Sign in with your NHL account:
  • Submit
  • Or
  • Sign in with Google
  • Divider
  • Divider
  • Divider
  • Divider
  • Divider

Every Bostonian has Fenway memories; here's mine

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

BOSTON -- My grandfather, Jack Walsh, had partial-season tickets to Red Sox games at Fenway Park. Two seats on the aisle in Section 15 for every weekend game, right at first base and high up near the roof-support girders that Jimmy Fallon walked into in "Fever Pitch." Everyone else laughed when he did it. I thought, "I've done that."

From this vantage point, my grandfather was going to make me a major-league baseball player. He had been a great player, competing against seven members of the Baseball Hall of Fame around 1910 in the Connecticut River Valley leagues, but he made more money in the foundries than he could as an itinerant athlete, eventually rising to national secretary-treasurer of the International Molders Union.

I can still remember his elbow digging into my arm and him saying, "Did you see that?"

"Yeah, the hot-dog guy went right by our aisle."

"No, dummy, the White Sox third-base coach just gave Rivera the same sign he gave Aparicio when he stole in the second inning. Weren't you watching?"

"Geez, Pa, I'm only seven. I missed it."

"That's OK. Rivera missed it too. You saw Sammy White come up throwing and no one was running, right?"

"I did see that."

***

It was Sept. 28, 1960, and I was 12 years old and just starting the seventh grade. I got up that morning like any other day, but my mother surprised me by saying that I would be skipping school to take my brother, Brendan, to Fenway Park to see Ted Williams in his final game. I think it solved another problem: My aunt and her children were visiting and my cousin, Brian, a world-class whiner and sports hater, would have had to spend the whole day with her.

It's hard to imagine in this day and age, but me, my brother and cousin, both 11, walked about a mile to the bus, took it across town to Newton Corner and grabbed the subway line to Boston, getting off before the tunnel because the fare was only five cents instead of 20. Across the Globe Ticket printing company parking lot we went and up to Fenway Park, getting seats in right field.

This day will always rank among the worst in my life because of the constant bickering between Brendan and Brian. Brian whining and goading. Brendan taking the bait at every turn. Several times I stepped between them until finally, I could take no more.

"That's it, I've had it, grab your jackets and let's go and if either one of you says a word on the way home, I'm going ballistic," I said, oblivious to everything going on in the game.

Down below the stands we went, heading for an exit, when all of sudden, the park erupted in a mighty roar. What could it be we wondered and ran up the ramp to see Williams rounding first base, seconds after hitting his 521st and final home run.

While thousands of people will tell you they were there that day, we were among the 10,453 paid attendance and didn't see it.

For a better account of Williams' final home run, do yourself a favor and read John Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," a great piece of writing easily found on the Internet.

***

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Throughout the afternoon of Oct. 12, 1967, 35,188 Red Sox fans sat in glum silence as Bob Gibson's fastball seemed to thump louder and louder and louder into Tim McCarver's glove as the greatest right-handed pitcher I've ever seen flung a brilliant three-hitter in Game 7 of the World Series, concluding perhaps the greatest individual performance in the Fall Classic.

Gibson gave up 14 hits and three runs in winning Games 1, 4 and 7.

It had been an emotional season and one that came to be known as "The Impossible Dream." The Red Sox had finished in ninth place the previous season and didn't start well in 1967. But a late June victory behind the pitching of Jose Santiago, an obscure reliever who went 12-4, including 8-3 in relief, clearly marked a turning point.

Staff ace Jim Lonborg led the American League with 22 wins and 246 strikeouts and captured the Cy Young Award. Carl Yastrzemski became the last major-league player to win the Triple Crown. Tony Conigliaro had 20 homers and 67 RBIs when he was beaned on Aug. 18. Kansas City Athletics castoff Ken Harrelson took his place and had three homers and 14 RBIs to help the Red Sox to a four-way tie on closing day.

The Red Sox beat the Twins in Fenway -- rookie Rod Carew benched -- as Lonborg outdueled 1964 Cy Young winner Dean Chance. Later that evening, the Tigers lost to California and the Red Sox had their first pennant since 1946. Kenmore Square turned into the biggest party in North America.

That's when I got lucky, winning the team's lottery for tickets to Games 2 and 7. Gibson beat Santiago, 2-1, in the opener and Lonborg one-hit the Cardinals in a 5-0 Game 2 win. Gibson won in Game 4 and Lonborg won again in Game 5. The Red Sox inexplicably beat the Cardinals in Game 6 at Fenway when they started rookie Gary Waslewski against 16-game winner Dick Hughes.

 
That set the stage for the first meeting since 1925 of pitchers who were 2-0 in the series, but Lonborg had nothing and Gibson, whose burning desire was as obvious as Alex Ovechkin's. He was giving ample evidence of his own belief that he was the world's greatest living athlete. Pitchers were getting a little better than hitters and Gibson's performance that year and the next would be the breaking point. The mound was lowered for the 1969 season.

From high hopes to devastation, that was one of the most disappointing days in Boston's sports history, a day that proved the Impossible Dream was, indeed, impossible.

***

The Red Sox declined a bit after the 1967 season, but they were on top of the East standings on May 28, 1971 when Fenway Park offered up one of the best pitching matchups ever. Athletics pitcher Vida Blue's 10-1 start had helped propel them to the top of the American League West. Going for the Sox was Sonny Siebert. Two first-place teams with pitchers who were a combined 20-1.

It was a game my wife had to see. She was a combined Phillies and Red Sox fan, growing up in Haddonfield, N.J., and visiting her grandmother in the summers in Taunton, Mass. We had met in high school but never dated and met again the previous Labor Day on separate invitations to join common friends. Debbie had never been to Fenway Park or any major-league game, although she was a dedicated Robin Roberts fan as a kid.

We went to a couple games that fall and she caught the bug. Somewhere between that Labor Day and Memorial Day, she had seen Blue pitch and become an admirer. At his best, he was one of the best and he was at his best coming up to this game.

Rico Petrocelli hit a couple home runs and the Red Sox held a 4-2 lead after driving Blue from the mound in the eighth. Sal Bando hit a home run off Siebert in the ninth and manager Eddie Kasko pulled him with two outs because the next batter, Dave Duncan, had homered in the sixth. Bob Bolin came on to get Duncan, but not until after two long drives went foul.

Siebert had been Cleveland's No. 1 starter in the late 1960s, but had faded and bounced back with the Red Sox. He was undefeated going into the game but in the publicity that preceded the contest insisted over and over again, "I'm not that good." He was right. He went 7-10 over the rest of the season, his ERA rising from 1.77 that night to 2.91.

Debbie remains one of the Red Sox's staunchest fans, but like her grandmother can see trouble coming. Her grandmother needed only the slightest opponent's rally to turn off the radio with a "tsk, tsk." Debbie left the room when it was announced that Roger Clemens wouldn't be coming out to pitch the eighth inning in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the Mets. That's the Bill Buckner debacle game.

"Mom, how can you leave at a moment like this," the kids cried out to her. Call it a Sixth Sense.

***

Through World War II, many men attended sports events in jacket and tie. That trend had largely died out by 1960, but my brother, Brendan, and I found what is likely the last group to hold to that tradition. Way down in right field, by the ramp that separates the grandstand from the bleachers, were a dozen or so middle-aged to elderly black men dressed in black suits, white shirts, black ties and straw hats, each clutching hundreds of dollars in their hands.

"Ball," one would call out.

"Covered," said another.

Then, the pitch and the exchange of money.

***

"You see what's going on here, right?" my dad asked late on the afternoon of July 14, 1956.

"No, what?"

"Mel Parnell's got a no-hitter going," my dad replied.

"How could he? Didn't the White Sox have a runner in the third?" I asked.

"That was on an error, look at the scoreboard, no hits."

My dad, Harry, was a hard-working father of six kids who rarely took a day off, weekends included. He took me to only two sports events in my life: Rocket Richard's last game in Boston and Mel Parnell's no-hitter. When a guy can pick winners like that, he should go to the track.

They say Fenway Park is a hard place to pitch for left-handers, but you couldn't convince Lefty Grove, Parnell, Tommy Brewer or Bruce Hurst of that, although John Tudor bloomed when he left Fenway, a quirky ballpark where baseballs take weird hops off the walls, sliced balls that would go foul in any other park curl around the right-field foul pole (called Pesky's Pole in recent years) and where there is the least infield foul territory of any stadium in the majors. This latter aspect was long blamed for producing the highest team ERAs in many seasons, but a better explanation was that then-owner Tom Yawkey spent the budget on hefty right-handed hitters who could tattoo the Green Monster, instead of on pitchers.

For me, Parnell was of an earlier generation, a two-time 20-plus game winner who also won 18 on two occasions before blowing out his arm in 1954. He struggled again in 1955 but was enjoying a revival when he took the mound that day. Parnell went 1-2-3 in the first and gave up a walk to the second batter, Larry Doby, in the second, but he was erased on a double play.

Sammy Esposito led off the third with a grounder to short that went through Don Buddin's legs for his 25th error of the season. Impossible, you say? Hanley Ramirez had only 10 in all of last season? Well, Buddin was manager Pinky Higgins' son-in-law and Higgins was Yawkey's favorite drinking buddy. We got used to it. Esposito was caught stealing to end the inning as starting pitcher Jim McDonald struck out.

Parnell settled in, getting 11 ground outs, four flies and three strikeouts, while walking one more batter and he had his no-hitter. A few weeks later, he tore a muscle in his arm and his career was over.

Parnell later became a Red Sox broadcaster and in preparation for my father's 75th birthday, I sent him a baseball that he signed, "Happy Birthday, Harry," and returned to me. It sat on the mantle of my father's living room fireplace until the day he died.

***

It was April 19, 1977 and I was working for the Daily Racing Form at the Fair Grounds in Parnell's hometown of New Orleans. The office phone rang early that morning; it was the boss.

"Tell your brother that now that he's rolling in money, he can pay me back the $200 he owes me," the boss said. My brother, Brendan, had worked for him for awhile and still had a bit left on a car loan.

"You're telling me something I don't know, but I'll call him and tell him to call you," I said.

The third Monday in April is Patriots' Day in Massachusetts, celebrating the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in the April 19, 1775, battles of Concord and Lexington. It's also the day of the Boston Marathon, which starts 25 miles from Fenway Park in Hopkinton at noon. The Red Sox traditionally play a game that day starting in late morning so that the crowd can get out in time to see the runners come through Kenmore Square, the final mile of the race.

Brendan had gone to the Sox game, where he met a couple young women that he knew. They hung out at the game, had more than a few beers and then went to watch the marathon. But something was bugging Brendan and he had to tell the girls -- he liked a horse, a longshot, in the finale at Suffolk Downs, a half hour trolley ride away.

Off they went to the track. Suffolk Downs in those days had a $5 exacta on the last race and Brendan combined the horse he liked, the second-longest shot in the race, with the longest shot. God looks out for drunks and he was in Brendan's corner this day as he hit the biggest payoff in track history.

I had a hard time tracking him down the next day, but my sister said he had been by around midnight, tossing hundreds at her and the kids, en route to a nightcap in Chinatown with the girls.

It did not come as a surprise when he told me most of the money was gone.

And, it all started at Fenway.

Contact John McGourty at jmcgourty@nhl.com