“Fenway Park: The Centennial: 100 Years of Red Sox Baseball” by Saul Wisnia, St. Martin’s Press, Sept. 2011. 176 pp. $29.99 includes DVD. Available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes.
If you’ve been drawn to the encyclopedic and offbeat Boston Red Sox memorabilia display showcased at the Ag Fair and elsewhere by Chilmark’s Seward brothers, this book is for you. (Note to Dave and Doug Seward: Buy this one. It’s the real deal.)
“Fenway Park: The Centennial” is a well-written fan’s-eye view of the iconic Boston Red Sox baseball park and the players and personalities around it. Author Saul Wisnia, who vacations regularly on the Vineyard, has done the research and conducted interviews over two decades to fill his latest book with wonderful detail that describes the Olde Town Team and its bandbox stadium as it really was over the last century.
A DVD documentary, narrated by longtime Sox star Carlton Fisk, is included with the book.
Mr. Wisnia will be on the Island Saturday, Dec. 10, appearing at Edgartown Books at 2 pm as part of the Christmas in Edgartown festivities.
His book delighted me. I grew up a subway and trolley ride away from Fenway. For three glorious teenage summers, I commuted to the scabrous old park as a vendor (we were called “hustlers”), purveying Harry M. Stevens’ hot dogs, soda, and popcorn to ever-dwindling crowds, often in the hundreds, who witnessed arguably the worst team in baseball in the decade of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
It was wonderful. We could get in the park at 9:30 in the morning, sit in the stands and watch the pre-game rituals and player shenanigans such as hearing Ted Williams’ shotgun boom from the Sox bullpen in center field through the empty ballpark, signaling the demise of flocks of pigeons and the odd seagull.
Or watch pitcher Bob “Riverboat” Smith during batting practice, miraculously catching fly balls behind his back, in medium-deep right field. Mr. Smith, alas, could not pitch a lick. His Fenway stay was short.
Mr. Wisnia has those kind of details. He notes that he was born a few blocks from the park and became an early devotee. His day job is senior publications editor-writer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, beneficiary of The Jimmy Fund, the official charity of the Red Sox. Mr. Wisnia has written a number of baseball and non-baseball books.
Whether you’ve been a fan over Fenway’s long, checkered past or are a neophyte, feeling the “brand” marketed by the TV and money execs who run things now, this book will delight and inform you.
“Sweet Caroline” is the seventh inning stretch anthem today as Fenway celebrates more than 800 consecutive sellouts, but “Stayin’ Alive” would have worked in early days as a succession of tightwads and bumblers in the 19th and early 20th century fought to establish a franchise in a two-team city. The Boston, now Atlanta, Braves and the Sox fought to establish a fan base amid rebuilds of wooden stadia, which promptly burned down, sometimes in the midst of reconstruction.
As the 20th century dawned, steel and concrete replaced wood but sure financial footing didn’t emerge until southerner Tom Yawkey bought the club in 1933. Mr. Wisnia deftly ties in social change as two wars and Mr. Yawkey’s white-players-only policy likely cost the Sox several championships. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate, under pressure, 12 years after Jackie Robinson shattered racial barriers. The thought occurs that 86 years between championships was not a fluke, that “The Curse” attributed to the loss of Babe Ruth was self-imposed.
Mr. Wisnia knows the minutiae and uses detail to good effect. When infielder Pumpsie Green made the club in 1959, Ted Williams made sure he warmed up on the field before games with the African-American rookie.
Athletes are largely separate from us today but Mr. Wisnia focuses on real relationships, enabled by fan access, which allowed us to see the players as people. For example, Ted Williams was befriended by Lolly Hopkins, a megaphone-toting fan and by season-ticket holder Lib Dooley who was full of good life advice, and established a big sister mentorship with the budding but troubled star. A shared humanity too often missing today.
Players today have foundations and charities that do good work but I got to know Jim Rice, the man, almost 30 years ago on the day he vaulted into the stands to gather an injured, bleeding child in his arms, then rushed down the runway to get her medical help. His humanity moved me and I remember it more than any of his home runs.
That’s the kind of tapestry Mr. Wisnia has woven, a landscape showing the essence of Red Sox Nation, a relationship beyond wins and losses. This book also establishes a context to think about such things.
Why do we love Spaceman Bill Lee, Pedro, Papi, Pedey, and Kevin Millar? I think because they were able to wriggle past the constraints of stardom. They allow us to know them. Mr. Wisnia has done that in a hundred different ways in this book. Read it.
Jack Shea of Vineyard Haven is a regular contributor to The Times.