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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Crazy for Crazy '08


”So grandly contested were both [pennant races], so great the excitement, so tense the interest, that in the last month of the season the entire nation became absorbed in the thrilling and nerve racking struggle, and even the Presidential campaign was almost completely overshadowed.”Sporting Life, October 17, 1908

Before my attention and allegiance shifted due to recent and happy events, I was very pleased to receive Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnets Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History as a Christmas present. Of course as a lifelong Cubs fan my main interest was in reliving and hopefully foreshadowing a time when, in the words of one Washington sportswriter of the time, they “were grizzlies these Cubs, Ursine Colossi who towered high and frowningly and refused to reckon on anything but victory.” And for Cubs fans perhaps there is something special in the symmetry of the centennial of the Cubs last World Series victory as this year’s edition took the league’s best record into June – a feat that more than one source reminds us was last accomplished by the franchise in yes, you guessed it, 1908. It remains to be seen however, whether Lou Pinella’s Cubs will be able to say as 1908’s manager Frank Chance (known at the time as the “Peerless Leader” or simply “P.L.” for short) did, with that air of arrogance and without sounding ridiculous, “Who ever heard of the Cubs losing a game they had to have?”

But even with my attention somewhat diverted, I shouldn’t have been surprised that in this book Murphy, an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, goes so far beyond the Cubs, the Merkle game and its aftermath, that any baseball fan or even history buff, will find it entertaining and a joy to read. Although the book focuses on the National League race it should not be forgotten that the American League race was almost its equal and Murphy devotes a chapter (“That Other Race”) to it as well.

The book follows a mostly chronological course beginning with the events of the 1907-1908 offseason. From the now all-too-familiar inaction in the face of the growing problem of gambling to moves like the St. Louis Browns signing the enigmatic southpaw Rube Waddell to rules changes including the sabermetrically questionable adoption of the modern sacrifice fly rule, and a rule prohibiting pitchers from soiling one of the half dozen or so new balls that enter play each game, Murphy does a fine job of providing context to the season and the times by periodically recalling events from the recent past.

From a baseball perspective her description of the playing conditions in the chapter “The Hot Stove League” is excellent by recapping the evolution of the game on the field in all three primary dimensions and generating one of my favorite lines in the discussion on defense where Murphy quite correctly notes that baseball “is Darwinian in its results but Newtonian in its processes.” Those Darwinian processes, already well established in 1908 and applying their mode of selection, led to the development of relief pitchers, pinch hitters and runners, base coaches, platooning, defensive positioning and strategies, and much more. What accompanied them was a march towards standardization that worked together to contribute to a gradual perfecting of the craft of baseball that we modern fans are the happy beneficiaries of. In the end, she concludes that while there are many things the modern fan (“crank” or “bug” as they were called then) would find strange including whiskey in the stands and the occasional player smoking on the field, the game in 1908 would be entirely recognizable (hot dogs and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” which made its debut in 1908 to name a couple) in a way that other major sports with shorter pedigrees would not be. At the same time she argues that although in 1908 baseball is already big business and commands an air of respectability that it lacked just a few years before, the 1908 season – with the Merkle game and its aftermath including riots, legal wrangling and at least one death, acting as a catalyst – is when “baseball itself makes its turn into the modern era.” One sign of this new era is that 1908 was the final season for Pittsburgh’s Exposition Park (the site of which sits just east of present PNC Park on the banks of the Allegheny) and Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, the former being replaced by Forbes Field and the latter by Shibe Park, the first fireproof park made of steel and concrete and built in French Renaissance style for a cool $457,000. Other owners were quick to follow with both Charles Comiskey and Charlie Ebbets buying up land that would eventually host their namesakes.

Along the way the baseball that follows is also nicely setup through opening chapters on the Giants (“Land of the Giants”) and the Cubs (“Origins of a Dynasty”) Murphy takes a look back at how each of the primary combatants in the ’08 race were built (the Giants not so fairly it turns out in a seedy story of destroying the Orioles and using the Reds concocted by John Brush, Andrew Freedman, and John McGraw) interspersed with fascinating profiles of McGraw, Frank Chance, and Johnny Evers. By the time the fourth chapter, titled “Opening Days”, rolls around the reader is well positioned to enjoy the drama that follows.

Off the field the mood of the country and the times is set by the inclusion of six “Time-Outs” or sidebars that periodically appear at the ends of chapters. For example, “Chicago on the Make” closes out the chapter on the building of the Cubs and details the evolution of the city and its leaders in dealing with corruption at various levels that had become rampant by the turn of the century. In other time-outs Murphy recounts the grizzly affair of one of America’s first female serial killers, Belle Gunness, the Doubleday myth, the position and prospects of African-American ballplayers, the scare of early twentieth century anarchism, and finally an entertaining list of the things that some players did in 1908 to “court good luck and drive away hoodoos” (“hoodoos” being the term then in vogue and denoting curses and bad luck). Each is fascinating and provides just enough additional context to give the reader a feel for the place of the game in the first decade of the twentieth century.

But of course the main thrust of the book is the narrative of the 1908 National League season and here Murphy does a fine job by breaking the season down into six chapters with two other chapters devoted specifically to Merkle games one and two with the latter chapter complete with a timeline beginning at dawn and running until game time that serves to build anticipation of the events that follow. But in the earlier chapters recounting the ups and downs of baseball’s long season, rather than focus only on the Giants and Cubs these chapters also take the time to highlight key moments and performers of other teams including Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner who in 1908 had his finest season (.354/.415/.542) while his team fell just short in what became a three-way race after a furious run that saw the Bucs win (13 of 14) before losing to the Cubs at the Westside Grounds 5-2 on October 4th admidst a little controversy. We also here find vignettes featuring Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, Hal Chase, Rube Waddell, and Cy Young among others not to mention other actors in the season’s ultimate drama such as Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown, Roger Bresnahan, Joe Tinker, “Turkey” Mike Donlin, Jimmy Sheckard, Merkle of course, and “Giant Killer” Jack Pfiester who is handed the ball in both Merkel games. And even though the story of the Merkle games and to a lesser extent the season itself, has been told countless times, I’d rather not spoil any more of it since every fresh reading brings a new perspective and Murphy adds plenty of detail that I had either forgotten or had never known. As a final treat and one that fittingly puts a bookend not only on the season but on the personalities that defined the era, Murphy includes an epilogue that tracks the destinies of the major players, managers, and magnates after that special season.

For me, one of the supreme pleasures of being a baseball fan is the way the game connects the past with the present, not only through its numbers, but through its places, stories, and the way that its seminal events are embedded in our culture. Baseball fans, and not just those rooting for the denizens of Wrigley Field, would be well served to remind themselves of how those connections were built and in a sense to maintain them by reading about one special season on its 100th anniversary.

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