Two featherweight fighters climb into the ring. One is a Frenchman named Andre Routis, all of 5 feet 4 inches tall and holder of the world title. The other is Dick Finnegan, a southpaw from Dorchester with one inch on Routis and the whole crowd on his side. Tonight is the grand opening of Tex Rickard’s Boston Madison Square Garden, finally, after months of false starts and five million extra dollars. It’s a non-title bout—both men are overweight—but that doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high in front of Rickard, a legion of New York sports writers and the homegrown, overflow crowd.
The men go ten rounds. Finnegan knocks out the reigning champ and emerges victorious. The crowd booms. This fight will become the best-known success of Finnegan’s career and the beginning of a Boston tradition that will out last these four walls—the hometown always prevails.
Tex Rickard was a superstar boxing promoter who helped shepherd in the sport’s golden age in the 1920’s. Today, he’s best known for founding the New York Rangers and building the third incarnation of NYC’s Madison Square Garden, but in Boston his legacy lives on in a different way. He’s the man who helped shaped the city’s sports identity.
Boston is a town known for its passionate fans, a passion that was already budding in the early 20th century when Rickard came in and built it an incubator. It’s inside the Garden that the Boston sports community developed into what it is now—rowdy and loyal with a hard line drawn between us and them.
Rickard built the Garden in the image of his dream boxing arena. Legend has it he wanted every seat close enough to see the sweat on the boxer’s brows, which put the fans unusually close to the action and gave the home team a great advantage over visitors. The acoustics amplified and reverberated the crowd’s chants, encouraging everyone to yell as loudly as they could. The spectators were known to throw garbage at the away team from the upper deck, which hung over the main floor and hovered within ear shot of the players unlike any other arena, and the seats were so tightly packed it seemed every knee and elbow in the building were touching. The ice rink, built for the four-year old Bruins, was designed before the NHL standardized dimensions, so until the Garden was knocked down and rebuilt, the Bruins played on ice nine inches shorter in length and two inches shorter in width than the NHL standard. The smaller rink caused more collisions, which led to more fights, riling up the already fanatic crowd. Boston staffed accordingly and the Big Bad Bruins were born.
This was the environment where Boston sports came of age. The Bruins started winning, and when the Celtics moved in 23 years later, they got their footing and then started winning too. No other professional sports franchise has topped their record 17 championship titles. All the while, the building trained the crowd how to behave. It taught them to make their voices big enough to bounce off each wall, to bond with their neighbors instead of trying to pull away in the tight space, and to harass the other team as much as they could, which was a lot considering how close the players were to the stands. Even hundreds of seats with obstructed views and the stifling heat (the building never had air conditioning) couldn’t keep the fans away. Boston fans were not easily deterred. The Garden made them that way and then week after week gave them a chance to prove it.
Three days after Finngean defeated Routis, the first NHL game took place in the Garden.
It was a match between the Bruins and the Canadiens. When it first opened in 1928, the Garden could seat about 14,000 people for hockey games, but that night more than 16,000 fans showed up. They stormed the building, and when they couldn’t get in, they broke down the gates outside and pushed their way into the standing-room only bleachers. Brawls broke out when the police arrived to wrangle the crowd. The next day, Stanley Woodward of the Boston Herald would write, “It was a riot, a mob scene, a re-enactment of the assault on the Bastille.” The Bruins didn’t win that night, giving the Garden its first loss, but a certain reputation was beginning to form—one way or another, Boston fans would always prevail.