Boston's Fenway Park turns 100 years old

Boston's Fenway Park
Boston's Fenway Park

(CBS News) The Boston Red Sox are currently in last place in baseball's American League East. But that won't dampen the mood at Fenway Park as the team celebrates the 100th birthday of its historic ballpark.

CBS News recently took a tour of Fenway with a well-known diehard fan, actor and comedian Denis Leary.

Fenway has staged a century of baseball's great drama, from Shakespearean tragedy, like the "Curse of the Bambino," the home team's 86-year World Series drought, and magic moments, too, like Carlton Fisk's home run in the 1975 Series, and in 2004, when the Sox reversed the curse and finally won a World Series.

To New Englanders especially, Fenway is a shrine, and many recall their first game here as a rite of passage.

Leary told CBS News he was 5 or 6 years old when he visited the ballpark for the first time. Leary grew up a Red Sox fan in nearby Worcester, Mass.

"When you see those guys when you are a little kid, they seem huge," Leary said. "When I got older and I started to go to other ballparks, that's when I knew how special the place was."

Fenway Park opened its gates April 20, 1912, five days after the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic.

One hundred baseball seasons later, teams and ballplayers both great and forgettable have come and gone. But the ballpark lives on.

These days no stadium is older or quirkier. When it's one-of-kind left field wall, standing 37 feet high was built to block non-paying spectators, and painted in 1947 to match the park - the Green Monster was born. The wall was made even more monstrous by the rest of Fenway's tiny dimensions. Full capacity is barely 37,000 fans. And the Red Sox have sold every seat for almost nine years.

Leary said, "That's the thing about Fenway Park. Even in these seats or those seats, you feel like you can reach out and choke the opposing players with your bare hands at any given moment. And sometimes you feel like choking a Red Sox player."

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That intimacy has helped connect generations of Red Sox fans, like the Learys. Denis and his late father John, an Irish immigrant, would sit in Fenway's bleachers. It's all they could afford.

Leary said coming to the park reminds him of his dad every time. "He loved this ballpark and I got baseball handed down to me by my dad and I handed it down to my son," Leary said.

But in 1999, the iconic park was nearly lost. Fenway's age was showing and the Red Sox pushed to tear it down and start over. Instead, new owners invested almost $300 million in renovations, including 274 new seats above the Green Monster.

The Green Monster still has a manual scoreboard, the only one in baseball. And behind the Monster, are autographs from hundreds of ballplayers, celebrities, and fans.

Leary also found something special under the right field grandstands, a commemorative brick inscribed for his father. Leary bought it, but had never seen it.

"Wow. That's awesome," Leary said. "That is cool."

A century ago today, Boston beat New York in Fenway's first game. Tonight, the same two teams will open the ballpark's second century.

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    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.