keyboard that communicated with the new, two-part, steel-framed electronic scoreboard that ran vertically up the full height of the left field wall. Nearly identical to a scoreboard at Detroit's new park, it was among the first of its kind. Each section of the scoreboard stood nearly twenty feet square and extended out from the wall a few inches. While the club referred to the scoreboard as "electronic," that did not mean it was solely operated electronically or featured lights. Although electrically operated scoreboards had been patented and Boston was the home of the "Electric Score Board Company", fully operational electric scoreboards, which changed all numbers through the cumbersome use of pulleys and gears, were not yet viable. Instead, the "electronic" designation meant that the press box keyboard operator could communicate some information to the scoreboard operators electronically. Operators, stationed on the scoreboard's backside, scrambled up and down a network work of ladders and steps and benches, out of view of the fans inside the park. While some information may have been revealed through some kind of electronic device, most was done by hand.

The first of the two scoreboards, only 20 or 30 feet off the left field line, provided the line score of not only the game currently underway, but of other American League contests that day. This operator likely received his information the old fashioned way, by way of a runner from the press box who would periodically ferry out scores that arrived at the park by telegraph.

But the second scoreboard, another 70 or 80 feet out toward center field, while of the same dimensions, was somewhat different. Identical to the scoreboard at Detroit's Navin Field, at the top letters three feet high read "BATTER." Below that word were two rows of slots filled with single digits representing the fielding position of each batter in the lineup, for the players themselves, as yet, did not wear uniform numbers on their jerseys. Already, a large "7" occupied the first slot, letting fans know that the first hitter was the left fielder, Zinn.

Below, the scoreboard read "BALL" and "STRIKE," each word above three and two slots respectively. Below that, the word "OUT" was flanked by two slots, and below that was the word "UMPIRES," also flanked by a slot on each side, with the word "Plate" above one and "Field" above the other, each already filled with a unique number that represented each umpire in the league.

In the press box the keyboard operator watched Connolly closely. When he saw his right arm remain at his side and the scribes in the press box react by offering that the pitch had missed the plate, he reacted and pushed a button. A split second later, the scoreboard operator, sitting at a bench behind the left center field scoreboard, paid close attention to an electronic board activated by the keyboard operator in the press box.

In an instant he decoded the meaning and slid a marker into a slot on the scoreboard. In Fenway Park, the eyes of nearly thirty thousand fans were not on the ball which Nunamaker tossed back to O'Brien, but turned toward left center field. Beneath the word "BALL" they saw one of three dark square slots on the left field side of the sign miraculously change as a round marker slid into place.

They roared at the majesty it represented, a feat of technology that almost seemed magical. Even patrons in the most distant reaches of the park could know with certainty that the first official pitch thrown in the new ballpark was a ball.

[+] EnlargeFenway Park
FPG/Getty ImagesThe Red Sox went on to win the World Series in the first year of Fenway's existence.

The game had begun. The 1912 season was underway. Winter was over and Fenway Park was open for business.

It may have been simple case of nerves from pitching before such a large crowd, the adjustment to throwing from the mound at Fenway Park for the first time, or the number of friends and family who had made the trip up from Brockton. Then again, it may have been the fact that he had not pitched in eight days and felt too strong or that his spitball was breaking too much. Or it may have been that after a wet spring he found sunshine to be distracting, but whatever the reason, Buck O'Brien couldn't find the plate.

The first four official pitches thrown in Fenway Park were all balls, and Yankee left fielder Guy Zinn trotted down to first with the honor of becoming the first official base runner.

Harry Wolter, batting second, took a half swing and, striking the ball for the first time at Fenway, tapped one halfway to the box. Both Stahl and O'Brien went for the ball. O'Brien got there first, but there was no one covering first base. Steve Yerkes, for some reason, covered second. New York first baseman Hal Chase then dropped a sacrifice to move both runners up a base and shortstop Roy Hartzell drove a ball between third and short toward Duffy Lewis in left field. Zinn, one of the first Jewish players in the major leagues, made home easily, scoring the first official run in Fenway Park.

Just as the number "1" slid into place next to "New York" on the scoreboard, Bert Daniels hit a comebacker to O'Brien, but he didn't find it any easier to find the plate as a fielder than he did as a pitcher. He threw the ball past Nunamaker, scoring Wolter and forcing the operator up out of his seat once more. The catcher recovered the ball in time to catch Hartzell at second, but O'Brien, as if determined to put a man on base by every way possible, then beaned Cozy Dolan. Earle Gardner singled to knock in New York's third run, and as Paul Shannon noted in the Boston Post, New York catcher Gabby Street "ended the agony by fanning." It would not be the last time an inning at Fenway Park would seem like torture to devoted Boston fans.

But even on its first day, this was Fenway Park, where no lead would ever, ever be safe, not even on day one. Harry Hooper led off for Boston in the bottom of the first against Ray Caldwell and tapped back to the pitcher for the first out, bringing up Steve Yerkes. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Yerkes had signed with the Red Sox in 1909, spent one year in the minors and earned a starting job in 1911, playing shortstop while Wagner nursed his arm. A cerebral man who would later become a minor league manager and deliver impromptu lectures to his players on topics like Russian literature, Yerkes, although generally considered a solid if unspectacular fielder, was otherwise of limited ability. Nevertheless, his name would be on the lips of fans on both the first and the last game of the 1912 season played at Fenway Park.

Along with Yankee left fielder Guy Zinn, Yerkes became one of the first two men to realize that Fenway Park was unlike any other ballpark in the major leagues. In his first official Fenway Park at bat Yerkes hit one of the longest drives of his career, smacking the ball on a line to left, over the head of Zinn, just to the left of where the crowd standing behind the ropes in center merged into the crowd on the embankment. The outfielder tracked the ball back and as he reached the fans standing shoulder to shoulder behind him, the mob parted slightly as Zinn, stepping up for the first time, stretched for the ball then stumbled on the embankment as the ball landed just past his reach. The crowd scattered for a moment as some grabbed for the ball and others fled and everyone had a hard time staying in place on the earthen slope, which was still wet and slippery from rain the day before.

If not for the crowd Yerkes' drive likely would have skipped up the embankment, bounded off the wall and rolled back down, sending Zinn scampering after it, and Yerkes may well have made a triple. Incredibly, Yerkes' drive had nearly made the wall and seemed to indicate that the left field fence, which everyone had said was virtually unreachable, was perhaps a bit closer than it looked -- had the ball been hit just a bit harder, it would have struck the fence on the fly. It had taken all of one inning for the wall and the left field embankment to become Fenway Park's most distinguishing feature.

[+] EnlargeFenway Park first pitch
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty ImagesThis ball was the first pitched in a regular-season game at Fenway Park on April 20, 1912.

On the Boston bench, Duffy Lewis, Boston's left fielder, watched the proceedings with special interest. That embankment would be looking over his shoulder all season and he would soon give it its name -- Duffy's Cliff.

By the time Yerkes reached first base, umpire Eugene Hart was already waving his hand in the air and pointing toward second base. When Yerkes pulled into second the crowd was still buzzing with excitement. The first hit by a Boston player in Fenway Park was a ground rule double.

So was the second. Tris Speaker smacked a pitch over Daniels' head into the crowd in center field for another two base hit, knocking in Yerkes. On another day Speaker's hit might have rolled to the bleachers for a home run, even without the crowd, but the soft outfield ground, which in places collected footprints, may well have slowed it down and held Speaker to a triple. He pulled into second and the crowd watched as now the numeral "1" slipped into the slot beneath the "3" that represented New York's three first inning runs. Boston was on the board.

Speaker was stranded and a game that started sloppy continued that way as it soon became clear that neither club, nor the field itself, was in anything close to mid-season form. Together, the two teams would combine for 10 errors and several other miscues. Ground balls collected mud and either stopped short or careened away, while drives that found the ground barely bounced at all, and fielders who pulled up short or had to cut quickly discovered the ground giving out beneath them. Steve Yerkes had a particularly tough time, collecting three errors for the day. Jake Stahl didn't help matters much by dropping nearly every chance he had that didn't arrive chest high, leading Fenway fans to jeer the man they expected to welcome back with cheers. O'Brien gave up two more runs in the third and when Boston loaded the bases in the fourth and the pitcher was due to bat, the manager decided he had seen enough. Stahl pinch hit Olaf Henricksen for O'Brien and sent Charley Hall down the line to warm up. Henricksen walked to score a run, Hooper knocked in another with a force out and then Yerkes collected another hit to make the score 5-4.

It was a close game and with Charlie Hall on the mound, it stayed that way. The burly Californian did what O'Brien could not, which was recognize the strike zone. He kept New York off the board, helping his own cause by leading off the sixth with a walk and coming around to score and tie the game. But in the eighth Hall threw away a pickoff attempt at second base and when Hal Chase knocked the runner in from third the Yankees went up 6-5.

But Steve Yerkes was having the game of his life, at least at the plate, where his four hits thus far more or less offset his three errors. He led off the eighth with another double and tied the game when Jake Stahl collected his first hit with a long drive to center, a certain home run if not for the crowd.

The game entered extra innings and in the eleventh New York loaded the bases but did not score. The contest was already three hours old when Hall stepped in to lead off the Boston eleventh and it was becoming hard to see. He struck out and when Harry Hooper hit a foul pop up for the second out, it seemed likely that unless the Sox scored the game would soon be called. The first game at Fenway Park seemed destined to end in a tie.

But Yerkes was not finished. In his seventh at bat of the game he rolled a slow one to third base. Cozy Dolan took the ball on the run and was still running when he threw the ball to first. So was Yerkes, and, as the ball sailed over his head, so was first baseman Hal Chase, who raced after the errant toss as Yerkes ran to second. Catcher Gabby Street then gave up a passed ball, sending Yerkes to third and bringing up Tris Speaker. Fenway Park was still full and everyone was on their feet screaming as Speaker stepped in against pitcher Hippo Vaughan. There was no other hitter in the lineup Sox fans or Speaker's teammates would have preferred to see at the plate.

It was at times like this when Speaker set himself apart from other players. Pressure situations did not bother him. In fact, it was at times like these, late in the game with runners on base, that he felt most comfortable. After all, the pitcher had to come to him or else risk putting him on with a base on balls and then watch him dance down the line. Vaughn worked carefully, and Speaker ran the count full, growing more confident with each pitch. Then he sliced a scorcher toward third and took off.

Yerkes broke with the pitch and Dolan reached to block the ball, which skidded along the ground. He did, but failed to field it cleanly.

That's all Speaker needed. One of the fastest runners in the game, once an infielder bobbled a ball hit by Speaker there was little chance he would be thrown out at first. Dolan fired the ball toward Chase, but as the first baseman reached for it Speaker was already crossing the bag, his legs a blur and a laugh ready to form on his lips. He turned in time to see Yerkes cross the plate and leap into the arms of his teammates in front of the dugout as fans tossed torn newspapers and other impromptu confetti into the air. As some cut across the field to the exits, the scoreboard in left field told the story. Boston 7, New York 6, the first of hundreds of games between the two clubs that would be waged on Fenway's diamond over the next hundred years.

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