Hallowed Grounds: Fenway & Wrigley

by W.E. Reinka, April 7, 2010

During the first half of the twentieth century, Americans could count on death, taxes and the same sixteen teams in Major League Baseball. All sixteen teams huddled in the northeast quadrant of the coun­try. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis hosted more than one team but only the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns shared a stadium for an appreciable amount of time. Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, which eventually became the first Busch Sta­dium, was home to both St. Louis teams for 33 years until the Browns flew off to Baltimore to become the Orioles after the 1953 season. (The Cardinals now play in the third version of Busch Stadium.)

These days, thirty big league clubs stretch from Seattle to Miami and Toronto to Phoenix and, of those fifteen old ballparks, only two survive — Fen­way Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago. Both are sacred temples to baseball purists.

Fenway is the oldest, first opening in 1912. Home to the Red Sox, it is the oldest stadium used by any professional sports team in the United States. Wrigley Field, where the Cubs have played since 1916, started as a big league park in 1914 when Chicago’s Federal League team played there.

Parallels abound between the two parks and their teams. Both stadiums nestle in a city neighborhood. Both hold fewer than 40,000 fans. Both still use manual instead of electric scoreboards. Fenway Park was the scene of Carlton Fisk’s “wave it fair” homerun in the 1975 World Series. Babe Ruth “called his shot” (or didn’t, depending on the source) at Wrigley Field in the 1932 Series. Neither team’s most famous player, Ted Williams for the Red Sox and Ernie Banks for the Cubs, ever played on a world championship team. Both parks have unique ground rules. A hit that car­oms off the ladder above the scoreboard on Fenway’s leftfield Green Monster wall is scored as big league’s baseball only ground rule triple. When a bull gets stuck in the ivy crawling up Wrigley’s brick outfield walls, it is a ground rule double. No batter has ever smacked a homer off the scoreboard behind the cen­terfield bleachers at Wrigley and no slugger has ever hit one over Fenway’s right field roof, despite the shortest foul line (302 feet from home) in the majors.

Both teams have been beset by so-called curses. The Red Sox 2004 World Series championship finally exorcised the Curse of the Bambino for trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1918. The Cubs last won a Series in 1908 and haven’t even appeared in one since 1945 due, some say, to the Billy Goat Curse when, leg­end has it, the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern cursed the club for not allowing his goat admittance to a 1945 World Series game. (The Tigers won the series in seven games.)

Wrigley is a beautiful old park. It has its quirks, such as its deep foul lines (355 feet in left; 353 feet in right) that snake back in to 400 feet in center. Crushed homers sometimes fly the stands and wind up on the street, as do occasional blasts over Fenway’s Green Monster.

However hallowed, Fenway looks like a ram­shackle house that’s been added onto over the years without the benefit of building permits. The Red Sox nation claims that’s part of Fenway’s allure. The deep­est part of the park is not 390 foot dead center but the 420 foot “triangle” to the left of dead center. It wasn’t coincidental that the right field fence was moved in to accommodate new bullpens when Ted Williams graduated from the minors. Wisenheimers quickly dubbed the bullpens “Williamsburg,” not that the Splendid Splinter needed shorter fences. Way out in right field, 502 feet from home plate, is a single red seat. It marks the longest homerun ever hit in Fen­way, a 1946 Williams clout off Tigers’ right-hander Fred Hutchinson.

Thank the baseball gods that these two parks weathered the storm of baseball-football dual purpose stadiums popular in the 1960s and 1970s, charmless structures that looked like gargantuan Cheerios car­peted with knee-wracking artificial turfs. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Today’s popular new retro parks try to recreate the experience that Red Sox and Cubs fans never had to relinquish.

Both Fenway and Wrigley have joined the modern age by squeezing in new luxury boxes into old con­fines. Fans who once hailed hot dog vendors can now order off menus. Ticket prices at both fields are shocking. Standing room tickets at Fenway can run as high as $35. Most of Wrigley’s famous “bleacher bums” are probably home watching on TV now that the seats the seats they made famous run $54 each. Regardless, baseball pilgrims continue to flock to both parks where the wells of tradition never run dry.

(W.E. Reinka may be reached at wereinka@ix.netcom.com.)

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