Book Review: “Fenway Park: the Centennial” by Saul Wisnia

"Fenway Park: the Centennial," by Saul Wisnia

Saul Wisnia’s Fenway Park: the Centennial spans over 100 years of baseball in Boston, beginning with the pre-20th-century teams in the region and ending with the 2011 off-season acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Wisnia charts the entire history of the Red Sox, their team owners, their fans and their ballpark. The narrative simultaneously moves at a pace brisk enough to keep the reader from ever feeling bogged down and provides enough new information that even seasoned Red Sox historians can learn something new from it.

Wisnia also does a top-notch job balancing text with pictures that just as effectively show the changes to the team and especially Fenway Park itself over the years.

DVD Adds Nothing

At $29.99, it doesn’t seem as if the DVD, “Fenway Park: the Golden Age,” adds much to the cost. Which is good, because it adds nothing to the content. Narrated by Carlton Fisk, the hour-long documentary – oddly named, since it covers the entire Boston history – is as clunky and content-light as the book is smooth and content-balanced. Hearing Fisk and former broadcaster Curt Gowdy is neat, but all of the information (and most of the photos) are available in the book. The documentary also uses black-and-white footage for every game before the 1980s and the washed-out colors and simple graphics of 1980s T.V. for all subsequent games (including the 2004 and 2007 postseasons). The result is a sense of faux-nostalgia instead of anything real.

Quality Start to Book, but Wisnia Can’t Close it Out

The most informative chapters of the book are at the beginning. Few Red Sox fans have much of a connection with the 1903 Red Sox team – which won the first ever World Series – beyond a few names culled from the lyrics of the Dropkick Murphys’ “Tessie.” Wisnia goes in-depth into who exactly Michael “Nuf Ced” McGreevey and his Royal Rooters were. His explanation begins a pattern of starting each of the nine chapters (and the prologue) with a story about a Red Sox fan at the time. Considering how passionately Red Sox fans care about Fenway – whose origins and renovations Wisnia clearly lays out – it makes perfect sense to always start with them.

I most enjoyed the chapters covering the Red Sox teams during the periods of time not otherwise talked about. The post-1903 Red Sox, the Red Sox of the 20s, 30s and 50s – all these teams have been almost completely lost to time as Red Sox Nation purges itself of any memory of its admittedly worst teams. Learning who still shined during these dark eras enriched my understanding of Red Sox history.

The book’s early chapters are loaded with new information. Most Red Sox fans know that longtime owner Tom Yawkey spent extravagantly, both on players and construction of the new Fenway Park (including the first version of the Green Monster). What fewer know is that Yawkey’s grandiose plans led to numerous employment opportunities in Boston during a time when the Great Depression was ravaging the rest of the country. Yawkey didn’t just spend in Boston: he put Bostonians to work.

As the book moves through the Ted Williams Era, the “Impossible Dream” team and the Fisk World Series home run, the book begins to move away from new information and back towards what’s commonly known. Though Wisnia gives just enough statistics to enliven old stories, the book teaches less and less the closer you move to the present day.

The final chapter – on the 21st century Red Sox – unfortunately reads like Wisnia rushed to finish it. I found four glaring factual errors in just 16 pages, including a complete swing-and-miss on the year the Red Sox clinched the AL East. Wisnia says it was 2005, when in fact it was 2007. And because Wisnia gets the year wrong, he leaves out fan-reaction the night the Red Sox won (thanks, as most remember, to a Baltimore Orioles walk-off bunt). An error (not the first) as glaring as this called into question everything I’d read previously, and after finishing the chapter I wondered how many other errors I didn’t catch only because my in-depth knowledge of Red Sox history starts in 2003.

Although Wisnia has no problem calling out the Red Sox’s backwards and ignorant refusal to integrate in the mid-20th century, an equally sad 21st century incident goes unmentioned. When the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, fans reacted quite violently. Wisnia chooses to characterize this with a scene in which fans set a car on fire. That, sadly, happens with almost any championship anywhere these days. The death of bystander Victoria Snelgrove that night when a crowd-dispersal round from a Boston Police officer struck her eye would have made the point far more powerfully.

Wisnia’s final scene is also misguided. The book ends with a woman beginning a tour in Fenway Park by asking where people are from, and Wisnia remarks how telling it is that no one is surprised to learn a couple is from Japan. That scene doesn’t speak at all about Red Sox fandom around the world: all it means is that the new ownership group has turned Fenway Park into an internationally popular tourist location.

While that might be true, Wisnia probably should have ended the book the same way he began: with the fans.