There is at least one thing Red Sox fans can look forward to this fall and that’s the publication of Glenn Stout’s new book. But it’s not just for Sox fans, it’s a story that will appeal to seamheads everywhere. In a review for The Christian Science Monitor, Nick Lehr writes that Stout’s “narrative could have easily become bogged down in a never-ending sequence of truncated game recaps, culminating with the World Series; however Stout’s greatest triumph is his ability to manage the pace of the 152-game season, breaking up game summaries by delving into the lives of the teams’ larger-than-life characters.”
I got a chance to talk to Stout before he lit out for Boston on a book tour. Here’s our chat.
BB: You’ve written about the Red Sox before, many times, most notably in Red Sox Century. But that was an overview of a long period of time. What was it like to tackle a more concentrated narrative?
SG: It’s far more fun to take on a concentrated narrative, but that doesn’t mean that you just get more detailed, or use detail for detail sake. With a big survey history like Red Sox Century or Yankees Century (which, incidentally, is still in print and still selling after more a decade), I have to be very disciplined and contained. Inevitably at times I have had to race over some good stories or just tell them in shorthand, because the focus of those books is a longer sweep of history. There is very limited space to veer off the main highway and follow a story down a side road, no matter how interesting, unless it carries the larger narrative farther along. In a book about single event, or in this case, a season, there is more freedom to follow the stories that naturally occur. Truths can be revealed organically, over a much more natural span of time, rather than all at once. Take the story of Smoky Joe Wood’s 1912 season, in which he goes 34-5. In a book like Red Sox Century there was no space to do much more than cite the details of his season, touch lightly on the famous early September pitching matchup with Walter Johnson, jump into the World Series against John McGraw’s New York Giants, and then boom, the next year he hurts his arm. Wood appears as some kind of comet, suddenly great, then gone.
But the full story is more nuanced, and in this kind of book I get a chance to tell those kinds of stories. In this case I show Wood’s personality, how and why Wood was so much better in 1912 than before, and how and why he improved over the course of the season; his manager made him change his windup with runners on base and injuries to two catchers thrust rookie Hick Cady into the lineup. He was much better defensively and Wood was much more comfortable with him. And Wood’s arm was already going bad in 1912. There are many, many references to that over the course of the 1912 season, and it was no surprise when he was hurt in 1913. In a book like this, I can get to stories that otherwise go untold, or are overlooked, and use those stories to create characters. The history becomes much more layered, immediate and three-dimensional. In that way it is possible to write a book with wider appeal, one for people who love baseball, and baseball history, not just Red Sox fans. Fenway, like other classic ballparks, transcends the fan base of a particular team and I think Fenway 1912 will be a breakout book this holiday season. It’s about a place and an era, not just a team.
BB: There seems to be a cottage industry of sports books that are about a specific season. Your new book is not just about the 1912 season but about the creation of Fenway Park. Still, can you explain your approach to this kind of story? Do you any hard rules about creating the narrative from the facts and maybe stretching some things to fit a dramatic arc?
GS: I just try to follow the facts as I find them, and not create a narrative arc ahead of time and make the facts fit or enhance it. My proposal for this book was one paragraph – to tell the story of the building of Fenway Park and its first season. Beyond that, I had little idea what I would find, but I trusted in the truth – the truth tells the better story anyway. If it doesn’t, that’s because you haven’t done enough research. There’s never, ever any need to put words in anybody’s mouth to make things “more colorful.” Dry history is the fault of the writer, not the event. And by building the story from actual events, rather than trying to use the events to fit a story, you inevitably uncover new information, so that even a place as familiar as Fenway is surprisingly revealing. In this book, I just tried to track the whys and hows of Fenway Park coming into existence, then track it during its first season to see what that told me. I was quite surprised, for instance, to see how Fenway’s personality, the same personality that in many ways is still in effect in the park today, was revealed over the course of the 1912 season and World Series. Even though the game was much different, the personality of the place was already visible.
BB: As a writer how do you avoid clichés when writing about a game? How much of a challenge is it to make a game recap sound fresh?
GS: You have to be vigilant, because there are times you just have to take the reader from point A to B so you have context for something more important you really want to write about – why and how the score is 2-1 entering the ninth inning for instance – and there’s a great temptation to take the easy way out and get lazy. To avoid that I have to think backwards and ask “What does the reader really need to know entering that ninth inning?” Than I have to deliver the game description to that point economically and without distractions, and that’s the argument against clichés – they are distractions. Staying simple is best, just straightforward reporting without reaching to create any false drama or using writing that calls too much attention to itself. It’s far better to be a bit spare than too florid, because florid writing not only takes readers out of a story and restrains the imagination, More spare, restrained writing leaves room for the readers’ imagination to expand and fill in the blanks.
Then, for texture and context, which is always needed, I try to make use of period sports reporting. Something can be said better by a reporter at that time that if said by the omniscient narrator would sound stupid, or hackneyed or forced. I mean, at one point during the Series Joe Wood is in shock after being shelled. But I don’t write, “After being shelled, Wood was in shock.” I use the reporting of baseball writer Paul Shannon of the Boson Post. He wrote that “A place at the right hand corner of the Red Sox bench was taken by a stopped, wilted figure [SWF]. The SWF was Joe Wood.” I loved that. Another strategy I use throughout Fenway 1912 is that I drop appropriate headlines throughout the text, simply to provide that kind of textural change and period flavor. I guess the short answer is don’t try to write like you’re wearing a fedora and chewing on a cigar. That never comes off as authentic.
BB: Is being spare in your prose something that you come by naturally from your background in poetry? Do you arrive at that kind of clear, straightforward prose after many drafts or at this point is it something you achieve early on?
GS: To a degree I guess, because in general I’ve always been more drawn toward plain speaking and work that works when listened to rather than poetry that is more mannered and academic. In prose, I aim for transparency. In many instances I almost want my actual writing to be completely invisible, so submissive to the story that you don’t notice it. I want the readers’ first reaction to be “great story” and then realize that it was the writing that delivered that experience.
BB: Did you read a lot of the other material–not from the period but since then–on the 1912 season and the building of Fenway? Was there anything that you tried to avoid repeating?
GS: There was very little that was worthwhile. It hadn’t been written about much before and so much of that was just factually wrong or incomplete. Obviously, I tried to avoid using information I knew not to be true, even it contradicted prevailing wisdom. In places I even correct what I had written before when I had depended on a secondary source that I discovered was incorrect. Here’s an example. Years ago, when I write the official 75th anniversary story about the park for the Red Sox yearbook, I had used a secondary source that called Fenway’s architectural style “Tapestry.” In this book, I learned that was incorrect – “tapestry” is simply the commercial name for the style of brick used, and after consulting with some architectural historians I was eventually able to identify Fenway’s architectural influences. That’s why you try not to use secondary sources.
Frankly, no one had ever written anything in depth about the beginnings of Fenway Park before, so there weren’t too many misconceptions to counteract. It’s funny, but it has been around so long that I think most people, and certainly most Boston baseball writers, had simply assumed that there was nothing left to be known about the origins of the park so they had never bothered to write about it. Historians, even architectural historian, had never viewed it as an object worthy of scrutiny. In reality, the opposite was true. It was virgin territory.
BB: What is the new research that you are bringing to this book? And, as a former librarian, how much do you enjoy the hunt for new stuff?
GS: I love doing the research. There is nothing better than discovering something new about a subject that everyone thinks they already know everything about. And there’s no trick to that apart from putting in the time. Today, with so much material available online, many history writers don’t bother going beyond what is readily available, but it becomes even more important. Here’s how it can work. I discovered one key document that I don’t think anyone has ever used or even seen in nearly one hundred years. I only found it because, over time, I realized that there were many different euphemisms for ballparks, and for the Red Sox. So instead of just searching “Fenway Park” I literally spent t an entire day searching for material online under different combinations of euphemisms. I was several hundred Google search pages into it when I found one obscure reference in an index dating from 1912 that seemed like it might be about Fenway. Then I had to find out what library holds the publication, and then physically go find it.
BB: Do you have researchers that work for you or do you do the legwork yourself?
GS: I do about 99% of my research myself and use a researcher to a very, very, very limited degree, and then only when my life schedule or location makes it impossible for me to look things up myself. In this case, I spent weeks in libraries looking up things on microfilm, and untold hours doing the same with sources that were available on-line and in books. There’s no substitute for that, because what inevitably happens is that when you are locked in doing research, you find things and make connections that you never, ever would have made if you were just contracting out to someone to do it for you. I recently heard from a writer who has researchers do almost everything, including interviews, and he had questions concerning a subject he had a researcher interview, but the interviewer apparently hadn’t asked all the right questions. The subject has since passed away, so now he will never know. I can’t imagine doing that. I really question the veracity of any book where the writer doesn’t do the vast bulk of his or her own research.
Generally, I’ll only use a researcher when I’m on deadline or toward the end of a project, to fill in blanks I might discover at the last minute. I live on the Canadian border in northwest Vermont and it’s not always possible to run down to New York or Boston – I have a family, animals and responsibilities, and a real long driveway I have to plow in the winter. For instance, there was one point where I was writing about the 1912 World Series when I suddenly had more questions about a particular event took place that. I already had accounts from four or five different papers, but what took place still wasn’t exactly clear. So I asked Denise Bousquet, a young woman from my town up here in Vermont who went to college in Boston and now works at Harvard, to look up some additional accounts for me. She’s done that for my last few books, and she also does some fact-checking, mostly on numbers and stats, because it’s way too easy to trip over those, and even then, stats from various sources don’t always agree. Many people think publishers fact check – they don’t. It’s the responsibility of the author, but there are discrepancies everywhere, even in data sources like Retrosheet and baseballreference.com. A book of this size – almost 200,000 words, probably contains 30,000 different facts. You try as best as you can to get it right.
BB: The mini biographies are always some of the most compelling sections of a book like this. Can you talk a little about the architect of Fenway Park, James E. McLaughlin and the builder Charles Logue? Also, I know you had experience in construction as a young man, and that you compiled an oral history about construction workers at Ground Zero. How much of your personal experience informed how you presented the relationship between McLaughlin and Logue?
GS: Fenway is perhaps the best known sporting facility in the country, yet both the architect and the builder were essentially unknown. McLaughlin and Logue had never been written about in any detail – even architectural historians knew virtually nothing about McLaughlin. Well, I bring them back, and show how both the design and building of Fenway Park was influenced by each man’s personality and philosophy. Both were immigrants. McLaughlin was Nova Scotian and Logue was Irish. McLaughlin’s practical and understated architectural philosophy was expressed in his design of Fenway. Before this book no one had ever decoded the specific architectural influences in the design of Fenway Park, or related Fenway to McLaughlin’s other buildings or to other nearby buildings built in the same era. I do, and that is one of the reasons why Fenway still works today – it fit the city then, and still does. And because I spent a number of years working in the construction industry, specifically working with concrete and reinforcing and structural steel, I understood the challenges that building Fenway created for Charles Logue, and spoke with his great grandson to give some sense of the man behind the name. My construction background was of immeasurable help in translating what would otherwise have been arcane construction and engineering information into English, and experienced how builders and architects interact. I think I make it possible to envision Fenway Park being built, and that in the end the reader walks away with an intimate understanding of the place that simply was not available before. After reading Fenway 1912 the reader will never be able to look at Fenway Park the same way – I guarantee it.
BB: You mentioned having to get rid of details sometimes if they take the reader away from the larger story. Even in this book, where you could afford to be more in-depth than in a general history book, were there things that you liked that had to be left on the cutting room floor?
GS: Only a little. It would have been nice to use another 20,000 words to better flesh out some characters, and perhaps to give those who are unfamiliar with Boston a bit more to hold on to, but I managed to squeeze in almost everything I wanted, either in the main text or in the endnotes, which are substantial.
BB: What was the most difficult part about writing this book?
GS: The story, to a degree, told itself, but the research was daunting, particularly in trying to pin down exactly how Fenway was built, and precisely when things took place, because I had to look in multiple newspapers and other sources every day over a six month period, never knowing if there would be a story or a picture that would be useful. Sometimes I’d spend all day and only find a sentence or two of information, but that one sentence could tell me something new. That’s how I found out the groundskeeper supervised the transfer of the sod from the Huntington Avenue Grounds to Fenway Park, which is the scene that opens the book. It took place in October, just after the 1911 season ended and work was just starting at Fenway Park, but I found the reference in a story written in late January of 1912, just a sentence.
BB: I loved your book on Trudy Ederle and I remember talking to you about how you spent long hours alone on a lake in an attempt to have some small understanding of what she must have experienced swimming the English channel. How did this experience, strictly from your writer’s perspective, compare with that?
GS: Completely different. For the Ederle book I had to bring myself up to speed about an experience I knew very little about. I didn’t have to do that for this book because I am very comfortable writing about both baseball and construction work. I already have insight into those subjects – I mean I’ve poured concrete day after day after day, pitched with a torn rotator cuff and from other projects already knew a great deal about the time period and the City of Boston during that time.
BB: Can you talk about the alterations that were made to the park during the 1912 season?
GS: There were two Fenway Parks in 1912. The park that opened and the park that was altered for the 1912 World’s Series. They were radically different. The park that opened was a very Spartan facility – just a small concrete and steel grandstand that barely extended past the dugouts with a tiny, ramshackle press box stuck on the roof, a mostly wooden “pavilion” that extended down the right field line, then a standalone block of wood bleachers in center field. There were no stands in right field at all, just a plain plank fence at the back edge of the property, and no stands down the left field line. In left was the earthen embankment that became known as Duffy’s Cliff and a long plank wall that extended to center field, the precursor to the “Green Monster.” The whole place seated just 24,500 people, that was it.
With the Series approaching, the club realized that Fenway was already obsolete. Overflow crowds that had been allowed onto the field during the regular season had been problematic and the National Commission told them they wouldn‘t allow that during the World Series. So while the Sox were on a road trip in September, in only a couple weeks they built 11,000 more seats, adding wooded stands down the left field line and stands in right field connecting the bleachers to the pavilion, giving the field of play the same basic footprint it has today. Fortunately I have a wonderful drawing in the book that shows those changes. And when the park was renovated and reconstructed after the 1933 season, that same footprint basic was retained.
BB: One of the incredible things about Fenway Park is that it has changed over 100 years, and although it may seem antiquated, the current Red Sox ownership has done a lot to add modern touches without tearing the place down. Can you talk about some of the most significant alterations the place has seen and why it continues to last.
GS: Fenway Park has lasted because until quite recently they never really tried to preserve it. There was little waxy nostalgia about the place until the 1980s. If they needed to change something, they just changed it. In that way the ballpark was allowed to evolve, and, except for the original grandstand, was almost entirely rebuilt in 1933/34 anyway. Significantly, I think, is that despite all the things they’ve done recently, they’ve left the interior footprint of the field alone. That allows fans to imagine they’re in the same park where Ruth and Williams and Yaz played, and where Fisk and Bucky hit it over the wall, and to connect that history. That’s mostly a fantasy, but an effective one. So despite the fact that I find Fenway far too busy these days – there are signs EVERYWHERE, and a constant barrage of noise – in many ways the park more resembles the retro parks that were built in imitation of Fenway more than the original Fenway Park – fans can still have a unique and memorable personal experience. A significant number of fans at any given game are tourists, and tourists will even find cramped seats and posts charming.
BB: Fenway and Wrigley are the only two old timey parts left. Do you think they’ll still be around in ten years?
GS: Wrigley, certainly, and Fenway probably, although at a certain point, particularly now that the 100th anniversary is about to pass, the benefits of Fenway to the franchise may begin to play out. As long as Fenway is full for every game, the park will be retained, but economically, they need it to be full. When it isn’t is when I think you’ll start to hear whispers that it’s no longer financially viable that they can’t “compete,” in Fenway. Then the drumbeat for a new park will start. Yet in this political climate replacing Fenway isn’t real viable either, and ballclubs are loathe to pay for new parks without substantial governmental help. A new ballpark in Boston, including surrounding infrastructure, would be a billion dollar project, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.
BB: Did you visit Fenway at all during the writing of the book or did you rely on your past memories of the place?
GS: I’ve seen some, but not all the changes that have taken place over the last decade because I’ve only been back to Boston a few times since I moved up here, and as you know they’ve made substantive changes to Fenway almost every season. But what they’ve done to Fenway recently is only a very small part of this book, and I was familiar enough with the park from when I did live in Boston for what I needed. I used to attend twenty games or so a year, and for a while had a pretty regular gig on NESN as a commentator on Red Sox history and got to roam around a lot. In the late ‘80s I narrated and did a walk around for a big special they did on the park and got to go all over the place – they showed it during rainouts for about a decade. I’ve covered a few games as a reporter, both in the old and new press boxes, snuck in a few times as a fan, taken batting practice there, and been in the dugouts and clubhouses, on the roof and in the lux boxes, under the bleachers when the batting cage was there, that kind of stuff.
BB: I know if this tangential to the book but you do mention in the introduction your own relationship with Fenway and how a ballpark is more like a civic institution, it’s a landmark for generations of people. Can you share some of your experiences at the park, and also, how you used to read poetry outside of it?
GS: Well shortly after I moved to Boston I decided to do something that would combine my two major interested – poetry and writing. I had collected a fair amount of baseball inspired poetry from Casey at the Bat to contemporary stuff, borrowed a little Pignose amp and microphone from a friend, put on an old baseball uniform, sent out press releases, filled a liter soda bottle with Bloody Mary’s and set up shop about 9:00 am on Opening Day and started reading. Back then, people would line up on Lansdowne Street to but bleacher seats.
It was fun as hell. People wondered what the hell I was doing out there, but no one told me to stop or tried to punch me in the face. A few heckled, but some people would actually stop and listen and every once in a while drop a few dollars at my feet. A couple TV and radio stations covered me, and columnists wrote about me – I met George Kimball that way – he did a story on me one year, and so did Peter Gelzinis of the Herald and Bob Hohler, before he was with the Globe. I met Bill Littlefield of NPR that way as well.
Glenn Stout (in uniform), and behind him (also in uniform), Scott Bortzfield, aka The Baseball Bards
So I kept doing it, and did it for nine years. Eventually my friend Scott, who I now live across the road from in Vermont, joined me out there, and people started expecting us. My Mom even made us old style Boston uniforms, and by the end there would be six or eight of us who would all go to the game together afterwards. One poem I would always read was by Tom Clark, a great poet who also wrote the Charlie Finley bio “Champagne and Baloney, called “To Bill Lee.” Wouldn’t you know it that one year, after we stopped and took our seats in the bleachers, who sits down next to us but Lee – this was only a years or two after he had stopped playing. I told him what I did and showed him the poem, which he knew and said, “That’s a great poem!” Which it is. I’ve met Bill a few times since and he remembers it.
It sounds crazy, but if I hadn’t done that, I might never have ended up writing for a living. Reading poetry in public really empowered me, and convinced me that there was a way to combine my interests in writing and baseball.
You know, I moved to Boston because I wanted to live in a city with an old ballpark, and I write that Fenway Park is the kind of place that can change your life. And I mean that, because it changed mine.
Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Year is available everywhere books are sold.