Honey Fitz & Sweet Caroline: A Century of Fenway

Hat in hand, Honey Fitz waves to his fans at Fenway Park.

By Michael Quinlin, Contributor
June / July 2012

The Red Sox and the City of Boston celebrate the 100th anniversary of one of  America’s most beloved ballparks.

Honey Fitz, aka John Francis Fitzgerald, would have loved the pageantry of “Fenway 100,” the celebration of Boston’s Fenway Park on April 20, 2012.

The grandfather of President John F. Kennedy would have especially relished the sight of his descendants, Caroline Kennedy and Tom Fitzgerald, tossing out the ceremonial first pitches at this centenary game, as Honey Fitz himself did a century earlier as Mayor of Boston.

Back then, in the early 20th century, Fenway was a brand new park full of promise and possibility, much like the unfolding Kennedy-Fitzgerald saga itself.  “Eager to be tried,” as poet Robert Frost wrote about young President Kennedy at the 1961 inauguration.

And now, a century later, Fenway has indeed stood the test of time, avoiding the wrecking ball that beset so many other parks, and ultimately enduring as the nation’s oldest professional baseball park.

The Fenway 100 celebration, so exquisitely nostalgic and sentimental, offered Bostonians a chance to reflect on a century of drama, disappointment and joy in this storied ballpark, built by Charles E. Logue, an Irish immigrant from Derry.

And it offered a wistful yet poignant Last Hurrah of sorts for the Kennedy family, whose epic battles against fate, adversity and private demons seemed to mirror at times the ups and downs of the home town team itself.  Like the park, the family has also endured.

The Fenway celebration was colorful, with red, white and blue bunting fluttering against sheets of green that distinguish Fenway Park: over 36,000 green seats, a pristine infield sod, and the Green Monster wall looming out in left field that bedevils even the best hitters.

It was lavish, as dozens of Red Sox old-timers promenaded across the field, a couple of them in wheelchairs, teary-eyed with memories of days gone by, cheered on by generations of fans whose loyalty to Red Sox veterans is legendary.

It was musical, thanks to the world premiere of “Fenway Fanfare,” an original composition by conductor John Williams, performed live by the famous Boston Pops Orchestra. Honey Fitz, nicknamed for his mellifluous singing voice, would have enjoyed it.

And Fenway 100 was patriotic, as two Air Force fighter jets flew overhead as the National Anthem was coming to an end.

These pre-game activities all led to the ceremonial first pitches, as Caroline Kennedy and Tom Fitzgerald, along with Mayor Tom Menino, stood in the first base box seats, waiting for their turn to be a part of history.

Fitzgerald tossed his baseball to Red Sox Hall-of-Famer Carl Yastrzemski, eliciting a cheer from the crowd.  The 77-year-old retired teacher was the oldest grandson of Honey Fitz, and often accompanied his famous grandfather to the park, he writes in his touching memoir, Grandpa Stories. Next, Mayor Menino tossed his ball to Red Sox great Jim Rice.

Finally, Caroline Kennedy, the intensely private public figure who has shouldered the Kennedy legacy with style and grace, lobbed a left-handed toss to Red Sox star Carlton Fisk, who somehow missed it and had to chase the baseball underfoot as dozens of TV photographers captured the light-hearted moment.  Afterwards, Caroline asked Fisk to autograph the ball.

As always, Kennedy carried herself well, flashing the famous family grin during the seventh inning stretch as the entire ball park broke into “Sweet Caroline,” which is sung at every home game, right after “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  It turns out that Caroline herself was the inspiration for songwriter Neil Diamond’s greatest hit, which he penned as a struggling songwriter back in the 1960s.

Between the eras of Honey Fitz and Sweet Caroline, other episodes linked the Kennedy family and Fenway Park.  Joseph P. Kennedy, father of JFK and husband of Rose Fitzgerald, Honey Fitz’s daughter, tried but failed to buy the Red Sox team from owner Joe Lannin, according to David L. Fleitz in his excellent book, The Irish in Baseball.

President Kennedy was a Red Sox fan too, and like Honey Fitz, he knew how to mix politics and sports. After World War II, John attended a Red Sox vs. Detroit Tigers game in 1946, a gaunt, recovering war hero running his very first campaign for Congress.  He posed for a photo with Red Sox great Ted Williams and players from both teams. It was the start of his public life in the limelight.

As president, Kennedy was invited to throw out the first pitch in 1962, when Fenway celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was a grand occasion, featuring saxophonist Sam Donahue and the famous Tommy Dorsey Band performing songs from 1912, as well as a cast of old-time Red Sox players like Duffy Lewis and Smokey Joe Wood. But JFK declined, opting instead to attend a family reunion in Palm Beach, according to The Boston Globe.

Sadly, JFK’s opening day at Fenway Park didn’t arrive until April 17, 1964, but by then it was more like a memorial service to the assassinated president, who had died the previous November.  But even so, there was a comforting pomp and circumstance to the game – Boston Red Sox vs. Chicago White Sox – that helped to heal a grieving city.

Tom Yawkey, president of the Sox, announced that he would donate the entire proceeds of opening day ticket sales, about $50,000, to the Kennedy Memorial Library Fund which ultimately led to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. Yawkey gave the first 6,000 ticket buyers a commemorative, newly minted, JFK half dollar.

It was a moving ceremony. President Kennedy’s brothers Bobby and Ted and sisters Jean Smith and Patricia Lawford attended, along with Joe Cronin, president of the American League; baseball legend Stan Musial, head of JFK’s Physical Fitness Program; Mayor John Collins; and boxers Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney.  Robert Kennedy, who was U.S. Attorney General at the time, threw out the first pitch in his brother’s memory.

Senator Ted Kennedy, too, would have a chance to throw out the first pitch of a Red Sox season, in the opening game against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 8, 2009, just four months before he died of brain cancer.  Flashing his signature grin, and weak from his treatments, the senator managed to throw the ball just several feet, but landed it right into the glove of Jim Rice.  Ted later told friends and family that it was one of the best days of his life.

That sentiment – of a ball park being central not to just the good times, but to the best times of one’s life – is a common notion here in New England, as it is for fans all across the country where baseball evokes a nostalgia that is beautiful and bittersweet.

Fenway Park is glorious not just because it survived the ravishes of time, resisted the demands of progress, and weathered the disappointments of Red Sox fans, one generation after the next, these past 100 years. The glory of Fenway Park is that it continues to evoke the promise of better days to come, of staging a comeback after repeated defeats, of taking a shot at the biggest prize of all.  It’s about singing Sweet Caroline at the top of your lungs during the seventh inning stretch, “good times never seemed so good,” with 36,000 baseball fans, no matter who is winning the game.

2 Responses to “Honey Fitz & Sweet Caroline: A Century of Fenway”

  1. michael coffey says:

    lovely piece mr quinlin. I had not read about JFK in 1962. From the photo of the park’s opening in 1912, I’d say it was the kind of cold April day we hardly have anymore in the Northeast. cheers!

  2. Dave Repetto says:

    Many thanks, Michael, for your interesting and informative linkage of Fenway’s history and the Kennedy clan. This adds another item of ‘love’ to my love/hate relationship with Fenway. Now if you could only reduce beer prices and improve the bullpen!

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