Years ago—only a few years ago, actually, but still years before the miracle year of 1967 and years before it became chic to root for the Red Sox—the centerfield bleachers at Fenway were traditionally the habitat of the most diehard of Sox aficionados. If the bleacherites weren’t the most knowledgeable fans, they were close to it, and they were certainly the most faithful. I suspect I was exposed to more genuine baseball lore, more understandings of the subtleties and stratagems of the game, and perhaps most importantly, more sheer love for the sport by sitting exclusively in the bleachers from boyhood through my early twenties than I’ve encountered in any reserved seat press box since.
This, of course, was back in the days when the Red Sox were drawing so poorly that they had to schedule night games around the Hatch Shell concerts in the summer and when a gate of 20,000 on Opening Day was considered spectacular. But from April through September the coterie in center field retained fidelity unmatched anywhere else in the American League. And while the businessmen who bought season tickets might sit next to someone in an adjacent box all season long and never exchange six words, there were people out there who’d been friends for twenty-five years yet never seen each other outside Fenway Park.
There were the beaten old men who looked like they’d just panhandled the 50 cent admission price, the retired gentlemen with their transistor radios and the truck drivers who took their shirts off on hot summer days. There were two old ladies from Dorchester, both named Mary, who attended the afternoon games as faithfully as they attended Mass. They left home early in the morning, bringing their Official Big League Scorebook along to Church, and after lunch in Kenmore Square, showed up at the park before batting practice started. They never went to night games, but the Boys from Chelsea did.
The Boys from Chelsea—three of them, Felix, Vinny, and Joe, all cab drivers, I believe, invariably turned up at night, and two or three of their friends often made it—were inveterate gamblers. They came to games weighted down with 50 cent rolls of pennies, and would wager with each other and anyone else on every conceivable facet of the game, from whether the next batter would get a hit (3 to 1 for Mantle or Willams; 6 to 1 for most pitchers) to an error on the next play (usually about 25 to 1, but you could always haggle) to the possibility of Casey Stengel being ejected during the course of the game. (If you got a bet down at the prevailing 7½ to 1 odds on Jackie Jensen hitting into a double play at every available opportunity, you usually made out over the course of a season.)
And there was Fat Howie. Fat Howie was on speaking terms with every centerfielder in the league. He’d sit right next to the rope (the section in straightaway center, directly in the batter’s line of vision, ALWAYS used to be roped off; since the space is needed now, the seats are painted green and the customers are allowed to sit there, provided they wear dark clothing) and carry on a running dialogue. Howie would lean over the wall between innings and yell out to Bob Allison: “Hey, Bob, what’s happening in Cleveland?”(The scoreboard on the left field wall can’t be seen from the bleachers in center.) And Allison would check the score and holler back: “4 to 2 Indians, Howie.” Howie was always there, day or night. I don’t know what he did for a living; maybe he took his summers off.