A Plaque to Commemorate the South End Grounds

                                              “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” —William Faulkner

One of the greatest lectures I ever heard at Northeastern occurred in a course I had learned to despise called The Bible as Literature.

Taking a break from political science, I thought it would be interesting to learn the connections between characters in great novels — “Call me Ishmael” — and their biblical backstory. How wrong I was. The class consisted mostly of boring lectures and 120 fill-in tests replete with such questions as: “Moses’ wife’s cousin’s daughter’s name was?”

This mind-numbing approach changed dramatically one day when the professor unexpectedly launched into a discussion of historical memory using Boston and his own life. It was personal, emotional and insightful. He talked about the streets he once walked, the buildings and stores he once passed — many of which were gone — and the voices and faces of people who once lived in the city. He made the point that only he could see and hear them, but they were alive to him, alive, without him saying so, as the stories we were reading in the Bible.

Between the university’s Columbus Avenue Parking Garage and the Orange Line’s Ruggles Station sits Northeastern’s $225 million Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering building, honored by the American Institute of Architects as one of the top 10 buildings of 2019 and a marker, as the Boston Globe wrote, “…of a major shift in the culture, history and trajectory of Northeastern.”

In 1888, on that same spot, another architectural wonder was erected — a massive, for its time, baseball stadium called the Grand Pavilion of the South End Grounds. Seventeen years earlier, Boston’s first professional sports team, the Red Stockings, was founded as part of the newly formed National Association. Called much later the Braves and other names over the years (my favorite is the Beaneaters), the team played its last game at the Grounds on August 11, 1914. In its 44 years of existence, 65 Hall of Famers strode across the field, and the home team won multiple pennants.

Richard Tourangeau provides all the details of this hallowed baseball ground in his article here entitled “NU Recognition Elusive for South End Grounds…” When Richard finished his extensive research several years ago, we presented this new historical information to the university in hopes that a plaque would be placed at the Science and Engineering building to commemorate the Grounds. 

With support from more than 30 other alumni, we made our case to various Northeastern officials and seemed close to achieving our goal until the last person we spoke with left the school. The matter was turned over to someone who never spoke with us in person, but who assured us, via email, that she understood the project and would represent our interests at a meeting of a committee that oversaw the building. Of course, without our presence and passion, the idea was rejected.

I called President Aoun’s office and was turned over to a vice president who candidly said that putting up plaques was part of the old Northeastern, the ideas of faculty members now long gone. 

I thought he also implied, by his tone, of old alumni now long gone from campus.

But Faulkner is right. History is never dead, and it is not even past. You just have to bring it alive to understand its importance, whether through a book, a documentary, a painting or a plaque.

All professional sports in the city stem from the South End Grounds. Every time fans stand and cheer at Fenway Park or at the Boston Garden or at Gillette Stadium they are the descendants of those Bostonians who watched great ballplayers of the past play in that magnificent stadium.

When I have returned to the university in the last few years, I see the vast expansion, the beautification of the campus through landscaping and the hurried shuffle of a new generation of students. But if I stop for a minute, I can view in my mind’s eye the older, much smaller campus and my friends gathered on the steps of the Ell Center or Dodge Library or stretched out on the little grass that was available to us.

With the research that Richard has done, I can pass by the Science and Engineering building and pause for a moment and hear, in my imagination, an umpire bellowing “Play ball” and a crowd roaring when a Hall of Famer rips a line drive past an ungloved infielder as a Red Stocking or Beaneater rounds third.

It seems to me this memory should be shared by all who enter this splendid new building. 

If you agree, and want to place a plaque on the building and the email address of Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun via his executive assistant Susan Cromwell s.comwell@northeastern.edu or just call 617-373-2101.  

                                                                                                                                   —Larry Rothstein