Author tells storied history of the Red Sox, warts and all

Peter Golenbock’s “Red Sox Nation” (Triumph Books, updated in 2015 to include the 2013 season) probably is not a book for everyone, not even all Sox fans.
Despite the book’s wealth of fascinating details, it might take a touch of masochism for Sox fans to revisit the team’s many decades of failure between 1918 and 1967, mostly due to management decisions based on poor talent evaluation, petty biases, alcoholism and racism.
Then again, Sox fans of a certain age have had a fair dose of masochism instilled in them — those who can remember losing seven-game World Series in 1967, 1975 and 1986, all in painful fashion, and can recall at least some of the lean years between 1918 and 1967 that produced just one pennant and another agonizing Series loss, in 1946.
In contrast, those born in the 1990s might view the Sox as a dominant franchise, blessed by the baseball gods with good fortune and wonderful players like Pedro, Papi and Pedroia. And Golenbock’s book concludes with those recent wonder years.
“Red Sox Nation” — largely an oral history told in quotes from ballplayers, managers, media members and fans — also opens in happier times, when the Sox won five World Series before 1918, including the first ever contested, in 1903.
For example, Golenbock records this 1903 conversation between Sox owners Henry Killilea and Ban Johnson, in which Sox manager and third baseman Jimmy Collins and pitchers Cy Young and Bill Dinneen are name-checked.
They are discussing whether to play the first Series vs. the National League champion Pittsburgh Pirates:
“‘What do you think of the idea, Ban?’ Killilea asked.
‘Do you think you can beat them?’
‘They’ve got Honus Wagner, Clarke and some other fine hitters, but Collins thinks he can stop them with Young and Dinneen,’ said Killilea.
‘Then play them,’ Johnson said. ‘By all means, play them.’”
The Sox would go on to add players like Tris Speaker, Smoky Joe Wood and Babe Ruth on the way to four more Series victories through 1918.
But reviewing the next 86 years may require tolerance for pain as well as serious interest in Sox history.
After those glory years came the debt-ridden ownership of Harry Frazee and the sale of Ruth to the Yankees. Golenbock provides telling details about this era, but does miss a key one: A feud existed between two factions in the American League, and one reason Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees was that half the league would not do business with the Sox.
But Golenbock properly notes that Ruth was only one of several all-stars Boston shipped to New York, thus triggering the Yankee dynasty that lasted until the early 1960s.
The Sox sputtered until rich dilettante Tom Yawkey bought the team in the early 1930s, and they stayed on the fringe of contention through the late 1940s. Golenbock illustrates well how Yawkey proved willing to spend money, but at the same time did not place his loyalty in the right people to run his franchise.
Joe Cronin in particular proved to be both a mediocre manager and general manager. And his long tenure is not followed by much better until general manager Dick O’Connell’s arrival in the mid-1960s brings both a dedication to nurturing young talent and a knack for trading for the right pieces.
Golenbock highlights well both the racism and alcoholism that pervaded the Sox front office before O’Connell’s arrival. No investment is made in player development or in pitching depth, and personnel decisions are often made based on personality.
For example, in 1948, manager Joe McCarthy at first simply refused to pitch Tex Hughson — who, Golenbock notes, “has the lowest lifetime earned-run average of any post-deadball era Red Sox pitcher, at 2.94” — when Hughson returned from injury, and then over-used him against medical advice.
Golenbock quotes Hughson, who finally retired because of the way McCarthy treated him: “When I got back to Boston from pitching in Austin, in 1948, McCarthy didn’t hardly know me.” Later, Hughson concludes, after sharing anecdotes about McCarthy’s drinking, “Joe McCarthy is the only man I’ve ever known in my life, and I’ll be seventy-five my next birthday, who I couldn’t get along with.”
Golenbock also provides insight into many colorful characters who have worn the Sox uniform. Hall of Famer Lefty Grove is an ornery presence. One person Golenbock quotes about Grove is former Middlebury and Dartmouth college coach Tony Lupien. Lupien recalls Grove offering him a ride back to the hotel:
“I thought, ‘I’d better say yes. He’s liable to kill me.’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and we walked out of the clubhouse, and he had a St. Louis Post-Dispatch all rolled up. A little kid came up and asked Grove for an autograph, and he hit that kid across the puss with that paper, and the kid went flying.”
On the other hand, everybody liked Johnny Pesky. Golenbock quotes former Sox pitcher Dave Morehead about Pesky’s successful minor league managing stint: “Playing for Johnny Pesky in Seattle was a great experience. He was almost like a father to all of us. He was always supportive, consistent, fair, but he was very tough.”
Golenbock recounts well both the ultimate triumph of Ted Williams, and the shame of the Sox in failing to sign Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, part of the racism that lingered for decades in the organization.
It was ultimately Cronin who refused to sign Robinson, and Robinson never forgave him. Cronin, later the American League president, remained bitter about remarks Robinson made after that snub, and in 1972 Cronin refused to go out on the field when Robinson spoke publicly for one of the last times, during the World Series in Cincinnati.
Golenbock quotes Negro League All-Star and Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, whom Commissioner Bowie Kuhn asked to bring Cronin to the field: “What I figured, if you remember Jackie had a tryout in Boston, and Jackie had said some things about him, and this was a holdover from that. Joe didn’t want to have any part of that ceremony.”
Golenbock takes a couple miss-steps, such as referring to Sox first baseman and DH Kevin Millar as a lefty hitter. And no one who writes about the 1975 World Series should fail to mention the Sox played without their best hitter, the injured Jim Rice.
But given all that “Red Sox Nation” does get right, those are quibbles.
When the 2004 team reverses the curse, stuns the Yankees, and then wins the World Series, Golenbock quotes film critic and Sox fan Jeffrey Lyons.
“I don’t care how cold it gets this winter, I hope it never ends. I want the feeling to last a long time,” Lyons said. “I will never hear those taunts of ‘1918’ or ‘Bucky Dent’ or ‘Bill Buckner’ again.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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