Book Review: Centennial Brings Flood Of Fenway Books

A pair of significant events that would be etched in the history of our country took place five days apart in April of 1912. One lasted just five days; the other is celebrating its 100th birthday.

On April 10th, the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England headed to New York City. The great ship never made it, sinking in the North Atlantic Ocean five days later. With the national headlines still blaring about the 1,517 lives lost, an odd little ballpark opened in Boston's Back Bay on April 20th.

Except for some increased seating, luxury boxes and creature comforts, Fenway Park remains largely unchanged. There still are wooden chairs, many of them with obstructed views thanks to steel columns that support the upper deck, and The Green Monster, erected so freeloaders couldn't sneak into the standing areas in the outfield or peer down from nearby rooftops, now has seats.  

Fenway's angles, doorways, poles and pillars bear no resemblance to symmetry. When the American Institute of Architecture placed Fenway Park on its list of the 150 buildings that defined the "Shape of America,"  the organization stated, 'The odd thing about Fenway is that probably of the top 150 buildings that we're dealing with on the list, this one exhibits the least sense of intentional design by one hand."

But hey, at least it was built better than the Titanic.

With such a historic celebration on hand, publishers have jumped at the opportunity to stake claim to Fenway's Centennial with a variety books that tell the tale of Fenway, some through pitctures and some through detailed retellings of the many seasons that have made Fenway famous.

Glenn Stout's "Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year," (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 392 pp, $26) reads like a novel, detailing the trials and tribulations of the quaint ballpark and the team itself.

He traces the construction of the park and first year of existence (which resulted in a Red Sox World Series victory) in painstaking detail. From the tense relationships between Catholic and Protestant players on the 1912 Red Sox, to overflow crowds watching games on the field, literally feet from the foul lines, Stout has made a great story out of history. He gets bogged down in too much play-by-play at times, but paints a terrific word picture of Fenway's architectural influence at the time.

Writes Stout: "The construction of so many concrete-and-steel ballparks in such a brief time period provided evidence of just how deeply the game of baseball had become ingrained into the fabric of American life and how important it had become. Prior to the concrete-and-steel era, ballparks had been less permanent, wooden structures that after only a few years were destined to decay. Although investments in concrete-and-steel structures were made primarily because of insurance and safety concerns, the decision to invest in such a durable structure was also emblematic of baseball's permanence."

Of course there has to be a lavish coffee-table book and the Red Sox and Major League Baseball have teamed up to furnish a beauty, simply titled "Fenway Park:100 Years." It's pricey at $75 and heavy at eight pounds, but features vivid color pictures of concerts, hockey and professional wrestling at the park.

The highlights are the first-person accounts of former players. Writes Jim Lonborg:  "Coming from California, I had grown accustomed to ballparks like Dodger Stadium and Candlestick Park, beautiful buildings that you can see rising up as you drive toward them from a distance. When I first came to Fenway, it didn't look like a ballpark. You come through this red-brick building, you walk into this grungy concrete basement and it's difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel until you walk out through that opening. It's like walking into a Garden of Eden."

There are plenty of anecdotes and factoids in "Fenway Park: A salute to the Coolest, Cruelest, Longest-Running Major League Baseball Stadium in America" ($30, Running Press, 275 pp.). For example, the color used to paint the Green Monster is called "Fence Green," and is a proprietary color for the Red Sox, and not sold publically. It's the same color they have used since 1947, when they painted the wall for the first time.

What makes this book distinctive is the poster of the rare and extraordinary blueprints from the 1934 renovations of Fenway and the blueprint of renovations of the unique and legendary scoreboard from a year earlier. Also included is an in-depth timeline that concludes each decade.

Finally, Sports Illustrated's "Fenway: A Fascinating First Century" (Sports Illustrated Books, $32.95) offers a glimpse into the major — and bizarre — events from the emergence of Babe Ruth as the best lefty in baseball in the 1910s, to Ted Williams' disdain for everything about Fenway except its abundance of pigeons, to Dave Roberts' stolen base in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.