Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: Glenn Stout's "Fenway 1912" -- Not Just for Red Sox Fans

Although those old enough to remember the 1986 World Series may feel differently, many deem the September collapse of the 2011 Boston Red Sox as the worst flop in the history of Major League Baseball. As recently as August of 2011, smart money in Las Vegas put the chances of the Red Sox making the post-season at 99.4%. The Red Sox proved Vegas wrong by utterly blowing the nine game lead the team enjoyed in the American League Wild Card race in early September. Tony Francona fell on his sword and stepped down as Red Sox manager a couple days after the season's disastrous end, emphasizing among other ailments that derailed the team's seemingly assured playoff appearance a locker room teeming with strife and dissension among the players. But author Glenn Stout's excellent new book, "Fenway 1912," gives the lie to the notion that locker room ego clashes preclude championship play on the diamond.

As intimated by its subtitle, Stout's book covers far more than player discord during the 1912 season. Fenway's inaugural season was marked by virtually incessant tumult -- terrible weather; greedy baseball executives; labor unrest; professional gamblers; Boston politics; architectural slapdash; ornery fans and religious intolerance. Each and all of these demanded heavy tolls from the team during a baseball season book-ended by the Titanic's sinking and an attempted assassination of Progressive Party presidential candidate (and former president) Theodore Roosevelt. Given that virtually anyone who personally witnessed Fenway's erection and its first World Series isn't alive anymore, Stout does a superb job sifting through masses of contemporaneous historical records to unveil not only the intricacies of building the park and the team that played in it, but also to imbue the book with a sense of the turbulent social, cultural, political and economic forces roiling America 100 years ago. In that way, "Fenway 1912" appeals more broadly than to only fans of the Boston Red Sox, or of professional baseball. Stout conveys very well a small slice of Americana at a time when the country was undergoing fundamental sociopolitical changes culminated by Woodrow Wilson's winning a ferocious four-party presidential election while the tinder of World War I caught fire in the Balkans.

Before spring training's first pitch the 2011 Red Sox were widely considered a lock to make the post-season, if not win the World Series. Presumably the October 11, 2011 release date for "Fenway 1912" was intended to coincide with the team's predicted march to championship glory. It would be a shame if the team's premature demise dowsed interest in Stout's outstanding new book. The 1912 Boston Red Sox were a team ridden with religious and other schisms so intractable bloody fistfights broke out in their locker room during the World Series they won. Against this backdrop, Stout's book is instructive in making abundantly (though unintentionally) clear that pinning the 2011 team's failure on a vastly pettier brand of interpersonal friction than what rocked Fenway throughout 1912 rings hollow. Good history is illuminative that way.

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