Harry Agganis was the quintessential “can’t miss” kid. A multi-sport high school football icon from Lynn, Massachusetts, Agannis was not only preternaturally talented, he was also a master analytical mind in whatever game he played. After a stellar college football career at Boston College, he chose to play baseball for the hometown Red Sox so that he could look after his widowed mother. Shockingly though, at age twenty-five he was dead of tuberculosis, his baseball talent never getting the time to bear fruit.
In July 1962, Red Sox pitcher, Gene Conley, walked off the team bus that was stranded in a New York City traffic jam. He returned five days later to the club and told an incredulous world that he wanted to go to Jerusalem but was prevented from doing so for want of a passport.
These, and a chockfull of other fascinating stories make up Golenbock’s definitive, if at times, irreverent, biography of the Boston Red Sox. Golenbock, an acclaimed oral historian, uses player reminiscences tellingly to chart the history of the star crossed ballclub.
For all Don Zimmer’s accomplishments, he was not known for his empathy for pitchers. As the manager of the Red Sox in the 1970s, the old school Zimmer was continually at loggerheads with pitchers Bill Lee, Ferguson Jenkins, and Rick Wise – the so-called Buffalo Heads. Lee captures the relationship perfectly in this recollection:
“Zimmer was definitely a noncommunicative type. He was a belligerent
terrier, a Gila monster, a great third-base coach. It was the Peter Principle
one more time. ‘Always keep dumb-ass people below your general manager.”
>Golenbock gets a number of players to open up and speak candidly about pivotal events. This allows the reader to get a Rashomonesque look at the same event and emphatically underscores how history gets distorted when only a single perspective is recorded. Every Sox fan knows that the fate of their team was sealed when the ball went through first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series with the New York Mets. Did manager Joe Morgan make a fatal error in leaving the gimpy first baseman in rather than substitute a defensive player? Several players offer contrasting descriptions of the same event, and the reader is left with the feeling that it was not a clear cut case of managerial hubris that did the Red Sox in that day.
The book was originally published in 1999 under the title Fenway. Golenbock updated it to include the team’s glorious march to the championship in 2004. While it is heartwarming to have a good ending to the story, Golenbock chooses to have fans, rather than players, talk about the victorious season. While it is still oral history, there is something missing because players’ perspective made this not only a compelling read, but also allowed it to carve a special niche in the world of sports books. This quibble aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable journey that connects Babe Ruth in the early 1900s and Bill Mueller in 2004 by the golden thread of having worn the uniform of the Boston Red Sox.