Football at Fenway has a long history
Still in his Buffalo Bills uniform, Jack Kemp lingered on the field at Fenway Park that afternoon. No one seemed in a rush to leave. In the 1960s, when football was a regular happening at Fenway, with the Boston Patriots the home team, players and fans and even a smattering of media typically would stand around and chat as the stands emptied after a game.
“It’s sort of an odd word to use in relation to a football game,’’ said Patrick Sullivan, whose father Billy Sullivan was the Patriots’ original owner, “but the whole thing in those days was a pretty mellow experience.’’
Kemp, yet to know where his post-playing career would lead, was greeted on the field after this particular game by a Patriots season ticket-holder. He should consider a political career, the gregarious fan with the big Irish face told the Bills quarterback, because he reminded him of his old pal, Jack Kennedy.
“That was Tip O’Neill,’’ recalled Sullivan, who was a ballboy for a portion of the half-dozen years the Patriots played at Fenway and later the club’s general manager, “and Jack told me once that very scene convinced him to get into politics. In fact, 30 years later, Jack told me, ‘The only thing was, Tip was mad at me because I ended up running as a Republican.’ ’’
Football returns to Fenway Park on Saturday, with Boston College taking on Notre Dame, the iconic ballyard retrofitted as a gridiron for the first time since the Patriots played there in their final game of the 1968 season. There is no telling how the course of American politics might be shaped — Kemp went on to become a cabinet member in the George H.W. Bush White House — but it is certain to be a day remembered for reviving a football tradition that dates to 1912, just after Fenway opened as the home of the Red Sox.
Beginning with Everett High School’s loss to Oak Park, Ill., in the national high school championship game on Nov. 30, 1912, the ballyard for 50-plus years bustled with football action. A total of five pro teams, beginning with George Preston Marshall’s Boston Redskins in 1933, made it their home field. The tenants also included the Shamrocks, Bears, Yanks, and Patriots (1963-68).
Amateur football was regular fare, with as many as 47 high school games played in the Back Bay bandbox in 1932. The college game was a staple, too, featuring the heroics of BC’s Chuckin’ Charlie O’Rourke and Boston University’s Harry “The Golden Greek’’ Agganis, both of whom starred in the game’s leather-helmet era.
Fenway forever will be known above all as a baseball place, the towering left field wall its crowning architectural jewel, but its emerald lawn for years was ground as fertile for end zones and goalposts as it was for strike zones and foul poles.
“From the beginning, and for decades, Fenway remained very much a people’s park,’’ noted Richard Johnson, longtime curator of the Sports Museum and author of the Fenway tome, “Field of Our Fathers.’’ “It was a venue where post office clerks, soda jerks, and inspectors from the public works were just as apt to venture as participants and fans.’’
For example, said Johnson, take the 1932 season with those 47 high school football games.
“Chances were, if you going to Fenway that year,’’ he said, “you were as likely going there to see the Red Sox as you were to see someone get dirt under the fingers as a high school player — a player you might know from your neighborhood. Incredibly cool.’’
When the Irish and Eagles take the field Saturday, some things will not have changed; it will be football as it always has been done at Fenway. As in decades past, one end zone will front the visiting (third base) dugout, the other will approach the bullpens in right field.
“When we were there,'' said Sullivan, “if a guy really stretched out for a pass, he might end up in the bullpen.’’
Unlike most football games, both teams will stand on the same sideline, their backs turned toward the left field wall, facing the stands along the first base side of the park.
For the six seasons the Patriots played there, noted Gino Cappelletti, their top star of the ’60s, the cozy arrangement on the sideline led to constant accusations that teams tried to steal one another’s plays.
“There was a lot of that scuttlebutt,’’ said Cappelletti. “You know, guys putting on parkas, pulling up their hoods, inching over to see if they could pick up anything from opponents. The two teams had a space between them, but as the game went on, everyone got closer and closer, and you could hear things.’’
Some of the banter along the sideline, recalled Sullivan, was colorful, the hue often blue. Sid Gillman, a frequent visitor as coach of the San Diego Chargers, could be particularly crusty, especially in his treatment of on-field officials.
“One day, Sid was really giving it to one of the refs, Walter Fitzgerald,’’ Sullivan said. “It was bad. Everything out of Sid’s mouth was f-this and f-that. Finally, Sid yells at Walter, ‘Yeah, sure, all you f’in BC guys stick together — that’s why you are making these calls for Mike!’ ’’
Mike Holovak, the Patriots coach, had been a fullback at Boston College and coached there through the ’50s before joining the Patriots as a coach in 1960.
“Finally, Walter throws the flag,’’ recalled Sullivan, “and he goes over to Sid and says, ‘I didn’t throw the flag because of all your [swears]. I threw the flag because you said I was a BC guy. I went to Holy Cross!’ ’’
Fenway’s football moments through the decades have included the mundane and the memorable, and the ordinary turned extraordinary.
No one in the ballpark on Nov. 12, 1949, when Maryland edged BU, 14-13, was aware that the 21-year-old making his play-by-play debut that afternoon would launch a legendary career.
Vin Scully, now 87 years old and the enduring voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was chosen that day by Red Barber, then the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to fill in at Fenway for the call on CBS radio.
A recent Fordham graduate, Scully was particularly excited to get the gig because Fordham that same afternoon was at the Heights, to play Boston College. Eager to head directly to Fordham’s postgame dance party after working at the Fens, Scully left his coat, hat, and gloves in his hotel room. Little did he know that his broadcast position would be atop Fenway’s roof, with no booth provided, completely exposed to the wind as it whipped off the Charles.
“I’m looking for a booth and there is no booth,’’ Scully recalled decades later for the Los Angeles Times. “There’s an engineer with a card table and his little dials for volume, a microphone, and about 50 yards of cable. That’s it.’’
Impressed by Scully’s work, as well as his refusal to carp over the conditions, Barber hired him to call the Harvard-Yale game the following weekend.
Notre Dame has not played at Fenway since Oct. 14, 1944, when the Irish pasted Dartmouth, 64-0, before a crowd of more than 40,000. The Eagles last appeared there Dec. 1, 1956, a 7-0 loss to their fellow Jesuits of Holy Cross.
BC was scheduled to play at Fenway again Nov. 23, 1963, in what was predetermined to be the last time BC and BU would play one another. However, when President Kennedy was assassinated some 24 hours before kickoff, the game was scrubbed.
The cover of the program printed for the BC-BU game in ’63 featured a cartoon by Phil Bissell, then a Globe sports staff artist, with a BU Terrier sitting on a detonator and waving a pennant to welcome a trolley full of BC players. The detonator is connected to four sticks of dynamite under the trolley tracks, ready to blow the visiting Eagles to smithereens.
Bissell, who will turn 90 in February, could not recall what he drew for the program’s cover when contacted last week. When reminded of the details, he said, with a degree of astonishment, “Oh. Oh dear. Isn’t that something?’’
Memorabilia from Fenway’s football days have held consumer interest, according to Phil Castinetti, owner of Sportsworld in Peabody.
“People love that stuff, especially if it’s Patriots-related,’’ said Castinetti. “Fans remember them as good guys, when it all seemed like so much fun. You’d be surprised, pictures and programs — especially programs from the ’60s when they were at Fenway — remain hot.’’
Before moving into Fenway, the fledgling Patriots played up the street at BU’s Nickerson Field, which was once Braves Field. A full house there, recalled Sullivan, was only 22,000, the smallest in the AFL. Moving to Fenway, with its temporary bleachers, allowed for crowds upward of 40,000.
But more than the sheer capacity to expand attendance, the prestige of Fenway allowed the Patriots to make a quantum leap in the franchise’s profile, according to Cappelletti.
“All of us looked at Fenway as pretty much our step into the big leagues,’’ said Cappelletti, who recalled making a point of seeking out where Ted Williams’s locker had been in the Red Sox clubhouse. “It gave us, I think, the first real of feeling of, ‘OK, we’re really pros now.’
“We walked out of that tunnel, into the dugout, out onto the field, and it was, ‘Yeah, we’ve made it, we’re in the professional ranks now.’ ’’