The Boston Red Sox did author Glenn Stout a favor this last season by pulling one of the all-time great collapses in baseball history, a nose dive that will live in infamy. It's much easier for those of us who did not grow up on the Red Sox to tune into the unique lore of this fascinating franchise when we are not being confronted by unstoppable, cash-fueled success.
Stout's Fenway 1912 offers up a stunningly rich buffet of pleasures for the baseball fan, centered around the construction and opening of Fenway Park almost a century ago and the wild season that followed. As Stout notes, the entire renaissance of baseball that ensued from the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards was in a sense a tribute to the classic, quirky aura of baseball Fenway style as it had developed by the 1990s.
It's not at all true that the joys of a visit to Fenway Park are reserved for New Englanders. I grew up in California, a lifelong Giants fan, first came to a sense of wonder about Fenway through the New Yorker writing of Roger Angell, and really did have to catch my breath when I came walking through the tunnel at Fenway and saw the inside of the place for myself the first time. (Later, I wrote my own Fenway book, One Day at Fenway, all about a single game between the Yankees and Red Sox in 2003,)
Stout, too, has a personal Fenway story to tell, which he relays in an Introduction that might be my favorite section of the book: "I was poor, but I had baseball," he writes, describing his early days in Boston after moving from Ohio after college, broke enough that if he spilled spaghetti on the floor he ate it anyway.
"Walking up that runway into the bleachers that summer changed my life," he continues. "It was my grad school. I majored in Fenway Park, Kenmore Square, the Del Fuegos, poetry, baseball, and books. I fell in love. I saw, watched, learned, got curious, did research, read, stopped dreaming about writing and started doing it. ...
"None of this would have happened without Fenway Park, none of it at all. And that is what makes a ballpark different, and what makes Fenway Park different, because it is a place that can change your life, and sometimes does. Almost a hundred years ago it changed the lives of almost every baseball fan in Boston, and each season, as another generation of fans discovers it, Fenway Park changes their lives as well."
Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing annual volumes, also edited a posthumous collection of sportswriting by the great David Halberstam, and has authored many books, including Red Sox Century and Yankees Century. He's a crack researcher who digs down to set the record right on many half-truths or misconceptions that had over the years often been repeated. Most of all, though, he has fun in giving us historical tidbit after historical tidbit of the kind to make you shake your head.
For example, most baseball fans know that long before there was a ball club called the Atlanta Braves, there was a team called the Boston Braves. But where did the name "Braves" come from in the first place?
The short answer: Tammany Hall, the New York political machine, one of whose "grand sachems," James Gaffney, bought the team before the 1912 season. As Stout explains, "The Tammany Hall building was in fact named after a Native American, Chief Tammany, and so the political activists who met there and became New York's foremost political machine were called 'Braves.' The nickname continues to this day, used by the Atlanta Braves, although few fans realize that the name originally referred to a machine politician, not a Native American." Gives whole new meaning to the idea of the Chop.
Other revelations include Stout's thorough explanation of just how widespread gambling was around the game in those years shortly before the Black Sox Scandal, including by players betting on their own games. In other words: Stout is no baseball romantic. He will show us both the good and the bad, the weird and the thrilling.
Most of all, of course, we get to know the key figures on the 1912 Red Sox, the future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, for one, but many whose names are obscure even to Boston fans. For me the most intriguing of all has to be hard-throwing pitcher Joe Wood.
As Stout drily explains midway through the book, "For all his vaunted speed, the man Paul Shannon would later dub 'Smoky Joe' Wood, owing to the speed of his fastball, was a disappointment. An earlier nickname, 'Ozone' Wood, was still more appropriate, for Wood sometimes pitched as if his head was in the clouds."
Wood would famously finish the season 34-5, but his performance in that year's World Series, alternating between Fenway and the Polo Grounds in New York, would be both commanding and baffling.
To say more would be to give too much away: This book is a must-read for any Red Sox fan and a great choice for anyone who enjoys a dip into baseball history at its best. If the developments of the World Series that year seem too outlandish to believe, blame that on baseball, not the author.