Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: May 30, 2007
CRAZY '08: A Book Review
I've spent a lot of time in the Deadball Era (1900-1920), and some of my favorite baseball games come from 1908 -- Addie Joss' perfect game, tossed in the heat of a pennant-race showdown with Ed Walsh, for example. Or any of the duels in the sun between Three Finger Brown and Christy Mathewson. I believe that back then, the country of baseball was populated with more colorful characters than today (not hard) -- and maybe more than any other era. So I was disposed to enjoy Cait Murphy's Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History (Smithsonian Books, 2007), even before I heard Cait talk some about her book at SABR's Seymour Conference last month.
I think most readers will enjoy Crazy '08, for different reasons. I think most will not be familiar with the Deadball Era and the events of 1908, and these readers have a treat on deck. For the rest, the book will be less-suspenseful fun. But still fun. Cub fans will enjoy it most of all, and that is fitting, because 1908 was the last time Cub fans ended a season on top of the world. Let's prove '08 was no fluke!, as they say
Books that focus on one year need to provide background, and it is OK to skip ahead, too, to show readers how that year's happenings turned out or affected later events. So do not be surprised that Cait has no intention of sticking to 1908. Once you realize that, the excursions into the years before and after will not be distracting.
Indeed, one of the joys for readers unfamiliar with Ritter's The Glory of their Times -- almost a synonym for the deadball era -- will be to take in the stories from before and after. And not just the tales of Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, the big names, but of Rube Waddell, Germany Schaefer, Charlie Grant (AKA "Chief Tokahoma"), Bugs Raymond -- and the list is almost endless. They just don't make ballplayers like this anymore -- or maybe they do, but thanks to agents, television, PR handlers, and perhaps a shift in the national sense of humor, they are homogenized to such an extent that their personalities are eclipsed.
Not a problem in 1908.
Some of us remember Ken Burns being criticized when his 1994 epic "documentary" Baseball failed to give due attention to Stan Musial or (insert your favorite player here), and for spending too much time on the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. I think some may be disappointed that Crazy '08 focuses, finally, on the Cubs of Tinker-Evers-Chance, and McGraw's NY Giants. Honus' Pittsburgh Pirates end up that summer in a tie with the New Yorkers, by the way, in a race that climaxed with a replay of the famous "Merkle Game." But I didn't mind following the Giants and Cubs so closely, and the Pirates a little less, because, well, I knew those Pirates and what was coming. (I was surprised that an incident similar to the Merkle Boner that happened in a Cubs-Pirates game on September 4, was covered in Crazy '08 only after the infinitely more famous September 23 event.)
Maybe it was because I'm a longtime Addie Joss fan, and have spent a lot of time lately in the histories of the White Sox and Tigers, that I really was more interested in the juicy details of "That Other Pennant Race" which is summed up in Chapter 10. The AL Race went down to the wire, too. I also wanted more color and play-by-play on the 1908 World Series. Hey, readers really get to know these Cubs (and Giants), and to have the final five games of '08 summed up as "a bad World Series," in less than two paragraphs, seemed unfair. Sure the Cubs took four of five games, but in the last three, the Tigers scored just as many runs ... and how did Cobb do?
That 1908 Series may or may not have been bad, but it sure was wet, with rain and snow. And because the writers were stuck on the roof for the games in Detroit, they met on the morning of the final game to organize and write a constitution: the birth of the BBWAA; their first meeting was that December. I would have liked to have more on that historic happening.
But it is a tribute to Crazy '08 that any list of "things (of real significance) left out" will be a short one. As short as the list of "things of questionable relevance" that the book contains. This may vary from reader to reader, but for me, the eight-page digression on anarchism will serve as an example of the latter.
That "Time Out" is one of five in Crazy '08; the others are on Chicago; on a rather grisly murder near that city; on the Abner Doubleday fiction; and on "Baseball's Invisible Men" -- black baseball. These detours might annoy readers who are glued to the pennant chases in progress -- let's get on with it! -- but I thought these four added context.
If I may digress myself -- a turning point in my own book came when I had to decide what to keep, and what to toss out; and another key moment was deciding to remove, to footnotes, all the little anecdotes and stuff that I found interesting (if not fascinating) -- because they simply interrupted the telling of the story. With that in my experience now, I tend to scrutinize books of baseball history, no doubt more than the average reader, on those issues. Does it belong in the book? In a footnote? These are not easy calls, and I'm sure no author brags (a la umpire Bill Klem) that they never missed one, except in their heart.
Let me give another example of how things work in Crazy '08. A former Giant player, Dan McGann, is ridiculed by his old manager McGraw for his slowness afoot, when he bounces into a double-play, in an early-season game in Boston. McGann takes on McGraw, several times, that evening. The story ends with the note that McGann took his life by shooting himself, two years later.
But that's not the end of the story. Readers are promptly given a history lesson on suicides and psychic meltdowns in baseball -- 24 between 1900-1920, 15 of them players or former players. There follows a series of paragraphs on the most notable, including a couple deaths that happen in "insane asylums." But it is not clear whether ballplayers took their own lives during that time at a rate higher than, say, coal miners or farmers. The Police Gazette thinks so, because so many drink so much, but Murphy thinks thatís too simple, and so do I.
But the heart of this book is not the Time Outs, or the little sideshows all along the way -- those mainly entertain. The reader will quickly get involved in the National League pennant race, which is truly crazy, right to the amazing end. I think any pennant race, because it is a marathon, is tough to describe. But Cait Murphy does a super job with 1908's (NL), with a wonderful blend of color for all the great characters, and play-by-play. It is not an easy task. I'm a Pirate fan, doomed to finish back of the Cubs and Giants (or tied for second, as I prefer), but I still got into it. I have long been on record as wishing for a time machine to take me back to see Three Finger Brown go up against Matty -- this book takes me there, and more than once.
Of course the climax is the Merkle Game, and Crazy '08 covers it better than any account I've read. Much better, because the game is right where it should be, at the end of a long summer, not some isolated incident we happen to remember, like Veeck's midget.
I'll end this with an old poem, one that did not make the cut for Romancing the Horsehide, a collection of 125 poems, with sixty-some player portraits, all titled with nicknames.
Winning run jogged home
After the heroic two-out
Tie-breaking single in the ninth
Nothing left to do
If you're the runner on first
But touch second and run for cover
To blunder is human
And to lay blame
The divine right of scribes
Merkle's misfortune was to have erred
In the spotlight of center stage
And while others have muffed lines
Or stumbled over props
Fred's performance got a one-word review
That stuck like tarpaper
And it wasn't "scapegoat"
But it could've been
To his credit
Frederick Charles Merkle
Went on to touch (and steal) thousands of bases
En route to five World Series
The kid made good despite the cruel tag
Succeeded despite being voted least likely
And today is listed in Macmillan's
With no nickname at all
SOME REFLECTIONS ON "SEASONAL" BOOKS
As I said last issue (in an excerpt from an issue of Notes from 1998), baseball writers will not go wrong by focusing on just about any season that ends in an 8. 1908 is surely "the greatest year in baseball history" for Cub fans, but a case can be made that all fans in both leagues were treated to a great season in '08. As Nat Cole might put it, unforgettable -- in every way. Unless, perhaps, you lived well west of the Mississippi, or in the south, or were black. OK, maybe not in every way, then.
There is a book on 1918 (but re-titled to sell better), but 1920 is probably the more interesting baseball season, and it is best to pick election years, too, to keep politics in perspective. A book on 1907, or 1909, probably would turn out too much like Crazy '08 to be worthwhile, and I think that can be said of most consecutive years. In the twenties, '27 gets a lot of attention because of Ruth's 60 homers. In the thirties, the '34 season is fun because of the St Louis Gas House Gang, and the characters from the Detroit Tigers that they meet in a memorable World Series. ('38 would be another good study for Cub fans, as their fast finish took them to October.)
Where am I going with this? Only to wonder if a talented researcher (or a team) and writer can take just about any year, and turn it into a good book. I think they can, especially if they follow Cait Murphy's example: Don't be afraid to stray away from the year in the book title; provide background as needed, and keep events in context; dig up new details about old stories; get under the uniforms, show readers the personalities; and then do what every good broadcasting team does, mix together the color with the play-by-play.
I asked Cait what is the best question she's been asked about Crazy '08 so far. She replied, "If the players of 1908 were in the game today, could they compete?" Her answer: Any ML team today, and many minor league teams, could beat the teams from 1908: "athletes are simply bigger, stronger, faster, and the understanding of the game has increased." [I'd argue the last point; my impression is that many Deadball players talked baseball and strategy non-stop with their teammates, on long train rides, at meals, in the clubhouses -- without the distraction of the media, agents, and the burden of huge contracts.] She adds that the best players then, would likely have been among the best today. (The thought of Ty Cobb on steroids is kind of scary.)
What is the best question that no one has asked Cait yet? "Great question! Here's one for which I have no good answer ... how did Ed walsh pitch 464 innings, or Matty 390, and so on? Today, pitchers who throw half as many are called workhorses. Another thing that doesn't come up, but should, is how much talent (in the south and west especially) went undiscovered, because scouting was so haphazard and unsystematic."
Cait's chapter on baseball's "color line" and race relations demonstrates that Major League Baseball in 1908 was not really about finding the best players and letting them prove themselves in competition at the top level. Nor was it about paying players, who were not just athletes but entertainers, what they were worth. It is sobering to think that the climactic game of '08 was almost not played, because a team owner was not sure if he wanted to share the record gate with the players or not.
The economics of baseball is its least attractive feature, unless you are an economist. There is nothing new about owners and players doing battle over the rising receipts, as the new ballparks fill up in increasing numbers -- on Sundays, too! The players were fairly unarmed in '08. So we can pretend that they were loyal to the cities where they played their home games, but in fact, most were not. So when the Federal League comes along, offering better (fairer) pay, the Washington icon Walter Johnson bolts in a minute, forcing the league to match the FL offer. And one of the heroes of '08, SS Joe Tinker, immortalized in a poem, leaves the NL to play on and manage the Chicago Whales.