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A Century Of Joy And Heartbreak At Fenway Park

The flag covers the Green Monster as the national anthem is played before the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays on April 16 at Fenway Park in Boston.
Getty Images
The flag covers the Green Monster as the national anthem is played before the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays on April 16 at Fenway Park in Boston.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Fenway Park. A century after it was built, fans still gush about this "lyric little bandbox," as John Updike called it. To guys like Ed Carpenter, Fenway is history and home, magic and mystique.

"I love this place," he says, tearing up. "I mean, it's not mortar and bricks and seats."

Carpenter first started coming to Fenway with his dad in 1949, when he was 6.

"We walked up this ramp right behind this home plate," he recalls. "I can still see everything was green, emerald green. It was love at first sight."

Those were the years of the "Ted Sox," when the famous lefty Ted Williams consistently slugged 'em up and over Fenway's right field wall, until his very last at bat in 1960.

"This is pretty cool. I got goose bumps," says 19-year-old construction worker John Corbett, trying to bang out a kink in one of Fenway's cranky old garage doors — the very same doors that now open for Big Papi once opened up for Pedro and the Babe.

"There's a lot of history here," he says from the top of his ladder. "That's what's the cool thing about it. It's one of a kind."

Green Monster Looms

That fence is so damn close, you get on the mound, you turn around and seems like it's at second base."

Fenway has been called the 10th player of the Boston Red Sox — its single most enduring star. Players and owners come and go, but Fenway remains, familiar and timeless. The right foul line is still marked by Pesky's Pole, the old Citgo sign still shines over the park, and the iconic Green Monster still keeps score in left field.

"Today, when I walk in the park, I don't feel no different at all," says 94-year-old Lou Lucier, a former Red Sox pitcher, and now the oldest living Red Sox player. He can still remember taking the mound for his first Fenway game in 1943.

"Oh, Jesus," he says. "To tell you the truth, it didn't feel too good."

To a pitcher especially, Lucier says, that Green Monster in left field loomed large.

"That fence is so damn close, you get on the mound, you turn around, and seems like it's at second base," he says.

A view of Fenway Park on July 5, 1961.
/ AP
A view of Fenway Park on July 5, 1961.

Even worse, all the nooks and crevices in the Green Monster, and that funky triangle deep in center field, made Fenway feel like a pinball machine.

"I thought, 'What the heck kind of a baseball park is this?' " Lucier says. "The way the ball bounces off that wall ... Sheeeez."

Today that wall has become one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city of Boston, and new "Monster seats" installed on top of it are so popular you can only get them through an online lottery.

"These have been called the most unique seats in baseball," announces Carpenter, who recently came out of retirement to start a new career as a Fenway tour guide. Even his visitors from New York "oooh" and "ahhh."

Inside the wall, during games, he explains, three people crammed into just about 8 feet of windowless, non-air-conditioned space still change the score by hand. "The only way to see what's happening here at the ballpark," Carpenter says, is to look through little peepholes about the size of mail slots.

Highs And Heartbreak

It was through one of those peepholes that a camera captured Carlton Fisk in the 1975 World Series wildly waving his arms to make his line drive to the left stay fair.

Over the years, the Fenway faithful have celebrated countless similar highs. Fans reveled in the stunning strikeouts thrown by Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, and cheered countless batters like Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski blasting balls out of the park. When Yaz whacked his 3,000th career hit in 1979, it was one of the many times "all hell [broke] loose at Fenway Park!" — as the game announcer put it.

But sit anywhere at Fenway, from the grandstand on down to the first-base line, and you can also feel decades of heartache seeping from the seats: crushing losses in the postseason to the Cardinals in '67, the Mets in '86 and the Yankees in '78 with that famous home run hit by Bucky Dent.

Boos or cheers, there's something about the way Fenway is nestled into the ground, below street level, that seems to contain and multiply the energy when the crowd erupts.

"When the place breaks out into 'Sweet Caroline,' it's just transporting," says Bob Caputo, producer of the documentary Inside Fenway Park: An Icon at 100. "You feel like you're going to just lift off."

The Soul Of The City

Indeed, Fenway is as intimate as it is intense. In a ballpark this small, with seats just inches from the foul lines, fans here literally become part of the game. You can lean over the dugout seats and bump elbows with a coach. And when you yell out at a batter or heckle the pitcher, he can definitely hear you.

"Every game is electric. And you can just feel that," says Fenway fan Dan Wilson. "The ballpark itself is the soul of the city."

Shoehorned in the center of the city, Fenway has been about much more than just baseball. High school kids played football here. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy campaigned here. Duke Ellington, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney sang here.

You could call it an accident of history — or divine intervention — that Fenway managed to live to see 100.

The ballpark survived a fire in the 1930s and barely escaped the wrecking ball in the 1960s, when massive new "concrete doughnuts" were all the rage. By the time "small" became "big," and "retro" was new again in the 1990s, when Fenway facsimiles like Camden Yards were all the rage, the real Fenway was falling apart, and owners said there was nothing more that they could do.

Team owners said they needed the revenue that would come from more seats in a new stadium in order to survive. They drew up plans for a new ballpark, adjacent to the old, and had even lined up the political support they needed to start building.

But as news reporters commenced the "official Fenway death watch," a group of die-hard Fenway faithful continued picketing outside the park, trying to sell fans and owners on their plan to make the ballpark viable.

"We were vilified for a number of years there," says Wilson, who helped lead the group Save Fenway Park. "We were standing in the way of a shiny new stadium. We were made fun of, we were looked at as being just dreamers."

Fenways boasts "the oldest seats in baseball." Owners purposely decided not to sandblast the layers of paint, but rather to let these right field grandstand seats show their history and their age.
Tovia Smith / NPR
Fenways boasts "the oldest seats in baseball." Owners purposely decided not to sandblast the layers of paint, but rather to let these right field grandstand seats show their history and their age.

Indeed, plenty of more ornate ballparks, like Ebbets Field, had already been razed. Fenway's plain red brick exterior was so unimpressive that when Clemens, the pitching ace, first arrived, he didn't believe he could possibly be in the right place, and he asked his cabbie to turn around.

Fenway's Reprieve

By 2002, when the team owners put the Sox up for sale, only one group of bidders was promising to resuscitate Fenway rather than replace it. That group, headed by John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, would eventually get their chance.

"We made everyone who worked on the ballpark take the Fenway Park equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. Rule 1: Do no harm," says Lucchino, now the ballclub's president and CEO.

The team would spend $285 million on a massive rehab of the park, fixing the field so it would no longer flood, adding state-of-the-art video screens, and updating everything from the players' clubhouse to mezzanine bathrooms.

And over 10 years, the Sox slowly added more than 14,000 new seats, a hundred or a handful at a time. They wedged them in everywhere they possibly could — from the top of the Green Monster, and on a new roof in right field, down to renovated boxes behind home plate and new rows on the field along the first and third baselines.

"It was really remarkable," says Caputo, the filmmaker. "It was like some sort of sleight of hand, because they made the ballpark bigger and more comfortable, but still made it look and feel the same."

In one especially crafty trick, the Sox created broad new concourses, with plenty of room for new concession stands, by borrowing room from next-door buildings and city streets. Today, a few hours before each game, they roll out turnstiles and barricades to the ends of Yawkey Way, making that temporarily an official part of the ballpark, allowing Fenway to gain tons of square footage without building an inch.

'Miracle Of 2004'

When the Sox finally broke the Curse of the Bambino and won the World Series in 2004, it seemed to the Fenway faithful — and Lucchino — nothing less than an act of God.

"It does seem fair, doesn't it," chuckles Lucchino, "that the baseball gods would approve of the way that we approached this sacred, this hallowed ground of baseball, and then allow us the miracle of 2004."

Sure, there are gripes about baseball's highest average ticket prices, and seats that are still squished and facing away from the field or smack into a steel beam. But there are more than enough fans, like Steve Pell, who forgive it all as part of Fenway's charm.

"When you're sitting there at a game and you're watching the Red Sox play," Pell says, "your tush forgets what you are sitting on."

Today, the nation's oldest ballpark holds a major league record for nine years of consecutive sellouts. "And we're still counting," says Lucchino. "We have fans who crave the experience and keep filling up the ballpark."

Owner John Henry may sum it up best, with one of his favorite expressions when he shows up at the office. "Ahh, Fenway Park," he says. "It never gets old!"

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Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.