WINCHESTER – John Updike has a lot to answer for. That “lyric little bandbox” stuff is getting pretty thick on the ground these days with the Fenway Park centenary. Basically, the place is just some grass surrounded by a lot of uncomfortable seats (some of them behind poles) with not enough legroom. Oh, and don’t forget all those nifty ads Red Sox ownership has plastered over seemingly every flat surface visible to a camera. Hurrah for the purity of the national pastime and of fathers playing catch with sons!
All right, Fenway’s much more than that: a landmark in New England’s civic imagination more imposing and beloved than any other. It’s been the site not just of athletic contests (soccer and football and even hockey, as well as baseball), but also political rallies and rock concerts, citizenship ceremonies and religious services. Yes, the old ballyard has been a place of traditional public worship as well as the Carmine Hose kind.
The Griffin Museum of Photography is doubly observing the centenary. “Fenway Park,” which runs through June 3, is a heartfelt and abundant exhibition of more than a hundred photographs and several pertinent documents. (Interesting as it is to see the contract selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, it’s that much more so to note that the word “cash” has been written in — in green ink, no less — after the typed word “dollars.”) “There Goes Ted Williams,” which runs through May 27, consists of 17 illustrations from Matt Tavares’s children’s book of the same name and 20 photographs by the museum’s namesake. For many years Arthur Griffin worked as a Boston-area photojournalist and took some of the most famous pictures of Williams, whom he had befriended as a young ballplayer. Several of those images served as models for Tavares’s illustrations.
The Griffin is celebrating an anniversary, too. It turns 20 in 2012. If “Fenway Park” doesn’t become the most popular show in the museum’s history, then last September’s chicken-and-beer debacle and this winter’s hiring of the egregious Bobby V. has turned off even more fans than previously suspected — which would really be saying something.
The show covers Fenway’s entire history: from the Royal Rooters to David Ortiz. In fact, the Rooters predate the park. Photographs are drawn from a wide variety of sources: the Red Sox, the Boston Public Library, the Baseball Hall of Fame, even the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum.
On display are players and fans, of course, but also batboys, Bob Hope dressed up as an umpire, FDR giving the final speech of his 1944 reelection campaign, Eamon de Valera rallying supporters of Irish independence in 1919 (the park is famously green, after all), then-Archbishop Richard J. Cushing, John Kiley conducting a band in Canvas Alley, then-Governor Leverett Saltonstall throwing out the first ball of the 1940 season, and the three DiMaggio brothers at Old Timers Day, in 1986 (nice for a change to see Vince get equal time). There are also flooded dugouts, pitching grips, inside views of the Green Monster, snow-covered seats, and a five-alarm fire (in 1934).
While photographic content here almost always matters more than photographic form, several pictures more than hold their own as pictures. Jim Dow’s panoramic view of the playing field and surroundings is quite splendid. Steve Wilstein’s tightly cropped view of the dents of the left field wall could be mistaken for an abstract painting. Actually, it’s sculptural, too, thanks to the presence of the left-field ladder.
The root appeal of both ballpark and show is innocence. It’s there in the photographs of a “nuns day’’ and the one of a very young Johnny Pesky visiting the park while on furlough from the Navy (the way his overcoat swallows him up, he could be a schoolboy). It’s certainly there in the photograph of Williams joining hands with a soldier in a wheelchair on one side and Dom DiMaggio on the other. Maybe it’s the times that have changed even more than the park has, but those pictures would seem to be windows on to the other side of a real divide. The Fenway experience is part of a cash cow theme park, the Fenway Experience.
One doesn’t expect a critical stance in a show like “Fenway Park.” This is a visual birthday party, and the pictures are the candles on the cake. Still, it’s always useful to bear in mind the advice found in the title of Jerome Holtzman’s classic book of interviews with famous sportswriters, “No Cheering in the Press Box.” The caption for a portrait of the architect behind the renovation of Fenway reads “Urban visionary Janet Marie Smith.” Come again? Frederick Law Olmsted was an urban visionary. Jane Jacobs was an urban visionary.
It could be worse. There are no portraits of John Henry (“Captain of commerce”?), Tom Werner (“Sitcom seer”?), or Larry Lucchino (“Friend of humanity”?).Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.