He was known affectionally as Fenway Frank, and he was a legend behind the lens.
But Frank O’Brien, who died this week on his 82nd birthday, never hot-dogged it about his talent. He never boasted that he had revolutionized Boston sports photography by capturing feature images that went far beyond the playing field. He never bragged that somehow he had what many folks believed was the greatest job in Boston: Globe sports photographer extraordinaire.
He was born less than a mile from the Globe’s former headquarters in Dorchester, and in 1967 he was a young rookie who escaped the newspaper’s advertising department to cover the Red Sox, who had finished in ninth place the previous fall.
As the Red Sox picked up steam in July, the Globe decided that it wanted more Red Sox photos for the evening edition, and O’Brien quickly volunteered.
More than a half-century later, we went to the basement of his Canton home, and there stored in dusty old yellow boxes of Kodak photographic paper were 40,000 black-and-white negatives of the “Impossible Dream” team. We went through them with a magnifying loupe and a light box. It was like finding buried treasure.
O’Brien got giddy looking at the images.
“There’s never been anything like it,” he said. “Absolutely the most important year in the history of the Boston Red Sox. It put them back on the map here in New England. It was the most fun I had covering sports.”
The images were amazing. O’Brien had a higher batting average with photos than the great Yastrzemski had during the final week of the baseball season.
The players all knew O’Brien and liked him. A kid who used to take the trolley from Neponset to get to the Fenway bleachers now had a front-row seat to everything.
“I sat at the card table every day and kibitzed with them,” O’Brien recalled in 2017. “Oh my God, you could never do that now.”
He treated everyone the same, and he had one rule that he passed down to the young photographers he was always mentoring: Don’t ask for special-access permission. Just go.
When the Sox finally clinched the pennant on the last day of the 1967 season, he was in the showers amidst the shaving cream and beer.
But he wasn’t simply a homer.
In 1972, O’Brien captured Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey consoling a sobbing Carlton Fisk in the clubhouse after a loss to the Detroit Tigers in a critical game.
“Yawkey glared at me the whole time because Fisk was a rookie,” O’Brien said. “He called me the next day and apologized.”
Typically, O’Brien would enter an arena with some of the best shooters in the business and capture the best image.
“Frank O’Brien was the gold standard of Boston sports photography for decades,” said Globe director of photography Bill Greene. “His ability to consistently get the play of the game as well as the off-the-field moment was unsurpassed.”
Many of his images are iconic.
At the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. — where the “Miracle on Ice” occurred — O’Brien selected an elevated position as the US men’s hockey team celebrated its upset of the heavily favored Soviet Union.
“There were plenty of pictures of that,” recalled former Globe sportswriter Leigh Montville. “He had the best angle.”
Who else but O’Brien could get up to the first row of the plane to get Larry Bird cuddled up asleep next to the NBA championship trophy in 1981? Or capture Bird plucking the cigar out of Red Auerbach’s mouth and puffing on it that same year?
“Disgusting,” said O’Brien, who managed to capture the moment in a jam-packed room. Nobody else had as good a photo.
O’Brien would do whatever he had to do to get the job done. When he and sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy went to see Ted Williams in his remote central Florida home in 1994, the ride was long, and there were no rest areas. When nature called, the duo pulled off the road near an orange grove. They left the car running with the air conditioning on.
“But the door automatically locks,” recalled Shaughnessy. “Frank picked up a tar ball and threw it through the back window. Ted liked Frank and thought it was funny. He had his staff tape up the window.”
O’Brien was a stickler for the presentation of his work.
Globe darkroom technician John Ioven remembered editing and printing a roll of O’Brien’s Bruins film shipped from Boston Garden. He thought he did a good job, until O’Brien returned to the office.
“I can still hear him telling me, ‘Hey kid, these are professional hockey players. You know they have two feet. You don’t have to show the feet and you sure as [expletive] aren’t printing [expletive] hockey cards,’ ” Ioven recalled. “He then tore up the photo and told me to print it over.”
Former Red Sox manager Ralph Houk let O’Brien photograph games from a seat in the dugout at Fenway Park.
Sometimes he had to shoo away the players.
“Sox pitcher John Tudor used to pepper me all the time,” O’'Brien once recalled. “ ‘Didja get that?’ Yeah, John, I got it. There was no digital back then.”
In his 43-year Globe career, O’Brien covered it all. In 1986, when the Patriots were routed by the Bears in the Super Bowl, it was O’Brien’s photo of Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan getting sacked that graced Page 1. When Bobby Orr flew through the air to win a Stanley Cup in 1970, O’Brien captured No. 4′s flight in a motor-driven sequence. But he also acknowledged that the single frame of Orr shot by another photographer from down below was a better image.
O’Brien used to make Celtics great Bill Russell cackle with laughter. But not everybody was in love with him.
“Red [Auerbach] hated me,” said O’Brien. “I would just walk right into the huddle.”
He also was capable of putting his foot in his mouth, as in the 1973 NBA Eastern finals against the Knicks when John Havlicek went to the locker room with a shoulder injury.
“John, you’ve got to play,” O’Brien blurted out. When he looked up, Hondo was weeping.
It was O’Brien who finally convinced the Red Sox to construct pits for photographers at the end of the dugouts at Fenway Park.
O’Brien wintered in Fort Myers, Fla., but as his health declined this spring, he headed back to Boston for medical care.
Jim Davis, a longtime Globe sports photographer and O’Brien disciple, was reminiscing about Fenway Frank in front of the Red Sox clubhouse, which faces a huge banner of Red Sox greats under the title “Legendary.”
“Frank was legendary in our business,” said Davis. “He should be up there.”
His photo friends agreed. Retired Globe photographer George Rizer found a photo of O’Brien with bat in hand, and that image was photo-shopped into the banner. A huge blowup was sent to O’Brien’s Canton home. It now hangs in the living room.
O’Brien, who spent his life behind a camera, was thrilled with the gesture.
Pictures never age, but people do, and in recent weeks, photographers started calling in to say goodbye. With his calm voice and easy laughter, O’Brien remained upbeat and brave, wanting to put everyone at ease. He talked about his 10 grandchildren, his one great-granddaughter, how special his loving wife Maureen is, and how he thought Chris Sale was finally looking good. Opening Day was just around the corner.
In those last days, he felt the love of his peers. If this was a photo finish, he was at peace with it.
“This is spectacular,” he said over the phone as he looked at the “Legendary” banner. “Please thank everyone for me.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.