Thursday, February 24, 2011

Remembering Fenway Park - A Book Review

On Truck Day of all days, we received an advance copy of Remembering Fenway Park: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Boston Red Sox by Harvey Frommer. We enlisted CK, a Red Sox Rooter of the highest caliber, with a fancy English degree to boot, to provide HHR with her review:


Since 2004, a plethora of Red Sox coffee table books have popped up on bookstore shelves, tempting the Nation with glossy photos of Papi and Papelbon. This coffee table book is different because it’s not a simple tribute to a team (after all, as my father loves to remind me, you’re just rooting for laundry); rather, it’s a tribute to a place. To Fenway Park itself, the open-air, time-battered, peanut-shell-carpeted cathedral that is the Rome, the Jerusalem and the Mecca of this very odd religion. Although the Red Sox existed before Fenway, this book begins in 1912, just a few days after the Titanic sank, when Boston Mayor Honey Fitz (grandfather of JFK, RFK and Ted Kennedy) threw out the ceremonial first pitch of Fenway’s inaugural season.

In Remembering Fenway Park, Harvey Frommer, a historian with a slew of books to his name (including, incidentally, one titled Remembering Yankee Stadium [Link Redacted. Go Sox! --Ed.]), has undertaken the ambitious task of chronicling Fenway Park’s colorful life of nearly a century. There were probably a lot of different formats he could have used, and most of them would have been horrifically boring. But the book’s organization renders the formidable subject matter manageable. First, the book isn’t exclusively focused on the place, but it does constantly strive to place the story in its unique physical setting, exploring how time has shaped the place, and how the place has shaped the team and the game. Second, Fenway’s story is told in ten chapters -- one for each decade -- enabling fans to flip to the era they’re particularly nostalgic for. Each chapter focuses on the main events in the life of Fenway Park during that decade -- the highlights of each season, the changes to the physical structure of Fenway, the doings of the main characters (the ownership, management, and players), and the team’s waxing and waning fortunes on the diamond and at the turnstiles. All of this is placed, at least in broad strokes, in the context of larger events across these decades -- how the Depression impacted the club, how World War II and Korea impacted the game as players headed to war, how the move toward racial integration came late to Fenway. Each chapter is generously accompanied by beautiful photographs from the decade, and the pages are littered with images of period ticket stubs, baseball cards and other ephemera, giving you the feeling of flipping through a scrapbook.

I am not sure how many people will read it, as I did, cover to cover; it’s long and physically a large book, and I suspect that many will flip to their favorite time periods, skimming the rest and enjoying the photographs. But reading the history of Fenway from start to finish is a unique experience, because it gives a sweeping sense of the evolution of the city, the park, the team and the game. What the Yawkeys did for the franchise during their long ownership; what Teddy and Yaz meant to their teammates and fans; how Pesky became an institution; how the park, through additions of lights, the Citgo sign, extra seats and a hundred other tiny changes, finally became the place you see today. The book also gives you a sense of what doesn’t change. For example, I chuckled at the account of the media hype leading up to a 1912 pitching battle between two marquee names; the frenzy around Boston’s Smokey Joe Wood and Washington’s Walter Johnson is the same frenzy we’ve seen before a Clemens-Pedro matchup, among countless other pairings. And it’s not trying too hard to be a “serious” history book; it contains smatterings of the jokes, nicknames and urban legends that spring up around the Sox, courtesy of their colorful fans.

The defining feature of this book, however, is the voices. It tells the story of Fenway in part through traditional historical narrative, and in part through direct quotes from those who were there. For the early decades of the twentieth century, the author often relies, by necessity, on quotes from newspaper accounts and similar sources to recreate a soundtrack to accompany the historical facts. But as the book progresses, he is able to weave in more and more quotes from recent interviews with people who can offer their own impressions of Fenway and the events that shaped it. And this is where the book shines.

The interviewees include the usual suspects: former Red Sox players (from 1930s pitcher Bill Werber to recent favorite Lou Merloni); players from elsewhere, recalling their experiences as the “away” team at Fenway; former coaches and managers; sports journalists. Names that echo in the legends of Fenway: Bobby Doerr, Pumpsie Green, Luis Tiant, beloved radio announcer Joe Castiglione.

But it’s the unexpected voices that charm you. Frommer has compiled the recollections of the folks behind the scenes, whose names you never knew -- the longtime groundskeeper, the scoreboard operator, the front-office staffers. He’s compiled memories from ordinary mortals who managed to weave themselves into the life of Fenway Park as ushers, tour guides and vendors. And he’s even given a voice to the fans themselves, those who made the pilgrimage to Fenway Park and just love to tell the story. Some of the fans interviewed have achieved some measure of fame for reasons unrelated to the Sox: former Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis, Congressman Ed Markey, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Mears, musician John Pizzarelli. But they’re only here in this book to tell you about their memories of Fenway; Dukakis recalls taking the bus to Kenmore Square with his big brother in the late ‘30s, while Markey recalls the feverish anticipation (and ensuing heartbreak) of the 1999 playoffs. The recognizable names are democratically interspersed with the Everyman voices -- schoolteachers, clergymen, a dermatologist from Vermont and a car salesman from Connecticut -- literally dozens of Fenway faithful who were in the stands for big games or for insignificant ones. These are the voices I loved. They are glimpses of generations of fans and how they felt as they made the trip to Kenmore by subway or in the family station wagon; as they navigated the turnstiles and the dark hallways, up the ramps into the light, and laid eyes on that green little island in the middle of the city; as they left the park dejected or elated.

The book is at its best when it lets these voices speak for themselves. Truth be told, some of the prose that fills the gaps between the interviews is unwieldy, at times marred by awkward syntax and occasionally bordering on unreadable. Granted, Frommer had to synthesize mounds of historical data and try to create a narrative arc from it, but I was frustrated by the sometimes tortured results. A few choice representative passages:

“The unusual throughout the decades seemed to always be a part of Fenway action. Case in point was on September 21 [1958] as the Red Sox completed a three-game sweep of the Senators all by 2-0 shutouts spun by Tom Brewer, Frank Sullivan and Ike Delock.”
Oof. Or this:
“Three days later, after the last man to hit .400 anniversary, the Red Sox defeated the White Sox, 9-6, in a night game that stretched on through 4 hours and 11 minutes -- a new league record for a nine-inning night game, 9 minutes longer than the previous nocturnal marathon.”
Guh. The English major in me had to periodically resist the urge to get out a red pen. The narrative struggles to pack in stats and historical trivia, sometimes at the expense of readability. At other points, it unsuccessfully tries for a too-cute transition from one anecdote to the next. There’s even at least one error (that stuck out even to a non-stat-obsessed gal like me); Frommer’s write-up of Jon Lester’s 2008 no-hitter refers to Lester as a rookie, when Lester’s rookie season was in 2006.

Despite its foibles, though, this book managed to stir my crabby, cynical little Red Sox heart. It took me back to my own favorite Fenway moments -- taking the train in from the ‘burbs to watch Mo Vaughn; attending the game where Trot Nixon made his debut and deciding, completely arbitrarily, that he would be my favorite player; standing at the microphone by home plate with two friends, giddy at our good fortune as we led the crowd in singing the national anthem in the summer of 1997; feeling like a big deal as a young professional when I was treated to good seats by a business client, only to be humbled by a few hours of sitting in a cold May rain; standing glued to the television screen as Jon Lester pulled off his no-hitter on my father’s birthday. And I think that’s what this book will do for most fans. It reminds you of all of the other crazy people who have soaked in that Fenway magic too; from Bill Lee sneaking out of the park to a nearby pub for a beer during a rain delay, to Clemens jogging the streets around the park, to the cigarette vendor who had a schoolboy crush on Johnny Pesky’s wife, to the Archdiocese employee who fondly recalls socializing with her fellow nuns at Fenway’s “Nuns’ Day.” And it gives you some perspective on the not-so-magic moments, the ones that didn’t have that perfect ending. It reminds you that there have been a lot of years where great players didn’t necessarily make for a winning season, but that maybe that’s only part of the equation. It reminds you why you keep coming back.


foreword by Johnny Pesky
$45.00 U.S./ Stewart Tabori & Chang (March 2011)

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Pro-Hat Party said...

Go Steelers

Rick said...

Wow! This review is outstanding. Thorough, honest, thoughtful, objective. Even though the book's shortcomings were frankly discussed, it says to me that if you're a Sox fan, you're going to find something to like in this book.
BTW, as father of the reviewer, I must admit that credit for the "only rooting for laundry" line" must go to Jerry Seinfeld.

christina said...

Great review! Great team!

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