INTRODUCTION For much of their history, the Boston Red Sox have been a team caught between the promise of dreams impossible to reach and reality often too harsh to bear. As Sox fans know too well, they are a team whose early potential, with six pennants and five world championships in their first 18 seasons, has not been fulfilled in more recent history, which is to say since 1918. They have gone from a dynasty to a dynasty-always-in-waiting. And more so than any other team in sports, perhaps, writing about the Red Sox has alternately explored and exploited this gulf, often to excess.
Since 1967, when the Red Sox improbably won the pennant, sparking interest in the moribund franchise for a new generation, and particularly since 1986, when—well you know what happened then—the Sox have become favorites of baseball’s literary intelligentsia. That peculiarly local phenomenon created a new species of writer, one who, upon reaching success in one field, suddenly decides that what he or she really wants to do is write Red Sox–inspired baseball romance.
That has its place, I suppose, but not here. Just as the drought of championships is not the whole story of this team, such overtly literary work is not necessarily the best or most memorable writing about the team.
I became aware of this some 20 years ago when I first discovered the old newspapers and microfilm collections held at the Boston Public Library, beginning an exploration that has continued to this day. I think the best writing and reporting about the Red Sox have come primarily from the writers who have played a role in what may well be the oldest and best tradition of baseball writing in the country.
One can make the argument that it was in Boston that the baseball writer was bred and that here the genre has flourished and taken on significance that exists in few other places. The Red Sox have inevitably been a part of that, for they have often provided the writer with near-perfect subject matter—loss—for loss is, inherently, more interesting than victory. Winning simply requires an interesting way to tell the score, but loss demands more of a writer. After all, the reader already knows, and likely detests, the ending. The writer must, therefore, provide a reason to read on, to revisit the pain, and somehow, from that experience, to rise above the intractable result and look forward.
The best writing in any genre transcends both the moment and the game, and that is no less the case here. Apart from a few stories selected for their historicity, such as Arthur McPherson’s account of how the team came to be named the Red Sox, I have selected stories that move me the way any fine writing does—with its ability to take me away from here to over there.
New York might boast that it was there that Henry Chadwick became the first “baseball writer,” plying his trade for the last half of the nineteenth century for the New York Times, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and the New York Sun, but it was in Boston that the genre came of age. One can, in fact, trace the history of baseball writing in Boston back to just after the Civil War. A weekly newspaper known as the New England Baseballist, one of the earliest baseball periodicals, was published in Boston in 1868. At a time when the Boston Common often had to be cleared of cows before the ball could be put in play, it charted the games and activities of some of the first organized teams in the history of the game—such forgotten nines as the Tremonts and Twin Oaks. And when baseball’s first professional team, the Red Stockings, relocated to Boston in 1870, baseball began elbowing its way into the daily newspapers of the city, which celebrated its early stars like no place else.
The Red Stockings eventually evolved into the Boston team of the National League and in the 1890s became one of the most powerful teams in the league. But it was not until the American League was created in 1901 and an AL team was placed in Boston that Boston baseball writing truly began to flourish. Sparked by early newspaper wars and inspired by a team made up primarily of stars signed away from the NL club, the Boston Americans, as they were popularly known, immediately seized the imagination of the city.
Although it was possible to attend a game for only 25 cents, few working-class fans could afford to attend the late-afternoon contests, except on weekends. Then it was left to the newspapers to provide a fan his or her daily fix of information. Writing about the game became almost as important as the game itself, for it was through the newspapers that most fans came to know their team. That is no less true today. Even though the games are all available on television and discusssed ad nauseam on radio, the writers still provide the context and character of what has happened. For more than a century, Boston’s bbbbbaseball writers have framed and determined the course of the debates as they have tried to answer the age-old question “What’s the matter with the Red Sox?” Tim Murnane of the Boston Globe, a former National League player, was one of the first of these local observers. He cut his journalistic teeth covering the NL team and at the turn of the century was the most respected reporter in the game. Like most other Boston baseball cranks, he soon began following the AL team almost exclusively. Other journalistic pioneers, such as Walter S. Barnes of the Boston American and Frederic P. O’Connell and Paul Shannon of the Boston Post, joined him.
Their task was clear-cut. In essence, it was up to them to re- create the game, to deliver to each reader the experience that just took place at the ballpark. With a flair and style no longer in vogue, they often did a far more thorough job of reporting the actual events than their counterparts do today. One can virtually re-create every game from the newspapers of one hundred years ago. Today, that responsibility lies elsewhere, as the “why” of the result has replaced the nuts and bolts of “how.” Boston, one of the few two-newspaper cities remaining today, has always been journalistically competitive. For the first half of the 1900s, as many as eight daily newspapers grappled for readers, plus an equal number from the other major cities of the region. Yet baseball writing in Boston has never been the sole province of the newspaper reporter, or even of Boston writers alone. Boston was also the birthplace of Baseball Magazine, the first successful baseball monthly. Magazine reportage and, more recently, work from Internet venues have continued to enrich and influence the way Red Sox fans view their team. In addition, the Red Sox have always been seen as a ready subject by writers from elsewhere. I believe this multitude of voices has lifted the Red Sox from a regional phenomenon, with all its inherent parochialism, to one with national, even international, appeal.
From the time I was a kid and before I was even aware of it, I collected writing about baseball as others collected baseball cards. Soon after arriving in Boston more than 20 years ago, I discovered the musty marbled halls of the Boston Public Library and its accompanying collections. It was there, in microfilm and old books, that I began to uncover the great, still evolving tradition of baseball writing in this city. I soon became as familiar with writers such as Murnane, O’Connell, Harold Kaese, Dave Egan, and Bill Cunningham as fans are today with Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy, and Tony Massarotti. While at work on a variety of writing projects—a biography of Ted Williams, hundreds of articles and columns on Red Sox history and more contemporary events, even as series editor ...