The new ballyard in the Fens, with advertising splashed across its towering wall in left field, was the talk of the Hub in April 1912. But even 100 years ago, decades before the Celtics and Patriots opened for business and well before the Bruins debuted in 1924, Boston sports fans had plenty more to talk about than just the Red Sox and sparkling Fenway Park.
We had Sam Langford, a transplanted Nova Scotian, perhaps the most feared boxer ever to put up his dukes and set up shop in Boston. Langford took on all challengers, and was so good, but also so black, that he never was granted the opportunity to fight for a world title. The great Jack Johnson, the legendary black heavyweight of the early 20th century, was among those who feared stepping into the ring with the long-armed, hard-hammering Langford for a title bout.
Even without sports talk radio, in fact with radio yet to be invented, Boston talked plenty about the then-19-year-old kid from Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia. Although some of what we said about him lives on as a scathing embarrassment. One of Langford’s oft-used nicknames: the Boston Tar Baby.
Eleonora Randolph Sears was a socialite from the North Shore, a great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson. In April of 1912, our “Eleo’’ was 30 years old, fresh from winning the first of her four US women’s doubles championships - two with fellow Yank Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman (1911, ’15) and another pair with Norway’s Molla Bjurstedt Mallory (1916, ’17).
The irrepressible Sears was far more than a tennis player. The daughter of a real estate and shipping tycoon, she boxed, played football and squash, rode horses (for show and polo), skated (for hockey), loved golf, was skilled with a rifle, and was among the first women to fly in an airplane - two years before Fenway opened its doors.
In an era when most of America believed otherwise, Sears felt she could do whatever a man could do on the playing field, and sometimes do it better. Imagine the debate Sears may have stoked in Fenway’s bleachers in the spring of 1912, long before anyone entertained the expression, “You go, girl!’’
“We’re talking, what, 60 years before Title IX?’’ reminded Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum located inside TD Garden. “Boston had eight daily newspapers at the time, and Eleonora Sears had her share of front-page stories, some of them for challenging men in some very long walking races - Boston to Providence was one of her favorites.’’
Boston’s entry in the National League, baseball’s senior circuit, still played its home games at the old South End Grounds, where today the Ruggles Street MBTA station is located. Originally the Boston Red Stockings and later the Beaneaters, the town’s original big league team adopted “Braves’’ as its name just as the Red Sox moved into Fenway. The Braves’ owner, James Gaffney, belonged to Tammany Hall, New York City’s powerful political machine, which had an Indian chief as its mascot.
It was another two years before the Boston Braves moved into their own new ballpark just up Commonwealth Avenue, roughly a mile west of Fenway. While southpaw hurler Babe Ruth didn’t first glimpse Fenway until his 1914 debut, the Braves in 1912 welcomed speedy rookie Walter Maranville into their lineup. Born in Springfield in 1891, the 5-foot-5-inch Rabbit Maranville wasn’t yet 21 when he broke in at shortstop and he soon became a town favorite, known for his speed, sometimes prankish play, and his trademark “vest pocket’’ catches of infield pops.
Maranville piled up 2,605 hits over 23 seasons, finished with a .258 lifetime average and 291 stolen bases, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1954, months after his death at age 62. The Braves by then were but a memory in Boston, having moved to Milwaukee in 1953. Some of us still talk about the hurt of seeing the Braves leave Boston.
The National Hockey League still a few years from taking shape, college hockey was huge in the Hub in 1912. Hobey Baker, perhaps the greatest US college player of all time, learned the game as a prep schooler at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., perfecting his stickhandling while practicing on frozen ponds on pitch black winter nights. In the fall of 1910, Baker enrolled at Princeton, where he starred in football and hockey, and the “Blond Adonis’’ helped the Tigers win national titles in football (1911) and hockey (1912, ’14).
Boston Arena, Harvard’s home rink in those years, was packed with a sellout crowd of more than 6,000 for the Harvard-Princeton matchup on Jan. 24, 1914, and the No. 1 attraction was the incomparable Baker. The game in that era was still played with seven men, six skaters and a goalie, and the freewheeling Baker was the designated rover, electrifying the crowd with his speedy rink-length rushes.
When Baker and the Tigers emerged from the Arena’s dressing room on Jan. 24, the sellout crowd treated the humble star to a standing ovation. But Harvard prevailed in OT, with Leverett Saltonstall, the future governor of Massachusetts and US senator, potting the winner.
“Even though Hobey Baker grew up near Philadelphia,’’ said Johnson, “he was a big name here. Boston’s always loved hockey, and for those years, Baker was the guy.’’ The Hobey Baker Award is given each year to the country’s top college hockey player.
By the time Fenway opened its doors, Harvard Stadium, erected in 1903, already had played host to nine Ivy League football seasons. If Baker was a hot topic, Crimson football was sizzling.
Harvard won the college football championship in 1910 with an 8-0-1 mark, won it again in ’12 by going 9-0, and then again in 1913 with an identical 9-0 mark. In the fall of 1912, Harvard began a 33-game winning streak that lasted into the 1914 season and included the 1912 and ’13 titles under legendary coach Percy D. Haughton.
A century later, the much-loved ballpark that is the home of the Red Sox again dominates the conversation of sports-minded people in our town. And though it may be hard to remember amid the steady stream of nostalgia, our sports menu is great, our topics many, and we live in interesting times.
Like Fenway itself, what we talk about really hasn’t changed that much.