Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Four Fenways

In this the one hundredth season of Fenway Park there is a tendency to see the ballpark as a single entity, a place that is somehow timeless, where a bygone era, while not preserved under glass, has nonetheless been protected, uncorrupted by the crass changes that elsewhere have stripped the game of its history. Not so. While Fenway still occupies the same physical space, it is Fenway Park’s ability to absorb change that has allowed it to remain standing to this day, the ballpark equivalent of Faneuil Hall. While that place survives to this day its origins are similarly buried. Wander its space today and it is impossible to imagine that Faneuil Hall itself started out as little more that a glorified sheep barn.

Fenway Park is a historical artifact and to see it clearly today one needs to examine it like an archaeologist. There are, I believe four Fenways, four distinct eras in the history of this place, four layers that history needs to examine and then peel back and remove to understand why it has survived.

At age one hundred, Fenway Park today – let’s call it Fenway IV - is dominated by everything that is now draped over its surface and essential structure. Never before has Fenway been more utilitarian, supporting all the accoutrements – save comfortable seats - that one now expects in any other modern “retro” ballpark. The ubiquitous and unrelenting barrages of piped in sound and signage, the restaurants, food courts, and pedestrian malls today makes the Fenway experience – apart from the actual contest – more like going to Faneuil Hall than going to a ballgame. Since the Henry/Warner group took over a decade ago, Fenway Park, far from clinging to its past, has instead embraced the future so rapidly that the past has become subservient. It’s most genuine elements, once functional features like that ladder on the left field wall, are now vestigial organs without purpose, footnotes of a history long gone.

It is staggering to me to think that fans of recent vintage have no memory of what I think of as Fenway III, classic Fenway which lasted from the re-construction of 1933/34 until the last decade. Fenway III, which bridged the era of Babe Ruth almost to the present, is the ballpark that I discovered and fell in love with when I first came to Boston in 1981. For more than fifty years Fenway was essentially the same, a quiet, solid, stodgy venue that for the most part no one thought of as very special and which stayed in the background, deferring to the game on the field. Watch footage of any game of this era today and one is struck by the starkness of the place, how barren and spare it appears, as plain and understated as Ned Martin. Not that Fenway remained static during this time period; it did not, but change took place at an almost glacial pace – bullpens in 1940, lights in 1947, etc. Fenway III was the ballpark that fathers took their sons to and then watched as those sons grew to fathers who took their sons to Fenway, a cross-generational experience whose essential nature changed only slightly over the years.

But even this classic version is a corruption of what preceded it. Fenway II existed from September of 1912 until Tom Yawkey bought the team and tore most of old Fenway down. This Fenway, much of which was built over a two-week period in September 1912 to increase the parks’ seating capacity for the 1912 World’s Series, spent the next twenty years in a state of decay, baking and bleaching under the summer sun. By the 1930s portions were condemned, making Fenway Park perhaps the most dangerous building in Boston. Its partial burning in the winter of 1933/34 was a blessing; had it not turned to smoke and ash it simply would have rotted away.

No one alive today remembers Fenway I, the infant ballpark, which lasted just less than a season. Consisting only of a simple concrete grandstand that barely extended past the dugouts, a small covered pavilion and a rectangle of bleachers seats isolated in center field, bound together by only a rough plank fence, Fenway I was almost formless. An outpost on outskirts, it was not shaped by the city. Instead, it was a place the city grew to surround and then a place its people eventually embraced on its own, changed to be sure, but somewhere underneath it all, still at the center of something approaching love.

[Glenn Stout’s next book Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Season, will be published in October. To order now, visit This essay first appeared in Boston Baseball, May 2011.]

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