Behind the scenes

Guide by Waltham author points sports fans to area’s lesser-known landmarks

By Rachel Lebeaux
Globe Correspondent / September 3, 2009

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Fenway Park may be the preeminent shrine for sports fans in Boston, but out west of town there are plenty of landmarks to entice true lovers of sport.

Consider Babe Ruth’s former farmhouse in Sudbury, or the site of a famous baseball factory in Natick, or the location of the state’s first bicycle race track in Waltham, or the course in Brookline that witnessed one of golf’s greatest upsets, or the scoreboard from the old Boston Garden in Watertown.

And, of course, there is always the 26.2-mile route of the world’s best-known road race: the Boston Marathon.

Waltham author Christopher Klein offers readers a tour of these and other cherished sports locations in “The Die-Hard Sports Fan’s Guide to Boston: A Spectator’s Handbook,’’ which came out in June.

According to Klein, Boston is the perfect place for the sports fanatic.

“There’s no greater sports town in America,’’ said Klein. “If you really want to get in touch with the heart and soul of the city, you have to know about its love affair with sports.’’

Klein said that one of his most pleasant discoveries in researching the book was how many sports-history landmarks emerged in area communities.

“There are these things that you don’t really know are there in your backyard, unless you especially look for them,’’ Klein said.

Take the Bambino’s farm.

When Babe Ruth played baseball for the Boston Red Sox early in the last century, he lived in Sudbury. He rented a cottage on the shore of Willis Pond, where he went ice fishing and played hockey with local youths, Klein said.

According to a local legend, during a wild party Ruth dragged a piano onto the ice. The piano fell through and plunged to the bottom of the pond. Although it has never been recovered, Klein said, “some people thought there was a connection with the Curse of the Bambino,’’ the 86-year spell allegedly cast over the Red Sox when Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees. The curse ended when the Sox won the 2004 World Series.

Even after he was sold to the Yankees, Ruth bought a farmhouse in Sudbury in 1922. The structure, on Dutton Road, still stands as a private home, Klein said.

Some of the baseballs that Ruth launched in his storied career might have been produced in nearby Natick, which was home to the first factory in the United States dedicated to the manufacturing of baseballs, Klein said.

The Harwood Baseball Factory faced North Avenue overlooking Main Street. The building still stands, bearing a small plaque explaining the factory’s history, Klein said.

Its hand-stitched balls were used by big-league baseball teams starting in 1858 and continuing for many decades, Klein said; the Natick Historical Society’s collection includes some of the baseballs produced there.

In Waltham, South Street was once home to the first race track in Massachusetts designed specifically for the use of bicycles, Klein said. It’s now a park with baseball diamonds and basketball courts, but on its opening day in 1893 the Waltham Bicycle Park drew 15,000 fans who sat in grandstand seating, and even on the roofs of nearby buildings, to get a better view.

Brookline was home to one of the most shocking matches in golf history, when local 20-year-old amateur Francis Ouimet stunned the world by capturing the 1913 US Open title at The Country Club, where the former caddie beat two of the top players in the world.

“Until then, it was really a sport for the elite and a bastion of the wealthy,’’ Klein said. Ouimet’s win “really opened up golf to the masses.’’

Bob Donovan, executive director of the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund, called Ouimet’s victory “probably the landmark moment in the history of American golf.’’

The “Cinderella upset,’’ Donovan said, “would have to be considered as big an upset as there ever was.’’

Ouimet lived across from The Country Club, caddied and occasionally practiced there, Klein said. Ouimet’s house on Clyde Street is still there, owned by another family.

In Watertown, the Arsenal Mall is home to one of the area’s newer sports landmarks. Diners in the mall’s food court might be surprised to look up and see the old scoreboard from the original Boston Garden suspended above them. The Boston Garden was razed in 1997, replaced by a building that has held a succession of names before its recent change to TD Garden but has remained the home of the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins.

“For years and years, this is the scoreboard that hung over the basketball court and hockey rink,’’ Klein said of the 16-by-14-foot scoreboard. “Now, it still hangs over a court, but the food court.’’

Perhaps the most well-known sporting event west of the city is the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon, which attracts thousands of participants and thousands more observers lining the route between Hopkinton and Boston every April. However, those looking to avoid the crowds can follow the famous trail at any time.

“It’s not a one-day-a-year chance to revel in the marathon,’’ Klein said.

Guy Morse, executive director of Boston Athletic Association, which oversees the Marathon, concurred.

“With the race being 114 years old, there’s a lot of history there,’’ Morse said. “The MetroWest communities have been hosting and supporting this race since the beginning. The course itself dictates the whole flavor of the Marathon.’’

Marathon Park on Pleasant Street in Ashland commemorates the original starting line of the race, which until the 1920s was only 24 miles long.

At the current starting line in Hopkinton Center is a statue of George V. Brown, one of the founders of the event and its official starter for many years. He is depicted with a fedora on his head and his starter’s pistol raised in the air.

A mile into the race, near the Hopkinton-Ashland line, a statue commemorates Greek runner Stylianos Kyriakides, who, in the aftermath of World War II and the Nazi occupation of his country, was so emaciated that doctors advised him against running in the Marathon. But Kyriakides ran in 1946 and triumphed, and his fame helped get international relief supplies sent to Greece. “It’s an incredible humanitarian story,’’ Klein said.

One of the local favorites who Kyriakides beat out that day, Johnny Kelley, has his own statue as well, this one near Newton’s City Hall, at Walnut Street and Commonwealth Avenue.

Kelley won the race in 1935 and again in 1945, and finished in second place seven times. Perhaps even more impressively, he ran the race 61 times between 1928 and 1992, when he was 84 years old, and then ran the last 7 miles of it for the next two years.

The statue in Newton depicts a 27-year-old Kelley crossing the finish line in 1935, hand linked victoriously with that of an 84-year-old version of Kelley in 1992.

Kelley, said Klein, “was the Marathon’s ultimate iron man.’’

CHRISTOPHER KLEIN will give a presentation on his new book, “The Die-Hard Sports Fan’s Guide to Boston: A Spectator’s Handbook,’’ Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at Brookline

Booksmith, 279 Harvard St., Brookline. 617-566-6660,