A celebration of Fenway’s centennialby Greg Simons
September 16, 2011
Saul Wisnia was born just a few blocks away from Fenway Park, the historic home of the Boston Red Sox, which turns 100 years old next April. Having spent virtually all his life living within 10 miles of one of baseball's most storied ballparks, it seems appropriate that this lifelong BoSox fan would write a book about Fenway and its century-old relationship with the city and fans that love it so.
Fenway Park: The Centennial: 100 Years of Red Sox Baseball is obviously crafted with a passion for its subject, but the book is not simply a love letter to the old ball yard. Wisnia naturally revels in all the good times and feelings so many Bostonians have experienced within its confines (and sometimes standing on the outside). But he balances his perspective by noting some of the more challenging times the facility and the team have experienced over the last hundred years.
Ironically, Fenway Park's first subject isn't even Fenway Park nor the Red Sox. The book's prologue reviews the predecessors to the oldest surviving park in Major League Baseball and the team that now calls it home.
South End Grounds I, II and III (fires were a major issue in those days) and Huntington Avenue Grounds all hosted professional games before Fenway, and teams such as the Red Stockings, Bostons and Americans all fielded nines on those wonderful patches of earth before the Red Sox emerged.
However, in September of 1911, the owner of Boston's American League franchise, Charles "General" Taylor, tasked his son, John I. Taylor, with developing a ballpark on an oddly-shaped piece of land the family owned in the Fenway section of Boston.
Working within the confines of the space, the project architect created the first iteration of many unusual layouts, with a center field distance of 550 feet, a right field wall 380 feet from home plate and a left field fence a mere 300 feet away. At that time, there was a slope, which came to be known as "Duffy's Cliff," in left field leading up to a 25-foot tall fence (called "The Wall") covered with advertisements.
Wisnia goes into some detail at several points throughout the book explaining how the park's dimensions have changed with various additions and upgrades. Of course, the most famous of those changes was the construction of The Green Monster. Like the ivy at Wrigley Field, the Monster was not an original feature of the park. It followed, and significantly upstaged, The Wall as Fenway Park's trademark feature in 1934.
Numerous other additions, such as the manual scoreboard at the base of the wall in left, the bullpens in right field, luxury suites atop the left- and right-field stands, the 406 Club and the Monster seats are covered in detail. Today's ballpark may still be called Fenway Park, but someone who attending a game there in 1912 might have a difficult time identifying it as the same place.
That's not to say the improvements are a bad thing. Owners from Tom Yawkey to John Henry have made numerous improvements over the decades to make Fenway modern and competitive during a period in which every other major league stadium has been replaced.
The other major focus of the book is, of course, the team. It may surprise some to learn that the Red Sox were a powerhouse during Fenway's early years. Four World Series championships in the ballpark's first seven years established the BoSox as the sport's dominant team.
However, around the same time owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees (not to finance a play), Boston's losing ways began—though no one for several decades would refer to this as any sort of curse.
The Red Sox languished through most of the 1920s and '30s, going from 1919 through 1934 without a winning season and watching other AL representatives—often Ruth's Yankees—play in the Fall Classic. While the team returned to first-division status for most of the '40s and '50s, its sole World Series appearance ended in a heart-breaking seven-game loss to St. Louis in 1946.
Seven-game series losses occurred again in 1967, 1975 and 1986, each one piling on the pain for millions of loyal New Englanders. Further postseason futility in League Championship and Division Series over the next couple of decades added to the agony until, at last, 2004.
The end of the 86-year drought—which included Boston's unprecedented comeback from down three-games-to-none against the Yankees in the ALCS—was nirvana for the team and its fans, and Wisnia does a nice job of capturing both the long years of heartache and the joy and relief of victory.
Natually, the star players of the past century are sufficiently highlighted throughout. Among the numerous stars to have worn the Red Sox uniform are Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Smoky Joe Wood, Ruth, Lefty Grove, Joe Cronin, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, Tony Conigliaro, Carl Yastrzemski. Luis Tiant, Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.
However, that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the players featured in the book. Countless short-term team members, role players and unusual personalities pop up throughout, adding significant color to the franchise's history, and Fenway Park recalls their contributions well.
Aside from the park and players, Wisnia spends considerable time on a couple of other themes. First and foremost is the question of racism, as the team was the last to integrate, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers.
Several times Wisnia cites examples of opportunities denied black players who certainly could have contributed mightily to Boston's pursuit of a world title before 2004. Imagine Robinson or Willie Mays in a Boston uniform, creating havoc at the plate and on the basepaths. There had been potential for both players to be Red Sox, but each time those paths were closed by team management.
A more light-hearted subject is the focus on some of the extraordinary fans Boston has produced over the years. Stories of Mike "Nuf-Ced" McGreevy and the Royal Rooters, Megaphone Lolly and an 11-year-old die-hard fan with poison ivy on his feet add to the rich character of these New England fans. And then there's John Dooley, a man who attended every Boston home opener for both the Red Sox and Braves from 1882 to 1971. Now that's devotion.
Included with the book is a DVD hosted by Fisk entitled, Fenway Park: The Golden Age, that features the voices of Mel Allen, Curt Gowdy and Bob Wolff.
Fenway Park: The Centennial is a must-have book for any Red Sox fan. It is a thorough review of the ballpark and the team that will rekindle memories for long-time fans and serve as a great reference for those looking to recall particular events more clearly. And for those who aren't strident Boston fans, it's still a terrific look at one of baseball's grandest cathedrals and one of its most famous teams.
References and Resources
Fenway Park: The Centennial: 100 Years of Red Sox Baseball by Saul Wisnia, published by St. Martin's Press.
Greg Simons finally, sadly has conceded that he won't have an MLB playing career. However, in his dreams, he's still the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up, though you can e-mail him at gregbsimons AT yahoo DOT com.
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