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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Shocking, But True: When Cubs Ruled
Book Review by Daniel Gabriel

Cait Murphy. Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2007, 368 pp., $24.95, cloth.

At first glance, the title of this book might serve as a hopeful prediction for the upcoming 2008 season. With Congress pontificating over the palpable mass on a player's buttocks and Marlins' ownership making yet another stab at extorting a new ballpark by dispensing of its most marketable players—to say nothing of the unexpected sight of both the Yankees and Red Sox backing away from the best pitcher in the game—the off-season has certainly offered up a fresh cast of the rogues and boneheads alluded to by Ms. Murphy.

But no, the author is referring to baseball of a century ago. An era when the Cubs were a dynasty and gamblers owned the Yankees, when the Big Train was just getting rolling and a young lad named Merkle was about to meet his destiny. As Robert Creamer says in his introduction: "Every baseball season is like a Dickens novel—a tale told in installments. . . . In 1908, there are simply more chapters, more incidents, more characters, more surprises, and more drama than in any other."

Believe it. If you've never read about the wild and crazy 1908 season, here's a fine place to start. Cait Murphy, an editor at Fortune magazine (and, more pertinently, a former Little League infielder), compiled sixty pages worth of sources and footnotes to produce a highly entertaining account of the roller coaster ride of baseball's most gripping pair of pennant races.

Mind you, she is not the first to produce a book on this particular year. I reviewed Dave Anderson's More Than Merkle in these pages in fall 2000, and G. H. Fleming's delightful collection of period newspaper accounts (The Unforgettable Season) was reprinted in 2006. Anderson, an umpire, provides exhaustive detail on rules and interpretations (all of import to the tale), and a much deeper focus on the umpires involved. The Fleming book, while a treasure trove of period prose, deals only with the National League season.

I mention those books only as a service to the reader, not to divert anyone from picking up Crazy '08. Murphy's prose is clear and effective, and finds room for verve as well. In setting the stage for a mid-July series between the two main antagonists (the Giants and Cubs), she writes: "Every game is marked by at least one strange incident. Featuring high comedy and genuine tragedy, great performances and blown chances, it is in this series that the craziness of '08 sidles into the dugout, hunkers down, and makes itself at home." I like that style. Or here, on the eve of the replay of the Merkle Game: "Inside the Polo Grounds, the mood is a cocktail of disorder and anticipation, with a dash of bitters."

Year of the Pitcher

We'll get back to that crucial season-ending scene, but first let me draw attention to other aspects of the book. The year 1908 was dominated by tough pitching (Ed Walsh wins forty, Addie Joss throws a perfect game in the heat of the final week's pennant race, a young Walter Johnson shuts out the Yanks three times in four days), so Murphy asks—and answers—the question, "Why was hitting so down that year?" She gives a good analysis of the advances made in pitching and fielding, while "hitting is still stuck in the nineteenth century."

In the midst of a section on spitballs, there's a great scene with Jack Chesbro (who throws his spitter by licking the ball with his tongue) complaining in one game about a ball that "‘tastes funny.'" The ump then licks it, followed by the Yankee manager and some of the Detroit players. Germany Schaefer claims it tastes like lemon pie. And this in a day when balls were used for innings on end. In fact, for a 1908 game between the Dodgers and the Cards, only one ball is used for the entire game.

I also became fascinated with the details about Three Finger Brown's gnarled digits. (It was hard not to be—they were constantly referred to in every press account of the day.) This book includes the single best photo I've ever seen of his pitching hand.

Life Beyond the Playing Field
At the turn of the twentieth century, professional ballplayers were generally known for rowdiness and having a disdain for education or intellectual pursuits. However, the author refutes the notion that college men were rare in baseball, providing lots of great examples besides the obvious, like the Bucknell-educated Christy Mathewson (Orval Overall, Frank Chance, and Ed Reulbach also came from the college ranks). Cleveland and the Giants alone each featured six college men on their rosters.

Maybe some of this has to do with her Irish heritage, as the Irish were not only amply represented on the field, but were still taking heat for their supposed lack of sophistication. In a telling anecdote, Murphy pulls up the account of a Chicago sportswriter who travels regularly with the Cubs. On one train trip east, he goes from car to car and reports on what everybody is doing: studying a book on dentistry, talking baseball, reading a biography of Savonarola, playing poker, lecturing a reporter on the role of Ireland in the children's crusades, and so on. Even given the fact that in those days no salacious tidbits would have been allowed in such a story, I still found it instructive. Ballplayers of the day had a much higher rate of college education than the American norm.

Speaking of heritage, Murphy herself has roots in Chicago, her father having grown up near Wrigley Field. She writes very knowledgeably about Chicago politics and other city details. Take this insight into life in sweet home Chicago—bearing in mind that the Fourth of July was regularly celebrated at ballparks with an excess of enthusiasm: "A few fans carry pistols to the ballpark; many more bring fireworks of dubious quality. . . . Chicago is a gun-totin' kind of town: in 1900, the gunplay at a game was so fierce that by the sixth inning, a haze of gun smoke hung over the field. Further volleys were aimed at the roof, which began to splinter." After reading so many books by authors with obvious ties to New York, it was a breath of fresh air to see (in a story where the Giants play such a significant role) the focus shift away from the Big Apple.

Another surprising point of emphasis was the high rate of suicide in baseball. "From 1900 to 1920, two dozen baseball men committed suicide." Chick Stahl killed himself by drinking carbolic acid, Win Mercer by inhaling gas. Even the fierce and gritty Ty Cobb missed forty-four games in 1906 due to a nervous breakdown.

One final point of digression that proved of great interest was Murphy's use of six intriguing "time-out" sections throughout the text. Some of the baseball-related ones, like the bit on curses or the Abner Doubleday myth (which surfaced in 1908) weren't all that compelling, but the others, meant to be indicative of the zeitgeist of the day (and the headlines people were reading before they got to the sports pages), provided fascinating asides. "The Murder Farm" follows the female serial killer, Belle Gunness. "The Red Peril and the Red Priestess" focuses on Emma Goldman and the anarchist movement. (Both of these sections are heavily Chicago-centric.)

Back in the Game
While the two Merkle contests are an obvious focus, the author first tantalizes us with the doings in the American League. For all the brouhaha of the National League's finale, the AL pennant race ends up being the closest in history, with only a half-game margin of victory. It comes down to the final day: Tigers vs. White Sox. (The city of Chicago was looking at the prospect of its second El Series in three years.) Fans gather outside the visiting Tigers' hotel and spend the night serenading "their enemies ‘with yowls, horns, sirens, songs, the banging of dishpans and garbage can lids.'" Players go out to a deli, buy tomatoes, and throw them at their tormentors. It's hard to picture such a scene today.

And then we move on to tragedy: "In the trajectory of a life, there is often a single year in which childhood flees. . . . Baseball's year is 1908: the place is the Polo Grounds; the day is September 23; and the event is the most controversial game in baseball history." Fred Merkle gets his first start in the big leagues.

I won't even attempt to cover the hugely conflicting reports as to exactly what did happen at the end of the Merkle game. Just reading the verbatim accounts in The Unforgettable Season is a treat, but here Murphy does us an additional favor by sifting and interpreting. She includes a good deal of primary source material, such as the league reports submitted by the umpires, and the various rulings and hesitations offered by the league office.

If your interest in the topic is inexhaustible, More Than Merkle goes into more depth on "the Gill game," a Pirates vs. Cubs affair some three weeks before the first Merkle game, which ended in nearly identical fashion and, as Murphy points out, alerted Cubs players to be on the look-out for similar situations.

Almost lost in the rush of events is the performance of Phillies rookie Harry Coveleski, who beats the Giants three times in five days down the stretch. Ridiculed repeatedly in the press over his name and ethnicity, it is he, as much as Merkle, who costs the Giants the pennant. (Murphy covers this well, as does Unforgettable Season.)

Confusion reigns over the three-way denouement between the Giants, Pirates, and Cubs. The season ends a week into October, and during that week "the lead will change five times and each team will spend time in first, second, and third." Now that's my kind of pennant race.

To get us through the final day (Merkle II), the author employs an effective timeline to set the scene. We watch the big day unfold, moment by moment. The tension builds . . . surely the good guys will win . . . but which team are they?

And then, after it all, Murphy brings down the curtain: "The Giants lost the pennant on a technicality. Undeniably. But baseball is a game of technicalities. It revels in minutiae; it bathes in detail; it floats in a sea of trifles; it is built on a foundation of arcana. Baseball without technicalities is a caveman hitting a stone with a club."

So true. And I'll end as Crazy '08 does: "In the sweep of baseball's history, 1908 is not the end of an era, or the beginning of one. It is, however, the end of the beginning."


—EFQ

DANIEL GABRIEL's stories and articles have appeared widely in eight countries. He is Director of Arts Education Programs for COMPAS, an arts organization in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

© 2008 Daniel Gabriel

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