Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When Waltham Was the Hub of Cycling

In just a few weeks, the Tour de France will capture the attention of cycling fans. But did you know that at one time the eyes of the cycling world were once focused on Waltham?

After the bicycle was introduced in Boston in the 1870s, the sport of cycling took off like Lance Armstrong on an Alpine mountaintop. The popularity of bicycle racing in Boston reached its zenith in the 1890s when fans poured into velodromes around the region to watch two-wheelers circle the track. One of the area’s premier cycling venues was Waltham Bicycle Park, which opened in 1893. The oval was considered the fastest dirt track in the country, and numerous world records fell at the track.

Waltham Bicycle Park was a unique venue when it opened because it was the first track in Massachusetts built solely for bicycles, unlike other cycling tracks that were also used for horse racing. The park had a covered grandstand flanked by bleachers on both sides, which seated a total of 9,000. When the track opened on Memorial Day in 1893, an overflow crowd of 15,000 showed up. Crowds as much as six people deep lined the circumference of the track, and spectators watched from surrounding hillsides and even the roof of Waltham Hospital across South Street. The track had electric lights that allowed for nighttime racing.

The Boston Globe had this to say about the track when it opened: “There may be more beautiful spots within 10 miles of the State House than the one in which the new Waltham bicycle park lies. But it would take a week’s hunt to find them. The track sits among the hills in a sheltered valley like a jewel in a brooch, and the view from the grandstand is charming, and looks away to a low range of wooded hills.”

Crowds between 10,000 and 15,000 often filled the track to watch professional solo and tandem racers. Some of the fastest cyclists rode Orient bicycles, which were built right in Waltham by the Waltham Manufacturing Company of Charles Metz. Metz held 22 patents on early bicycles.

Metz was also a pioneer in the development of motorcycles, which the company began to manufacture in 1898. Tandem motorcycles were tested, often by Albert Champion (who would later invent his famous A.C. spark plug in the Cyclorama in Boston’s South End), and raced at Waltham Bicycle Park. The person in the front drove the machine while the person in the rear operated the motor. Waltham Bicycle Park was the scene of a horrific accident in 1900 when, during a race meet, Albert Champion swerved into the grass on a turn and motorcycle tandem behind him were forced over the bank of the track, striking an electric light pole and picket fence. Both men were killed, and half a dozen spectators were injured.

In a way, Metz led to the demise of the Waltham Cycling Park as the sport of bicycling began to fall out of vogue around the turn of the twentieth century with the rise of motorcycles and the automobile. (Metz was also a pioneer in the development of automobiles and airplanes.) According to the Waltham Museum, the park was sold to the city in 1902 and became the home Waltham High School football.

Today, the site of the Waltham Bicycle Park is Nipper Maher Park, just off South Street near Brandeis University. The property continues its sporting connection as the home to numerous baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and basketball hoops.

If you want to learn more about the Waltham Bicycle Park, I’ll be speaking at Back Pages Books on Moody Street at 7 PM on Tuesday, June 23. I’ll be talking about this and other stories from the history of Boston sports taken from The Die-Hard Sports Fan’s Guide to Boston. Hope you can make it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This Summer's Best Deals for Boston Sports Fans

Boston sports fans, like most Americans, are keeping a closer eye on their pocketbooks during the recession. Here are seven low-cost options for Boston sports junkies looking to get their fix without breaking the bank:

1. Futures at Fenway. Tickets to Red Sox games are among the most expensive in baseball, but the Futures at Fenway doubleheader on Saturday, August 8 is a cheapskate’s dream. Fans can watch two games at Fenway Park involving Boston’s minor league affiliates for as little as $5. Fans can also indulge in Fenway’s luxury seats for just $30. Concessions are also discounted.

2. Try a minor league alternative to Fenway. Three of Boston’s minor league affiliates—the Lowell Spinners, Portland Sea Dogs, and Pawtucket Red Sox—play within an easy drive of the Hub. Minor league ballparks offer a family-friendly atmosphere, and tickets and concessions are a fraction of Fenway prices. Brockton and Worcester are also home to minor league franchises. Another hardball option is to catch a Cape Cod League amateur game this summer and capture the feel of the season and the sport. Admission is free, and picnicking is expected.

3. Sneak a peek at Brady’s recovery. Training camp is the easiest and cheapest way to see the New England Patriots up close. Admission and parking is free, and the players are accessible.

4. Rediscover the “beautiful game.” Drive down to Foxborough and watch the New England Revolution play the world’s most popular sport. Tickets are as cheap as $20, and parking is free.

5. Have some fun with Boston’s sports history. The Sports Museum at the TD Banknorth Garden is full of interactive exhibits and memorabilia dedicated to the region’s sporting history. Adult admission is $6.

6. Engage in some horseplay. Suffolk Downs may be the best sports bargain in Boston. General parking is free, and admission for three hours of racing is free on weekdays and just $2 on Saturdays and holidays. Fans who place a winning wager may actually make money!

7. Try something new! While Boston’s major sports are a grand draw, die-hards can be adventurous and check out additional spectator sports in the area such as Australian Rules football, cricket, Gaelic sports, polo, rugby, and squash. Bonus: these events are often free.

For dozens of other money-saving tips, even for Patriots and Red Sox games, check out The Die-Hard Sports Fan's Guide to Boston, a brand new guidebook to Boston's spectator sports. The 270-page book combines Boston's proud sports history with insider tips that will help both rookies and veterans get their money's worth at the game and have as enjoyable an experience as possible rooting on the home teams. 

Monday, June 1, 2009

Rare Chance to Visit Rainsford Island

Rainsford Island is one of the more unique isles in the Boston Harbor Islands national park area. For nearly two centuries, the island was home to a quarantine hospital, cemetery, almshouse, veterans' home, and boys' reformatory. This painting by Robert Salmon in the Museum of Fine Arts depicts Rainsford Island in its heyday in the 1840s. 

The island is uninhabited today, but visitors can see the rubble of the old Greek Revival hospital and keepers' home and read the inscriptions carved into the seaside rocks by previous residents of the island. It's a great island to explore, but since there is no ferry service to Rainsford Island, the only way those without a boat can get ashore is to join the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands on their annual trip. Their next Rainsford Island trip is scheduled for this Saturday, June 6, from 10 AM to 2 PM. (They are also running a trip to Great Brewster Island, another isle unserved by public ferry but a great place to explore, on June 21.) I've done the Friends' trips to both Rainsford and Great Brewster and highly recommend them. Click here for more information on the tours, and, for a great traveling companion, pick up a copy of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands.