THE GREAT WALL OF BOSTON

Fenway Park's left-field fence, seemingly only a few feet beyond third base, fascinates hitters and scares pitchers, and its presence hypnotizes the Boston Red Sox into perennial mediocrity
June 27, 1965

The window high over the door in the back of the Pennant Grille, at the corner of Lansdowne Street and Brookline Avenue in Boston, is painted opaque. The reason for the obscurity is obscure, but it may have saved any number of Boston Red Sox fans from acute depression. Through a clear window a drinking man in the Pennant Grille can see the Fenway Park wall, the principal reason why no pennant has fluttered over the Grille for 19 years, and only one in the 46 seasons since World War I. That 37-foot-high left-field fence, topped by its 23-foot-high basket of baseball-catching chicken wire, could make a fan on the outside feel—like a pitcher on the inside—a prisoner of Fenway Park.

The Fenway wall is the most famous of the structural idiosyncrasies so common in the major league ball parks that were built half a century ago, and now that the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field are gone it is one of the few remaining in this era of new, large and symmetrical stadiums. It starts near the left-field foul line, only 315 feet from home plate, and juts at a right angle 275 feet across the outfield until it meets the center-field bleachers. It is the most inviting target for a right-handed hitter in the major leagues; fly balls become base hits and would-be home runs that don't quite make it to the chicken wire ricochet off the wall below for doubles.

Hitters love it and pitchers hate it, and it drives managers crazy; both hitters and pitchers tend to alter their natural style of play to take account of the wall, and this too often adversely affects their play when they are away from Fenway and in a normal, unidiosyncratic ball park. Because abrupt adjustment from the incongruities of Fenway to the symmetry of other parks is almost impossible, Red Sox teams over the years have accepted consistent inconsistency (since World War II a .607 winning percentage at home compared to .446 on the road) as their manifest destiny. And Bostonians have bleakly but faithfully embraced the team as a poor thing but their own. Nobody gets hurt except 62-year-old Owner Thomas A. Yawkey, the only multimillionaire prisoner of the wall and slave to his own benevolence. Tom Yawkey may not be the last of the old-style patrons of baseball—those who bought teams simply because they liked the game—but he is the last of the long-sufferers. After more than half a lifetime of loving the game and his players not at all wisely and much too well, he sits in his gilded cage atop the Fenway roof and hopes. He listens for promises ("threats," he calls them) of the extravagant new Boston stadium that might soon be authorized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, liberating him to assemble the kind of team and play the kind of baseball he has wanted since he became the Red Sox' Daddy Warbucks in 1933.

"Hit and run," Yawkey says. "Steal a base. That's the way I like to play the game. Sure, the Yanks have been a power team, and when they hit a home run everybody says hooray. But they beat you with defense. They hold you close, then beat you with the home run. I say the hell with the fence and play as if you were in Comiskey Park."

But, Yawkey's advisers told him, he couldn't have that kind of team because the fence was there. Got to have right-hand hitters, pull hitters, hit the wall.

They hit the wall in 1946—Rudy York, Bobby Doerr, Mike Higgins, Dom DiMaggio—and proved the point. The Red Sox were 61-16 in Fenway, an overwhelming .792 percentage, and they won the pennant. They lost the World Series by dropping three of four games to the Cardinals in St. Louis, of course, but the formula had been established.

In 1948 they played .714 ball at home (the pace of the fabled 1927 Yankees) but lost the pennant to Cleveland in a one-game play off. By 1949 the Red Sox had obtained Vern Stephens, the American League's premier right-handed pull hitter of the time. He tapped the wall for 159 RBIs, the Sox hit .282 as a team and won 61 games at home again. But this time they were seven games under .500 on the road and the Yankees beat them out on the last day of the season.

The thunder increased in 1950. and so did the frustration. Now the Red Sox had Walt Dropo, still another very strong right-handed pull hitter, at first base. He and Stephens batted in 144 runs each and the Red Sox' team average was .302. Boston finished third. Fourteen years and seven managers have gone by, and only three times since have they finished as high.

"We've done very well at home." Yawkey says. "If we'd been able to play .500 ball on the road we'd have been a lot higher. But damn it, that wall hurts: it has an effect on the organization from top to bottom. We have to go after players who have that Fenway stroke, but then they get in the habit of pulling the ball and they try it on the road—in Yankee Stadium or Comiskey—and it's no good. Hitters' habits arc hard to break."

Other little flaws in the "Fenway stroke" theory became screechingly obvious. First of all, very few of the big, strong right-handed pull hitters are either deft fielders or swift runners. Secondly, even fewer feel that they have to be. Ted Williams' total of 521 home runs, hitting left-handed toward Fenway's elongated right field for half his career, has always seemed one of baseball's most remarkable records, but there is another that stands out. For a left-handed pitcher to win at all in Fenway is notable, but in 1949 Mel Parnell, now a rookie broadcaster for the Red Sox, won 25 games and had a 2.78 earned-run average.

"I don't see how a left-hander could do that." Bill Monbouquette, Boston's most successful right-handed pitcher of recent years, said a few weeks ago. "You have to keep every pitch down, and against the right-handers you can only use the outside part of the plate. Man, those balls are really jumping out of here tonight."

It was 90 minutes to game time, and Monbouquette was worrying about the wall already, watching teammates—even the pitchers—pop flies into the screen in batting practice. Before the fourth inning of the game was over the Minnesota Twins' Bob Allison had poled a ball over the screen, nonhitter Jerry Kindall had popped one into it and Monbo was gone, beaten.

The wall almost dismayed Dave Morehead, the bright rookie right-hander, into defeat two days later. He carried a three-hit shutout into the ninth and had enough left to strike out the Twins' Harmon Killebrew, but then he walked Jimmie Hall and began to think. The batter was Allison.

"Think about the wall?" Morehead said. "You don't think about anything else. I still had my stuff and I wasn't tired, but I got careful with Allison and walked him." That made him more careful with Frank Kostro, who also walked to fill the bases. Morehead was saved by Dick Radatz, who knows only one way to pitch: fast balls for strikes.

When Sal Maglie was the Red Sox' pitching coach he tried to get across one message. A different ball park, he said, doesn't make you a different pitcher. You have to pitch your way and make the batter hit your pitch: if you do anything else you are doing the batter a favor by giving him less than your best. But Sal's words fell on deaf ears: it is incalculable how many sore arms have resulted from pitchers' unnatural attempts to avoid the Fenway stroke.

Or how many hitters the wall has led astray. Billy Herman, who became the manager this year, would like to play the kind of baseball Yawkey would like to play.

"I like to hit and run and I like to steal a base," Herman said. Then why doesn't he? "Well," he said, "we do a little on the road. But I can't steal that much, because we don't have that kind of speed, and we can't hit and run because we don't have the hitters who can meet the ball. Bressoud thinks he can, but he misses the ball too much."

It behooves batters like Ed Bressoud and Felix Mantilla, who brought career averages of .239 and .245 with them from the National League, to study small-arms devices like hitting a ground ball behind the runner. Maybe they did once, but they've forgotten by now because both discovered new horizons in Boston as practitioners of the Fenway stroke. They hit home runs, or what pass for home runs in Fenway. They do not make the double play, because Bressoud is just an adequate shortstop and Mantilla an inadequate second baseman. But Herman cannot resist the temptation to write their names into the lineup in place of fielders who can't hit like Rico Petrocelli and Chuck Schilling, particularly when the Red Sox are at home.

"You've got to play that wall here," Herman explains, "because you know the other teams will."

With his glove the 21-year-old Petrocelli is reminiscent of another kid shortstop the Red Sox might have taken a look at in the fall of 1939. He was on their Louisville farm, the Red Sox weren't going to catch the Yankees anyway and their shortstop, Joe Cronin, was getting old. But Cronin was the manager and Yawkey had sent $250,000 and a player to Washington for him. So they took $40,000 and four faceless players for the kid. His name was Harold Reese.

Pee Wee Reese, who played on seven championship teams for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the "different kind of player" Yawkey talked about for 10 years before he did something about it in 1960. He named Dick O'Connell, a businessman, as executive vice-president, and O'Connell's first official act was to make Neil Mahoney, a career scout, director of the farm system. Mahoney, who was sidelined by a heart attack this year, shook up the scouting network, which needed it. When Yawkey liked a player—and Yawkey falls in love with players—he wanted to keep him on the payroll, so the scouting system became a sort of pension pool. "Give him a territory," the word was. One superannuated pitcher received three paychecks before he found out he was a scout. When a particular territory was not heard from for any length of time, it was simply assumed that no right-handed pull hitters had been turned up and there was nothing to report. What was reported wasn't much.

"We didn't fire many people," says Ed Kenney, Mahoney's assistant and another homebred (all Red Sox officials except Personnel Vice-President Mike Higgins, Executive Assistant Ted Williams and Yawkey himself are Massachusetts products). "But we called them all in and reindoctrinated them. We made it clear that we were interested in the complete player, one who could run and field and throw, whether he was right-handed or not."

Of the 39 men on the Sox spring roster this year. 27 were farm products. Only five players were more than 30 years old and the average age of the others was 23. When the season began four of the eight starters were left-handed hitters. (It is emphasized around Fenway these days that the 10 batting championships the Red Sox have won over the past 24 seasons have all been by left-handed batters: Ted Williams, Billy Goodman, Pete Runnels and Carl Yastrzemski.) Two of the starting pitchers were rookies.

After two months of play the Red Sox were under .500, which is one thing. They also didn't seem particularly disturbed about their standing, which is another. The advent of so many young and presumably hungry players seemed not to have much altered the mellow mood of 1961, when rookies Yastrzemski and Schilling attempted to "talk it up" on the bench and were withered into silence by the cool glances of their elders.

"They told me when I came here," Schilling says, "that there were a lot of guys who didn't care much whether they won or lost as long as they had fun. But a lot of those guys aren't here anymore. It's changed, but not enough for the public or the press to notice. I guess it hasn't changed enough."

"The attitude on this club did surprise me when I came here as a coach in 1960," Billy Herman admits. "But we've got rid of some of the dead wood. One reason I took the job is that I have complete authority. If I want to fine somebody $200, I don't have to call the front office for an O.K. I just do it, and nobody's going to give the money back."

But the fun habit is hard to eliminate. "If he has the kind of authority," one player asked, "why doesn't he use it?"

Actually, the Red Sox are only one of 20 major league clubs with playboy problems, and they don't even lead the American League in that department. There is a more fundamental reason for their aplomb in the face of failure. Through the years Yawkey has acquired a reputation for all-forgiving generosity, and he has earned it.

Yawkey is known as a conservative, and that is unfair. He relinquished both the San Francisco and Minneapolis territories in the name of expansion. He admires Judge Robert Cannon, counsel to the Players Association, for promoting "understanding" between management and players. This Yawkey needed least of any owner because his players to a man understand one thing about him. "All I know," they say unanimously, "is that he's been good to me."

Too good. The rules allow management to cut a player's salary up to 25% after a bad season. Yawkey almost never cuts anybody. "They say there's no sentiment in baseball," he says almost sheepishly, "but I guess I have more than most."

It would seem that a man with nine-figure holdings in lumber and minerals would have learned to be cold and hard. "I can be," Yawkey says, "but I'd rather not. I'd rather trade a man than cut his pay. I'm aware of what Mr. Rickey said, and I guess he must be right."

Branch Rickey said it was wiser to get rid of a player a year too soon than a year too late, when his value has diminished. Yawkey, waiting with players until they establish their incompetence, has been repeatedly stuck with them for a year or two while finding some place to unload them. Five such players for two years each amount to 10 years' worth of inferiority, for which Yawkey has paid handsomely.

"I guess that has happened too often," Yawkey concedes. "We have made a lot of mistakes around here. It could have been managed better, and it's my fault it wasn't. The trouble is, I like to think of my people as associates, rather then employees."

Yawkey hastens to add that he did not consider the players themselves to be associates, and the reason for his exception articulates his paternal benevolence toward his athletes: "Players are the most helpless people in the world. If you told them to go to San Francisco by themselves, they might wind up in Mexico City. I guess we could have really used a resident s.o.b. in the organization," Yawkey concludes. "There hasn't been one since Eddie, and he wasn't really." Eddie Collins, who sold Yawkey the idea of buying and "bailing out" the depressed Red Sox of 1933, was general manager until his death in 1951.

Yawkey disputes the popular notion that his competent players "always" get pay raises. Frank Malzone, the senior man and an eight-time All-Star, has not always, Yawkey emphasizes. "Not the last two years," says Malzone, who is 35 and a lifetime .278 hitter up to this season. "But once you get past $30,000 you can't expect it. They pay about the same as other clubs, except they don't cut anybody. And maybe we do better with bonuses and things."

Resolutely rewarding mediocrity, Yawkey has seen black ink six times in his first 32 years in Boston, and it is no disillusion to him that the blind loyalty of New England fans has been less visible at the turnstiles since 1960. "The only way to do better," he says, "is to win. They shake your hand and wish you well at Rotary meetings, but they don't show up. All they care about—I don't give a damn what anybody says—is the won-lost record."

One way to win is to have the best players. The Red Sox did in 1946, but coincidentally that was the year Jackie Robinson—who had been tried in Fenway Park and found wanting—played his first year in organized (white) baseball. In the parade of Larry Dobys and Roy Campanellas and Elston Howards that followed, the Red Sox brought up the rear. Brooks Lawrence had pitched and won for five years in such pseudo-southern cities as St. Louis and Cincinnati before Pumpsie Green became the Red Sox' first Negro big leaguer in 1959.

It is easy now for Bostonian critics, seeking a policy man behind such a self-defeating pattern, to point fingers at Mike Higgins, an unreconstructed Texan with classically Confederate views on Negroes, but it is too easy. Higgins. who did not become field manager until 1955 and did not take a desk in the front office until late 1962, could hardly have been the Caucasian in the woodpile.

"They blame me," Yawkey says, "and I'm not even a Southerner. I'm from Detroit." Yawkey remains on his South Carolina fief until May because Boston weather before then is too much for his sensitive sinuses. "I have no feeling against colored people," he says. "I employ a lot of them in the South. But they arc clannish, and when that story got around that we didn't want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club. Actually, we scouted them right along, but we didn't want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer."

The first Negro the Red Sox scouted was Piper Davis, a second baseman, and in September 1949 they bought him conditionally from, the Birmingham Black Barons. Piper got as far as Scranton in the Eastern League, but he was returned to the Barons in May 1950, when it was decided his talents did not merit the balance of the payment. Inasmuch as Davis wrote no great record anywhere else, there is no evidence that the Red Sox' evaluation of him was in error.

The first Negro the Red Sox signed for keeps was Earl Wilson, a 17-year-old pitcher, in 1953. He joined Pumpsie Green on the Red Sox in 1959, but wildness kept him going back and forth to the minors. In 1964, when he finally got the ball over the plate, people hit it over the fence 37 times, a Red Sox record.

There were three Negroes and Mantilla, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, on this year's roster. In addition, Lenny Green, a discard from Baltimore, played his way onto the team. The N.A.A.C.P. has called off its pickets, but the Aarons and Clementes and Olivas are still playing for other teams, despite the shook-up scouts.

The managers have tried over the years since Joe McCarthy's two near-pennants in the late 1940s to lift the club, but they have not been much help. Billy Herman is a compromise between the laissez-faire of Mike ("they're grown men") Higgins and the abortive attempts of Lou Boudreau, Billy Jurges and Johnny Pesky to "build a fire" under a complacent team.

Boudreau, like Eddie Stanky, was one of those fiercely competitive players who should have been able to arouse the combative spirits of a team of zombies. But, like Stanky, he somehow inspired nothing so much as resentment.

Jurges, a teammate of Herman's on three pennant ventures with the Cubs, also tried to extol the virtue of hustle and failed dismally. "He would put on these rah-rah speeches in the clubhouse," an ex-Red Sox player says, "and you had to figure he was kidding." Jurges finally lost control one day during a meeting that may have been unprecedented in that he invited—"summoned" might be more accurate—the press. An unnamed player had been quoted in The Christian Science Monitor to the effect that the manager had some growing up to do. In plenary session, Jurges demanded that the player identify himself. It was a shrill failure that pretty well made the player's point, and Jurges was soon gone.

Pesky, despite a run-in with Yastrzemski that smoldered on in mutual hatred, might have been something like the manager the Red Sox needed, except for two things: 1) he tried to do too much too soon to change attitudes too long established and, 2) like Jurges, he was too sensitive to the barbs of the Boston press.

The Boston press takes some getting used to, even if you're just reading it. In a time when the Alphonses and Gastons of the publishing business have peacefully partitioned the morning and afternoon in places like Los Angeles and Detroit, it is a rarity to see an old-fashioned competitive press in a smaller city. Not only do editions of Boston's metropolitan papers pop out at all odd hours of the day and night, but the city is ringed by lively suburban dailies that want to—and do—get in the act. With 10 papers double-and triple-teaming the Red Sox' home games, Fenway's is often the only press box more populous than those in New York, and the rivalry is so keen that the newsstands carry more angles than a geometry book. Little things come to mean such a lot that Pesky had to endure strained relations with more people than Yastrzemski before his two-year stewardship ended.

"You have to understand something else," says a Bostonian who digs the Red Sox scene. "All the writers in Bahston are ball fans. Sure, they're sarcastic and cynical about the club, and they're always ripping somebody. But there's a reason for that. When those guys go to spring training they're conditioned to expect the worst. But they can't help looking for the best. They see a new shahtstop who looks pretty good, and they get carried away because they want to believe he's that good. Then in May the kid is hitting .191 and they're sahr as hell. They feel deceived. It's like they fell in love with some brahd and she took off with another guy. They're sahr all the time because they're fans."

Comes now the crowning irony. The same Boston press is honing its hatchets for the new stadium plan to be presented by Governor Volpe's three-man commission at the end of June. It is as true as it was when Tom Yawkey first surveyed his new holdings in 1933 that there is not room to play baseball between Lansdowne and Jersey Streets, and nothing would help the Sox as much as a new, spacious playground. But if the Boston press is composed of fans it is also composed of taxpayers. Even if they live in Quincy or Worcester or Wellesley, they are taxpayers to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which is uncommonly short of wealth these days.

"The total disclosure to the press and public cannot be made until June 29," says Msgr. George Kerr, a member of Boston College's 1941 Sugar Bowl team and now a member of the Stadium Commission. "But the basic plan is for an arena-garage complex as the first phase, to make money immediately to help defray the total expense."

The total expense, Msgr. Kerr says, would approximate $87 million, because the new Boston stadium would outdome Houston. Boston's would have a roof, of course, but the roof would be retractable.

"Railroad property is available at the end of the new turnpike," Msgr. Kerr says, "in the South Station area. The garage is needed anyway, because the area is very adjacent to the center of Boston. The arena is necessary because Boston Garden is obsolete because of parking. So is Fenway Park, for the same reason.

"We have talked to bonding companies around the country, and they approve the plan. It would be one of the few stadiums in the country built with private capital. Of course, the property would revert to the state after 40 years."

And nothing can be done without the Red Sox. "They would be prime tenants," Msgr. Kerr says. "They have the longest tradition, and they would have first say in many areas."

But Yawkey doesn't talk like a man with first say. "They want me to say I'll play," he says, "but I can't give any commitment until I know what the costs will be—the share of the concessions, the rent, a number of things."

Yawkey is wary from experience of political negotiations in Boston. He has tried "about 20 times" for clearance to close Lansdowne Street and move the wall back. He could have bought up the complex of liquor distributorships across the street, where the real home runs land, and the street would no longer be needed. "But this is the only big-league city that is also a state capital," Yawkey points out. "You have to deal on two political levels. You get agreement from the state and you find you've lost the city."

Rapport between the city and state on any $87 million playground seemed highly unlikely as the presentation day neared. At about that time, Mayor Collins of Boston was pointing out, the Commonwealth would owe the city about $13,650,000 in welfare funds. The legislators, he scolded, would have to keep other costs down.

And the wall would stay up, and the Red Sox hitters and pitchers would continue to live in its shadow. They should worry. They don't have to win, and the pay is good.

PHOTOFRED KAPLAN PHOTORED sox BRASS, Vice-President Mike Higgins (left) and Owner Tom Yawkey, sit in skyline box contemplating the wall. Outfielders tend to run into it, but gently, because it's so close. PHOTOOLD AND LOPSIDED, Fenway is cramped by narrow streets with few parking areas. If Boston would condemn street beyond left field. Yawkey would buy property there and expand stadium.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)