On a sunny April afternoon in 1912, the Boston Red Sox took the field at their new home atop the reclaimed mudflats of the city’s Fenway section.
Twenty-seven thousand fans graced the newly-built grandstands to watch Boston’s American League entry open the season against, fittingly enough, the New York Highlanders—the franchise which would be rechristened the Yankees less than a decade later.
The local nine prevailed, earning a 7-6 victory in 11 innings. Hall of Fame outfielder Tris Speaker plated the winning run.
Were it not for the sinking of the Titanic less than a week prior, the opening of Fenway Park would have been front page news in all nine of Boston’s daily newspapers.
While baseball’s holiest of holies has undergone many changes over the years, the basic footprint of the asymmetrical “lyric little bandbox,” as writer John Updike famously dubbed his beloved park, has remained essentially the same.
Not so for some of the city’s other baseball past.
There is little remaining near the corner of Columbus Avenue and St. Cyprian Street—formerly Walpole Street—in the South End, to indicate it, but before there was Fenway Park, and, even before there was an American League or such a thing as the Boston Red Sox, this corner was the heart of the city’s sporting culture.
Now home to the Ruggles MBTA station and a large Northeastern University parking lot, here stood the South End Grounds, the first home of the Boston Braves, and a catalyst for one of the darker moments in the neighborhood's history.
When the South End Grounds opened in 1871, the team that played there was known as the Red Stockings, as several key players had come over from the famous barnstorming team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Several name changes and franchise moves later, the club remains today as the Atlanta Braves, sharing the honor of being American professional sport’s longest-tenured team with the Chicago Cubs, both charter members of the National Association—the precursor of today’s National League.
In fact, before the opening of Fenway Park, the Braves and Red Sox played within eyesight and earshot of one another, as the American Leaguers occupied the Huntington Avenue Grounds, just across the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad tracks, smack in the middle of what is today Northeastern University’s Huntington Avenue campus. A bronze statue of the immortal Cy Young in front of Churchill Hall marks the spot where the pitcher’s mound once stood.
The South End Grounds was rebuilt twice during its lifetime; once because a lack of space, and again following a devastating fire in 1894.
In 1887, the original park was demolished to make way for a new, expanded version, which would open on May 25, 1888. Known as “The Grand Pavilion,” the second incarnation of the park at Columbus and Walpole was perhaps the most impressive. It remains the only double-decked stadium ever constructed in the City of Boston, not including the de facto double-decker created by the addition of rooftop seating at Fenway Park.
On May 15, 1894, one of the worst fires in the history of Boston began when children started a small fire beneath the right field bleachers of the South End Grounds which ultimately destroyed the stadium and 117 other buildings, in an incident which would become known to history as the "Great Roxbury Fire."
A new structure would be built on the location of the old park in just 10 weeks, and opened on July 20, 1894.
The previous structure had not been adequately insured, however, and the new one was not able to be constructed along the same grandiose lines. Few photographs of this smaller park are in existence, and during the 1914 “Miracle Braves” pennant push, the team would play at Fenway Park to accommodate larger crowds. In 1915, they moved to newly-built Braves Field, now Boston University’s Nickerson Field, in Allston.
The environs once patrolled by names like “Rabbit” Maranville and Possum Whitted are now a parking garage and parking lot. A plaque at Ruggles is all that remains to identify this as hallowed baseball ground.
But this was not the case in April of 1912, when the South End Grounds still played host to Boston’s senior professional baseball entry.
Now the only extant reminder of the days when the South End was the capital of Boston’s sporting universe is NU’s Matthews Arena—formerly called Boston Arena—which opened in 1910 and served as the first home of the Boston Bruins and hosted many early Boston Celtics games.
It remains the oldest operational multi-use sporting venue in the world.
Facts and Figures
- Tenants: Boston Braves—A.K.A. Red Caps, Doves, Rustlers, Beaneaters, Bees (NL, 1876-1914)
- Opened: May 16, 1871 (rebuilt twice)
- Last Game: Aug. 11, 1914
- Capacity: 6,800 (1888)
- Surface: Grass
- Dimensions: LF-25ft.; CF-440ft.; RF 255ft.
- Other names: Walpole Street Grounds; The Grand Pavilion; Boston Baseball Grounds