When a Major League Baseball team travels by train today — say, a short Amtrak trip from Philadelphia to Washington or a longer ride from Boston to New York — the novelty makes headlines. Players sometimes even don vintage hats in homage to a bygone era when train travel was as much a part of the game as flannel uniforms and chewing tobacco.
A century ago, trains, baseball, and Boston South Station converged all season long. In this photo, fans surrounded the Red Sox train upon the team’s return from a two-week road trip in September 1912. The Sox had just clinched the American League pennant. The Red Sox would go on to beat the New York Giants in the World Series. (Photo Credit: Robert Edward Auctions, LLC)
Trains carried ball clubs from city to city for 75 years until the late 1950s, when the major leagues expanded to the West Coast. In Boston, that means all of the game’s greats walked the marble floors of South Station, which is 13 years older (Opening Day January 1, 1899) than hallowed Fenway Park itself.
Basketball and hockey teams also rode the rails in their early days, but baseball had the deepest connection to trains. With its six-month season, “America’s pastime” was the most popular of the mid-20th century’s “major” sports, the others being boxing and horse racing. The long, often overnight train rides, as hot and unpleasant as they could be, fostered camaraderie among the players, coaches, and even the traveling sportswriters.
Don Zimmer, who broke into the majors in 1954 and two decades later managed the Red Sox, once compared his playing days with the modern era. “On trains, we were together. You get on a plane, and you’re only talking to one person — the guy next to you,” Zimmer told MLB.com in 2003. “There isn’t the closeness now that there was then. We’d eat in the same dining car, we were always together. I’m not saying it was better, that was just the biggest difference.”
Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky once recalled, “We’d sit around and talk about hitting, playing. Oh, we’d talk about girls, too. But there was more baseball talk. It was a comfortable feeling. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack.”
Train travel also meant unparalleled fan access. While teams today take chartered flights, ball players traveled largely among the masses. In the first two decades of the 1900s, large contingents of the Royal Rooters fan club commonly rode the train with the Boston clubs, be they the American League or National League squads. Tens of thousands of fans would swarm South Station to welcome home the teams after a big win or successful road trip.
On October 12, 1903, the Americans arrived at South Station the day after a pivotal victory over the Pirates in Pittsburgh in the first official World Series. “Red Sox Century” authors Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson described the scene: “Boys and men together rushed the platform and [Boston pitcher] Cy Young was carried from the train and passed into the station on the shoulders of his admirers.”
Three days later, with the Royal Rooters cheering from seats of honor at the Huntington Avenue Grounds, the Americans defeated the Pirates 3-0, taking the series. Fans rushed the field and paraded with the team down Huntington Avenue to the Roxbury saloon where the Royal Rooters were born.
A bygone era, for sure, but Red Sox baseball — and South Station — both endure.