by Lanny Parker, November 6, 2013
October, 2013 — The Red Sox did it again. Third World Series Championship in a decade. It was not always so. For me, a poor kid growing up in Boston, Fenway Park was a refuge of beauty and symmetry. It gave me a sense of belonging to something much bigger than myself and the confining world I knew. It all made sense.
July, 1943 — A hot and humid day in Boston, gray and overcast. My 29 year old brother is home on leave. He is shipping out to Europe next week. I am 8 years old. “Get dressed, kid. Weʼre going to the ball game at Fenway.” Heʼs in uniform because GIs get in for free and kids under 12 cost 50¢. I have never been to Fenway before. We walk in at the top of the grandstand, and my senses are ignited. The grass is as green as green can be. The infield dirt is clean and level and sharply defined. The smell of fresh cut grass mixed with stale beer; hot dogs and mustard fill my nostrils. The sounds are unique: ball against bat and the pop of gloves and the chatter from the players — oh my. This day, I am infected with a virus that will never allow me to become immune to its powers.
Summer, 1946 — The war is over; the GIs and the ballplayers are all back and the Red Sox have a great team. My brother-in-law, Syd, a bombardier by trade, is without a job and living with us. “Lanny,” he says, “something you gotta know. Fenway Paahk was built in 1912 by a big construction company that my Uncle Harry happens to be the vice president of. When they signed the contract back then, it included the best box in the park — forever. And Uncle Harry is in charge of those tickets and you and I are gonna be goinʼ to lots of games.”
Syd is suddenly my favorite relative.
We go to over 50 games this season. The box consists of eight seats in the first two rows next to the Red Sox dugout and six feet from the on deck circle. The seats are cane-backed and covered with fresh white pads. In the bottom of the first inning, Dom Dimaggio bats first while Bobby Doerr is on deck. When he goes to the plate, out strides Ted Williams swinging two bats. He kneels down in the circle, looks right at me and says, “How yaʼ doinʼ kid?”
First inning, every game. And my response is; “Iʼm, Iʼm good.” Could I be any lamer?
I am in awe. In 1946, Ted bats .346, has over 100 RBIs and 38 home runs. League MVP. On top of all thatʼs going on with the Red Sox winning the pennant by 17 games ahead of the Yankees, I get to go to the All Star game, played that year at Fenway. Ted gets four hits, five RBIs, and two home runs. I saw two of the three World Series games played at Fenway, too. They lose the Series to the Cardinals and I am now officially a victim of the dreaded Boston baseball disease. “Theyʼll break your haaht, kid. They always do.”
Uncle Harry told me.
Of equal importance to me is the Red Sox catcher, Hal Wagner. Because of the seat location, he is the closest player to our seats and I decide he will be my personal coach and I too will become a catcher. I also get to watch Bill Dickey, and Yogi Berra and all the other catchers in the American League., and all from about 25 feet away. I watch and try to emulate everything they do. One day, Syd says, “I got all eight tickets for tomorrowʼs game and I suddenly got a job interview so I canʼt go. Take your friends and have fun.” When I invite all those guys from my team, they couldnʼt believe it. We got to the Park at 10:30. We look like the Bowery boys. We watch infield practice. Itʼs like pure theater, a balletic dance. Requires coordination and grace and concentration.
Great fun, especially for the catcher who is sort of in the center of it all. We are all thrilled. Could go home before the game even starts and it would still be a great day.
But as game time approaches, the usher tells us to get out of the box and take our seats up in the grandstand. We all smile and show him Uncle Harryʼs tickets. Then, the bankers, lawyers, and executives all file in wearing their seersucker suits and rep ties, and they sit down behind us. Ted Williams says “hi kid” to me in the first inning, and that cements my new found status back home and on our sandlot ball field.
August 16, 1948 — Another hot and humid day. Three of us kids head out to Fenway, buy tickets in the bleachers for 60¢ (Syd has had a “falling-out” with Uncle Harry, so no more box seats). Everybody knows that Babe Ruth is in the hospital and dying of throat cancer. Every one at Fenway is talking about him. There are several old, beer bellied, shirts-off, red nosed Irish guys sitting nearby. “Hated that son-of-a-bitch. Great pitcher for the Sox ʻtho, ’till that crazy ownah sold him to them f____n’ Yankees in 1917 for $125,000 so he could invest the dough in that ʻNo No Nanetteʼ f____n’ Broadway show. Just did it so he could make it with them singahs and dancahs.”
His friend adds his 2¢: “Best ballplayah I evah saw. Didja know he even stole home ten times in his careeh?”
“Howʼd he do that? He was so fat. I saw him once sittinʼ in the dugout, eatinʼ fouh hot dogs and swillinʼ two beehs. Then they put him in to pinch hit and he whacks one ovah the green monstah in left. He was fahtinʼ as he rounded third base.”
“He wasnʼt so fat — weighed 220 but he was 6-2. Youʼre talkinʼ? Hell, you weigh 240 and you’re 5-4.”
Lots of other people get in on the conversation.
“He had a lifetime ERA of 2.28. Went 94 and 46 as a Sox pitcher.”
Another guy says, “In 1930, in the middle of that damn depression, Ruthʼs makinʼ $70,000. When a reporter asked him if he thinks itʼs right to be making more money than President Hoover, Ruth says, ʻHell ya, I had a lot better year than he did!ʼ”
It is obvious to us 13 year olds that they do love him here in Boston, even though they blame the Curse of the Bambino for never winning another World Series after winning it in three out of the last four years that Ruth played with Boston.
Itʼs now the third inning, and the PA announcer blares out, “Ladies and Gentlemen. It is my sad duty to tell you that Babe Ruth died an hour ago in New Yaahk. Please stand for a minute of silence to honah the Babe.” Every one stood. Deadly silence except for a sob and a sniffle here and there. “You may be seated.” Nobody sits down — just standing there — and these animated old Irishmen are now openly bawling. After about another three minutes, the home plate umpire shouts out, “Pa-lay ball!!” That day I went from a partisan Red Sox fan to a forever-ʻtill-I-die, true baseball devotee.
April 1953 — A beautiful, blue sky, 70 degree, low humidity day..what Bostonians call a typical New England day. It happens about four times a year. My dad died a month earlier in this my senior year. I am very sad, angry, and depressed despite the fact that my company won the Latin school drill competition and I was promoted from Captain to Brigadier General. I will be leading the entire Boston Latin School brigade in the citywide, competitive School Boy Parade. My dad would have been so proud, to have seen me in my perfectly pressed uniform with a gold star on my epaulets, and to also know that I received a full- ride college scholarship. Thomas Joseph Patrick Henry Fogerty III, Phil Guiduli, and I were finishing lunch in the school cafeteria. Buoyed by the weather, I say, “Letʼs go to Fenway. Tigers are in town and Hal Newhouser is pitching against Boo Ferris.”
“If we get caught, weʼll get expelled for truancy and just weeks from graduation. My folks will kill me”, says Tom.
“In the first place, theyʼll never catch us.” Phil adds, “And even if they do theyʼll never toss us out now. Youʼre going to lead the whole Boston parade, Lanny, and Tom, youʼre the damn class valedictorian, and I was named the schools academic athlete of the year. I know they threw Benjamin Franklin out, but he was just a freshman back then.”
So we walk along the Fens and in fifteen minutes we are in our seats in the bleachers at Fenway. First day in over a month that I am not doing doom and gloom. Baseball has not been on my mind this past, horrible month. My first game of the new season. Great pitching. Good game, but we decide to leave after the fifth inning to get back to school in time for last period. As we start to walk up the bleacher steps, we spot Doctor Jamison and Doctor Pennyweather, two of our English teachers, chomping on peanuts and sipping beers. No recognition... intentionally. The walk back to school is very, very uncomfortable. Finally, with great wisdom garnered from six years at Latin School, I say, “Hell, if weʼre truant then so are they!
Damn hooky players. They wonʼt say a thing.”
The next day, Iʼm heading to the school library to work on my last paper, entitled “The Influence of the Greek and Roman Civilizations on the US Legislature.” I practically smash into Doctor Jamison. He says, “ Sorry to hear about your dad. Good luck in the parade next month and bring home the trophy. Great game yesterday. Huh? Perfect weather. A typical New England day.”