For years, one of Sam Vardaro’s favorite spots in Boston was a place where everybody knew your name.
“It felt like home, every time you went in there,” Vardaro said, remembering innings and hours spent inside Fenway Park, home to the city’s beloved Red Sox. “When you walked in there, you knew everybody. It’s been a long time, but that’s what it felt like.”
Boston baseball fans are offering cheers to Fenway this season as the park celebrates its 100th anniversary. Special events are planned this month, such as a free open house on Thursday. On Friday, an anniversary game against the New York Yankees will feature 1912 replica jerseys. Believers are hoping for big October blasts and a World Series championship.
Proximity to Boston has put big bunches of Red Sox rooters in the Capital Region. They’ve been to Fenway, and can offer reasons that the term “home field” is especially applicable.
Finding a way in
Colonie resident Vardaro, 54, grew up in the North End, Boston’s famous Italian neighborhood. He made regular trips to Fenway during the 1960s and 1970s, and took advantage of his neighborhood’s discount plan.
“I don’t know what the tickets were back then,” said Vardaro, a chef at the Chipshots restaurant at the Town of Colonie Golf Course. “One of us used to buy a ticket and about 20 of us used to sneak in from the back, the Green Monster. Somebody had to open the fire escape door to let us in.”
Fenway boosters know all about the Monster, the 37-foot-tall green wall in left field. There’s also the Pesky Pole, the barometer for fair or foul balls in right field named after 1940s and 1950s infielder Johnny Pesky. The modest press box high above home plate and the dark and foreboding corridors underneath the seats are other familiar sights.
Fenway opened on April 20, 1912. Boston Mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, President John F. Kennedy’s maternal grandfather, threw out the first ball. Some 27,000 people were in the stands that Saturday afternoon and watched Tris Speaker drive in the winning run as Boston beat the New York Highlanders — the team that would become the New York Yankees — 7-6 in 11 innings.
Michael Gershman, in his 1993 book “Diamonds: The Evolution of the Ballpark,” described Fenway, Ebbets Field and Wrigley Field as the three “jewel box” baseball parks that opened between 1912 and 1914. Ebbets was home to the Brooklyn Dodgers; Wrigley remains the longtime den of the Chicago Cubs.
“All three had a relatively small seating capacity — none legally held as many as 40,000,” Gershman wrote. “They were also built on a human scale, built for baseball only and built in harmony with their neighborhoods, where many of the players lived.”
Fenway currently seats 37,065 for day games and 37,493 for night games.
Jazz musician Brian Patneaude has been in some of those seats. He became a Red Sox fan with help from his mother.
“I grew up in Rotterdam,” he said. “My mother was born and raised in the Bronx and was a diehard Yankee fan. When I was growing up, she was a school teacher and she was trying to teach me my letters of the alphabet. She bought me a hat with a “B” on it for Brian. That was the beginning of my Red Sox love affair.”
Patneaude, who now lives in Scotia, believes Fenway endures because fans can look at the infield and outfield and know every Red Sox player from the past hundred years has swung the bat, caught a fly ball and sprinted to first base on that single, mostly green stage.
“Plus the fact that the field itself is so iconic with the Green Monster,” he said. “I went to a Yankee game recently at the new stadium and it was nice and it was modern and it was a great time, but it just didn’t feel the same. The stadiums that are being built now just don’t have that same history to them.”
Richard Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum at Boston’s TD Garden, said many Boston fans may not be aware of the more obscure sections of Fenway’s history.
“The hidden history in a nutshell is that for the first 60 years, it was really a people’s park, more so than just a place to go to games as spectators,” said Johnson, whose book “Field of Our Fathers: An Illustrated History of Fenway Park” was published last fall.
“You take years like 1932, when there were 47 high-school football games played there. And the fact that the park had any number of different events held there over a period of time other than Red Sox baseball. The Boston Braves played there for the second half of their world championship season in 1914, they played the ’14 World Series there, too. Not many people are aware of that.”
Johnson said four professional football teams have played at Fenway — Boston’s Redskins, Shamrocks, Yankees and Patriots. “Boston University, Boston College and Dartmouth played home football games there,” he said. “We had a lot of boxing and wrestling, especially during the ’20s and ’30s and then we’ve had sort of the odd events there over the years — the Harlem Globetrotters have played basketball there three times, the Bruins played the Winter Classic there, we’ve had high school and collegiate hockey, really a very wide array of things.”
Oasis of green
WGY Radio morning host and news/program director — and Sox fan — Chuck Custer is criticized for his preference by fans of Jeter, Sabathia, Rodriguez and Cano. “Yankees fans and I have engaged in a lot of good-natured ribbing over the years,” he said. “It’s always been fun. Never nasty.”
Custer’s personal history at Fenway began during the 1960s, when his father took him to his first game. Darkness turned into light.
“You’re underneath the seats, it’s cement and dark, kind of a dreary place,” said Custer, describing corridors under the stands that provide access to restrooms and concession counters. “Then you walk up the ramp and all of a sudden you’re just there. I remember being about 10 years old the first time my father took me there and it was green, just this oasis in the middle of the city.”
Custer grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., and graduated from Boston University. So he had plenty of game nights on Yawkey Way during the 1970s, and believes some Fenway fans will always remember the field’s big moments.
“If you did a survey and asked people how many of them were at the classic game six of the 1975 World Series, you would probably find that Fenway that night sat 20 million people,” he said. “But I was actually at that game. I was a freshman in college, my roommate had season tickets, so he had tickets for games one and two, six and seven if necessary. He said, ‘Look, I’ve got to take my girlfriend to game one, got to take my brother to game two. If there’s a game six, I’ll take you.’ ”
The game remains a vivid memory for Sox fans. A late rally against the favored Cincinnati Reds tied the score, and catcher Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning home run to left field was just fair. Television shots of Fisk running up the first base line, using body English to “wave” the ball fair and joyously jumping up and down when the ball was gone remain classic Fenway moments.
“We just piled out into Kenmore Square after the game, just wall-to-wall people,” Custer said.
He’s not as crazy about other Fenway facts. While seats at the park have been upgraded over the years, they’re still close together. He thinks those chairs will eventually go — along with the rest of the park.
“I’m always a believer in progress,” he said. “I think it’s probably inevitable at some time. . . . Nothing lasts forever. That being said, I’m glad this has lasted as long as it has.”
Johnson believes it’s going to last a lot longer. He believes Fenway has become such a cherished part of Boston baseball and Boston living that a new Fenway might be a difficult sell for the progressive set. Especially when the park was just added to the National Register of Historic Places in March.
“I think if it was 10 years ago,” Johnson said. “There were certainly a lot of people who were convinced that part of what was holding the team back competitively was the park — and I would include myself in that group because what was really difficult for this team, and it remains a challenge for a team like the Cubs, is building a world championship-caliber team in a dead-ball-era park. You’re basically playing in a living museum that was built for a sport that doesn’t exist anymore. The dead-ball era died in 1920.”
The “dead ball” days were known for more strategy-driven contests. Base hits, hit-and-run plays and stolen bases were emphasized for the low-scoring games. Power hitters with big home run numbers came later.
Red Sox ownership, management and on-field talent managed to overcome the park’s dimensions. Since 2003, the Sox have made six playoff appearances, won World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 and — since May 15, 2003 — sold out every home game. The Cubs have gone without a National League pennant since World War II and have not won the Series since 1908.
Revenue could be part of a decision for Fenway’s future.
“What is ultimately going to be the pressing matter here will be how much more can you charge for tickets in an older park and maintain your sellouts and maintain the level of revenue that you need to compete with the Yankees,” Johnson said. “They’re managing to do it. People are willing to pay more to sit in the real thing rather than see us build a replica of an old park. The irony would be you’d probably end up paying roughly the same prices.”
New versions of old parks, Johnson believes, are missing nostalgic ties and historic links to the past. Fans of the Detroit Tigers, one of baseball’s oldest teams, lost Tiger Stadium after the 1999 season. It has since been demolished.
“I’ve never been to Comerica Park,” Johnson said of the Tigers’ new home. “I’ve heard it’s nice, but it’s not Tiger Stadium. I’m sure the comment that most people have when they go in there is ‘Hey, this is OK, but it’s not Tiger Stadium.’ ”
As a Red Sox fan, Johnson can criticize New York’s new Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009.
“They should have held on to the old stadium, too,” he said. “Old Yankee Stadium was an absolute landmark, sort of the Penn Station of sports,” he said. “They did the renovation, which was OK, it wasn’t great but it was OK. I haven’t been to the new one, I guess it apes the architecture of the old one. The prices are higher and they have an obstructed view in the bleachers, which I didn’t think anyone could do.”
Reflecting on ‘old days’
People who follow the Red Sox in the Capital Region have been in Fenway’s bleachers and more expensive accommodations.
Longtime University at Albany football coach and Red Sox fan Bob Ford was born in Worcester, Mass. and grew up all over New England. He was a regular at the park during the 1940s and 1950s.
“Back then, they had doubleheaders,” he said. “Played two a day on Saturdays and Sundays. Dad and I were up in the morning, paid 50 cents for bleacher seats and you were in for the doubleheader.”
Ford said he’d see Fenway four or five times every summer.
“You couldn’t afford to do it nowadays with the tickets and parking costs,” he said. “When you were there for batting practice, the ballplayers talked to the kids in the stands. Vic Wertz of the Tigers handed me a ball once and I almost wet my pants, I was so excited.”
Ford said kids of his era could feel Fenway even when they weren’t at the games. Everyone in Boston seemed to be interested in the Red Sox.
“A lot of women weren’t working, and it was all radio back then,” he said. “You’d be riding to the pool or the ball field, and you’d yell up to the women on the porch, ‘What’s the score?’ and she’d say, ‘4 to 3, bottom of the fifth, Sox.’ You’d say, ‘How’s Mel Parnell doing?’ and it would be ‘Got a two-hitter going through three.’ Or ‘How’s Bobby Doerr doing?’ and it would be ‘He’s two-for-three, got a double, batting .312.’ These women knew it all.”