Even as a young kid, Sam Kennedy was head and shoulders above the crowd.
The father of the future Red Sox team president, an Episcopal priest, had a complimentary clergy pass (plus 1) to Fenway Park. Perched atop his dad’s shoulders in standing room behind Section 25, Sam would watch 20-30 games a year. But that wasn’t enough for the baseball-crazed 11-year-old.
One Sunday, just as Rev. Thomas B. Kennedy finished his 11 a.m. service at Trinity Church, his son approached him with great vigor.
“Sam says, ‘Dad, we’ve got to go to the game,’ ” recalls Thomas, 74. “I said, ‘Sam, I’ve got a meeting. I can’t go.’ ”
Sam refused to take no for an answer. “Well, just give me your pass,” he told his dad.
“I said no, Sam, it doesn’t work that way.”
But Sam begged his dad to drive to Fenway’s service gate.
“I pulled up and said, ‘Is it OK if this boy goes in?’ and they said fine. That’s all it took,” said Thomas.
And the rest is history. Kennedy attended Sox games through high school paying only a service fee that ranged from 50 cents to $2.
“I must have gone to half the games,” says Sam. “It was two stops away on the T from my house.”
In their Brookline home, one of Thomas Kennedy’s prized possessions was a baseball signed by Hall of Famers Cy Young, Lefty Grove, and Bob Feller, presented to him by a member of the Trinity Church who was a visitors’ batboy at Fenway back in the 1930s.
The ball meant a lot to the reverend.
“I had it on a little pedestal,” he says.
But on a March day in 1983, with the hint of spring in the air, the ball suddenly disappeared.
“Oh, I got the ball, Dad,” confesses Sam.
“Totally destroyed,” says Thomas. “Scuffed beyond recognition.”
Worse, the lad showed no remorse.
“I could’ve cared less,” says Sam. “I mean, it wasn’t Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Fred Lynn. I didn’t know who these guys were.”
Drawn to the game
Thomas Kennedy is unique. He used to write sermons in the grandstand while keeping a scorecard. He sometimes skipped out of church, telling the phone operators that he was going to a funeral for a great aunt at the Cathedral in the Fenway. Even today, he’ll sometimes forgo the luxury box and find a seat next to a random fan.
Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons was a neighbor in Brookline.
He says that sometimes after a snowstorm the reverend had already cleared his driveway.
“You could not have lived next door to better human beings,” says Gammons.
When he wasn’t with his father, Sam went to Sox games with the son of a Presbyterian minister. They’d go early to get autographs from players on the visiting team.
“I had Chet Lemon like 17 times,” says Sam.
Kennedy loved to sit near the dugout in the late innings.
So does he support fans moving closer?
“Yes, absolutely,” he says. “If people get up and leave early we try to tell the ushers, listen it may be their first time at Fenway, if you think there’s a chance, give them an opportunity.”
It is now moments before the Sox play Texas, and father and son are in the Red Sox executive suite overlooking home plate. The ace, David Price, is on the mound. This season, the entire Red Sox staff has pitched like the first inning is still batting practice.
Should we pray?
“Listen, it’s a religion around here,” says Thomas. “The psyche of this town ebbs and flows with every single win with this ball club.”
“Every night, I pray,” says Sam.
This brings up a dumb question.
If a pitcher crosses himself and the hitter does the same thing, whom does the Lord reward?
“That’s always a good question,” says Thomas, who is retired but recently gave the homily at the Bud Collins memorial service at Trinity Church and is chairman of the board of Sherrill House, a nonprofit nursing and rehabilitation center in Jamaica Plain.
“They’re just trying to get a little extra, but it doesn’t work. [Laughs.] It’s skill, and ability, and focus.”
Thomas grew up in Yankee territory in Sherman, Conn., just 65 miles north of Yankee Stadium. Mickey Mantle was his favorite player. He went to the team’s home opener in 1967 — the Red Sox’ Impossible Dream year — when the great Carl Yastrzemski made a leaping, one-handed circus catch to preserve Billy Rohr’s no-hit bid in the ninth inning. Although Elston Howard broke up the no-no with a two-out single, a Red Sox fan was born.
Sam starts to say Carney Lansford was his favorite player, but he’s interrupted by the pop of Shin-Soo Choo’s bat crushing Price’s first-pitch fastball into the center-field bleachers.
“You got to be kidding me,” says Sam.
The reverend is upset, too. “Oh my God, right over the heart of the plate.”
As Price loads the bases, the Lord’s name is invoked several times. Is that kosher?
“Oh, the language from first pitch until the end of the game, all bets are off, he’s worse than me,” says Sam of his father. “I will not be in the same room with you when Buchholz is pitching.”
Breaking into the business
Thomas Kennedy was a catcher at Claremont Men’s College in the early ’60s. He remembers going 6 for 6 in a game against Occidental. He knew Wes Parker, who later became the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first baseman.
Thomas was ordained as a priest in 1969. In ’75, he penned a letter of thanks to Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey because he believed the team’s success kept the lid on the violence surrounding desegregation in Boston. Sam Kennedy was still in diapers.
Thomas was also a longtime member of the BoSox Club. Together, father and son attended picnics on the warning track at Fenway.
“We’d get pictures of Sam getting autographs from Gary Allenson, Dave Stapleton, Carney Lansford,” says Thomas. “And [groundskeeper] Joe Mooney would yell at us to get off the grass.”
They were on the living room couch prepared to “go crazy” in Brookline when the Sox were one strike away from a championship in 1986.
“I was 13,” says Sam. “I literally went to bed crying my eyes out.”
Sam played hockey and was captain of the baseball team at Brookline High School, but he claims the athletic gene skipped his generation.
“My batting average was good but a lot of the hits were bleeders, soft line drives,” he says.
He also played in a state tournament hockey game at the old Boston Garden. The highlight?
“I caught a skate and the announcer on NESN said, ‘Kennedy appears to trip over the blue line,’ ” he says with a laugh.
In 1992, at the end of his sophomore year at Trinity College, he composed 75 letters to executives of every team in Major League Baseball.
He only got interview requests from the Yankees and the Brewers, although Dave Dombrowski, currently the Red Sox president of baseball operations, crafted a “very nice” rejection letter from the Florida Marlins.
When the Yankees hired Sam, Thomas Kennedy worried about the high cost of living in New York, urged him to ask first about salary. Sam refused.
“They don’t pay interns,” he said.
But Jack Lawn, George Steinbrenner’s executive vice president, set him straight.
“Young man,” Sam recalls being told. “You’re going to have to learn, no one works for George Steinbrenner for nothing.”
Kennedy spent three summers with the Yankees, once rescuing an overserved Mantle from an event and also aggravating Joe DiMaggio when he had the Yankee Clipper introduced before the Mick at Old-Timer’s Day. He also sold radio advertising at WFAN and WABC.
He joined the San Diego Padres’ operations staff full time in late 1996 under Larry Lucchino and was reunited with his Brookline High baseball teammate and pal Theo Epstein. In 2001, they came to Boston to help end a curse. Sam was no longer on his dad’s shoulders between home and third, but Thomas Kennedy still was giving life lessons to his son.
Lessons never end
In 2002, father and son were in the congregation at a packed Old South Church when their friend, senior minister Jim Crawford, gave his final sermon.
“Jim said everything is great except for one thing. They [the Red Sox] rescinded the clergy pass,” says Thomas. “The whole congregation went ‘boooo.’ So I’m sitting next to Sam in the pew. I said, ‘Sam, you’ve got a problem,’ and he said, ‘Dad, don’t worry. I got Jim a Red Sox jersey with his name on the back. It’ll be OK.’ ”
Later, at a celebration at Copley Plaza, it was Thomas Kennedy’s turn to speak. He had his son Jamie hand him a piece of paper.
“I said, ‘Oh, look at this. This is a telegram from Larry Lucchino that says anyone who has been in the same pulpit in the City of Boston for 28 years will get a lifetime clergy pass.’ The place erupts. I go sit down and Sam says, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘That’s your problem now.’ ”
Sam Kennedy laughs.
“So I had to come back to John [Henry], Tom [Werner], and Larry and tell them the story. They loved it. So we brought [the clergy passes] back but we now have rabbis, priests, and Protestant ministers.”
After the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, Sam Kennedy and Epstein surprised their dads by giving them their World Series rings for Father’s Day at Fenway Park in Theo’s general manager’s suite.
They both told their dads, “We love you. You allowed us to pursue our dreams,” Thomas Kennedy recounted. “I burst into tears. I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ Sam said, ‘Don’t worry, there’s more where that came from.’ ”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.