Wednesday, April 21, 2010

CHIN MUSIC: The Neighborhood of Baseball

Whether you realize it or not, Red Sox history does not reside in Fenway Park. Red Sox history – at least Red Sox history from about 1901 thru 1980, when newspapers became available electronically – resides at the Boston Public Library, in the vast collection of Massachusetts newspapers on microfilm retained in the Microtext department.

Red Sox history – in fact the entire history of the city and the Commonwealth – are in these newspapers, in papers like the old Boston Post, where Paul Shannon was one of most colorful sportswriters the city has ever seen, in the Daily Record, where Dave “the Colonel” Egan drove Ted Williams batty and pushed for integration before it was popular, and in the Boston Chronicle, where my late, great old friend Doc Kountze covered the athletes the rest of the Boston press did not, African Americans like Malden sprinter Louise Stokes, the first African American woman to make the U.S. Olympic team, and semi-pro pitcher Will Jackman, who threw a submarine knuckleball and might have been as good as Satchel Page. That’s where the history lives, in those thousands of newspapers from every corner of the state.

I know this because when I worked at the Boston Public Library I spent years helping to administer millions of dollars in state and federal funds to film and preserve these collections. And in those collections I found my calling as a writer and author, a career that now spans more than two decades and nearly eighty books of one kind or another that have sold a couple million copies, most of which could not have been written without the resources of the Boston Public Library’s Microtext department.

But times are tough, and as far as the City of Boston is concerned that old building in Copley Square –the one that the city has spent gazillions fixing up over the last twenty years –is a nice place for parties and things like that but all ‘dem books and ‘dat stuff are just for ‘dose eggheads, not regular people from ‘da neighba’hoods, right Mr. Mayor? What about the neighborhood of baseball? Doesn’t our vote count? Libraries and librarians are easy targets – they don’t save lives in dramatic fashion like policemen or firemen, they save one mind at a time in ways that are hard to see but just as important.

But I digress. Red Sox history is being sent in exile. The city wants to close the Microtext Department at the BPL which cares for, services and houses newspapers and other collections on microfilm, the department that literally provides access to the history of not only the Red Sox, but the Bruins, the Patriots, the Boston Marathon, the Boston Garden, Fenway Park, the old Boston Arena, the Huntington Avenue Grounds, Harvard Stadium, Boston College, … you get the idea. The city wants to close the department, move some of the film to the hard to reach City of Boston Archive Center in West Roxbury, disperse the rest to other BPL departments, can the staff, squander decades of institutional knowledge, and use the space they recently spent gazillions renovating for the department, for, oh, I don’t know, weddings or cocktail parties. Once they do that the ability to do the kind of research it takes to write a serious book about Red Sox history becomes almost impossible – having the resources you need in one place, at one time, is invaluable and irreplaceable.

I know this not just from my own experience, but because when I was at the BPL I helped local sports writers like Steve Buckley and national guys like Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford use these resources. I remember one guy in particular I helped – named Halberstam. Won a Pulitzer Prize that helped stop the Vietnam War and wrote a really great book about the Red Sox - Summer of ’49. Ever heard of him?

He could not have written that book without the BPL, and neither could Dan Shaughnessy have written The Curse of the Bambino, Howard Bryant Shut Out, Richard Johnson and I Red Sox Century, Ed Linn Hitter, Leigh Montville The Big Bam or any other author, like Buckley or Bill Nowlin or Bill Reynolds, who have written anything worthwhile about Red Sox history. None of these books – none - could have been done without the newspapers on microfilm at the Boston Public Library. Fenway 1912, which I just finished and comes out next year, would have been impossible.

And here’s the really, really awful part. This is supposed to save the city money. But this department, like much the Library, actually earns back every dime a hundred times over. I am just one of thousands of writers who use or have used the Library, who make special trips to Boston just to use the library and end up spending money on a lot of other things, or have lived in Boston, in part, because the Library was one of the places that make Boston a place worth living. Every book written by any writer on any subject who has used the Library – we’re talking thousands of books that have sold millions and millions of copies, here – pours money right back into city coffers every day of every week.

But if they get rid of the Microtext department and exile and disperse Red Sox history, this won’t happen. All those books still waiting to be written about the Red Sox just won’t get written. The neighborhood of baseball – and the City of Boston – will be poorer for it.

To complain, email, write or call Amy Ryan, President of the Boston Public Library, or Jamie McGlone, Clerk to the Board of Trustees, 700 Boylston St., Boston MA 02116 617-536-5400, Mayor Thomas Menino,, 1 City Hall Square, Boston, MA 02201-2013 , 617.635.4500, or attend the BPL’s Annual Meeting on Tuesday, May 11, 2010, 8:30am, at the Copley Square Library.

Note: This column will appear in the May 2010 issue of Boston Baseball.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Boston's First Marathon

An old story, worth telling again:

When Pheidippides ran from the battle of Marathon to bring word of victory to Athens in 490 B.C., completing the world's first running "marathon," he had no idea what he was starting. No wonder, because upon his arrival in Athens, Pheidippides keeled over and died. It took nearly 2400 years before anyone else decided to try to run a similar distance. The result of that effort did not end quite so tragically. It became the Boston Marathon, the world's premier running event.
Later today hundreds of thousands of spectators and tens of thousands if runners, mofficial and not, will converge on Boston to celebrate the 100th running of the Boston Marathon. In the entire history of the race, approximately three hundred thousand men and women have run, jogged, and plodded their way into the city to make the Boston Marathon the most famous run in the athletic world.
But somebody had to be first. One hundred and thirteen years ago, on April 19, 1897, Boston staged its very first marathon. That inaugural race was nearly as memorable as Pheidippides' initial jaunt.
While the marathon initially was revived for the first modern Olympics held in Athens, Greece in 1896, it wasn't until the Boston Athletic Association decided to run a similar race to celebrate the local Patriot's Day holiday that the race captured the imagination of the public. On that cool April morning, seventeen plucky entrants signed on to make the 25-plus mile journey from Ashland, Massachusetts to Boston. Each hoped for a better fate than their Athenian predecessor.
After gathering in Boston, the contestants travelled by train to Ashland for the noon race. Upon their arrival, the B.A.A. held a hearty luncheon for the runners at a local inn, contemporary notions concerning the pre-race diet not yet in evidence. While most of the competitors chatted amiably with one another, six runners from New York sat together and plotted pre-race strategy. Three entrants apparently had second thoughts and failed to show up. A Harvard University student, Dick Grant, weaseled his way in, introduced himself to marathon officials and talked his way into the race as a last minute entrant.
At noon, the fifteen runners strolled to the starting line in front of Metcalf's Mill. Only one of the men, 22-year old lithographer John McDermott of New York's Pastime Athletic Club, had ever run such a distance before. The previous October, he had won a similar race staged along the New York-Connecticut border. Several other entrants were experienced cross-country men, but most were running novices. Reporters commented that some of the men didn't look like they could run twenty-five feet, much less twenty-five miles.
Several hundred curious spectators gathered in front of the old mill to watch the start. Race manager John Graham of the B.A.A. pinned a number on the back of each man's shirt and handed out typewritten directions to Boston. To prevent anyone from wandering off course, 28 members of the bicycle corps of the Massachusetts Militia were prepared to escort the runners along their way and provide much needed refreshment.
At precisely 12:19 p.m., Olympic 100 and 400 meter champion Thomas Burke marked a line in the dust of the road with his foot and solemnly called out each entrant's number. As the runner's edged close to the starting line and jostled each other for position, Burke shouted for the race to begin. The first Boston Marathon was underway.
All fifteen runners immediately broke into an ill-advised sprint. Three men were later reported to be red-faced and wheezing before the pack had travelled one-hundred yards. But after a few moments the pace slowed. At the end of the first mile, all 15 runners still ran together in a tight bunch.
As the athletes settled into a more realistic pace, the field began to stretch out. Along the road to Framingham, about five miles from the start, a pack of four runners broke away. In first place was Harvard's Dick Grant, a crimson ribbon stretched across his chest. On his shoulder, matching him step-by-step was Hamilton Gray of New York. McDermott and another New Yorker, John Kiernan, followed close behind.
Apart from their own fatigue, the runner's first obstacle was the dust kicked up by their bicycle escorts. The lead pack had trouble breathing, a situation similar to one sometimes faced by runners in today's race, who have complained about the exhaust spewed out by police motorcycle escorts and the contingent of press trucks that now pace the race. Fortunately for Grant and the others, a stiff wind at their back helped dissipate the dust and push the runners toward Boston.
Thirty-six minutes into the race, the lead pack dashed through the first check-point in Framingham. Seeing the runners and cyclists zoom past, some holiday spectators decided to celebrate the day by joining the group on the trip to Boston. Close by the runner's heels a long line of horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and even the odd, sputtering motorcycle joined in the impromptu parade. Meanwhile, three entrants decided that running to Framingham was marathon enough, and dropped out.
Battling one another for the lead, Grant and Gray left Framingham and entered the town of Natick. In the city center crowds pressed so close the men were forced to run in single file. But outside of town the throng cleared out and once again Gray and Grant ran side-by-side.
Halfway to Boston, they remained tied for the lead as they approached Wellesley, urged on, as today's runners are, by a retinue of Wellesley College coeds. But encouragement alone, even from the wildly enthusiastic college women, could not fuel Grant for the entire race. Due to his spur-of-the-moment entry, he failed to line up a bicycle escort to supply him with refreshment like the other runners. While the competition sipped water, sucked lemons, and wiped sweat from their faces with wet towels, Grant began to show signs of fatigue. Still, he managed to stay even with Gray.
As the two men pressed through the Wellesley Hills, Gray took note of Grant's struggle and magnanimously offered him his own canteen. Replenished by Gray's touch of sportsmanship, Grant gamely hung on.
As the two shared provisions, John McDermott, in third place, took advantage of both and surged into the lead. Disheartened, the virtuous Gray began to fade.
For the next mile Grant fought to stay with McDermott as growing crowds urged the underdog on. But as the two men charged down a hill just before the village of Newton Lower Falls, Grant's water deficit caught up with him and he began to stumble. He weakly raised his hand and waved at a passing water wagon that sprayed town streets to keep down dust. The carriage stopped, Grant slumped beside it and the driver gave him an unscheduled shower. He stood up, ran a few steps more, then stopped again. Dehydration and blisters forced him from the race.
Now McDermott ran alone. Entering Auburndale he led John Kiernan, in second place, by more than a mile. Gray faded to third, but was soon passed by an unimposing man named Edward Rhell. An utter surprise and running neophyte, Rhell calmly plodded on, never rushing, never looking back, apparently impervious to the physical demands of the race.
In complete control of the race, McDermott had only to conquer his growing fatigue to claim victory. Kiernan slipped even farther back, playing hare to Rhell's determined tortoise. For the remainder of the race, Kiernan intermittently stopped running and walked until Rhell came into view, only to start running again and pull away.
McDermott appeared to be in fine shape as he crested what a later observer dubbed "Heartbreak Hill," but even then the long slope extracted its toll. As McDermott headed downhill, his calves knotted and cramped. Finally, he slowed to a walk. Far behind, Kiernan and Rhell pulled closer.
After walking for several minutes, McDermott resumed running. But after a few hundred yards the cramps returned and he stopped again. His cycle escorts rushed to his side and began frantically rubbing his calves. Again McDermott tried to run, only to stop once more.
This time one of the escorts handed McDermott a flask of brandy. He tilted his head back and took a healthy belt as the escorts pounded their fists into his cramps. The cramps disappeared and McDermott raced toward the Chestnut Hill Reservoir refreshed.
Only a few miles from the finish, over two hours since he left Ashland, McDermott turned down Beacon Street and raced through Brookline. Hundreds cheered him at Coolidge Corner, and for the remainder of the race the sidewalks were filled with crowds urging him onward.
McDermott entered the City of Boston at Kenmore Square. As he turned down Commonwealth Avenue riding an invigorating wave of emotion, several bike escorts sprinted ahead. When they reached the finish line at the Irvington Oval athletic track, just outside Copley Square and only a hundred yards or so from where today's race ends, three thousand anxious spectators roared as they learned of the runner's impending arrival.
Yet one final obstacle remained in McDermott's path. With victory less than a mile away, he raced down Commonwealth Avenue into Boston's Back Bay. But at Massachusetts Avenue, in contrast to the festive holiday crowd, a formal funeral procession solemnly crept by, blocking his way.
Undaunted, McDermott hardly broke stride as pushed through the crowd and into the street, ducking and dashing between carriages. The cortege abruptly came to a halt as he ran past, much to the consternation of two drivers whose brand new electric automobiles stalled and refused to re-start.
McDermott turned right at Exeter Street. As he approached Huntington Avenue he came within view of the crowd at the Oval. At the sight of one lone runner surrounded by every manner of wheeled vehicle, they began to roar.
As McDermott raced into the Oval and began the single lap around the track that marked the end of the race, dozens of spectators left their seats and surged around him, slapping his back and offering congratulations. Now he broke into a sprint, a weary smile on his faced, and circled the track in only forty seconds.
As he crossed the finish line in front of the stands, he fell into the arms of the adoring mob, who lifted him to their shoulders. It was 3:14 in the afternoon, two hours, 55 minutes and 10 seconds since he took his first step toward Boston from Ashland. The time bettered the recent Olympic mark by ten seconds and set an unofficial world record.
A few minutes later John Kiernan, then Rhell, and over the next hour, seven other finishers slowly made their way into the Oval. As each man arrived, more and more members of the crowd slowly dispersed, buzzing over McDermott's heroic achievement. For his efforts, he received a B.A.A. shield mounted on oak valued at $35, and his own unique place in marathon history.
Best of all, unlike Pheidippides' tragic run, it did not take another 2347 years for the Boston Marathon to be run again. Today in Boston, thousands of men and women will follow the path first blazed by John McDermott.

APRIL 19, 1897

1. John J. McDermott 2:55:10

2. John J. Kiernan 3:02:02

3. Edward Rhell 3:06:02

4. Hamilton Gray 3:11:37

5. H.D. Eggleston 3:17:50

6. J. Mason 3:31:00

7. W. Ryan 3:41:25

8. Larry Brignolia 4:06:12

9. Harry Leonard 4:08:00

10. A.T. Howe 4:10:00

Competed, but did not finish:

Dick Grant, W.A. Mitchell, E.F. Peete, H.L. Morrill, J.E. Enright