Continuing with the theme of celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Fenway Park, I read Glenn Stout’s incredible account of the construction of the Red Sox home and the subsequent first season, Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year. The casual fan of baseball history might have some awareness of this incredible year in the game’s earlier and more offensively challenged era. The Red Sox World Series victory over the New York Giants is often most closely tied with name Snodgrass, in same way that the 1986 Series is tied to the name Buckner. Fred Snodgrass’s error on a routine fly ball might be the most recounted event of that season, but it hardly the year’s only memorable moment. Some incredible baseball moments from that inaugural year, both for the Boston Red Sox and for FenwayPark have passed from memory and been lost to the passage of time. Glen Stout brings those moments to life with stunning detail and a vibrant sense of the moment.
Stout does not begin with Charles or John I. Taylor, the Red Sox owners, or with architect James McLuaghlin, who designed the timeless baseball venue, but with Jerome Kelley, a Irish immigrant labor, who served as the groundskeeper for the Red Sox, first at the Huntington Ave Grounds and then at the newly built Fenway Park. This choice, along with Stout’s dedications ("to the fans in the stands- particularly the bleachers…") clues you in to the author’s allegiances. While this story is largely about the deeds of wealth and powerful men who created a park to fatten their pockets, and it is perhaps primarily the story of great athletes who made their living on at that Park, it is the inclusion of people like Jerome Kelley that elevates this book into the upper realms of baseball and history writing. It is not just the actions of the players on the field that Stout brings to life, but the cheers and groans of the fans as they can to embrace this team and this ballpark for the first time.
That is not to say that the Irvings and other baseball magnates like Ban Johnson and his toadie Jimmy McAleer are not front-and-center in the telling. Stout covers the construction of Fenway and its first season from all angles and always with an even hand. He unearths precious gems of insight into the back room dealing that ruled the game in those far less transparent days, when cronyism ruled not only baseball, but much of American life. The reader is privy to the hushed dealing that lead to the Irving’s selling half their stake in the team to finance their full stake in the Park where their team would play. One particularly alluring scene in this section of the narrative tells of the clandestine attempt by Boston’s ownership to buy Walter Johnson away from Clark Griffin’s Washington Senators.
The construction of
FenwayPark and the related dealings dominates the first few chapters, but the bulk of Stout’s book is a recap of the 1912 season. Similar to Cait Murphy’s excellent Crazy ’08, which follows the Chicago Cubs wild run to their last World Series title, the book follows the team closely series by series, focusing on the most dramatic and exciting moments, while also carefully distinguishing the dead-ball era game from the wild slugfest of our modern times. While the old game has maintained the same rules (more or less) for close to 140 years, the style of play in 1912 was radically different. Spitballs were an integral part of the game; Boston featured a spitball specialist, Buck O’Brien, as did most teams of the age. The fences did not determine home runs nearly as much as the depth of the power alleys did since balls rarely ever left the field of play. Most importantly, especially for the Boston Red Sox of 1912, the fans were often the barrier of the field instead of the walls, as overflowing crowds were given standing room space in the outfield, allowing the home crowd an extraordinaire level of influence. Stout makes this strange world where Duffy’s Cliff once lay surprisingly immediate, and by the World Series, much of the game’s stylistic difference has faded into the background.
The final third of the book focuses heavily on the Fall Classic. And it was one of the great series of the age with the surprising Red Sox team, led by Tris Speaker and Smokey Joe Wood, meeting the great New York dynasty of the time, John McGraw’s Giants. As he does with the construction of the stadium and the wild ride of the regular season, Stout covers the Series from every angle, examining the mechanization of the owners and league presidents, the pervasive role of gambling and high stakes speculators, and the hectic lives and incredibly vital contribution of the newspapermen, who we can thank for almost all the knowledge that we have of these events in the days before televised games or even radio broadcasts.
Around the eight games of the 1912 World Series (a tie necessitated an 8th game), we are given the full story of America’s game and how the Red Sox became truly Boston’s team. For fans with any interest in American history or the early days of the game, this book is a must-read. It is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and you can pick up a copy here if you so desire. Red Sox fans will revel in those early days of triumph and savor the thought of being at
FenwayPark in its earliest incarnation, a structure almost completely unfamiliar, but for the fact that it is