Crazy ‘08

1908 was the greatest season in baseball history. With thrills on the field and drama off the field, the players, the teams, the owners and the times themselves all conspired to make 1908 epochal.

Consider: Both leagues had multi-team pennant races that lasted until the last day of the season. Honus Wagner had perhaps the greatest season ever. Christy Mathewson and Mordecai Brown locked horns in fabulous pitching duels throughout the season. Ed Walsh struck out 15 batters in a crucial game early in October, only to lose to Addie Joss’s perfect game. Personalities abounded, from Mathewson and John McGraw to Tinker to Evers to Chance. It was Cy Young’s last good year, Walter Johnson’s first and Ty Cobb’s second season.

It was the era of Ragtime. Take Me Out to the Ballgame was written. The first Model T rolled off the assembly line, the first passenger airplane flight soared. Mother’s Day was celebrated for the first time and the Boy Scouts were formed. And, back on the baseball field, 1908 was the year a young player named Fred Merkle made the most famous mistake in baseball history. Truly, 1908 cannot be beat for pure baseball drama.

Don’t believe me? Then read Cait Murphy’s engaging telling of the 1908 season: Crazy ’08. Murphy’s detailed research and easy-going writing style make this book an entertaining synergy of detailed research and flowing storyline. If you are a baseball researcher, you might find something new in Murphy’s copious notes. If you just like a good baseball story, 1908 may be the best baseball story of all, and Murphy tells it well.

Murphy centers her story around the passionate Cubs/Giants rivalry of the time. Any rivalry that included John McGraw and Johnny Evers was sure to be intense, but Murphy doesn’t focus solely on the major players. She includes stories about many of the colorful minor players, such as Fred Tenney literally stealing first base (from second base) and third base coach Dummy Taylor getting ejected from a game for signing a curse word.

She also covers the stories off the field, such as the evolution of the game (spitballs and stadiums, gloves and team names, etc.), crooked ownership and crooked politics. And the noxious influence of gambling on the sport, which would come to a head 10 years later, is given full attention, just as future baseball historians will talk about steroids in the 1990s. Murphy even throws in a few “Time Outs,” stories that give you a feel for the times, such as Emma Goldman’s career, race riots in Springfield, Illinois and the first infamous female serial killer, Belle Gunness.

But Murphy is smart enough to let the drama on the field drive her story. Even though you know what’s coming (spoiler alert: Fred Merkle didn’t touch second on a game-winning hit and the Giants eventually lost the game and a pennant), you can’t put the book down. And that’s the ultimate compliment.

Cait Murphy was nice enough to sit down and exchange e-mails with us last week. Here’s the chat:

THT: Let’s start our conversation with a “softball”: What is your background and what started your fascination with 1908?

Murphy: I work as an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine—think of it as general assignment editor. Prior to that, I was a social policy and then energy correspondent at the Economist in London; and then an editorial page editor at the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong. But I have been a baseball fan longer than I have been a business writer. I inherited a love of the game from my father, who grew up a couple of long fly balls from Wrigley Field (Gabby Hartnett was an upstairs neighbor). I grew up playing in our backyard and on various local teams, including one year as one of the first girls to play Little League. I also played in college—an energetic if not particularly skilled second baseman. I am a Mets fan.

THT: Well, that must be one reason 1908 appeals to you so much. The Chicago/New York axis is a key part of your book and the 1908 Cubs/Giants rivalry was probably as intense as any two-team rivalry in baseball. I’m sure Red Sox/Yankees fans would disagree with that, but do you see parallels between the present-day Yankees/Red Sox rivalry and the Cubs/Giants rivalry of 1908? By the way, I live a little north of Wrigley too, and I’m also a Mets’ fan. Go figure.

Murphy: In some ways, the Giants-Cubs rivalry might have been more intense. Remember, in 1908, players could not change teams so they tended to stay with them longer. When Johnny Damon went from the Red Sox to the Yankees, the reaction was basically a shrug. I cannot imagine Johnny Evers voluntarily joining the Giants.

One reason is John McGraw, who really was a lightning rod for criticism and dislike—much of it deserved. Also, in this era, there was a general rivalry between Chicago and New York. The latter—and this has not changed much—saw itself as the center of everything important in America. Chicagoans, with their acute sense of civic pride—something that also has not changed much—were having none of it.

In general terms, though, the rivalry is similar—two good teams frequently in combat for the same prize.

THT: I’ve sat in Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium for Red Sox/Yankees games, and the intensity is overwhelming. But one of the things your book makes clear is that a fan might fear for his health and even life if he went to a ballgame in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Between fights in the stands and fires in the park, ballgames weren’t the safest places to be.

Murphy: One of the reasons that I consider 1908 a turning point in baseball is that this is the year ground was broken for Shibe Park in Philadelphia—the first modern ballpark. and also the first fireproof one, made of steel and concrete. This matters because in the late 1800s and early 1900s, fire was a real problem. Sportsman’s Park in St Louis went up five times in the 1890s and in 1894, a fire at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Grounds (home of the Red Sox) got out of control and consumed the better part of 12 blocks.

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The worst ballpark tragedy, though, was not a fire, but the result of shabby construction. In 1903,a portion of the grandstand at Philly’s Baker Bowl collapsed, and 12 people died. As baseball grew, it needed to do better than this—and beginning in 1908, it did. By 1915, almost every team had a new, fireproof ballpark, and two of these—Wrigley and Fenway—are still in use today.

Fans back in the day were just as passionate as now, and the stands were not as tightly policed. Throwing glass pop bottles at players and umps was common; in 1907, umpire Billy Evans suffered a fractured skull from one and nearly died. But they could also be more engaged in a highly entertaining manner – for example running out of the stands to do handsprings after a great play.

As everything, the record is a mixed bag.

THT: Yes, one of the last things I ever wanted to be was an umpire in those days. The abuse they took was terrible. But, as you point out in your book, the umpiring profession remained relatively free of the taint of gambling, even during the Black Sox scandal. Do you attribute that to anything in particular?

Murphy: Umpires are the game’s unsung heroes. In only one case, back in 1882, has an umpire been found to be dishonest. This is remarkable, given the temptations and the difficulties of their work.

In 1908, umpires were paid comparable rates to ballplayers—from about $2,400 to $4,500—but they were not treated well. For example, in the winter meetings before the season started, the NL President suggests (but does not require) league owners to provide umps with a shower/bath. One asks, “hot and cold?”

Umpire training was sketchy, and frankly a number of them were not very good at their jobs. There was a rough weeding out process, though, as bad ones would be abused from the benches so much they tended to leave pretty quickly. Even Pulliam acknowledged that many of them were not up to standard—but he was right to vouch for their honesty.

Finally, umpiring could be very solitary. In 1908, more than half of all games were presided over by a single ump—a situation that was ludicrous. No one man could see everything all the time, and I think the events of 1908 were a large factor in the leagues finally, belatedly and grudgingly going to a two-ump system in 1910.

THT: Speaking of umpires, Hank O’Day had quite the year, didn’t he? He took a lot of heat for the Merkle game, but he seemed to handle it as well as he could. Plus, as you point out in the book, the real story occurred several weeks before, when he ruled on a similar play in a game involving the Cubs.

Murphy: Hank O’Day was widely regarded as one of the best umps in the game, and on Sept 23, he committed one of the great acts of courage between the lines: calling Fred Merkle out for failing to touch second as the winning run (apparently) scored. O’Day was comfortable making the call because he was looking for it, and he was looking for it because a similar situation had occurred on Sept 4.

In that game, between the Pirates and the Cubs, a Pirates rookie named Warren Gill failed to touch second as a winning run scored, said Johnny Evers, and should therefore be called out. O’Day did not see the play (he was working alone) and he refused to call what he did not see. But the argument went all the way up to the league offices, and was also covered in the baseball press. So when the exact same thing happened on Sept 23, O’Day was ready to make the call.

And the rest is history.

THT: It was also a heads-up play by Evers, who presumably remembered that O’Day was the umpire on the 4th. As a former second baseman, did you have a particular affinity for Evers?

Murphy: Well, Evers was widely known to be nervous, humorless and extremely unpleasant to umpires. So I hope there is not too much affinity!

Both during and after his career, though, Evers wrote (or put his name to) a number of articles on baseball, and one excellent book, Touching Second (a reference, of course, to the Merkle game). This is an excellent book; it was recently reprinted. It gives great insight into the thinking behind the “inside game” and also tells some great stories. So perhaps as fellow hacks, we do have something in common.

THT: You did so much research for your book; by my count, there are 60 pages of sources and footnotes. How long did it take you to write the book? What were some of your favorite findings during the research?

Murphy: From conception to publication, it was more than four years—although I didn’t work on it full-time for any of that period.

Most of the book is based on looking at newspapers and magazines of the era, which is how I came across things like McGraw getting a “souvenir” of a piece of rope used in a lynching and Joe Cantillon of the Senators being given a wolf by the fans. You can’t make this stuff up.

That said, the journalism of the period is not as illuminating as it could have been. For one thing, it was rare for sportswriters to interview players or managers after a game; most accounts have no remarks from the participants. And second, lots of things we would be interested in just didn’t get covered; when Frank Smith abruptly leaves the White Sox in June, for example, I would have liked to see stories about why and some remarks from his teammates, etc. This just doesn’t happen. Sportswriters are pretty much agents of the ball club they cover, and they don’t challenge it much.

THT: Yes, Frank “Piano Mover” Smith (great nickname). Though you did manage to find out that some of teammates also called him “Deserter.” Nice work. It seems like you found some wild stories about Rube Waddell, too. Was he just a totally crazy man?

Murphy: I actually wonder if there wasn’t something off in Rube Waddell. I write that he has the sociopathic charm of a toddler, and I think that’s about right. He appears to have no impulse control and no awareness of how his actions affect other people. Not showing up at games; wrestling alligators; chasing fire engines—none of this really bespeaks a mature man—and I suspect his ex-wives might have put it more strongly.

THT: Speaking of wives, that is one thing you brought to the book: a real female perspective. I noticed that you included sidebars on both Emma Goldman and Belle Gunness (great stuff) and you also wrote of the leagues’ need to pull more women to games. Was that actively talked about at the time?

Murphy: Well, in the early 1900s, there was something called “Ladies Days”—women got in for free; Cincinnati even had a section of stands exclusively for women. After the 1908 season, though, Ladies Days were ended—the owners clearly felt that the game had become popular enough that they didn’t need freebies any more. (Subsequently, some teams revived the practice.)

When you look at pictures of baseball in this era, the fans are clearly, overwhelmingly male. But there are always a few women and by 1908 baseball had cleaned up its act so that going to a game with sister, girlfriend or wife was totally respectable. It was in 1908 that baseball’s anthem, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was published, and the verses to this song are all about a young woman, Katie Casey, who had baseball fever; when her beau asks her to go to a show, she says, “take me out…” Even at the time, no one thought it odd that one Katie Casey would feel that way; it was perfectly acceptable and relatively common for a woman to be a fan.

THT: I noticed that you chose to tell your story in the present tense, which is rare for a historical book. What drove your decision, and are you happy with the result?

Murphy: I chose the present tense, because I wanted to give the season a sense of immediacy, a “you were there” feel. And yes, I am happy with the result. Because the book does touch on incidents and issues before 1908, as well—for example in the sections on race, anarchism and the city of Chicago—it helps to keep the season distinct. At least that’s the idea.

THT: Last question: Off the top of your head, what is your favorite story or character from 1908?

Murphy: My favorite incident is in mid-July; Giants versus Cubs at the Polo Grounds. The Giants appear to be cruising, ahead 4-1 in the top of the ninth. So Christy Mathewson decides he’ll just leave the bench a little early to get his shower in (there are only a couple for the whole team). But the Cubs begin to threaten and John McGraw calls for his ace, Matty. Who of course is long gone. His teammates literally fish him out of the shower; he throws on some bits of uniform (but not his spikes—he is so frazzled he cannot get them on) jogs out. And of course saves the day.

THT: Thank you, Cait. I hope your book is a big bestseller.

References & Resources
To see the 1908 pennant races in action:
Click here for the National League
Click here for the American League

Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.

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