Boston Sports – Then And Now

Thanks to a message board reader, I came across this Frank Deford column in the July 13, 1970 edition of Sports Illustrated.

Who Are The Hub Men?

It’s about Boston’s refusal to build a public stadium in the city, which forced the Patriots to go and build in Foxborough. However, it is also an overview of the state of the teams in Boston and the mindset of the fans, and media:

In a section which talks about how people in the city recognize Red Sox players whereever they are out in public, Deford writes:

There is a reason for this phenomenon. Sam Cohen says that two things on the sports page sell papers in Boston. These are baseball and championship fights. Since interesting championship fights occur nowadays with the frequency of Halley’s Comet, there is a disposition in the Boston press to write about baseball. Eternally there is no off season. The stuff pours out like lava down Krakatoa. Newspapers may disappear in Boston, but not newspaper baseball writers—they come across the diamond in a phalanx. In Boston so much baseball is bombarded at the reading populace that it is difficult not to know a lot about the Sox even if you don’t want to.

Sounds familiar. So does this:

If Bobby Orr played with the Red Sox instead of the Bruins, they would have to build a new public library to hold his clippings. Even now, Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Conigliaro appear to be regular features, like the horoscope or Dear Abby. Before he ever strode to home plate in a major league game, some kid infielder named Alvarado had been come at so many ways during spring training that he was beginning to resemble the bridge at Chappaquiddick. Was Alvarado ready? Should he play third base or short? Switch Petrocelli to third? Are you crazy? Will this affect Petrocelli? Will it, in fact, affect Petrocelli if he even thinks Alvarado is being considered for short? Will it affect Alvarado if he thinks Petrocelli is affected by this possible switch? What will this do to Petrocelli’s hitting? His fielding? Alvarado’s? What do teammates think of this situation? Opponents? Rival managers? Alvarado? Petrocelli? After weeks of all this, by which time Alvarado had become a name and psyche familiar to every man, woman and child in the area, the season opened with Petrocelli at short and Alvarado at third. By June Alvarado was back in the minors.

Replace “Avarado” with “Iglesias” and that situation might be a description of today.

Despite the overkill, Boston writers do not live up to their image. For one thing, their potential power is limited by the fact that the money and the eggheads still scorn the Boston papers, except for occasional ventures into The Christian Science Monitor. Tennis, which draws from the upper-class element, is likely better served by advance publicity in The New York Times than in local papers. Nor are Boston writers exceptionally critical. Many are downright avuncular. Only one, Clif Keane of the Globe, may be classified as a character. Certainly none resemble Dave Egan, “The Colonel,” who was the “Splendid Splinter’s” nemesis.

Irascible and unpredictable when in his cups, which was often, Egan was a child of mixed parentage—Hearst, out of Harvard. The conflicts showed. He had an almost brilliant capacity to infuriate, and he came, before his death in 1958, to personify The Boston Sportswriter. It was bad casting. In reality, Ted Williams created a monster. Not only did Williams drive Egan to escalate their feud, but the stature Williams gave Egan caused other writers to try to emulate him as a knock artist. None, however, could match The Colonel’s artistry of invective. “You couldn’t help but laugh,” Jackie Jensen says, “even if it was your best friend he was knocking.” Besides, Egan was not all the blackguard Williams made him out to be. He often stooped to mercy. He was an original and flamboyant defender of Williams when most Hub Men had taken it upon themselves to launch vicious personal attacks against him for being a draft dodger and unfit father. Moreover, The Colonel was an utterly charming man when sober, and then his writing could become almost gooey. “He used to write columns about me that would embarrass my mother,” Cousy says.

Today, instead of Dave Egan, we have Dan Shaughnessy.

Still, reading through the article it’s a good overview of the state of Boston sports in 1970. The Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots are all looked at. The article concludes this way:

As usual, Boston is not out of step; it is a step in front. It should not be called the only city that will not build a stadium. It should be known as the first city that refused to. Once again, the Hub Men are coming.

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Robert Kraft fought a similar battle to Billy Sullivan in trying to get a stadium built in Boston, and in the end, simply built another one in Foxborough.

Last fall, ESPN the Magazine devoted an entire issue to Boston sports. It’s interesting to compare some of the things written in 1970 to how things are today. In an article looking at the state of the Celtics, Ric Bucher wrote:

One game into the Heat playoff series, longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy compared the Celtics to 74-year-old actor Morgan Freeman. At the end of the series, MassLive.com ran the headline: “The Death of a Dynasty That Never Was.” A video of two Boston writers debating the Celtics’ chances for another ring had one joking that it was possible only if “LeBron James will take off the fourth quarter in four of six playoff games.” A running September fan poll asking “How are you feeling about the Celtics?” on a scale of 10 to 100 sat for a time at 10 and never topped 50. That same month, when another blog asked, “Is This Already a Lost Season?” message-boarders said they’d prefer to lose the entire season to the lockout than witness banner-fail in a quest for an 18th title.

Then there was the introductory story to the issue, entitled Why Boston is better than you. The writer, Peter Keating draws a conclusion not unlike the one that Deford came up with above:

“This city has a passionate fan base and smart fans and a supply of intelligent people coming out of universities nearby,” Morey says. “Boston’s got the lead. And they’re going to hold it for a while.”

We’ll see.

Guest Column: A Tale of Two Titles

Today’s guest column is from Mike Passanisi.

It took an editorial by a respected journalist to get the city to recognize the Celtics’ incredible accomplishment.

On May 6, 1969, the team, a collection of aging stars with a few new additions like Bailey Howell and Emmette Bryant, shocked the hoop world by winning their 11th title in 13 years.

After finishing fourth during the regular season, the Celts had overcome the Sixers, Knicks, and finally the Lakers in seven games capped by an exciting 108-106 victory. Longtime Celtic fans all remember Don Nelson’s shot that bounced off the front and back rims before dropping in. They also remember that Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had put balloons into the ceiling of the Forum ready to be released after a Laker victory. Also, the USC band was ready to march onto the court playing “Happy Days are Here Again”. A bitterly disappointed Jerry West said “we’re still the better team, but you have to give them credit for winning it.”

In the Boston Globe, the announcement of the Celts’ victory in a game that did not get over until 1:00 AM Boston time (TV didn’t dictate starting times in those days) did not even make the day’s headline. It only appeared as a “kicker” at the top of page 1 of the morning paper “Celtics Beat LA for 11th title, 108-106”. An accomplishment that had never been achieved in pro sports and probably never will again did not even merit a regular headline.

At the time, one of the most popular and respected journalists was a Globe columnist named Jerry Nason. His style was understated and rather old-fashioned (he used to write prediction poetry for local college football games), but he was not afraid to speak out. In a column entitled “Yes Boston, They’re Your Celtics”, Nason called attention to the team’s incredible achievement over 12 seasons and praised the late owner Walter Brown, who kept the team afloat in the early years.

Then, gently, he prodded the city.

Since the advent of the Celtics era, the Canadiens have captured 9 Stanley Cups, the Yankees 7 AL pennants, the Green Bay Packers 5 football titles. The Celtics have been finalists in 12 “World Series” and the town has never invited ’em to a party. That used to bug Walter, and it continues to bug me. The closest Boston ever came toward enshrining the Celtics was one year when they rounded up a few of the guys who were still hanging around and got ’em into the Marathon. They rode in open cars all the way from Coolidge Corner to Exeter Street, three miles-big deal..

Garden officials confirmed that Nason was correct.

Nason and the Globe apparently had some influence with city officials. And so, two days later, there was a parade. It went from the Common to City Hall Plaza. It drew about 3,000 people. Bill Russell, not surprisingly, failed to attend. Mayor Kevin White proclaimed it “Boston Celtics Day” and retiring Celtic Sam Jones was presented with a rocking chair. This was all that happened, and the newspapers began following the Red Sox into a disappointing season that ended with manager Dick Williams getting fired.

Let’s jump ahead 17 years to 1986, 25 years ago last month. The Celts had defeated the Houston Rockets, 114-97, to cop their third title in 5 years. The reaction in Boston was, shall we say, a bit different. On the left side of the front page of the next day’s Globe was a headline, not much smaller than the regular headline on the right side. It read “Celtics Crowning Glory”.  An article by Bob Ryan (who else?), spoke of the Houston Rockets as an “unwary couple pulled over on the highway for going 3 miles an hour over the speed limit by a burly Georgia cop with the mirrored sunglasses”. He continued : “It wasn’t their day. The cop’s name was Bird. The bailiff’s name was Bird. The judge’s name was Bird. And the executioner’s name was-guess what?- Bird.” Ryan went on to say :”Welcome to Bird country, boys, and while you’re at it, why don’t you congratulate your Celtics on the occasion of their 16th NBA championship? “The front page also showed huge photos of Larry getting doused with champagne and fans celebrating outside the Garden. The headlines on articles for the next couple of days tell the story. “Off the Rim and Into Clover”. “From Head to Toe, Fans are Green with Pride”. “Playoff Effort Puts Bird into Drivers Seat”.”A Garden Hangover.”

The parade two days later was somewhat bigger than that of 1969. About 2000 times bigger. That headline proclaimed “Boston Roars Its Tribute”. But the most interesting column was one authored by the great Leigh Montville. It talked about and Irish kid and four Italian kids from East Boston, all students at Boston Latin. They were playing hookey, like many Bostonians that day. It is significant, however, that they were not African-American kids from, say, Brighton or Dorchester High.

In the 1980’s the issue of racism and the Celtics which had always been simmering, appeared again. The ’86 team captured Boston, it was said, because of the racial makeup of the team. There were big men Bird, Kevin McHale, and Bill Walton-all white. African-Americans were certainly part of the picture. Coach KC Jones was black, and Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson played big parts in the title. But it was true that the racial makeup of the Celts was close to 50-50 at a time when most teams were largely black. There were stories  that in parts of Dorchester, Laker jerseys were outselling Celtic ones by a wide margin.

Race was definitely an issue. You can’t talk about Boston in the 70’s and 80’s without facing it. The busing crisis brought it to a head, but it had been there all along. However, the issue is not so much that the ’86 Celtics had more white players than the ’69 team, though it did. The issue is more one of symbolism. In 1969, the coach and symbol was Bill Russell. His image was one of an angry black man. He refused to sign autographs. He was way ahead of his time in criticizing the white power structure, both in sports and society as a whole. In ’69, Boston could not fully accept a team with this symbol. A parade couldn’t even draw 5000 fans.

In 1986, the symbol was a blond superstar with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and a bit of a wise mouth. He seemed to be an everyman, though he earned millions of dollars. At an earlier rally on live TV, he shocked a few people when, seeing a sign, he made a comment about what Houston’s Moses Malone really ate. Though he was neither Irish nor from Boston, people saw some of the team’s mascot-the leprechaun-in Larry Bird.

Ironically, a week after the’86 celebration, Jerry Nason passed away at the age of 77. Few people remember the editorial back in ’69. The parade he inspired was a small one, but that doesn’t matter. It showed that he cared.

Mike Passanisi is a semiretired former high school teacher and freelance writer. Over the years, he has written for New England Baseball Journal, Patriots Football Weekly, Manchester Union Leader, and a number of blogs, including BSMW. He is a member of the Sports Hall of Fame at Pope John High,  where he worked for many years as SID. He is also a regular contributor to the blog Fenway West. He and wife live in Medford.

You can contact Mike at [email protected]

Today in Boston Sports Media History – Remembering Ray Fitzgerald

From August 5th, 1982.

Ray Fitzgerald Is Dead at 55; Sports Columnist in Boston
UPI

Ray Fitzgerald, an acclaimed sports columnist for The Boston Globe, died Tuesday at Brigham and Women’s Hospital after a long illness. He was 55 years old.

Mr. Fitzgerald, a versatile writer, covered many sports for the newspaper for 17 years. He began writing his column in 1975, taking over after the retirement of the veteran columnist Harold Kaese.

The columns were known for quips and tongue-in-cheek humor, characteristics that helped Mr. Fitzgerald win the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year Award 11 times in balloting by sportswriters across the state.

After graduating in 1949 from the University of Notre Dame, which he had attended on a baseball scholarship, Mr. Fitzgerald began his newspaper career that year at The Schenectady (N.Y.) Union-Star. He later worked for The Springfield (Mass.) Union for 12 years before being hired by The Globe in 1965.

He is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, his mother, a brother and two sisters.

If you can come across a copy of the compilation of his columns, Touching All Bases, I highly recommend picking it up. You’ll get a great feel for Boston sports in the 1970’s and very early 80’s.