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Today In History – Duffy Lewis Is Born

18 April 1888 – On this day 125 years ago, former Boston Red Sox outfielder Duffy Lewis is born in San Francisco, CA.  Lewis was the starting left fielder for three world championships with Boston (1912, 1915, and 1916) and played as part of the team’s “Million Dollar Outfield” for six seasons with Tris Speaker in center field and Harry Hooper in right field beginning in 1910.

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Today In History – Fenway Park Officially Debuts

20 April 1912 – On this day one hundred years ago, the Boston Red Sox played their first game at Fenway Park, defeating the New York Highlanders (later to be named the Yankees) 7-6 in 11 innings.  It is often noted that the opening was overshadowed in Boston by a much bigger news story at the time: the recent sinking of the RMS Titanic, a British passenger ship, in the North Atlantic Ocean five days earlier.

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Today In History – Harry Hooper Makes His Red Sox Debut

16 April 1909 – On this day one hundred years ago, future Hall-of-Fame outfielder Harry Hooper makes his major league debut for Boston in a 3-2 loss to the Senators in Washington. A graduate of St. Mary’s College in Oakland, CA with a degree in civil engineering, Hooper was lured to the Red Sox by owner John Taylor who, in addition to a generous salary, promised the youngster the opportunity to work on the design for a new ballpark he was planning for his club. Hooper never did contribute to the construction of Fenway Park, opened three years later, but his contributions as a player for 12 seasons with the Red Sox made him legendary.

Among his career accomplishments, which included being the only player to compete on all four Red Sox World Series teams between 1912 and 1918, he still stands today as the club leader in stolen bases with 300, 33 more than teammate and fellow flycatcher Tris Speaker, and triples with 130, 24 more than Speaker. He also remains in the top ten for games played (1647), at-bats (6270), plate appearances (7330), runs scored (988), hits (1707), total bases (2303), base on balls (826), singles (1301), times on base (2587), hit by pitch (54), and sacrifice hits (180). Despite hitting only 30 home runs in his time with Boston and 75 total in his career, he was also the first player to lead off both ends of a doubleheader with home runs, a feat matched only by Rickey Henderson 80 years later.

Hooper was also a top-notch defensive player, spending most of his career playing right field, and joined Speaker (center field) and Duffy Lewis (left field) in creating Boston’s “Million Dollar Outfield,” also known as the “Golden Outfield,” between 1910 and 1915. Besides being part of the greatest defensive outfields in the game’s history, all three were integral for Boston’s championship teams in 1912 and 1915. In the first series, Hooper batted .290 with two doubles and a triple, while Speaker batted .300 with a double and two triples while Lewis batted just .188 but hit three doubles and scored four runs. The second and final time they played (Speaker would be sent Cleveland following the season over a contract dispute), Hooper batted .350 with two home runs, while Lewis batted an astonishing .444 with a double, a home run, and five RBI and Speaker hit .294 with two runs scored. Hooper would finish his career with five solid years in Chicago, batting .302 with 45 home runs and another 75 stolen bases for the White Sox, and later joined Speaker in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971 upon election by the Veterans Committee.

Did You Know? – Red Sox MVP Honorees

The 2009 season begins with second baseman Dustin Pedroia set to defend his title as American League Most Valuable Player, the first since former first baseman Mo Vaughn began the 1996 season in the same position. In team history, only ten Boston players have received the AL MVP award. The first was outfielder Tris Speaker, who received the Chalmers Award in 1912, created as a promotional gimmick by an automobile company owner, Hugh Chalmers, in recognition of a player from each league who proved himself as “…the most important and useful player to his club and to the league at large in point of deportment and value of services rendered.”[1] Speaker was one of only eight players recognized over a four-year span in which the honor was made, which included the awarding of a Chalmers Model 30 automobile for that player’s efforts. (The award was discontinued after the 1914 season due to diminished interest.)

Efforts by the Baseball Writers Association of America eventually led to the creation of the MVP award as it is recognized today, decided by 28 seasoned sportswriters using a positional voting system where each voter ranks his or her top ten players. Jimmie Foxx was the first Boston player recognized by the baseball writers who gave him the honor in 1938, though for him it was his third award after having been recognized twice before with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1932 and 1933. Ted Williams remains the only Red Sox player to have been named twice (1946 and 1949). Other winners have included Jackie Jensen (1958), Carl Yastrzemski (1967), Fred Lynn (1975), Jim Rice (1978), and Roger Clemens (1986). Clemens remains the only Boston pitcher to earn the distinction, though since 1967 only seven pitchers have been so honored.

Of course, due to the subjective native of the MVP vote, Red Sox players have found themselves the focus of controversial outcomes, more often as the odd man out. Though Williams was honored twice in his illustrious career, there were also four instances in which he finished second in the voting where he might have been considered the more deserving candidate. In 1941, he batted .406, the last player to hit .400 or better in the regular season, but lost to New York Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio, who has amassed a 56-game hit streak that same year. The next year, he finished second again, this time to Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon, despite having won the batting Triple Crown with more hits in fewer at-bats, twice the number of home runs, and an OPS almost 250 point higher. In 1947, Williams again won the batting Triple Crown, the only player other than Roger Hornsby to win that recognition twice, yet he again lost to DiMaggio by a single point in the vote, again with far better numbers across the board. Finally, in 1957, he won the batting title with an impressive .388 average and hit 38 home runs while setting a modern-day record of reaching base in 16 consecutive at-bats, all at the age of 39, yet finished second once more to another legendary Yankees outfielder, Mickey Mantle.

Other Boston players who fell just shy in the voting include Pedro Martinez, who had one of the best seasons ever by a pitcher in modern baseball history and won the pitching Triple Crown and the Cy Young award. Yet, despite having more first-place votes, he lost to catcher Ivan Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers by a narrow 13-point margin in the vote. It was later discovered that two sportswriters, which included George King from the New York Post, had omitted Martinez from their ballots with the argument that the contributions made by pitchers were not significant enough to earn MVP consideration, though King had included two pitchers on his ballot the previous season. David Ortiz also fell just short of the honor in 2005 as he finished behind Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez in the vote. Though both players finished the season with impressive numbers, the argument was made that Ortiz, as a designated hitter, did not contribute as much to his team’s success as Rodriguez, so much that two sportswriters left Ortiz off their ballots.

On the flipside, Vaughn finished a mere eight points ahead of Cleveland slugger Albert Belle in the 1995 vote, despite Belle having far more impressive numbers on offense, including a higher number of home runs, runs scored, RBI, slugging percentage, and total bases; he had also become the first player in major league history to hit 50 doubles and 50 home runs in the same season that same year. Vaughn, however, had a far better relationship with fans and the media, whereas Belle routinely refused to grant interviews to reporters and had engaged in several controversial incidents with fans both at and away from the park. Ted Williams was also well-known for his sour relationship with the media, whom he mockingly referred to as the “kinights of the keyboard,” and, like Belle, may have been the reason in part for losing several close MVP ballots.

[1] Deane, Bill, Thron, John, and Palmer, Pete. Total Baseball. HarpersCollins Publishers, New York, 1993.

Been Caught Stealing – Ellsbury SB Streak Ends

Caught stealing on a pitch-out in the fourth inning of Sunday’s 11-7 win over the Milwaukee Brewers, Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s streak of stolen bases to begin his career was stopped at 25, two shy of the major league of 27 set by Tim Raines in 1979. Through Sunday, the rookie flycatcher has 16 steals in 40 games this season; counting the nine he stole in 33 games played last season, his 25 is still the most by a first-year Boston player since “Leaping” Mike Menosky in 1920. Ellsbury still has a ways to go beat the franchise single-season record of 54 stolen bases set by outfielder Tommy Harper in 1973, who was also caught in 14 further attempts; at present, factoring in the number of games played versus the number of games played by the Sox, he is on pace to steal 56, which would be just enough to move him into the number one spot in club history.

If Ellsbury eventually wants to claim the franchise record for career stolen bases, it may take him a few more years. Former outfielder Harry Hooper, the only starter to play on all four World Series championship teams between 1912 and 1918, stole 300 in his 12 seasons in a Red Sox uniform, putting him first place all-time with the club. Hooper’s teammate for two of those championships, Tris Speaker, sits in second place with 267 over nine seasons, and another former Boston outfielder, Carl Yastrzemski, stole 168 over 23 seasons. Only 12 former players have managed 100 or more steals with the traditionally slow-footed club and most of the top base-stealers set their marks prior to World War II; since that time, Boston has relied more on the strength of its bats rather than its speed on the base paths.

Fenway Park Forever

For just once, the little guy won, and I’m not speaking to last year’s amazing run to a World Series title by the Red Sox. I refer instead of those fans of Fenway Park, Boston’s majestic old ballpark, who launched a campaign that opposed the former owners’ plans to tear her down in favor of an exact replica but with all the amenities of the modern sports facility. Save Fenway Park!, a grassroots campaign, was launched in 1998 soon after these plans were announced and most individuals familiar with Fenway, including yours truly, viewed them as another far-reaching group just looking to stir emotions when it seemed obvious that a new facility was the answer to the park’s shortcomings. I was most interested in losing those cramped seats and obstructed views in the grandstands where I have sat on many evenings hoping that this would be the year.

Fast-forward seven years later; suddenly, with several changes made to the park over the past few years by a new Red Sox ownership, there is renewed commitment to the oldest active park in the majors. With a championship team playing to a packed house every night, the organization announced in late March that the club would remain at Fenway for generations to come. As John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino stood before the media publicizing a foregone conclusion, you could almost hear the soul of the park breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Fenway Park may be the most aesthetically-pleasing park in major league baseball today, although I admit that I may be slightly biased in that opinion. True, it still has shortcomings that will never be solved even with extensive renovations, but perhaps that is part of the attraction. Enter the gates, circle underneath the grandstand to find your section, and then climb the concourse to emerge to perhaps the most inviting site: the clay infield, the fresh-cut grass, and that left field wall that arises high above the playing field, beckoning batters to try and scale its heights with a perfectly-executed swing of the bat. Foul lines hug the walls as the park wraps itself right around the action on the field, with the attention of nearly 35,000 pairs of eyes on every delivery to home plate and the outcome that follows.

Less than two weeks ago, we were witness to an ugly incident in which a fan not only interfered with play in the right field corner near Pesky’s Pole but, on camera, appeared to take a swing at an opposing player. That fan was subsequently ejected from the ballpark and ultimately lost his season ticket privileges, a move made by the organization to make an example of that individual for trying to smear the spirit of the game. While some might see the punishment as harsh or extreme, the purpose was to save the intimacy of the park. While the owners want to keep fan interaction as a part of Fenway’s attraction, they don’t want fan interference to detract from its beauty.

Witness one hundred years ago when the Red Sox, then commonly referred to as the Americans, played at the old Huntington Avenue Grounds just across the tracks from the South End Grounds that the old Boston Braves called home. It was not uncommon for fans to stand along the foul lines and wrap themselves around the infield dirt. How often do you suppose that fan interference played a role in deciding the outcome of those games? Even after moving into Fenway Park in 1912, fans use to sit on what was known as “Duffy’s Cliff” in left field, the slight incline in front of the left field wall as the action took place.

These days, at many other ballparks around the majors, the average ticket holder sits far away from the action, so much so that you need binoculars just to recognize who’s playing where. Even those who get front-row seats usually find themselves with generous amounts of foul territory that buffer them from the action. That’s part of what makes Fenway such a unique place to watch a ball game; that intimate feeling, even with the addition of several thousand seats before all is said and done, has not vanished. The place where we watch today’s players like Curt Schilling, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Manny Ramirez is not much different from the time that saw such greats like Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Carl Yastrzemski cover the field. While the names have changed, the aura of Fenway is still there.

Over the years, baseball stadiums have come and gone, like Ebbets Field, Sportsman’s Park, the Polo Grounds, and Tiger Stadium; some day, they may be joined by other storied stadiums like Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and our beloved Fenway Park. For now, the Red Sox have realized that while Fenway, like a classic car, may not have the attractions of these modern stadiums, but it’s the simple beauty of the old girl that continues to bring fans through the turnstiles.