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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Still Chasing the Impossible Dream
Book Review by Daniel Gabriel

Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson. Red Sox Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, 453 pp., $40.00, cloth.

 

Red Sox fans should need no prompting on this one, but Stout and Johnson's Red Sox Century is far more than a simple team history. Through triumph and tragedy, Harry Frazee and Bucky Dent, the Splinter's sublime swing, and the stench of organizational racism, the authors prove their thesis over and over: "For one hundred years, the Boston Red Sox have been the most interesting team in baseball. Not the best team, and not the worst . . . but by far the most interesting . . . . They are a gift to any historian, for in their dramatic history one also finds the story of baseball in the twentieth century."

Bold words, but ones that even this diehard Yankee fan would support. (And don't think that all Yankee fans despise the Red Sox. I, for one, respect them greatly.) In fact, much of what has made the Boston franchise so "interesting" has been its battles with New York. It is to Stout and Johnson's credit that rather than demonize the Yankees, or resort to "Curse of the Bambino" style mythos, they are determined to show the facts: "There is no mystery or riddle to the history of the Red Sox. . . . [T]here are reasons they have won when they have, reasons they have lost when the did, and reasons why Red Sox fans have always reacted so strongly to both occurrences. One cannot write of the Red Sox without writing about their fans . . . [Yet] one won't find discussions of New England's Calvinist sense of loss herein . . . . We have tried to stick with the details of history . . . . The truth told us more and, in the end, tells a better story."

Well put, indeed. For behind many of the most persistent myths of Red Sox lore, the authors have spaded up a richer loam of truth beneath. Johnny Pesky did not hold the ball. Fenway Park is not named for the area in which it was built. The Green Monster is not 315 feet from home plate. Prior to becoming the Red Sox, the team was never called Pilgrims or Puritans or Beaneaters by anybody except the press. Harry Frazee wasn't Jewish and he didn't sell Babe Ruth because he was strapped for cash. For that matter, the Ruth trade made more sense than a number of other Boston deals. (One reason previously unknown to me: Ruth did not hit well at Fenway and, in fact, never in his career did he homer into the right field bleachers there.)

But please don't get the idea that the authors' main goal is simply to debunk myths. They love their Sox as much as any fan and it is the rich, intricate—and often maddening—details of pennant races and backdoor deals and on-field heroics that get the bulk of attention in this book.

The frontispiece features a full-page shot of the young Babe Ruth; on the following two pages, we see photos of some of the greatest all-time Red Sox pitchers—Ruth again, Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Dennis Eckersley, Luis Tiant, etc.—and, to me, the tragic pattern has already emerged. None of these guys spent the heart of their careers with the Sox. For every Williams, Rice, or Yastrzemski who played for no one else, there were five to ten outstanding ballplayers who merely passed through. For all of Tom Yawkey's spending (and it was sufficiently lavish and misguided for the authors to dedicate considerable space to tracing its effects), the Red Sox have had a hard time actually building a team.

I won't attempt to cover all that ground here, but this book offers up two repeating motifs in team history: internal factions and organizational racism. Even the early World Champion teams were split between Catholic and Protestant cliques. Later, the Sox were known for "25 players, 25 cabs." As for the racism, did you know that the Sox had Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe (later National League Rookie of the Year) in for a tryout in 1945? How many of those late forties near-misses might have been turned around with the addition of those two guys? Or check this—the Sox's AA affiliate in Birmingham had the informal rights to any of the local Black Barons' players but couldn't quite see the potential of their young center fielder. The kid's name was Mays. You may have heard of him. It wasn't until 1959 that the Red Sox managed to find an African American player worthy of their uniform and, by then, an entire generation of baseball had passed them by.

One final vignette that epitomizes management's shortsightedness: In 1940, Yawkey bought the entire Louisville franchise in order to obtain the rights to Pee Wee Reese; then when player–manager Joe Cronin (most likely fearing for his own job at shortstop) decided Reese couldn't play, they traded him away! Maybe they were right; Pee Wee only played on seven pennant winners over a sixteen-year career.

I shouldn't give the impression that all the space here is devoted to mistakes and the ones that got away. Fine portraits of the core Red Sox players are offered as well, none with more loving affection than that of Ted Williams. Again, credit the authors. They don't shrink from discussing the boorish, cranky side of Williams, but they unfold a much richer tapestry than is often displayed. I hadn't realized how many times (at least three—and as early as 1952) Williams was believed to have played his last game. More myths die here too: Ted's playing the final doubleheader of 1941 with his .400 average on the line had nothing to do with any courage. Given the circumstances, he had to.

Even the saga of Williams and the press appears more complex than I had given it credit for. The authors say that Ted was the most publicized player of his generation because, in a rabid baseball city, there was often little else going on with the team worth writing about. Most all of the press he got was praise, but Ted always focused on the rare negative comment. (And forget that business about Ted losing an MVP award—despite winning the Triple Crown—because a Boston writer left him off the ballot. The voting was far more complicated than that.)

Another thing I liked about the authors' approach is that, while chronological, the book is not artificially broken into decades or even completely discrete eras. Each segment of Sox history is given the space it deserves, which means that the 1967 Impossible Dream season occupies as many pages as all of the fifties. This builds a more layered, nuanced sense of the team's fortunes than simply a recap of each season. And when they need to, the authors take us deep. Check out the detailed account of the final game of the 1946 World Series or some of the early pennant race recaps.

The book is also well served by the extensive photographs. Stout and Johnson make the claim that "The photographic record of no other team in baseball has been so adequately recorded and preserved." I don't know if that's true, but the hundreds of black-and-white photos here amplify the richness of the text beautifully. (One of my favorites is a candid shot of Williams obviously enjoying an argument with reporters; my least favorite is the sight of Tony Conigliaro on the day after his beaning.) Nothing expresses early conditioning methods better than the shot of the team doing spring training fitness hikes through the Arkansas woods in full uniforms, including spikes.

Finally, I should mention the frequent sidebars. Some are done by the authors (the ones on Tris Speaker and the Boston Fitzgeralds are particularly good early ones), but others include guest essays by such luminaries as Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy, and the like. All are excellent.

There are far too many bit players and sideturnings to cover here, so let me simply tease you with some tantalizing tidbits: Morphine was in common use in the major leagues in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The Red Sox probably threw the first game of the first World Series (you read that right; just check out the evidence) and tampered with the action again during the 1912 Series. Dutch Leonard's all-time best ERA of 1.01 has been recalculated to 0.96. The last Red Sox title in 1918 produced the lowest winners' share in World Series history. One of Tom Yawkey's biggest mistakes was not so much overpaying for veterans on the downslide (which he did frequently, especially in his early days) but the halfhearted way in which he started a farm system, and then failed to exploit it except during one fruitful period in the forties.

Or how about Cy Young? Here he's running zigzag between second and third in a successful attempt to get hit with the throw from the outfield. . . now he's in the coaching box and next, selling tickets. Then in the twilight of his career, he does something previously thought impossible: he pitches baseball's first perfect game.

So is anything wrong with this book? Not so you'd notice, though I did discover a couple of minor glitches. Lefty Grove is said to be both 54-17 and 55-17 at Fenway—on the same page. In a photo with Joe Cronin, purported to be taken in 1949, Joe McCarthy is described as the "new manager." And no mention is made of Ted Williams's final batting title in 1958, though the time is taken to note that "Pete Runnels almost won the batting title" that year.

But obviously those are as nothing compared with the richness, the drama, the completeness of this book. Even the forty dollar price tag is only that of two to three quality paperbacks. This is something to sustain the lonely fan through many a long winter's night read. And if there are painful moments in that reading, then take to heart guest essayist Luke Salisbury's words: "This is the Red Sox essence, the spirit and zeitgeist. Incommunicable loss redeemed by dreaming of Williams's swing, Yaz in '67, ourselves once, because winning isn't obvious and we don't live only in this world but in as many worlds as we can make."

 

DANIEL GABRIEL's stories and articles have appeared widely in eight countries. He is the director of the COMPAS Writers & Artists in the Schools program in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

© 2001 Daniel Gabriel

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