December 12, 2011

Book Review: Fenway 1912 by Glenn Stout

As the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park draws near, Glenn Stout, co-author of Red Sox Century, brings us the definitive story of the Back Bay jewel's first season, which culminated in the Red Sox beating the New York Giants in one of the greatest World Series of all time.

In Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, A Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year, Stout also reports on the behind-the-scenes political machinations and land acquisition, as well as the park's rapid, six-month construction during the winter of 1911-12. [I received a free review copy of the book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]

Led by veteran centerfielder Tris Speaker, manager and first baseman Jake Stahl, and pitcher Joe Wood (no relation, sadly), a young Red Sox team moved from the Huntington Avenue Grounds to the new park. Stout shows that the odd configurations of the park were not because of the existing city streets or the shape of the plot of existing land; if the team had wanted to make the park symmetrical, it could have. In the Deadball Era, hitting a worn-out baseball 300 feet was a moon shot. One writer, referring to the distance to the fence at Cincinnati's Redland Field - 360 feet - "it is doubtful a ball will ever be hit over the fence".

Naturally, then, a Red Sox batter cleared the Wall almost immediately. On April 26, the fifth home game of the season, Hugh Bradley (a "free hitter" who swung from his heels) crushed a hanging curveball from Philadelphia A's pitcher Lefty Russell over the wall and (probably) onto the roof of a building on the other side of Lansdowne Street. Bradley hit a relatively new ball and may have had some help from the wind, but it was still a rare feat.
The crowd, which had risen to its feet when Bradley first struck the ball, was stunned. A moment of silence was followed by whoops and yells and screams and hoots of delight. ... Bradley, meanwhile, raced around the bases, the notion of a "home run trot" completely foreign to him. ... The hit took the air out of the A's, for, as Wallace Goldsmith later noted, the blast did not "seem human." The A's bench jockeying stopped and [Hugh] Bedient didn't give up another hit as the Red Sox won, 7-6.
Stout writes that while Fenway "is a place that many feel they know intimately, it is also a place that few people truly know very well in its original state". He offers extensive details on the construction of the park, like how the workers caught a huge break by finishing the major concrete work just before the winter's first blizzard. Stout also does an excellent job of describing the look of the park from the outside and the sensory and emotional act of entering this new space, walking down to the field, which was below street level, and the relation of the field to the various levels of the grandstand and the office windows in another section of the building.

Stout tracks the origin of the term "Green Monster", finding sporadic references to the nickname in the early and mid-1960s, but determining that it came into widespread use only in the late 1980s. Before then, it was simply "the Wall". Stout also notes that it was built to prevent fans from watching games from the buildings across the street.

Boston began the 1912 season 8-3 and 21-10, but dropped to 27-18, two games out of first place. At that point, they won 20 of their next 23 games, systematically mowing down the opposition for the rest of the year. In June, July, and August, they went a combined 62-24, a .721 winning percentage (a 117-win pace for a modern 162-game schedule).

Pitching ace Joe Wood, 22, finally fulfilled his promise after two seasons plagued with injuries. Stout notes the young Wood was quick to blame his teammates when he lost close games and was considered "soft" for staying out too long with his injuries.

Wood pitched in the Sox's biggest game of the season, a September 6 duel with Washington's Walter Johnson. Both pitchers had won 29 games to that point and the game was hyped nearly beyond measure. To say that Fenway officials oversold tickets to the game would be a gross understatement. The park held roughly 24,500 and attendance was estimated between 35,000 and 40,000. Thousands of patrons without seats stood deep in the outfield and in foul territory on each side of the infield.
[T]he Red Sox kept selling tickets until it became patently obvious that if they sold any more there would be no room on the field to play the game. ... [A]s game time approached and [the players] tried to take the field they found the dugouts packed with fans, some squeezed on the benches and others sitting on the railings and hanging off the roof. The players stood on the infield, surrounded by fans as though they were in a boxing ring, trying to play catch but most of them just gazing in wonder. None of them had ever seen anything like it before. No one had. ...

Wood finally decided to warm up [in front of the dugout]. Hick Cady paced out sixty feet in foul ground between the diamond and the dugout and, with fans barely an arm's length away, Wood slowly began warming up. Walter Johnson did the same on the opposite side of the field.

It was like trying to play catch on the subway platform at Park Station during rush hour. The crowd cleared a narrow corridor between the pitchers and their catchers, and the batteries started throwing the ball gingerly back and forth, Wood and Johnson taking care not to smack anyone in the jaw as they reached into their wind-up or throw the ball wild and knock someone unconscious. As they did the crowd peppered each man with questions and comments that each did his best to ignore, and heads turned back and forth en masse as the mob followed each toss and marveled at the speed of each pitch seen up close.

Wood finished the season with a 34-5 record and a 1.91 ERA. (Johnson, 33-12, led the AL with a 1.39 ERA.) Those numbers sound sick today, but it was the Deadball Era and runs were scarce. Wood's ERA+ for 1912 was 179, in the same ballpark as the last two AL Cy Young-award winning seasons: Felix Hernandez (174) and Justin Verlander (170).

Despite his celebrated summer, Wood was nearly the goat of the World Series for the Red Sox (105-47, still the greatest season in franchise history), who rallied to win an epic battle against John McGraw's New York Giants (103-48).

In the end, Fred Snodgrass's dropped fly ball in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 8 led to the Giants' defeat and the error followed Snodgrass to his grave.

The 1912 Red Sox season had no shortage of terrific story lines, and Stout makes every one of them sing with crisp, vibrant writing. Stout packs his sentences and paragraphs with a lot of information, both essential and the quirky, but he keeps the narrative flowing almost conversationally. Fenway 1912 is an absolutely fantastic book.

Note #1: Stout makes a point of saying that he did not rely on another book about the 1912 World Series, published in 2009. In the endnotes for Chapter 11, Stout states that he ignored New York Post sportswriter Mike Vaccaro's "fanciful" account (The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants and the Cast of Players, Pugs and Politicos Who Re-Invented the World Series in 1912 (Random House, 2009)). Before you think this may be a case of one writer slighting another for publishing a somewhat similar book first, Stout cites Keith Olbermann's blog post, which said Vaccaro's book is "riddled with [dozens of] historical mistakes, most of them seemingly trivial, some of them hilarious". Olberman listed many of the errors and, amazingly, was accused by a Baseball Prospectus writer of "killing" Vaccaro's book. [Funny, I never thought of historical accuracy as subjective. If a writer, in 2054, writes about the exploits of Kevin Foulke for the 2004 Red Sox, I expect that writer to be criticized.]

Note #2: In the Afterword, Stout recounts the many changes Fenway Park has undergone and concludes:
Perhaps the most jarring and unsightly feature of the park today is the proliferation of signs and advertising, which make it nearly impossible to find a place to rest the eye without being visually bombarded by corporate messages. That in combination with a relentless barrage of music and audio messages, has utterly changed the emotional experience of attending a game at Fenway Park. The end result is, rather ironically, that today's Fenway Park shares more in common with the retro parks designed to mimic it than with itself.
That type of change and conformity is inevitable, I suppose, but it would be wonderful if the Red Sox decided, in this upcoming anniversary season, to scale back the noise for all home games to, if not 1912 levels, then perhaps back to 1982. It is the game - and the park - that we go to experience, after all.


laura k said...

This sounds like a great book! I would expect Glenn Stout to get it right. I'm pleased to know that he also hates the ubiquity of the ads.

I'm surprised that Stout slags Vaccaro's book, no matter how deserved. It seems petty and unprofessional to include that in his own book. Criticism of that nature is more appropriate to a different venue, like a blog post, as Olbermann did, or a separate review, published elsewhere.

Vaccaro's sloppiness is the much greater evil, of course. There is no excuse for that.

FenFan said...

I will definitely have to check out that book. Thanks for the recommendation, Allan! I'm curious to learn about the Park not being shaped due to the existing streets, which is counter to what I understood.

allan said...

His comments about Vaccaro are in the endnotes. I thought of Vaccaro's book right away as I was reading this one (though I did get it out of the library only a few months ago; clearly I did not read it carefully - or completely, actually).

How many readers would see that it wasn't listed in Stout's bibliography and wonder why, or if they did wonder, assume he was annoyed at the timing of the books?

allan said...

When FP was built, it was bordered by three sides by empty lots. Landsdowne Street had a few buildings. Van Ness Street did not exist. There was more than enough room for a park, Stout says.

"In the end the new park was built from the borders of the property inwards simply to use all available space, not because concerns about the dimensions of the field required that it be so spacious."

Jere said...

Doing random 1912 research I discovered the preview of this book on amazon and had been reading lots of it, not even realizing it was new. Finally I got to a line about 2012 and it hit me it was a spanking new book.

"Green Monster" not widely used until the late 80s? I guess it depends on your definition of "widely," but I mean if you look at article about the '75 WS, they're loaded with Green Monster references. My memories go back to the late 70s and I only ever knew it as the Green Monster.

"I'm surprised that Stout slags Vaccaro's book, no matter how deserved. It seems petty and unprofessional"

Not gonna get into my personal feelings about Stout, but I'll cleverly hint at them by saying I'm not surprised about this at all.

Glenn Stout said...

Thanks for the considerate review, Allan.

allan said...

I do not recall "Green Monster" being used all that much in the late 70s, but I was just listening to games in Vermont, not living in Boston. If it was used, it was rarely, overall. (What articles did you see?)

Mentioning Vaccaro in the intro or the narrative would be unprofessional. Mentioning in the endnotes that a book covering some of the same ground is extremely sloppily researched is fine by me. Maybe because it is a fairly new book and not one from the 50s makes it seem more petty.

Jere said...

"(What articles did you see?)"

Three pages' worth on Google news from the year 1975. (About 60-70 articles.) It goes up to six pages in '86, 10 in '95, 19 in 2004 for comparison (obviously more articles get written in playoff years, but also, the farther back you go the less stuff there is archived online). This is on a search for "'green monster' fenway".

In the 70s you'd definitely see more lines like "the 'Green Monster,' as the left field wall is often called," like, they still had to specify what the hell they were talking about. But not every article from then does that.

laura k said...

"Green Monster" not widely used until the late 80s?

I didn't hear it used nationally until the mid-80s. During the 1986 post-season it was used ad nauseum, and after that it stuck.

It could be that it was used earlier in New England than nationally. It was certainly not used in New York in the late 70s.

Jere said...

I don't know exactly what you mean by "not used in New York," but the term was certainly used in newspapers nationwide (and beyond--here's a Canada one) by 1967.

You're telling me if someone said "Green Monster" in NYC in 1979, people wouldn't know what they were talking about? I feel like any baseball fan would. Maybe you could say some people would be confused before '75 but I don't know about after.

laura k said...

I don't know exactly what you mean by "not used in New York,"

Then I'll clarify: not widely used. Not a common term. Not commonly used. Known, but rare. Not a usual occurence.

The fact that one can find a newspaper reference to the term does not negate this.

You're telling me if someone said "Green Monster" in NYC in 1979, people wouldn't know what they were talking about?

No, I'm not telling you that. If it were in a baseball context, and you were talking about Fenway, yes, many fans would know.

Nevertheless, the expression "Green Monster" was not commonly used in New York at that time. It came into prominence in the latter half of the 1980s.

Joe Gravellese said...

Is this on sale yet? Seems like the perfect gift...for myself

allan said...

It's been out since mid-October, I think.

laura k said...

I just learned the context of Stout's decision to include what he wrote about Vacarro's book. It makes more sense now. It still seems not right to me, but I do understand it. Not that the man needs my approval or anything.

Michael said...

If somebody wrote about the exploits of "Kevin" Foulke for the Sox I'd be sure to criticize him.

thanks for the review

laura k said...

I was emailing with Glenn Stout on an unrelated topic, and the question of Green Monster vs "the wall" nomenclature came up. Here's a snip:

I used much the same methodology ... only with many more databases, tracking frequency of use. The three key events disseminating the phrase and delivering it to popular usage were the WS of '67, '75 and '86. Only after '86 did it become more common than "the wall."

In fact, while I was at the BPL in the late '80s the Red Sox tried to track its beginning so they could trademark it, a sign that for the first time the usage was becoming ubiquitous enough to be seen as valuable.

The phrase became familiar in the '70s, but took another decade to become commonly used At the time, no on ever talked or wrote of Dent's or Fisk's HRs being hit over the GM - it was the wall.

The last bit about how those famous HRs are referred to is pretty compelling.

Glenn seems like a very nice guy. He is certainly generous with his time.

Jere said...

"no on ever talked or wrote of Dent's or Fisk's HRs being hit over the GM - it was the wall"

--"Carlton Fisk socked a drive into the net atop the Green Monster" -George Cushman, Bangor Daily News, October 23, 1975

--"Rose [...] enjoyed playing in the "Green Monster" thriller." and "[Lynn] cracked into the famous Green Monster"--AP, October 22, 1975

--"The 1975 World Series [...] played no small role in spreading the fame of the wall--otherwise known as the "Green Monster." --Bob Strecker, London Day, November 7, 1975

--"The battling Boston Red Sox nipped the Cincinnati Reds 7-6 on a leadoff home run in the ninth inning by catcher Carlton Fisk over the much publicized "Green Monster" in left field" --Ian MacDonald, Montreal Gazette, October 22, 1975

--"Before the Series, there was much speculation about the Green Monster" --New York Times, October 23, 1975

--"Everyone talks about the "Green Monster" at Fenway Park." --AP, October 19, 1975

various pre-Series headlines, October, 1975:
"Rose shrugs off 'Green Monster'"
"Reds See 'Green Monster' for First Time Ever"
"Mention 'monster' and Rose sees red"
"Tiant Eyes Reds Eyeing Green Monster"
"'Green Monster' to have star role in drama of Series"
"Reds Don't Fear 'Monster'"

--"Dent takes it out to left field. Yaz waits for the ball to bounce off the 37-foot high Green Monster" --Tim Burke, Montreal Gazette, October 3, 1978

"Bucky Dent [...] arched a three-run homer over Fenway's "green monster" left field wall" --Frank Corkin, Morning Record and Journal, October 4, 1978

"'I thought the best it could do was hit the wall,' said Dent of his seventh-inning homer, which barely cleared the famed 'Green Monster' in left." --Peter May, UPI, October 3, 1978

allan said...

Yeah, but you know how the media makes up stuff.

"The battling Boston Red Sox nipped the Cincinnati Reds 7-6 on a leadoff home run in the ninth inning by catcher Carlton Fisk over the much publicized "Green Monster" in left field" --Ian MacDonald, Montreal Gazette, October 22, 1975

The ball did not go over the fence. And it was the 12th inning.

laura k said...

I knew the words "no one" would provide you with fuel.

I believe the words you're missing there are "talked of".

Jere said...

"The ball did not go over the fence. And it was the 12th inning."

Yeah I've done extensive research on how so many people somehow missed that it hit the pole--even had it wrong! (9th inning is even more unforgivable). (That one about Lynn says he cracked into the Monster, and it was really dead center, too.)

laura k said...

I think many turns of phrase are used in print media that are not heard in everyday speech. This was certainly the case before electronic media became huge. Look at old newspaper reports of Babe Ruth. The man had like 10 or 20 different nicknames in the press. Did people really call him those names, in everyday language? Did a lot of people in Boston call TSW The Splendid Splinter?

I think the use of GM in newspaper accounts may be like that.

allan said...

Did a lot of people in Boston call TSW The Splendid Splinter?

I hope not.

Hmmmm, maybe that was why he hated the media and fans so much!

Jere said...

And people don't really say Big Apple or Beantown, but when you hear it, you know exactly what it means. Maybe that was the case with the GM back then?

laura k said...

And people don't really say Big Apple or Beantown, but when you hear it, you know exactly what it means. Maybe that was the case with the GM back then?

Very possible. Good analogy!