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Books | Sports

April 29, 2011

Fenway Park's Century

Harvey Frommer gives New England's baseball home a book with ambitions to match the ballpark's rich history.

Tom Flynn

With millions of fans passing through their turnstiles each year, Major League Baseball parks may be our country's most prolific producers of collective memories. Approaching its 100th anniversary, and riding a streak of over 600 consecutive sellouts, Boston's Fenway Park is among the most prolific memory makers of them all.

Harvey Frommer. Photo by Johnathan Recor.
"It's got an electric, magical, wondrous aura, and I think of Fenway Park as a national treasure."

Harvey Frommer. Photo by Johnathan Recor.

In his latest book, Remembering Fenway Park: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Boston Red Sox, author and Dartmouth College professor Harvey Frommer does the heavy lifting for us by distilling into one comprehensive volume a visual and narrative history of the park that opened in the deep shadow of the Titanic's sinking in 1912. Since then the park has been the home to a healthy amount of both hope and heartache for Red Sox fans, and a decade into the new century, it finds itself with the unlikely distinction of being both the majors' oldest park and one of its most popular.

Listen to Harvey Frommer's talk at Varsity Letters on May 5, 2011

Gelf recently spoke with Frommer about his new book, as well as its predecessor Remembering Yankee Stadium (about which Frommer spoke to Gelf in 2008), to get the story behind the story of a baseball century. This interview was conducted over the phone and has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Since you wrote Remembering Yankee Stadium, and it was then demolished, I equated the title to recollecting a building that was heading for demolition. Now that you've written Remembering Fenway Park, about a park that is still standing, I know you meant something else. I wanted to ask you a little about the prompt for the book and the title.

Harvey Frommer: Since I'd done Remembering Yankee Stadium, the title Remembering Fenway Park was a natural. The publishers originally wanted Celebrating Fenway Park, but I envisioned the books as twins, and if you notice I followed the same format in both: many archival and beautiful photos, lots of people interviewed, an oral history—which is what I teach at Dartmouth—and a lot of my own narrative sewn in between, so that I could evoke both the team and the ballpark. "Remembering" doesn't mean that Fenway is gone; it's just people remembering it.

Gelf Magazine: You envisioned the Fenway book and the Yankee Stadium book as a tandem. Did you come up with the idea or was it the suggestion of the publisher following the success of the first?

Harvey Frommer: I came up with the idea. Teaching here at Dartmouth, I'm now surrounded by Red Sox fans. That also helped prompt the idea for the Fenway book. Also, next year is the 100th anniversary of the park, so we're first out of the gate. I'm sure there will be pretenders to the throne, but mine is already being called the definitive book. I'm not immodest in saying that; I intended it to be the definitive book. So anything that I thought was humanly possible to be put into a book weighing almost four pounds—with an 85,000-word limit, over 220 photos, and 240 pages—I did. It could have been five times that size. But basically it and the Yankee Stadium book are equivalent in price, and size.

Gelf Magazine: Did you say 85,000 words? That's pretty substantial for a book that also has so many photos.

Harvey Frommer: I've done a lot of radio interviews and they mention it as a coffee-table book. I tell them that's a little bit insulting, because this is not just another pretty face. It's a pretty face but it's a pretty face with substance. It's 85,000 words plus the "Fenwayology" at the end, with trivia and stats, like the "Stadiumology" at the end of the Yankee Stadium book. I tried to make it as complete as possible. Some of these books come in—I do book reviews—and basically they slap them together: a lot of photos with no real care and not doing a very complete job. I had about 750 photos that I scaled down to get to the photos in the book. What I tried to do was get photos that had never been seen before. If you look at the photo sources, I got a lot of photos from the Red Sox, the Associated Press, and Getty, but I also got stuff from an auction house and individuals, and also the Boston Public Library. So there's a range of photos that evoke the different decades. It was organized, as was the Yankee Stadium book, decade-by-decade, which really shows the progression and the march through time of the stadiums.

Gelf Magazine: Once I started reading it, I didn't mistake it for a coffee-table book. I don't know what 85,000 words are in novel form exactly, but I would guess over 300 pages.

Harvey Frommer: It is. Also the subtitle, which I fought for, is "An Oral and Narrative History." I got some really great interviews. I have a couple of 100-year-old guys and I have the Irish connection from Boston with the nuns and the monsignor and the bishop. And not just the Irish: I got people who were wonderful storytellers, and I got a guy like Johnny Pesky to do the introduction and he's the ultimate gentleman. I got a number of people in their 90s, including Pesky and Bobby Doerr. Gene Conley and Jimmy Piersall are up there, too.

Gelf Magazine: The integration of the memories of the fans, players, and managers, with no distinction between them, was effective because when you're talking about a ballpark, it's in the fans' hands as much as the players' as to its legacy and how it's recalled.

Harvey Frommer: Fenway mattered as much to fans, or in some instances, more. There was a woman, Elizabeth Dooley, who was the ultimate fan. She showed up for over 4,000 consecutive games at Fenway over the course of 55 straight years.

Gelf Magazine: Since they had such a long break between World Series titles, the fans developed a tolerance for an absence of a title. You show the attendance statistics from year to year and you can see some years they had more of a tolerance than others. Do you think the ability to endure what was a no-frills stadium developed in part from a fan base that was used to supporting less than the very best on the diamond?

Harvey Frommer: I think the story of Fenway Park is really a more interesting and intriguing literary story than the story of Yankee Stadium. You have that whole ebb and flow: The Red Sox open up Fenway right after the Titanic sunk and nobody even notices much about them in big type in the newspaper. That year they win the world championship.
Then they move along and they're doing nicely. And a guy named Harry Frazee comes along and sells the farm, literally, and they go down into bad times. Then you get Tom Yawkey buying the team and spending millions. But he really doesn't develop teams that can win a world championship. I know they call it the Curse of the Bambino, but in a way it was the curse of Tom Yawkey. He was spending the money on players and having guys run the team, but they're not really getting a team like a Theo Epstein or a Buck Showalter kind of team. You get these players that Yawkey buys and just puts them on a team. They're great, but they don't click together.
Then you have the miracle season of '67, The Impossible Dream, but they lose to the Cardinals. And you keep moving forward and eventually Yawkey dies and his wife takes over and ultimately the team is in disarray. The ballpark was heading for the wrecker's ball and various groups were jockeying to buy the team, but most of them or all of them I think had in their plans to get rid of Fenway Park and build another park. They were going to destroy Fenway and build something more cookie-cutter in some other place.
Along comes the Save Fenway Park committee and owner John Henry and his group put their money where their mouth was and they pledged to keep Fenway and improve it. Today, in 2011, I think it's miraculous that they have a 600+ sellout streak going. Fenway is a happening now.
That's why to me, to see people who lived the story is what makes it so interesting.

Gelf Magazine: Here's a question going back to Tom Yawkey. The fans seemed to like him as well as the players, yet as you mention he couldn't produce a World Series winner. What would you attribute his popularity to?

Harvey Frommer: He used to do things like hit fungoes and the kids would go running after them and he'd give them $20 bills for their catches, which was a nice gesture and got a lot of publicity. Sometimes when a player did especially well, he'd tear up a contract and just give him money. That benevolence in a town that was blue-collar during much of his time made him stand out.
But there's also the dark side to Tom Yawkey, which is pointed out in the book, too: the tryout in 1945 at Fenway Park of Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams, when Yawkey could have, if he was an assertive and liberal kind of an owner, stepped in there to sign them. These three guys were found wanting, and I can't believe they were found wanting. I have a quote in the book when Yawkey was asked about it and he said, "The baseball men make the decisions."
More than the Curse of the Bambino, which is a mythical thing in my mind, the fact that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate—in 1959, with Pumpsie Green—really held them back because the great black talent was going to other teams and the Sox could have signed in '45 Robinson and Sam Jethroe, who became a great star for the Boston Braves. Jethroe would come back into Fenway in the City Series games between the Braves and the Red Sox and excel. Jackie Robinson was very down after that tryout. Yawkey may have been a benevolent owner, he may have been admired by many people, but I think to be quite honest he was the owner and he could have had that team integrated much sooner than being the last team in 1959.

Gelf Magazine: Agreed; not integrating the team until 1959 is ridiculous.

Harvey Frommer: I did interview Pumpsie Green and he started out with, "Oh man, I don't want to go over this again," and I said, "Well, the Red Sox told me to call you and I'm going to ask you different kinds of questions." He said, "I told them the story so many times."
I said, "Well, just give me five minutes," and once I got him warmed up, he kept on going. Green told me that Yawkey called him into his office when he was brought up in '59 and was as nice as could be to him and said if there's anything you need, call me. He was also welcomed by Ted Williams and the other players. So it was a welcoming environment, but my question was, why wasn't it a welcoming environment back in 1945 for Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams? Yawkey's family was not welcoming at all.

Gelf Magazine: I got that impression as well. I've done some Negro League research and I know that major-league teams did periodically hold tryouts with no intention of signing players. I know the Pirates brought in Sammie Hughes, who was the great second baseman for the Baltimore Elite Giants, and Roy Campanella in the early '40s. They made a press moment out of it, as it sounds like the Red Sox did at Fenway, but they had no real intent to sign those players.

Harvey Frommer: Terrible.

Gelf Magazine: As we turn the page to the modern era, I was to Fenway in about 2002, with my two nephews and sister who live in Boston. The park was pretty electric and I'm sure it's more so now. Comparing that environment to 600 people in the park in the 1960s at times, that's quite an about-face for the same building.

Harvey Frommer: Definitely. It's also become a tourist destination. People who come to Boston have to come to Fenway Park whether they know anything about baseball or not. Just as you said, it's got an electric, magical, wondrous aura, and I think of Fenway Park as a national treasure.
We began the conversation with 1912, and the Red Sox had an electric scoreboard there then. It was the first electric scoreboard in baseball. I guess it didn't work that well, or fuses blew or something. Now they have a manual scoreboard, which is the oldest manual scoreboard in baseball. So that's one of the oddities and the really charming features, along with the Green Monster. If you're outside the ballpark, Yawkey Way is a carnival, a happening place, the ultimate tailgate party. You've got bands playing and all kinds of food and people having a good time. When you get inside, even though the seats are cramped still, and they have narrow aisles to walk up and down and you wedge yourself into wherever you are, the sightlines are wonderful, you're really close to the action, and you're nestled right in the middle of the city. There are intergenerational groups and they're mingling together, and to me, it's a miracle. As we've said before, it was as close to meeting the wrecker's ball, as old Yankee Stadium has. It was saved from the ashes. I just wonder, why was there never a "Save Yankee Stadium Movement" that had any force?

Gelf Magazine: I know there's a penchant up there to hold onto something and wear it out until it's truly done. Maybe that's the reason Fenway Park survived and Yankee Stadium didn't.

Harvey Frommer: I'm sitting here now in Lyme, New Hampshire…Fenway Park is New England and New England is Fenway Park. You have that ethos that permeates everything. Maybe New York is a throwaway society in some ways. I don't think there was really a good reason to destroy the old Yankee Stadium and build a new one, and I think there was a good reason to save Fenway Park.

Gelf Magazine: Any closing thoughts on your book?

Harvey Frommer: As I tell my students: doing an oral history is like building a stone wall. Coming back again to the New England metaphor, you have to first collect the stones and you have to decide which stones you're going to use and where you're going to place them to make the best possible stone wall. So I apologize for those people whom I interviewed—who gave me stones but were not used. It doesn't mean the stones were no good; they just didn't work in my particular stonewall, which was Remembering Fenway Park.

Front-page image of Fenway Park courtesy of uzi978's flickr via Creative Commons.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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