The biggest story that week, in the Hub and the rest of the universe, was the sinking of the Titanic, which took more than 1,500 souls with it to the bottom of the icy Atlantic. On April 20, 1912, five days after the disaster, the Globe was filled with tales of human error (‘‘Ismay Knew Icebergs Near’’) and heroism (‘‘Instinctive Valor Shown By All From Stoker to Millionaire’’). Michael J. Ryan had shattered the record in the 16th Boston Marathon the day before. ‘‘Well, I told you I would win,’’ he declared after leaving behind Andrew Sockalexis by 34 seconds in the mud and slush. That noon at Faneuil Hall, there was a presidential rally for William Howard Taft, whose candidacy would be bull-moosed that fall by predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, to Woodrow Wilson’s benefit. And ‘‘Hoopla! Father Doesn’t Care!!’’ was playing at the Park Theatre.
The more enduring story hereabouts was the official opening of Fenway Park, ‘‘the mammoth plant with the commodious fittings’’ that is about to celebrate its centennial. The Athens of America, then the country’s fifth-largest city, already had a Symphony Hall, a Museum of Fine Arts, and an Opera House. What it did not have was a 20th-century ballpark.
Fenway wasn’t the first concrete-and-steel major league facility. A half-dozen already were up and running, and Detroit’s Navin Field opened the same day. But it was a necessary novelty for Boston, whose two professional clubs had been playing in wooden firetraps a few blocks from each other in the South End.
The Sox were living on borrowed time at the 11,500-seat Huntington Avenue Grounds, and they knew it.
‘‘You were lucky if you had a wooden ballpark that lasted 20 years without a major fire,’’ said Glenn Stout, author of the recent ‘‘Fenway 1912,’’ a chronicle of the club’s first year in its historic home. ‘‘The longer the pine baked in the sun, the more it became tinder.’’
There was much more money to be made from a modern venue, which is why John I. Taylor was content to build a new park for $650,000, nearly 20 times what the old one had cost, and sell half of the club. Yet the Fenway that opened that year, built in just seven months, was a smaller version of what would come later, with just 11,400 grandstand seats, 8,000 more in a separate right-field pavilion, and 5,000 in the bleachers. Everybody else bought a standing-room ticket, which provided a preferred vantage point in a day when games lasted only a couple of hours.
‘‘You were getting in really cheaply and you were giving up worse seats somewhere else,’’ said Stout. ‘‘If you were hard up against Duffy’s Cliff [in front of the left-field wall], you could hear what the players were saying. The fans back then felt like they were much more a part of the game than fans do now.’’
Duffy Lewis wasn’t the only outfielder who had to make his catches on the incline, surrounded by spectators.
‘‘Often the ballparks had slopes in the outfield near the fences that improved the view for the SRO fans,’’ observed Ron Selter, author of ‘‘Ballparks of the Deadball Era,’’ noting that balls hit among the standees in fair territory were ruled doubles or triples.
If it was a more intimate game in 1912, it’s because the game literally was smaller. Though the playing area was exceptionally spacious — the average distance to center field was 467 feet (635 at the Huntington Grounds) — most of the action was around the infield. In the dead ball era, ‘‘small ball’’ was the way to go, with an emphasis on pitching, bunting, and stealing. Outfielders routinely played in and frequently were able to pull off double plays.
Even though the ball had a corked center, it was nowhere near as lively as it would be during the Ruth era, as Frank ‘‘Home Run’’ Baker of the Athletics and Tris Speaker of the Sox topped the league that year with 10 homers.
‘‘The ball didn’t travel very well, and it was kept in play for 100 or so pitches,’’ said John McMurray, who chairs the Deadball Era Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research. ‘‘It became hard to hit the ball after it had been mashed for so long. Someone said it was almost like hitting a cabbage.’’
When Sox reserve first baseman Hugh Bradley, who never hit another homer, finally cleared Fenway’s fence in the fifth game played there, the fans were astounded.
‘‘The scene that followed was indescribable,’’ wrote the Globe’s Tim Murnane, remarking that ‘‘spectators jumped onto their seats and threw their hats in the air and howled like Indians.’’
The ‘‘Speed Boys,’’ as the Sox were called then, were not renowned for muscle. They hit only 29 homers that year but stole 185 bases (52 by Speaker) and legged out 84 triples. Smoky Joe Wood went 34-5 with 35 complete games and Buck O’Brien and Hugh Bedient each won 20.
When they took a seven-game lead over the Senators in July, the Globe noted their ‘‘Keen Head Work Combined With Acutely Schemed Team Play; Excellent Pitching, Catching, Infield and Outfield Action; Timely Hitting and Shrewd Base Running.’’ That was enough to win 105 games and beat the Giants in eight games (one was a draw) for the Sox’ first Series triumph in nine years.
The Yankees, who still were the Highlanders then, were nothing like the pinstriped behemoths they would become a decade later. They were the worst team in the league, temporary tenants at Hilltop Park in Washington Heights, where Boston had swept them easily to start the season. So the fans had little doubt that the Sox would prevail when the home opener finally was played after two days of rain.
There had been a dress rehearsal on April 9 with a game against Harvard amid snow flurries before a shivering assemblage of 3,000. The formal opening ceremony, with what the Globe called ‘‘the real-down-to-the-book official dedication with the music stuff, the flowers and the flags,’’ didn’t take place until May 17.
From April 9, 1912: Sox outlast Harvard in Fenway launch
From April 20, 1912: Sox christen Fenway with win over New York
From May 17, 1912: Sox lose thriller in Fenway’s formal opening
On April 20, Boston’s mayor John ‘‘Honey Fitz’’ Fitzgerald threw out the first ball under sunny skies, play began at 3:10 p.m., and was concluded three hours later in a 7-6 victory when Speaker knocked in the winning run in the 11th inning. ‘‘The game was full of interest, the crowd holding its seats to the end, figuring that the Red Sox would eventually nose out the Broadway swells,’’ wrote Murnane.
The few who had cars among the 24,000 attendees were free to park almost anywhere they pleased. There still was plenty of room in the West Fens. Most took the trolley, boarding the Ipswich, Beacon, or Commonwealth cars.
For both amusement and annoyance, there were the ‘‘Royal Rooters,’’ led by Roxbury saloon keeper Michael ‘‘Nuf Ced’’ McGreevy, who had been in full cry for years backed by a brass band and bellowing their theme song ‘‘Tessie.’’ They were dressed suitably, of course, in hats and high collars. No Bostonian, proper or otherwise, attended a ballgame without headwear, even in the bleachers.
It still was a parochial town with a tribal social structure led by the Brahmins, then the Irish, then everyone else. Boston was overwhelmingly white and there were so few African-American residents that a Globe cartoonist could pen a popular strip about ‘‘Asa Spades,’’ a gullible black man who was tricked out of his Opening Day tickets by a white juggler.
Baseball itself was a parochial game, with its 16 major league teams spread among only 10 cities, none west or south of St. Louis. Road trips, all by train, could be lengthy. After playing all but four games at Fenway between their home opener and the end of May, the Sox spent almost all of June playing in six cities.
They were not, of course, the only team in town. The Braves, who had been around since 1876 under various names (e.g. Beaneaters, Rustlers, Doves), played at the South End Grounds, which was so small (5,000 seats) that the National Leaguers had to borrow Fenway for the 1914 Series after their ‘‘miracle’’ club came from last place on July 18 to run away with the pennant. The Braves had their own place the next year, a 40,000-seat ‘‘wigwam’’ that was so spacious the Sox used it when they won the 1915 and 1916 World Series.
From Oct. 14, 1914: Fans revel after Braves win World Series at Fenway Park
Yet there was ample room for Fenway to expand because architect James McLaughlin had planned it that way.
‘‘The smartest decision they made was to make the foundation substantial enough to support a second deck at some future time,’’ said Stout. When new owner Tom Yawkey rebuilt the park in 1934, adding 15,000 seats and raising the left-field wall to 37 feet, the layout and dimensions didn’t change, and they essentially still haven’t.
Duffy’s Cliff may have been leveled, but fans still sit atop the wall, as they did in 1912.
‘‘Fans knew then that those were cool seats,’’ said Stout. ‘‘It took 90 years for ownership to come to the same conclusion.’’