Complete “Fenway Park” Series: First NFL, NBA, NASL and NCAA B-Ball and Football Games
Complete “Fenway Park” Series
In April, in honor of Fenway Park’s 100th birthday I recounted my first visit to this great temple of baseball – some thirty years ago.
This then led me to recall my first NFL, NBA, NASL and college basketball and football games. The amazing thing about the series is that each game was significant in some way.
- My first Red Sox game featured a game-winning home run by the pitcher in the last year before the designated hitter rule and a team that would end up losing the division by only a 1/2 game after a base-running mishap in the final series with the Tigers;
- My first Patriot game had the very first kickoff return by a Patriot in franchise history;
- My first Celtic game featured a matchup with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks who ultimately would battle the Celtics in a classic NBA final;
- My first college basketball game was the first matchup between Providence College and a ranked opponent in the new Providence Civic Center in the year the Friars came within a breath of making it to the NCAA Championship game;
- My first college football game was the first installment of what is now known as the Holy War between Notre Dame and Boston College and was Notre Dame coach Dan Devine’s first game; and
- My first NASL game was a double-header that included a Beach Boys concert since Interior Secretary James Watt had blocked their appearance on the national Mall as part of July 4th festivities.
FIRST TRIP TO FENWAY PARK – 1972
WHEN: It was a July 1, 1972. My entire Little League rode the nearly 50 miles to Yawkey Way to see the Red Sox play the Milwaukee Brewers.
THE MATCH-UP: The Brewers were only in their 4th season having entered the league as the Seattle Pilots in 1969 (they moved to Milwaukee the following year). In the off-season, the Red Sox traded some of the stars from their 1967 World Series team – including Cy Young Award winner Jim Longborg and slugger George Scott, in return for Tommy Harper, Marty Pattin and a few other players. It is ranked as the 10th worst trade in Red Sox history, but it was in the Red Sox’s favor on this day.
THE GAME: With home runs by Ben Oglive and starting pitcher Marty Pattin the Red Sox led 4-2 after two innings and held on to win 5-4. It was Pattin’s first career home run. He would strike again in September against the same pitcher. With the introduction of the designated hitter rule the following season, Pattin’s September home run was the last by a Red Sox pitcher at Fenway.
THE REST OF THE STORY: This season was my introductory course to Red Sox Heartache. The 1972 season was shortened because of the first baseball strike – which for the Red Sox was only 155 games. The Red Sox took the division lead in early in September and when Marty Pattin won his 16th game on September 30th, the Red Sox had a 1 1/2 game lead over the Detroit Tigers leading up to the season’s final series in Detroit.
In the first game of that series, Carl Yastremski came to the plate with Luis Aparicio on first base. Yaz hit what should have been a triple but Aparicio tripped rounding third and then headed back to third as Yaz was rounding second. Yaz was called out at third and the Red Sox lost 3-1. The Red Sox split the next two games with Detroit finishing 85-70. The Tigers, who had the benefit of having played an extra game, won the division by a half-game with an 86-70 record.
First College Basketball Game – Jacksonville v. Providence (1/27/73)
WHEN: My father was a Providence College alum and as a kid basketball primarily meant Providence College basketball – far more so than that other basketball team with parquet floors 50 miles north. In the 1972-1973 season, Providence College moved from Alumni Hall to the new Providence Civic Center (now infamously called the Dunkin Donut Center aka “the Dunk”). This was the first ranked team to challenge the Friars in their new house.
THE TEAM: This was the greatest Providence team of all-time and no sporting team has excited me as much as this team did during this dream season. Providence was led by its backcourt with First-Team All-American Ernie Diegregorio (“Ernie D”) (24.6 ppg) and Kevin Stacom (17.8 ppg) and Third-Team All American Center Marvin “Bad News” Barnes (18.3 ppg) who anchored the running offense with 19 rebounds per game. They were Showtime a decade before Magic and the Lakers, as this short clip of Ernie and Marvin against the Russians demonstrates.
THE GAME: Jacksonville (13-4) came into the game ranked 13th, riding a 9-game win streak with their most recent win over East Carolina by 39 points. Providence (11-2) dropped from 9th to 14th having lost to Bill Walton and UCLA at Pauley Pavilion the week earlier. A record crowd was on hand to watch the Jacksonville game and Providence won a 87-84 thriller. It would be the first of many memorable Providence games I attended or watched over the years. After Providence Coach Dave Gavitt died last year, I put together a tribute page of memorable Friar moments – click HERE to see the 1973 page.
THE REST OF THE STORY: After losing to UCLA in January, Providence did not lose again. They crushed Lefty Dreisel’s Maryland team in the Eastern Regional Finals and were en route to a blowout of Memphis State to set up a rematch against UCLA in the NCAA Championship Game when Marvin Barnes injured his knee. For years Providence fans have wondered – what if.
The video below highlights the 1973 team and addresses the big question – could Providence have beaten Walton and UCLA.
I will always answer that question – YES!
Providence Coach Dave Gavitt ultimately would leave the Friars in 1979 to coach the US Olympic Team in the Moscow Olympics (which the US ultimately boycotted). Gavitt, however, was given a fitting send off in his final home game against resurgent rival Rhode Island that had beaten them by 44 points early in the season. In an emotional farewell, the Friars beat the Rams with the highlight being Rudy Williams rebound and full court shot with two seconds left at the end of the first half (which earned him a temporary spot in the Guiness Book of Records). It was a fitting send off for a Friar legend.
First NFL Game – Chargers v. Patriots (12/2/73)
WHEN: Living today in the Belichick era, it may be hard to believe there was a time when the Patriots put the ink in stink or when New England was indifferent about them. On Columbus Day 1973 we went to get tickets for a game later in the season. The season was almost over already since the Pats were 1-4 to nobody’s surprise. We got tickets for the last home game against the lowly San Diego Chargers.
THE TEAM: After getting tickets. we were able to go onto the field and play ball as players were leaving practice. I met quarterback Jim Plunkett in the parking lot. No security – why would be there? Who would come to see the Patriots?
At the same time, however, this was the first year of the Chuck Fairbanks era and the 1973 team included elements of the team that would become perennial contenders in a few years.
The Patriots came into the game 4-7 having just beat Green Bay and Houston which was only the fourth time that the Pats won consecutive games over the last 6 seasons. The San Diego Chargers were even worse at 2-8-1 and had benched aging Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas in favor of a rookie quarterback (Dan Fouts).
There were two big surprises for us at the game. The first was the discovery that we bought tickets in the one section of the stadium that got zero sun, a point that hit us pretty quickly with wind-chill in the 20′s as we sat on the cold aluminum seats.
The other surprise was 5 foot 5 inch Mini-Mack Herron who ran a kick-off back for a touchdown – the first in Patriot history. The next year he would set an NFL record for all-purpose yardage. Oddly enough, a few years later we saw Mike Haynes return the first punt for a touchdown.
THE REST OF THE STORY: The Patriots lost the remaining two games of the season at Buffalo and Baltimore. In the Buffalo game, O.J. Simpson ran for 219 yards putting him within striking distance of breaking the 2,000 yard mark.
It would not be until 1976 that the Patriots would emerge as contenders going from 3-11 to 11-3. The Patriots were en route to beating the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the playoffs when what has been rated the 7th worst call in playoff history saved the Raiders from defeat, paving the way for their ultimate Super Bowl victory.
First NBA Game – Kareem’s Bucks v. Celtics (2/10/74)
WHEN: For a short period in the 1970s, the Boston Celtics played a few games at the new Providence Civic Center (although they later chose the newer Hartford Civic Center for their satellite home court).
I am embarrassed to say that I have never seen the Celtics play at Boston Garden, but instead my first NBA game came when the Celtics “hosted” the Milwaukee Bucks in February 1974.
The MATCHUP: The Celtics (39-15) were on track to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference for the third year in a row. In the two prior seasons, however, the Celtics were eliminated by the New York Knicks in the conference finals. The Bucks (43-14) were on track to finish with the best record in the West for the third time in four years.
The Bucks featured Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who would win his third MVP award that year and Oscar Robertson in his final season. Because of Jabbar’s popularity, many in the crowd were openly rooting for him and the Bucks. Jabbar gave them every reason to, as he led all scorers with 28 points in leading a 15 point lead by the end of the third quarter.
THE GAME: The Celtics had balanced scoring with five players in double figures led by Dave Cowens, but were unable to close the Bucks early lead. The game brought to close a brutal week in which the Celtics had narrowly lost to the Bulls (2d best record in NBA), beat the Bucks at Milwaukee and trounced the Knicks (2d best record in NBA) and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated (“Boston’s Brutal Week”).
To put this in current context, two-time MVP and current Laker Steve Nash was born during this “brutal week”.
THE REST OF THE STORY: The Celtics finished the season with the best record in the East, but were three games behind Milwaukee for best overall. As a result, when they met weeks later for their memorable 7-game series, the Bucks had the home court advantage.
Jabbar forced a decisive game seven game in Milwaukee after beating the Celtics with his sky hook in a classic double-overtime win in Game 6. The Celtics, however shut down the Milwaukee offense and cruised to a 102-87 win in Game 7 in Milwaukee, winning their first championship in the post-Bill Russell era.
The same core team would win again two years later over Phoenix in another classic that featured one of the most exciting games in NBA history – a triple overtime Game 5 that put Boston up 3-2.
An injury-plagued Bucks failed to make the playoffs the next season, with Jabbar announcing at season end he wanted to leave Milwaukee resulting in a mega-trade with the Los Angeles Lakers.
First College Football Game: Holy War 1 (9/15/75)
WHEN: Growing up in a New England Irish-Catholic household in the 1960′s and 1970′s meant that you were by definition a Notre Dame football fan. This was a matter of ethnic pride but also practicality; since in the final AP poll for 1963 through 1974 Notre Dame was ranked every year but only one New England school was ranked in that period (Dartmouth finished 14th in 1970). Boston College had not been ranked since 1955.
In 1975, Boston College opened it season with a nationally televised Monday Night game against Notre Dame. It was dubbed the “Holy War” (although it also has also been called the “Vatican Bowl”, the “Frank Leahy Memorial Bowl”, and the “Jesuit Invitational.” My sister was a BC alum and my family jumped at the opportunity to go see the Fighting Irish pummel New England’s finest.
THE MATCHUP: Notre Dame had beaten Alabama in the Orange Bowl the year before in Ara Parsegian’s final game and finished ranked 6th in the polls. They entered the season with new coach Dan Devine ranked 9th. Boston College came in as an up and coming program under Coach Joe Yukica, who had posted a winning record in 6 of his 7 seasons with a 47-25 record. The Eagles were led by Mike Kruczek (left) who set an NCAA record for pass completion percentage the season before and would later backup Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh. The most famous quarterback on the field that day did not even play, as freshman Joe Montana watched from the bench.
THE GAME: Schaefer Stadium was sold out and it was a very friendly crowd for the Irish. It was a close game and in reach for the Eagles. It was at that point that I noticed I began to root for the underdog locals over beloved Notre Dame – and never went back. Notre Dame’s defense, led by Ross Browner, shut down Kruczek and their offense converted on a fumble and an interception en route to a 17-3 win.
THE REST OF THE STORY: The Irish finished the season 8-3, unranked and did not play in a bowl game. The Eagles finished 7-4.
The two teams would not meet again until 1983 when the Irish upset the Doug Flutie led Eagles 19-18 in the Liberty Bowl. Boston College would not win until their fifth meeting when the Eagles stunned #1 Notre Dame at South Bend 41-39.
Notre Dame has won the last four meetings in the series and leads 13-9.
WHEN: It is fitting that a story about soccer begins with a shot in the foot. The saga begins with President Reagan’s controversial Interior Secretary announcing that the Beach Boys would not be invited back to play on the National Mall on July 4th because they encouraged “drug abuse and alcoholism”. In their place Watt selected Wayne Newton and military bands to play on the 4th.
Watt’s announcement triggered a backlash from across the country and, more importantly, from the White House whose current occupants were Beach Boy fans. President Reagan presented Watt with a plaster sculpture of a foot with a hole in it to commemorate Watt’s shooting himself in the foot on this one. Mother Nature also expressed her disapproval, unleashing a heavy downpour during Wayne Newton’s July 4th performance. I will always remember lightning competing with the fireworks display by the Washington Monument that night.
The Beach Boys responded by agreeing to play a few weeks earlier at Washington’s Robert F Kennedy Stadium at the conclusion of the soccer game between Team America and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.
THE MATCHUP: Team America was an all-American team that was designed to improve U.S. competitiveness after failing to qualify for the 1982 World Cup (the U.S. had not been to the World Cup since its 1950 “Miracle on Grass” upset of England).
In its first and only season, Team America brought soccer back to Washington (one of the best soccer fan-bases in the US) after the demise of the Washington Diplomats after the 1981 NASL season. The Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, one of the more successful NASL franchises, was coming off an appearance in the conference semifinals the year before but were only 4-5 coming into the game at RFK Stadium against the 5-4 Team America.
THE GAME: With the Beach Boys on the card, Team America drew a near capacity crowd of 50,108. This was only slightly less than its total attendance for its first five games combined. Team America didn’t wait until the Beach Boys played “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to please the home crowd and won 2-1 in a shootout.
THE REST OF THE STORY: The next week, I was among 31,112 who showed up to see Team America stun the New York Cosmos 2-1 in a shootout victory that was set up by an own-goal by soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer. Team America then lost 15 of its last 18 games and finished with the worst record in the league. The team folded after the season ended and the NASL would follow suit the following year.
It would not be until 1990 that the US would qualify for the World Cup again.
The Beach Boys concert that followed ended with the song, “Fun, Fun, Fun.” It sure was.
Most of the other first games have faded in my memory.
Baseball: I have seen baseball games at Fenway, Angel Stadium, Camden Yards, Dodger Stadium, Memorial Stadium, Olympic Stadium, RFK Stadium and Shea Stadium. Of these, the only games of note include the last Orioles game at Memorial Stadium and the longest fight in Dodger history – a 15 minute melee against the Mariners in 1999.
Hockey: My first pro hockey game would have been a Rhode Island Reds AHL game and my first NHL game would have been a Washington Caps game. Nothing memorable about either.
Football: In addition to Foxboro, I also have seen pro games at Giant and RFK Stadium and college games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Rose Bowl for non-memorable match ups between USC and UCLA.
Basketball: In addition to the Celtic game above, I also have seen the Bullets, Clippers and Lakers at home. Nothing stands out any of the other firsts. My first NCAA Tournament Game, however, was the 2002 NCAA West Regional Finals where I saw Maryland beat Stanford en route to the National Title.
Soccer: My first professional soccer game would have been in 1975 with the Rhode Island Oceaneers of the American Soccer League at Pierce Memorial Stadium in East Providence (capacity 8,000). The year was a milestone for American soccer since it was when Pele made his nationally televised debut with the New York Cosmos. The Oceaneers were the defending ASL champions and were led by Eusebio who is still considered the greatest player in Portugal’s history (he carried the team to the 1966 World Cup semifinals).
The Oceaneers only lasted four seasons before moving to Indianapolis.
I also saw Freddy Adu’s first road game (second game total) against the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2004. The then 14-year old wonder got a shot on goal despite being knocked over much of the game, but would score in his next game in Toronto.
Four years later, I saw Beckham’s first MLS goal for the Galaxy as part of the 2008 home opener.
Roller Derby: I actually saw a roller derby match at the old Rhode Island Auditorium (5,300 capacity) in a matchup between the New England Braves and some other team. It was the only sporting event I ever saw at the old Auditorium that had been home to the NBA’s Providence Steamrollers and AHL’s Rhode Island Reds.