For decades, the Wall has artificially infiated the numbers of Boston’s right-handed batters and encouraged the Red Sox to field a team of slow, big-swinging, righty sluggers. Assembling this kind of team has been done at the expense of speed and fundamentals. The Wall teaches a manager to eschew the bunt, forget the hit-and-run, and wait for the game-breaking, 3-run homer. It has scared generations of left-handed pitchers, and rare is the southpaw who will pitch inside at Fenway (the last Red Sox lefty to win 20 games was Mel Parnell, in 1953). The Wall has encouraged the Red Sox to design teams that have trouble winning away games; historically, the Sox have been embarrassed on the artificial turf of Kansas City and also in Yankee Stadium, where left field is several acres larger than in Boston. The 1949 Red Sox went 61–16 at home but only 35–42 on the road, losing the American League pennant in New York when they dropped the final two games of the season.
Many Sox fans believe that the Wall was the undoing of George Scott in 1968. Scott hit .303 during the Impos-sible Dream season of 1967 but a year later dropped to .171, with 3 homers. Ask Sal Bando what it did to him during the 1975 ALCS. In the second game of the playoffs, at Fenway, Bando hit four shots off the Wall; at least a couple of them would have been homers in most other ballparks. Bando’s harvest was 2 singles and 2 doubles.
American League outfielders have been confounded by the Wall for more than sixty years. There can be little doubt that Carl Yastrzemski was the master of Wall-ball defense. An infielder as a collegian at Notre Dame, Yastrzemski had the coordination, the instincts, and the work ethic to make the Wall work for him. He was among the American League’s outfield assist leaders annually until baserunners learned to stop going for two when they clanged one off the Wall. Yaz could decoy better than any outfielder and routinely pretended he was ready to catch a ball that he knew was going to carom off the Wall. Sometimes this would make runners slow down or stop altogether. Yaz had another Wall habit that annoyed some Boston pitchers. When a slugger unloaded on a meatball from a Sox hurler, Yaz would sometimes stand motionless, hands on hips, staring forward as the ball sailed over his head, over the screen, and out toward the Mass. Turnpike. He didn’t want to give the hitter the satisfaction of turning around, and sometimes it was a message to a Boston pitcher who may have thrown the wrong pitch to the wrong guy.
“I knew when the ball was going out,” said Yastrzemski. “It was something I worked into the decoy. But it used to tick the pitchers off. Bill Monbouquette used to say, ‘Can’t you at least make it look like you can catch it?’ Meanwhile, the ball would be on its way over the fence to a spot three-quarters of the way out to the railroad tracks.”
Jim Rice followed Yaz to the left field pasture in 1975 and suffered from comparisons with the Hall of Famer. Rice never got better than average defensively, but he did learn the Wall and its caroms, which give visiting outfielders fits. Earl Weaver, the former Oriole manager, still laughs at the thought of Don Baylor trying to play the Wall when the O’s came to Boston. Baylor once got tangled up in the left field corner, trying to corral a ball that was rattling around the doorway in the corner and men in the Oriole dugout (which has no view of the corner) wondered what had happened as they watched the Red Sox runners going around the bases. It was one of those “only in Fenway” moments.
The Wall has a ladder that enables the ground crew to pluck home run balls from the screen above. It’s the only fair-territory ladder in the majors. One night in the ’50s, Ted Williams and Jimmy Piersall converged under a fly ball in left center. To their surprise, the ball hit the ladder and ricocheted toward center, allowing Jim Lemon to circle the bases for an inside-the-park homer. Another one of those moments came in 1963 when the Sox stonefinger slugger Dick Stuart—a man with all the speed of an ox—hit an inside-the-park home run in Fenway. His towering fly to left center hit the ladder, then bounced off the head of the Cleveland center fielder, Vic Davalillo, and rolled to the left field corner. By the time Davalillo ran down the ball, Stuart had chugged around the bases.
The Wall has made heroes out of hitters like Walt Dropo, Stuart, Tony Conigliaro, Rico Petrocelli, George Scott, Ken Harrelson, Rice, Butch Hobson, Tony Perez, Tony Armas, and Dwight Evans. It has helped the Red Sox draw fans and boast of home run champions. It has created excitement and memories, but it has hurt the Red Sox by artificially inflating the abilities of the ball club. It has tipped the scales of baseball’s balance, distorting the product and creating advantages and disadvantages that are patently unfair. Never was this more obvious than on the afternoon of October 2, 1978, when Bucky Dent hit a weak pop-up that plopped into the screen and forever changed the course of Red Sox history.
Dent’s home run beat the Red Sox in the infamous one-game playoff of 1978, denying the best Boston team of the last half century its chance to compete in the postseason. It’s a cruel joke that a sawed-off shortstop representing the New York Yankees would be the one to use the Wall like no other player in baseball history.
From Fenway: A Biography in Words and Pictures by Dan Shaughnessy and Stan Grossfeld.
Copyright © 1999 by Dan Shaughnessy and Stan Grossfeld. Reprinted with permission.