Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fenway Tales: September 1968


I transferred to Boston University from Lehigh University after my freshman year, arriving in September 1968 knowing a few people in the area but none at BU. As a transfer student, I was required to arrive early with the freshmen, partly to take a test that exempted me from the language requirement (I passed). Home was Room 401 in Myles Standish Hall, a former hotel in Kenmore Square that housed Major League Baseball teams in town to play the Red Sox or Braves until it was bought by the university in 1950.  Four students lived in the three-room suite; I was assigned to the former living room with a returning student, while another transfer student and a returning student had the single room.
Myles Standish Hall, 2008
With classes yet to begin and Brent, the LIU transfer still not arriving, I found myself on Sunday, September 8 (my mother’s 45th birthday), with nothing much to do. To kill time on a beautiful afternoon, I walked the few blocks to Fenway Park to see what turned out to be my first, last and only professional soccer game. I’d been to the ballpark to see a Red Sox game on a family trip seven years earlier and, although Fenway hadn’t yet reached icon status, it was an interesting place to see an athletic contest. The Boston Beacons hosted the Baltimore Bays in their final games of the North American Soccer League (NASL) season.

Boston Red Sox program cover and ticket, 1961

In 1967, two professional soccer leagues started in the United States: the United Soccer Association (USA), a collection of entire European and South American teams brought to the U.S. and given local names, and the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) The two leagues merged in December 1967 to form the NASL, which began the season with 17 of the 22 teams that had participated during the 1967 seasons. The teams used mostly on foreign talent. Despite some successes, the NASL also had significant problems. The teams included only 30 North American players. High salaries for foreign players and steep rents for large stadiums, coupled with low attendances, resulted in every team losing money in 1968. Only 5 of the 17 teams returned next season.

The Beacons were a new team, while the Bays had been part of the NPSL. The Boston Shamrock Rovers, owned by Boston Bruins owner Weston Adams, were disbanded after playing one year in the USA in suburban Lynn. The Bays, owned by Baltimore Orioles owner Jerry Hoffburger, played in spacious Memorial Stadium, the home of the Orioles and Colts. They lost the only NPSL championship game to the Oakland Clippers.

Baltimore Bays, 1968, Boston Beacons logo, 1968

After purchasing a general-admission ticket (the going price according to tickets for games in Baltimore and New York appears to have been $3.50 – about $24 today - but may have been less), I settled down into a nearly empty section that would have been opposite the pitcher’s mound on the first-base side. The Beacons defeated the Bays, 1-0, before 2,229 fans. The Bays would make it to the next season; the Beacons did not. The Beacons ended the season at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a 9-17-6 record. Their largest crowd was 7,319 (not including an exhibition versus Pele and Santos, which drew 18,431) on August 6 against the Atlanta Chiefs. The Chicago Mustangs, who played at Comiskey Park, drew the league’s second-worst average attendance of 2,463.

Beacons' lone goal vs. Bays, Sept. 8, 1968

The following Friday, again with no plans for the evening, I returned to Fenway to see the Red Sox take on the Minnesota Twins. Unlike the previous season, when the Red Sox defeated the Twins on the final game of the season and waited for the Tigers to lose to the Angels to win its first American League pennant since 1946, both teams were far behind the league-leading Detroit Tigers. In the final season before MLB split each league into two divisions, the Red Sox finished 4th,  behind 17 games with a 86-76 record, while the Twins ended up in 7th, 24 games back at 79-83.

One of my goals was simply to kill an evening, as the game started at 7:30 p.m. The Red Sox’s starter was Ray Culp, who pitched for the Phillies during their infamous 1964 season and came over from the Cubs during the winter in another disastrous trade for the North Siders. The Red Sox sent Rudy Schlesinger and cash to the Cubs; Schlesinger had one pinch-hit at-bat in 1965 and would never make it to MLB again. Culp won 71 while losing 58 before retiring from the Red Sox after the 1973 season. Dean Chance, winner of the 1964 Cy Young Award with the Angels sporting a 20-9 record, a 1.65 earned-run average and 11 shutouts at age 23, started for Twins. He won 20 games the previous season, his first in Minnesota, but lost the all-important final game of the season.

1968 Topps cards for Sept. 13 game starting pitchers

The Red Sox, on Culp’s 6-hit shutout, defeated the Twins, 3-0. Attendance was 23,171. A two-run home run by Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, his 35th, and an RBI by light-hitting rookie infielder Luis Alvarado (.130 that first season) accounted for the Red Sox’s runs. Harrelson would later become the White Sox long-time play-by-play announcer, while Alvarado would have four undistinguished seasons with the White Sox (4 home runs, 57 RBI and .218 batting average). Alvarado was traded from Boston to Chicago after the 1970 season with Mike Andrews (who left me a pitifully small tip after I waited on his group during my very short stint as a waiter that summer) for future Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio after his second stint with the White Sox.

The most important part of the game was its time: 1 hour and 40 minutes. It may have been the fastest game for the Red Sox or even in MLB in a five-year period, and only 11 minutes longer than the fastest night game in MLB history. So much for killing time; I was back on the street by 9:15. I would attend three more games at Fenway during my college days: a Patriot’s Day game in April 1969 (Yankees 6 Red Sox 4) and White Sox’s games in 1969 and 1970, both started by Tommy John. On June 4, 1969, home runs by non-power hitters Ed Hermann, Gail Hopkins and Bobby Knoop gave the ChiSox a 7-2 victory. The following year, my only season not seeing a White Sox home game since going to the ballpark in 1954, Wilbur Wood and Danny Murphy could not hold a 3-1 lead, and the Red Sox won, 4-3. I regret not seeing the Boston Patriots play in their 1968 and last season at Fenway Park.

While picking up my ticket at will-call (thanks to one of my BU roommates, Nate Greenberg) for the Diamondbacks – Red Sox game in June 2008, the agent asked if I’d ever been to Fenway Park. I replied, “Yes, but not for 38 years.” Two things were noticeably higher: a new deck added above the roof level that had been turned into luxury boxes and ticket prices, paying $90 to sit halfway up the upper deck. And, of course, “Sweet Caroline,” which always has me reaching for the mute button.

Fenway Park, 2008

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