Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

April 2, 2012

A Ballpark Birthday

In honor of Fenway's 100th anniversary, writer Glenn Stout went deep into the microfilm and found some myths needing debunking.

Shlomo Sprung

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park in Boston. The home field for the polarizing Red Sox franchise has seen more than its share of memories over the last century. Championships were won, curses were lived through and then broken, and legends were made.

Glenn Stout (in Newfoundland)
"From the time I did my first story back in 1985, I realized that I had both the capability and the will to do a level of research very few other people do."

Glenn Stout (in Newfoundland)

At the end of the 1911 season, Boston's American League franchise finished its final season at the Huntington Ave. Grounds and moved to a new field in the Fens section of the city. Just four months later, Fenway Park went from being an empty parcel of land to a fully fledged, but flawed, major-league ballpark. Glenn Stout chronicles the construction of Fenway Park and the Red Sox's 1912 turbulent championship season in Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year.

Stout tells Gelf that many of Boston's fans notions about the origin stories of their team and ballpark are misinformed. "Sox fans have been relatively ignorant about the true history of their team," Stout says. "Over time, they were not well served by those who tried to write their history."

In the following interview, conducted over email and edited for clarity, Stout tells Gelf how his book beat out other Fenway retrospectives, why the Red Sox ballpark isn't famous for its world-title celebrations, and how the stadium and sport changed his life.

Gelf Magazine: What inspired you to write a book about the opening of Fenway Park and the incredibly interesting 1912 Red Sox season? Was it more than the 100-year anniversary of the park?

Glenn Stout: I've been writing about baseball history and Red Sox history since the mid-1980s, and 25 years ago I wrote the official 75th-anniversary story about the park for the Red Sox yearbook. Even then, I was shocked at how little information was available about essential questions about the park, such as "Why was it built where it was built?" "What architectural style does the building exhibit?" "How was it built?" and other basic questions one would think would have been answered about what is arguably the best-known sports venue in the US, and one of the best-known in the world.
When I wrote Red Sox Century in 1999, I found a bit more on some of those questions, but most still went unanswered. In 2008, I realized that it was unlikely that anyone else was going to bother to do the work to provide those answers. So if I wanted to know, I would have to answer them myself, do the book for the anniversary, and see where that would take me. Besides, I knew that for the anniversary virtually everyone else would do an empty, illustrated history that wouldn't really tell you very much and would likely be pretty forgettable, a book you'd look at once and put away. This book has legs. It's won both the Seymour Medal from SABR as the best book of baseball history and biography of 2011, and the Larry Ritter Award as the best book of the Deadball Era, and is the only book on Fenway to make the Boston Globe bestseller list. I counter-programmed, and it worked.

Gelf Magazine: How did you go about doing research for the book? The book is extremely well-researched and thoroughly detailed for events that happened so long ago.

Glenn Stout: The same way I always have; I try to go back to the primary sources, which for a book like this are primarily the daily newspapers of the era. I use other books only to learn what is not in them, but try not to depend on them very much at all.
Although I had already accumulated a considerable amount of useful material from earlier projects, I went through the Boston Globe and New York Times online day by day for the time period of 1911 through 1912 to create a timeline and road map. Then I went through sources like Sporting Life and The Sporting News and Baseball Magazine and then the other Boston papers on microfilm at the Boston Public Library for much of that same time period. It was weeks and weeks of looking at film.
Information on the genesis and building of Fenway was all over the place—there are no indexes for this stuff, so I had to look day by day, hoping to find stray paragraphs that provided bits of information. Then I just followed threads wherever they lead me, to give the story flesh—census records, city directories, obituaries, engineering magazines, online sources like Baseball-Reference.com, and my own library. You have to build it up layer by layer with detail, or else it remains two-dimensional, and you want to tell a three-dimensional story, one with characters, not just names.
From the time I did my first story back in 1985, I realized that I had both the capability and the will to do a level of research very few other people do. For every hour spent writing, I probably spend 10 hours researching, and I write slow—I can't touch-type.

Gelf Magazine: You write in the prologue about how Fenway Park ultimately jump-started your career in writing. As baseball season is about to begin, could you describe the magic and the incredible feeling of entering a major-league ballpark and leaving all your cares behind for a few short hours?

Glenn Stout: Without getting too precious, when baseball season starts, my life has structure again. It's been a big part of my life since I was about three, and I'm kind of purposeless without it. Baseball season gives some logic to my day.

Gelf Magazine: You took an interesting perspective by telling a good portion of the book's story through the baseball beat writers at the time and Jerome Kelley, Fenway Park's original groundskeeper. What made you decide to choose these two seemingly unconventional sources and incorporate them into your narrative?

Glenn Stout: When you write history, you have to find ways to animate the story without making things up. The writers are always a wonderful resource when doing baseball history, because it is their work that allows us to do baseball history at all, and one that I already was very familiar with, from years of doing this.
When I stumbled across the story of Kelley and his crew transferring the infield sod, it seemed to me the perfect beginning—it was the first tangible act in the building of the park. One of the things you have to learn as a writer are the ways to start and stop—paragraphs, chapters, books—and when I find a natural beginning or an end, I pay attention. If you have to reach for one, it shows.

Gelf Magazine: The Red Sox obviously have one of the most dedicated and loyal fan bases in all of sports. Did you feel any pressure of having to convey the passion those fans have into the book describing one of the greatest seasons in that franchise's history?

Glenn Stout: Not really, not any more than I do in any other project. I just try to write what I find, and I was focused on seeing how Fenway was revealed over the course of the season and the Series. You know, for all their dedication and loyalty, Sox fans have been relatively ignorant about the true history of their team. Over time, they were not well served by those who tried to write their history.
I learned a long time ago that just by following the story I find, by telling the truth that I uncover, that readers respond to that. Readers don't want to be patronized. The truth is way better than the myths or accounts tainted by sentimentality, or worse, the stories that are just made up, and there has been way too much of that over the years.

Gelf Magazine: A theme throughout the book was the comparison of players in that season. It was Joe Wood and Walter Johnson and Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. Now, 100 years later, why do you think this constant comparison throughout the ages has been such an important part of what's made baseball so great?

Glenn Stout: They're bar arguments, and baseball (or sports in general) is one of the few things you can talk to a stranger about without any preliminary social bullshit.

Gelf Magazine: With all the history that's happened in Fenway Park over the last century, what do you think were its greatest moments that did not occur in that 1912 season?

Glenn Stout: Structurally, the 1933-34 renovation, which created the "classic Fenway" that most people recognize today. For Fenway's long-term survival, both the 1967 and 1975 World Series, which allowed Fenway to be seen by a national audience in contrast to other parks, and Fenway benefited from those comparisons. In terms of larger significance, it would be Jackie Robinson's tryout in April of 1945. That was incredibly significant in terms of both baseball history and Red Sox history.
With most other parks you probably would cite a World Series win, but something most Red Sox fans don't even realize is that there has never been a full blown world-championship celebration in Fenway Park—the only two times they won there, 1912 and 1918, fans were so pissed off, the park was only half-full. Every other year they won they were either on the road or playing in Braves Field.

Gelf Magazine: After last season's collapse, how do you think the Red Sox will fare this season under new manager Bobby Valentine?

Glenn Stout: Win or lose, it will either be because of or in spite of Valentine. He's the face, and I think he was hired for just that reason.

Gelf Magazine: Shifting gears a bit, you've edited the Best American Sports Writing series since its inception in 1991. What's made you continue this role for over two decades when many would have moved on to other ventures?

Glenn Stout: Well, it's not like I haven't done other things. But I think that BASW is important, I enjoy doing it, I think I do it better than almost anyone else could, I enjoy having an impact on the genre, and even though the pay is quite modest, it's hard to write for a living full-time and I can't afford to stop.
All I care about when putting the book together is a good story; I don't care who wrote it, where it was published, or what it's about, really—just write it so well that I want to read it again. But understand, the final selection is the guest editor's responsibility. All I do is make suggestions, and the guest editor is always welcome to include stories not submitted by me. I'm not a dictator of the contents, which is something some people never seem to understand. I just make suggestions, and from my end, I try to keep it simple. I just pick stories I want to read more than once.

Gelf Magazine: Are there a few articles over the last 20 years that immediately stand out in your mind from the series?

Glenn Stout: Bill Nack's "Pure Heart," about the death of Secretariat; and Florence Shinkle's "Fly Away Home," about an elderly couple racing pigeons; each from the first edition of the book. They are very different stories, but they sort of set the dimensions of the book for me. And then there's JR Moehringer's "Resurrecting the Champ," about his search to find an old boxer, and Bill Plaschke's "Her Blue Haven," meeting up with a disabled woman who follows the Dodgers. Those four are all standouts, all of which I've read many, many times.

Gelf Magazine: If not for baseball and Fenway Park, what do you think you would be doing right now?

Glenn Stout: Scary thought. Just before I moved to Boston the construction company I was working for wanted to promote me, and the money, particularly with the unemployment rate at about 10% then, was really tempting, and at the time I kind of enjoyed the challenge of the work. But if I'd have done that I probably would have stopped writing. So today I'd probably just be a bitter guy in the bar shooting his mouth off at the end of the day, drunk and slowly dying.

Related in Gelf: Harvey Frommer discussed his Fenway Park retrospective last year.

Shlomo Sprung

Shlomo Sprung is an accomplished sportswriter and blogger who graduated in 2011 from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.







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Article by Shlomo Sprung

Shlomo Sprung is an accomplished sportswriter and blogger who graduated in 2011 from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

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