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A SACRED (and Screwy) PLACE
Leigh Montville
November 24, 2011
LEFTFIELD AT FENWAY PARK: A TERRAIN DEFINED BY QUIRKS, DELIGHTS AND, FOR NEARLY HALF A CENTURY, HALL OF FAMERS
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November 24, 2011

A Sacred (and Screwy) Place

LEFTFIELD AT FENWAY PARK: A TERRAIN DEFINED BY QUIRKS, DELIGHTS AND, FOR NEARLY HALF A CENTURY, HALL OF FAMERS

THE FIRST STEPS TOWARD NEARLY 50 YEARS OF SUSTAINED EXCELLENCE TOOK place on the morning of April 19, 1940, when Ted Williams crossed the baseball diamond in an understated lope from the Red Sox dugout to leftfield at Fenway Park. He was 21 years old. The occasion was Opening Day, not really the opening game of the season because the Sox had already won twice in Washington, a pair of shutouts against the Senators, but still a moment of great local pomp and enhanced circumstance. This was Patriots' Day, a holiday in the Commonwealth commemorating the first shots of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord. The Boston Marathon would be run, beginning at Hopkinton, passing close to the ballpark and finishing near Copley Square. The Sox would play a doubleheader, the first game starting at 10:15 a.m., the second game at 3:15 p.m.

"There will be the usual 'opening day' ceremonies and, with favorable weather conditions, there should be a big turnout to welcome [manager] Joe Cronin and his boys home and encourage them after their splendid start in Washington," James C. O'Leary wrote in The Boston Globe. "Governor Saltonstall will pitch the first ball and Mayor Tobin will catch it—if he can."

Williams was coming off a wondrous rookie season, in which he had hit .327 while slamming 31 home runs and amassing 145 runs batted in. True, the Red Sox had finished second in the American League, a whopping 17 games behind the Yankees, but this was a new year with a new optimism. Williams was a large part of that optimism, a star already, a foundation.

To make his young power hitter's life easier, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey had made an alteration to the ballpark: the addition of fenced-in bullpens in rightfield that trimmed some 20 feet off the distance a pulled baseball hit by a lefthanded batter—O.K., Ted Williams—had to travel for a home run. A second alteration had been made in the lineup, a subtle flip-flop, with Williams shifted to third in the batting order, 32-year-old slugger Jimmie Foxx to fourth. The theory was that pitchers would have to pitch to Williams now, with Foxx behind him in protection, the reverse of the situation a year earlier.

And then there was that final alteration. Williams had played rightfield as a rookie. This was the sun field at Fenway, the sun setting every day behind third base, a threat to blind any rightfielder trying to catch a fly ball in the later innings of an afternoon game. Rightfield also was the no-man's land at Fenway, a vast territory to cover. Dominic DiMaggio—yes, Joe's younger brother—fleet afoot, brought up to the big team from the San Francisco Seals, would be a perfect candidate to play right (though in fact Dom would go on to man centerfield for years). Williams could play left.

"Don't get the idea that the shift is any reflection on Williams's fielding ability," Cronin said when he announced the shift. "Ted did all right in our sun field last year, but he always was a leftfielder on the Coast [with San Diego], and I think that's his natural position. His biggest problem of course will be learning to play those carom shots off the Fens' grandstand and leftfield wall. It will require plenty of practice, but I know Ted will put in the hard work."

And so it began.

Williams went to leftfield on this sun-splashed holiday morning and stayed there, excepting his time in the military, for 21 years. Carl Yastrzemski would replace him in 1961, then be followed in left in '75 by Jim Ed Rice, who would be out there until the late '80s. Three men would command this one position for almost half a century beginning in 1940. They would combine for 1,355 home runs, 5,134 runs batted in, three Triple Crowns, four MVP awards. They would play a total of 7,689 games, all for the Red Sox, not one day for anyone else. They all would wind up in the Hall of Fame.

Leftfield at Fenway Park would become the most interesting stretch of athletic real estate in all of Boston, Massachusetts.

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