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I beat Roger Maris to No. 61 – on the tennis courts at Dot Park

I broke Babe Ruth’s home run record before Roger Maris did.

It was one year earlier, in point of fact, in 1960 at the tennis courts at Dorchester Park. Dorchester Park occupied a space between Gallivan Boulevard, Adams Street, and Dorchester Avenue. The Carney Hospital and the MTA trolley tracks also bordered the space. It was made up of two large playing fields, two sets of old tennis courts, and open space that was dotted with bushes and trails. In the open space, large stands of boulders loomed mute and ominous, hiding generations of young boys’ secrets. The tennis courts were relics of an earlier era. I assume that tennis was actually played on the clay courts at some point, but in those days we spent our summers playing baseball there and dreaming we were Ted Williams or Jackie Jensen.

I was thirteen years old when I sent a fastball delivered from Paul Souza deep over the centerfield fence for my 61st homer of the season. The ball traced an arc that had been followed tens of thousands of times over 75 years of baseball. Unlike today, there was very little fanfare given my accomplishment, just a few grudging words: “nice hit” or “you got a hold of that one.”

The upper set of tennis courts was similar to Fenway Park in one respect. We established home plate in one of the corners so that a natural backstop was formed and this configuration resulted in a short left field, a la Fenway. But the similarity ended there. There was not a blade of grass to be found inside the courts. An old net post stood near second base, a reminder to keep your head up as you rounded the bag and headed for third. An opening in the centerfield fence formed an avenue to the land of lost baseballs. And after rainy days, mud formed quicksand around home plate and a small lake turned left field into an exercise in keeping your sneakers dry. We used a ball until the cover literally fell off and sometimes even beyond that – the string that formed the inside core gradually unraveling until … game called on account of the ball disintegrating into an unusable heap!

On the way home we climbed the short, steep and dangerous cliff beside the MTA yard; left pennies to be flattened by the trolleys speeding through Cedar Grove Cemetery (the only cemetery with a trolley line going through it, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not) with the clacking of the wheels echoing off the gravestones of people long past caring. After dodging the heavy traffic on Gallivan Boulevard, we headed up Carruth Street to our houses on Van Winkle, Westmoreland, and Beaumont.

We were autonomous; no adults needed to organize us and transport us to the playing fields. Nor were they needed to umpire the games or resolve arguments. We just met every day of the summer and made our way to the tennis courts on our own. The words “I’m bored” or “There’s nothing to do” were not remotely in our vocabulary. After the games, there were different realms to experience throughout the park: Boulders to climb; snakes to be found under fallen tree branches; new trails to be blazed through the huge expanse. In many ways it was an idyllic world. A life lived completely within ourselves and among each other at the same time. Time stood still and nothing else existed for a moment.

Within a week summer had ended and we headed back to different schools. Paul, Gene and I to Latin School and the Juskiewicz brothers and Neal Buck to the Woodrow Wilson. My home run record was never spoken of again and soon forgotten. When, I wonder, was the last time anyone played baseball on the tennis courts at Dorchester Park?

Richard Donahue now lives in Foxborough.