Who sows a field. . . is more than all.
—John Greenleaf Whittier
On an early October morning in the fall of 1911, Jerome Kelley rose and, after his customary cup of tea, left his home on Palmer Street in Roxbury and began his walk to work.
The morning was cool, yet the air was crisp and carried a hint of winter. As he turned up Ruggles Street the smell of breakfast cooking drifted from the houses and small apartments of the Village, the close-knit Irish American community nestled around the foot of Tremont Street. A few sleepy horses already plodded slowly down the street, pulling carts, carrying ice and other necessities of the day. In the distance automobiles coughed and sputtered as the city began to awake. On the stoops and front porches, older men—and even a few women—already sat watching the day unfold, puffing on their pipes. Wearing his cap, work pants, and plain thin jacket, Kelley gave a nod and quick word to the other workmen he saw as he walked through the neighborhood before reaching Huntington Avenue and turning north.
Boston. In the Village it was easy to pretend—almost—that you were still in Ireland. Not that anyone would mistake the Village for the green fields of Erin, for apart from the small gardens squeezed into the back lots, there was nothing green about the Village, yet it was a place where everyone knew everyone else, and if you were not already related, well, after the next wedding you might be. If a fellow had the time he could spend all day walking down the block, stopping at nearly every house, catching up on the news of the day, and then drop into McGreevey’s saloon on Columbus Avenue for a beer to soak up even more information.
But as soon as Kelley made the turn onto Huntington Avenue it was as if he entered another world. Streetcars screeched and rattled up and down the middle of the street, while the sidewalks bustled with activity. Now most of the faces he saw were those of strangers.
Here Boston was on display. Virtually every block of Huntington Avenue featured another of the city’s cultural assets: The Museum of Fine Arts. The Opera House. Symphony Hall. All had been built in the last ten years, and in the clear autumn air the grand buildings stood magnificent and austere, perfectly framed by the colorful gardens and fading greenery of the nearby Back Bay Fens, Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece of architectural landscaping and engineering.
Kelley was impressed—everyone was—but he was not overwhelmed by the scene, which was now so familiar to him that he barely noticed. After all, while many of the men in Kelley’s neighborhood had worked on those buildings as they were being built, few felt welcome inside once they were completed. The buildings were for the well-to-do, the Brahmins who until recently had run Boston and still had most of the money. Workingmen like Kelley, particularly Irish workingmen, well, they worked for the people who built the museums.
As Kelley walked up the Avenue that October morning his mind was not on the opera or the symphony or the great masters, but on a building that, to him, was more beautiful and more important than any of the grander edifices. For each of the last eight years this particular building had provided both his livelihood and his lifestyle, a place that many of his friends in the neighborhood considered a second home.
As he passed Tufts Medical College at the corner of Rogers Avenue he saw a ramshackle, wooden cigar stand, and then a towering, rough-hewn wooden fence, heavy with paint, bearing the scars of a hundred handbills and a huge advertising sign for “Dr. Swett’s Original Root Beer.” He then turned down a dusty footpath that paralleled the rough fence. Until recently there had been a large wooden sign that arched over a walkway and read “Huntington Avenue Base Ball Grounds.” Since 1904 he had gone there nearly every day, summer and winter, to work on the grounds.
But the sign had come down recently, and no one had bothered to replace it. It was obsolete anyway. The park was closing—it was now a “base ball grounds” in memory only. The next event at the park would be a charity soccer game. Baseball season was over, and not just for 1911. For the Huntington Avenue Grounds it was over forever.
Kelley had not been looking forward to this day. The Red Sox had finished the regular season only a few days before, drubbing Washington 8–1 to inch into fourth place ahead of the Chicago White Sox, but still some twenty-four long games behind the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics. Each day since then, as always, Kelley had kept an eye on the weather, waiting. He had one last job to do before the soccer players chewed the field to pieces.
Kelley, age forty-one, had come to Boston from Ireland more than twenty years before and had lived much of the time since with his widowed sister Rose. At first he worked in a nearby piano factory, laboriously stringing wire through the tuning pins. It was honest work, but dreary. He much preferred to be outdoors, and when an opportunity arose to work at the ballpark in 1904, he had jumped at the chance. Since arriving in the States, like most of his neighbors, he had become quite the baseball fan.
For most of the past eight years the weather had determined his work. So, too, would the weather define this day. But instead of forecasting whether he should water the grass or send his men out with push mowers and rakes to cut the grass and smooth the dirt, on this day the weather told him that the time was right, not to prepare the field for a game, but to strip the park of the only feature that would travel the short half-mile across the Fens to the new home of the Red Sox, now just a sea of mud and bare earth along Jersey Street.
The infield. Nearly every day for the last eight years Kelley had groomed and worried himself half-sick over that diamond-shaped piece of turf, making sure it was watered and fertilized and free of rocks and weeds. While the outfield turf required little maintenance apart from a good cutting once or twice a week, the infield, just under ninety feet square, was different. It was in the infield that games—and livelihoods—were won and lost.
Kelley knew full well that a simple ground ball that found a pebble or a bump could cost the Red Sox a ball game, and him his job. When Jimmy Collins, the old Red Sox third baseman, had chosen to leave the bag and play his position on the turf, digging in with his cleats until he exposed bare ground, Kelley had dutifully patched over and seeded the bare spots, time and time again, without complaint. And when Tris Speaker, Boston’s fleet young outfielder, had dragged a bunt down the first-base line only to watch it roll foul, Kelley had been out on the field after the game before the stands had emptied, adding a bit of dirt to the baseline, tilting it ever so slightly toward the field, making the transition from dirt to sod, brown to green, smooth and nearly seamless. And when Heinie Wagner, the shortstop, had bobbled a ball and shot him a dark look afterward, Kelley had made sure to walk the line that the ball had taken from the bat, feeling with his foot and then his fingers for a soft spot or a stone, adding a sprinkling of earth here, tamping down a rough spot there. It had taken eight years to get the infield looking the way it did now, lush and green and, since no ball had been played on it for the last week, thick and healthy. Grass grew best this time of the year, favoring the cool days and nights over the scorching heat of the summer.
That was why, of all things, only the sod of...