Regardless of how bleak things can seem on the field, Red Sox Nation always has one thing to fall back on—there’s no place like home. And our beloved home, Fenway Park, turns 100 next season. Author Saul Wisnia has sought to give that anniversary appropriate honor though his book “Fenway Park: The Centennial.”
Tackling the subject of Fenway Park is not an easy task for an author. On the surface it might seem so, with so such a treasure of historical information about both the park and the team. But as regular readers of Red Sox literature know, it’s a topic that’s akin to the Civil War—it’s tough to find any ground that hasn’t been broken several times over. Even faced with those limitations, Wisnia does a credible job.
A key distinction between this book and others is the inclusion of a DVD along with it. Brilliantly crafted, with Hall of Fame Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk handling the narration, the DVD is essentially a video version of the book, covering all the key high points of the park’s history. It makes Wisnia’s work a good buy for not only avid readers, but those who enjoy watching a video presentation.
Fenway Park: The Centennial sweeps through not only the history of the park, but the pre-Fenway days that set the stage for the construction of the park. We’re introduced to old Huntington Avenue Grounds, and see an architectural design that looks like a cross between a castle, a cathedral and Churchill Downs. When Fenway was opened in 1912, the first pitch was thrown out by John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the mayor of Boston, father of Rose Fitzgerald and eventually grandfather of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The mayor, unlike a lot of politicians, was a genuinely big baseball fan, and a part of the Fenway scene in its early years.
Those years were marked by championships, but after the sale of Babe Ruth, the 1920s were a desolate time for Boston baseball. Fenway Park kept active with competitive sports though, becoming a home for football games, from Boston College to Dartmouth to a high school doubleheader played every Thanksgiving.
Football wasn’t going to save Fenway if the baseball team stayed in the toilet and the inheritance procedures of the Yawkey family may have saved both the park and the Red Sox. Tom Yawkey, when he turned 30, inherited millions from a trust and used it to buy the team from Bob Quinn, an owner who seemed to genuinely mean well, but just couldn’t do well. Yawkey poured his money into the team and brought star talent and competitive baseball back to Fenway.
The best teams of Yawkey’s long tenure came in the 1940s, and the interlude of World War II likely cost the Red Sox more than any other team. While all teams had players drafted into the service, Wisnia makes a good case that the Sox, as a team in their prime, were the ones who lost extra shots at a championship. As it was, two facets of the team that would be oft-discussed in future years developed. Boston kept coming up short, losing the 1946 World Series, a one-game playoff the AL pennant in 1948 and a head-to-head game with the Yankees for the flag on the final day of the 1949 regular season. And the Red Sox had a much better record at home than on the road, giving rise to the theory that perhaps the unique features of Fenway—namely the presence of the Green Monster—were actually hurting the team’s pursuit of a pennant. The events of 2004 and 2007 have hopefully discredited that theory.
Wisnia’s book is not just a romantic celebration of Fenway and the Red Sox. He pulls no punches in exploring the less savory parts of the team’s past, such as the Sox long resistance to racial integration. He notes the team’s sham tryout given to Jackie Robinson and the passing on the chance to sign Willie Mays. It wasn’t until 1959 that Pumpsie Green became the first African-American to take the field at Fenway in a Red Sox uniform.
The 1960s were a very difficult team for the team, attendance collapsed and Yawkey said openly that he needed a new park. That didn’t sell, but talk of refurbishing began in earnest at this time and carried on through a renaissance of baseball that began in 1967 with the Impossible Dream AL pennant winner and really hasn’t stopped since. The Red Sox have been a consistent winner, never out of contention for more than 2-3 years at a time in the ensuing 44 years.
The heartbreak that comes with pursuit of a championship still existed, but only because the Sox—unlike other long-suffering teams in the Cubs or Indians—were good enough to play meaningful games and those games built Fenway’s lore—Fisk’s legendary home run off the foul pole in Game 6 of the 1975 Series and Bucky Dent’s home run in the 1978 one-game playoff with the Yankees each had the mark of Fenway all over them. We have the camera footage of Fisk waving his home run fair because the cameraman was frozen by a rat in the bowels of the park, and didn’t want to move his camera to follow the flight of the ball. Dent’s home run was a classic Fenway pop fly that found the netting. And the ballpark’s history was built further.
Refurbishing continued at a more rapid pace in recent years, as we’ve seen the installment of the Coke bottles above the Green Monster, the Monster seats themselves, the Budweiser sign in rightfield and closing off traffic to Yawkey Way and making it part of the game experience. And the refurbishing of the team’s history continued. Now the legendary home runs include David Ortiz’s 12th-inning shot that won Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Mark Bellhorn’s Pesky-Pole clanging shot that won the first game of the ’04 World Series and Dustin Pedroia going over the monster in his first World Series at-bat in 2007. It even includes a stolen base, courtesy of Dave Roberts.
Fenway Park: The Centennial is well put together from an artistic standpoint, with a good mix of color and black-and-white photos, and little side boxes that include historical tidbits. As said before, it’s tough to write a lot new about Fenway Park, Wisnia does a good job at making sure his book doesn’t simply become a history of the Red Sox, and instead makes sure we’re aware of the evolution of the park itself at every historical turn. That, and the inclusion of the DVD give it uniqueness on the marketplace that makes it worthy of addition to the Sox fans’ library.