It’s a slow news time, the interregnum between Christmas and New Year’s, so lots of news outlets are filling space with best-of lists and the like. We’ll get to those soon enough, but today I’d like to focus on the Boston Globe revisiting an article on its 53-year-and-two-days anniversary, about why the then-American League champion Boston Red Sox desperately needed a replacement for Fenway Park.
The writer, Harold Kaese, who had been a Boston sportswriter long enough to have covered Babe Ruth when he played for the Boston Braves, started off with the list of reasons not to approve a new stadium bill, which was then up for consideration by the legislature:
No open bidding on contracts, the secret books of the Turnpike Authority, the right to acquire land without compensating anybody except the BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority), no provision to compensate Boston for taxable property lost to the stadium, and so on.
Those are some intriguing reasons! But Kaese was bringing them up only to dismiss them, because he was readying a volley of justifications for a Fenway replacement that should be familiar to any modern sports fan:
Why does Boston need a new stadium?
Because other cities with empty ones may steal the Red Sox and Patriots from us.
Because the Turnpike Extension needs more traffic.
Because the city’s hotels, motels, restaurants, taxi cabs, and parking lots need more business.
Because Fenway Park is an antediluvian playground, inadequate in its capacity, parking facilities, and dimensions.
That’s pretty much one from every category of the stadium playbook in Chapter 4 of Field of Schemes: the move threat; the promise of economic riches; the warning that the old place is “obsolete,” defined as whatever you feel like. And it adds the bizarre rationale that the Mass Pike needs more traffic, which I guess was because the toll road wasn’t generating enough revenue, even after large swaths of greater Boston had been seized and demolished to make way for the highway.
Kaese was just leading up to his main point, though, which was that Fenway Park needed to be razed because it was unfair to Jim Lonborg:
The best pitcher in the American League last season, not only because the baseball writers said so, but because he won the most games (22), had the most strikeouts (246), hit the most batters (19), and competitively was the toughest, was Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox.
But in earned run average, Lonborg rated 18th with his 3.16 runs allowed per game, which was 1.10 runs per game behind Joe Horlen of the White Sox.
Was Horlen 35 percent more effective a pitcher than Lonborg, as the ERA indicates?
Nobody who followed the American League last season will say so. Rather than say Horlen was 35 percent better than Lonborg, it would be more accurate to say that Comiskey Park, Chicago, is 35 percent easier to pitch in than Fenway Park, Boston.
So very much to unpack here! First off, there’s the common old-baseball contention that the best pitcher is the one who wins the most games, even though it’s just as easy to win games by having a team that scores lots of runs for you than by stopping the other team from scoring yourself. Lonborg won the A.L. Cy Young Award largely on the basis of those 22 wins, which came thanks to the 4.48 runs per game that the Sox scored in his starts that season; league average was 3.77 that year, but Boston had the best offense in the league, thanks partly to Fenway but mostly to Carl Yastrzemski, who won the triple crown with one of the best hitting seasons in baseball history despite playing under an expanded strike zone against pitchers standing atop a 15-inch mound.
Second, there’s the idea that Lonborg was the best pitcher in the league because he hit a league-high 19 batters, which … I guess was supposed to be an indication that he was a tough competitor or something, but mostly seems to have had to do with the fact that he threw hard but had terrible aim. (Lonborg walked 83 batters, just missing the league’s top ten.)
As for the rest of Kaese’s argument, thanks to living in the distant future with our computers and our flying cars, we are now in a great position to see whether Lonborg was indeed a great pitcher who was being held back from recognition by his home park, notwithstanding that he had just been recognized with the biggest pitching award baseball had to offer. Modern baseball analysis has come up with something called Wins Above Replacement, which combines various stats to estimate how many more wins a team got thanks to having this one player instead of some random schlub from the minors. (There are several different ways to calculate WAR, but let’s go with Baseball Reference’s, which is a common standard.) Lonborg in 1967 was worth 4.0 WAR, which compares to other American League pitchers that year like so:
|1.||Merritt • MIN||6.5|
|2.||Chance • MIN||5.9|
|3.||Horlen • CHW||5.5|
|4.||Hunter • KCA||4.6|
|5.||Siebert • CLE||4.6|
|6.||Boswell • MIN||4.6|
|7.||Tiant • CLE||4.6|
|8.||Hargan • CLE||4.5|
|9.||Downing • NYY||4.5|
|10.||Kaat • MIN||4.2|
Lonborg doesn’t even make the top-ten list, and look who does: Yep, Joe Horlen of the Chicago White Sox, that guy who only won the ERA title thanks to his fancy run-suppressing home park. It turns out Horlen actually did pitch better than Lonborg in 1967, as did a whole lot of other guys. (WAR takes into account how hard it is to score in a pitcher’s home stadium.) WAR, in fact, suggests that the real best A.L. pitcher of 1967 was Jim Merritt, who struck out 161 batters while walking only 30, but got zero Cy Young votes and didn’t even make the All-Star team thanks in large part to only going 13-7 in win-loss record, while the Minnesota Twins only scored 3.96 runs per game for him. Maybe the state of Minnesota should have passed a bill tearing down Zoilo Versalles?
Dumb 1967 baseball analysis aside, this should stand as a reminder that there has always been dumb newspaper writing about stadiums and why they should be replaced at public expense. (The cost of a new combined baseball and football stadium was estimated at $97 million, the equivalent of $747 million today.) And while both Horlen’s and Merritt’s home stadiums had been demolished by 1991, Fenway Park survives to this day, and is one of the most lucrative in baseball, thanks to both its popularity with fans and that antediluvian capacity, which enables the Sox to jack up ticket prices thanks to the relative scarcity of tickets.
Not that that’s stopped calls for Fenway Park’s replacement, most recently from Globe sportswriter Kevin Paul Dupont, who is old enough to have watched Lonborg pitch in 1967 while in high school. Earlier this month, Dupont wrote that Fenway needed to be razed because, and I am 100% serious about this and apparently he was too, the Cleveland Indians were deciding to change their name because it was racist:
If we were suddenly Cleveland, and the term “Red Sox” was deemed a pejorative and socially unacceptable (it came close here in the early ’60s), what would be harder, to see the team have to surrender its name or give up its ballpark?
Would it be easier on the heart and soul to accept the Boston Americans (or other new name) still playing at the existing Fenway, or the Red Sox, operating under their same name since 1908, playing in a dazzling new park, with 42,000 seats, dynamic views, sparkling bathrooms and enough electrical outlets to bring Nikola Tesla to tears?
I didn’t call attention to this at the time, because frankly, it didn’t even seem to have enough argument to it to be worth debunking. (Electrical outlets?) But now that the Globe has seen fit to dredge up an equally half-baked column from 53 years ago … is this the beginnings of a drumbeat to replace Fenway? Or just a newspaper sports department really bored by a team that’s going nowhere just two years after winning the World Series, and desperate for something new to write about? I just wrote 1300 words on this, so I’m probably not one to judge; but maybe let’s keep one eye open for warnings about declining toll revenue on I-90, just in case.