‘Fenway 1912’: when it all began
Glenn Stout has long been respected among literary-minded baseball fans for his meticulously researched and graceful writing about the sport, particularly on that perpetually fertile subject, the Boston Red Sox.
Dick Bresciani ranks as the franchise’s respected official historian, but Vermont resident Stout has come to be viewed by many as the don of the unofficial chroniclers after his definitive and refreshingly unsparing “Red Sox Century,’’ co-written with Boston Sports Museum curator Richard A. Johnson in 2000.
With his latest book, “Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Year,’’ Stout has crafted an ideal companion to “Red Sox Century,’’ as it is timed, like that larger project, to neatly coincide with the celebration of a franchise milestone, the 100th anniversary of the storied stadium - and let’s just say the suspicion here is that this is not the last you will hear of it.
Stout’s vivid writing and extraordinary research make the journey worthwhile in so many ways. Fenway, of course, takes center stage. In an appropriately sentimental remembrance of his own pivotal early adulthood experiences there, Stout recognizes the ballpark as “a place that can change your life and sometimes does.’’
“Fenway 1912’’ begins with the symbolic act of transporting sod from the Huntington Avenue Grounds, the team’s previous home, through the streets of Boston to the site of the new park. The early chapters are dedicated to Fenway’s birth, but the park assumes more of a supporting role in the middle section, as the narrative shifts to a kind of diary of a memorable season, culminating with - and this is probably not a spoiler at this point - a tense and thrilling World Series victory.
For Red Sox fans one of the most fascinating parts of this book will likely involve the way Stout deftly deflates a few myths about the park. He notes, for instance, that Fenway was regarded largely as just another ballpark until the Impossible Dream summer of 1967. It was, after all, but one of a number of old stadiums still in use then. Now, Fenway ranks as one of the most popular historic tourist attractions in a city full of them.
He also upends the legend that the ballpark owes its size to the fact that it had to be shoehorned into the neighborhood. The vast majority of the area surrounding the grounds was open space in 1911, when construction began, but the owners wanted to duplicate dimensions of the old Huntington Avenue Grounds.
In the end this isn’t just a chronicle of a venue or a team, but of the people who brought it to life. Characters such as architect James McLaughlin, groundskeeper Jerome Kelley, or the rowdy Royal Rooters at “Nuf Ced’’ McGreevey’s Columbus Avenue tavern.
If “Fenway 1912’’ lags anywhere, it is in the game details of a relatively mundane regular season that serve as little more than a prolonged setup for a tense World Series showdown with legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants. But that bit of a slog is more than salvaged by Stout’s insights into Red Sox greats Tris Speaker, Duffy Lewis, and especially cantankerous fireballer “Smoky’’ Joe Wood, whose early status as a punch line for his teammates because of a previous affiliation with a team called “The Bloomer Girls’’ - men playing high-caliber ball in drag - quickly gave way to respect accompanied by more than a hint of fear.
Stout’s words stoke the reader’s mind, painting such a detailed and vivid portrait of the ballplayers and ballpark that you will likely feel as if you were in the creaky grandstand yourself. It’s so much more fulfilling than the images of spoiled modern stars we saw blow their chances this September. And perhaps cathartic, too.