Glenn Stout paints a vivid portrait of a moment in the history of America's favorite pastime.
By the turn of the 20th century, Americans had become enthralled with their national pastime, and entrepreneurial owners scrambled to build facilities to appease – and cash in on – the baseball-hungry masses. Boston’s Fenway Park, hastily built over the 1911-1912 winter, was part of a nationwide shift to larger, concrete and steel ballparks, a more permanent alternative to the wooden stadiums of years past – though no one could have ever predicted Fenway’s longevity.
With the 100th anniversary of Fenway approaching, Glenn Stout, the author of "Red Sox Century," pays tribute to “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark” with Fenway 1912, detailing the park’s inaugural season and the unforgettable eight-game World Series between the Red Sox and New York Giants.
In Fenway 1912, the ballpark itself is a main character, and Stout devotes the first part of his book to its birth. “It is a living place,” he writes, “one that has changed, and will continue to change, across eras, evolving and shaping the collective memory of generations.” Many of the beloved quirks of today’s version of Fenway – the manual scoreboard, the park’s Dartmouth-green paint, the center-field triangle – didn’t exist in 1912. Instead, “Duffy’s Cliff,” a sloping hill in left field, proved exasperating for opposing left-fielders, while the dugouts routinely flooded during the wet spring of 1912. The park’s effect on the outcome of games is a recurrent theme, epitomized by the pivotal game five of the World Series, when “Fenway Park had never been more friendly to the Boston cause.”
At times, Stout’s detailed account of the ballpark’s design and construction process – descriptions of beams and steel-enforced concrete, of foundations and wooden forms – proves cumbersome and confusing, but slog through this section, and readers are in for a treat.
While researching, Stout pored through voluminous amounts of newspaper articles written during the park’s inaugural year. His narrative could have easily become bogged down in a never-ending sequence of truncated game recaps, culminating with the World Series; however Stout’s greatest triumph is his ability to manage the pace of the 152-game season, breaking up game summaries by delving into the lives of the teams’ larger-than-life characters.
There’s Jake Stahl, the banker turned Red Sox player-manager, both indecisive and quick to hold a grudge; opposing Stahl in the World Series, fiery New York Giants manager John McGraw, treating each game “as a life-and-death struggle” (fellow coach Artie Latham once said McGraw “eats gunpowder every morning for breakfast and washes it down with warm blood”); there’s the team’s petulant ace, “Smoky” Joe Wood, who harnessed his other-worldly fastball and fragile psyche to pull off a season for the ages; and then Wood’s regular season nemesis, the deferential young ace of the Washington Senators, Walter “Big Train” Johnson.
Stout does a particularly fine job recreating the epic, late season showdown between Wood and Johnson. As game time approached, some fans stood, six-to-eight deep in the outfield, while others risked their lives sitting on the wobbly left-field wall. So many people poured into the ballpark, jockeying for standing room and spilling onto the field, that, as Wood warmed up in foul territory, “It was like trying to play catch on the subway platform at Park Station during rush hour.”
Red Sox fans – even in 1912 – were a notoriously rowdy bunch, captained by local saloon owner Michael “Nuf ‘Ced” McGreevey and his entourage of die-hards, the Royal Rooters. All game, the Rooters harassed opposing players with snarky chants, repetitive renditions of their fight song, “Tessie,” and a loud brass band.
Out in the bleachers, gamblers hollered out bets on anything and everything, “wagering on the smallest elements of the game, such as ball and strike calls, or pop-ups versus ground balls.” Gambling, Stout writes, “fueled the game,” as “bets of $50,000 or more – the equivalent of more than $1 million – were commonplace, and men died in the street every day over much smaller sums.”
Ultimately, Stout succeeds in painting a vivid portrait of a specific time and place in game’s history: when pitchers threw scuffed balls smeared with dirt and saliva, players brawled with the umpires, and Tris Speaker, the Red Sox star outfielder, smacked ten home runs – enough to lead the league.
During the 2012 baseball season, the enterprising owners of the Red Sox – just like their predecessors – will be eager to capitalize on the financial windfall generated by Fenway’s 100th anniversary. Red Sox players from past and present will be paraded around the sacred grounds in commemoration, hour-long specials on MLB TV will cycle through the nation’s television sets, and the team will hawk Fenway merchandise from its website and stores.
Yet it is Stout, with his well-researched, comprehensive narrative, who quietly offers perhaps the most fitting tribute of all.
Nick Lehr is a Monitor contributor.