Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

April 2, 2008

Baseball's Adolescence

Cait Murphy flashes back a century, to the crazy 1908 season, when a baseball executive suffered a mental breakdown, Merkle messed up, and the Cubs won it all.

Vincent Valk

Harkening back to the deadball era, Cait Murphy's Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History revisits a pivotal time in baseball's history. The game was growing up, according to Murphy, but as with any adolescent it had its awkward moments. Some of these include Fred Merkle's infamous "bonehead play," a league president going through a mental breakdown, and the mounting problem of gambling, which would nearly destroy the game 11 years later.

Cait Murphy. Photo by Joseph Moran.
"The people that own baseball teams, a lot of them are not first-rate people."

Cait Murphy. Photo by Joseph Moran.

In the following interview, edited for clarity, Murphy, an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, talks with Gelf about the highlights and lowlights, and draws some parallels to the present-day game. You can hear Murphy and other baseball writers read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, April 3rd, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: What got you into baseball? Who is your team?

Cait Murphy: I'm a Mets fan, and like most people I inherited it from my dad. He grew up in Chicago, near Wrigley, and his upstairs neighbor was Cubs catcher Gabby Harnett. He moved to New York and became a Giants fan, and when they moved he waited for a new National League team.

GM: Why 1908 specifically? Sure, it was an exciting season with a famous game (the Merkle Game) and the last time the Cubs won the World Series, but what separates it from, say, 1907 or 1909?

CM: As I say in the book, it's the year baseball grew up. One of the things that stands out is that it was the year that ground was broken for Shibe Park in Philadelphia, which was the first of the modern baseball stadiums. Shibe Park looks like the kind of place of place you could walk into right now—it's similar to Fenway or Wrigley. Also, there was so much controversy in the season, and I think as a result the league realized it needed to manage itself more professionally. The Tigers won the American League pennant because nobody played out the full schedule, so AL adopted the rule that all games pertinent to a pennant race must be played out. It was the year baseball realized it was a big business.

GM: You talk of the game's historic inability to take responsibility for its failings, a problem which does not seem to have gone away. What do you think is the root of this? Is it the game's monopoly status, or the unique place it has in American history?

CM: I think it's a bit of both, and some of it is individual responsibility. The people that own baseball teams, a lot of them are not first-rate people. There is poor leadership at the top. For example, Harry Pulliam, who was president of the NL in 1908, was going through mental breakdown at the time. The AL's president was Ban Johnson, who was effective, though he thought of the league as being more vulnerable than it was. He wanted to sweep things under the rug. They thought any problem might hurt the game, but it was really stronger than that.

GM: Compare the gambling issues of the early 20th century to the steroid problem today. Which do you think had more of an adverse impact? What are the similarities and differences? How do both speak to the problem we mention earlier?

CM: Similarities include the refusal of people who must have known better to acknowledge it. It goes back to the mindset that maybe it will go away and not damage the game. I think you can't yet tell the full impact of steroids, though it's devastating. At this point baseball is an established big business and probably can absorb it. Gambling was probably worse because the game wasn't as established. The last thing you want is any competitive sport to be seen as the equivalent of pro wrestling, and baseball was looking at that prospect due to the gambling.

GM: Who is the modern Fred Merkle? Bill Buckner comes to mind.

CM: Yeah, Buckner, not only was that an important game, but in retrospect it was kind of a disputed play. I really don't think he would've beat Mookie to the bag even if he made the play. Also, he was a very smart player and a nice guy. Like Merkle, he just didn't deserve what happened to him.

"As a whole, baseball players were actually better-educated and from a higher economic class than the general population."
GM: How do you think modern fans perceive the early 20th-century game, and have you found much in your research that contradicts those notions? If so, what are the most significant and why?

CM: The most significant is there is a perception that early 20th-century players were ignorant and uncouth and uneducated. As a whole, baseball players were actually better-educated and from a higher economic class than the general population: They were four times as likely to go to college, and they were very much accepted in society and not outcasts, by any means. They stayed at first-class hotels. That said, of course people are people and you had all kinds, but the same is generally true today.

GM: You talk about Shibe Park in Philadelphia and the subsequent construction of new, fireproof ballparks for roughly the next decade. Just out of curiosity, I assume teams did not tap cities for public funding back then?

CM: No, they didn't. I'm anti-public financing of ballparks, though it has to be said that land was a lot cheaper back then, so teams could afford to buy it in what became downtown Chicago or downtown Philly.

GM: You call the sports press "compliant" in the book. Do you think it is still this way, and what, if anything, has changed?

CM: I don't think it is compliant anymore. There's so much more press, even though you still have some compliant writers that travel with teams. Today there are so many different kinds of journalism and people come at it with all different kinds of angles. I do sort of wonder how sportswriters could go into locker rooms around the late 1990s and early 2000s and not wonder about steroids when you saw guys walking around with bigger heads. In 1908, though, there was a pretty clear quid pro quo, in that teams paid for the journalists' expenses.

GM: What's your favorite person and story from that era?

CM: I think my favorite story involved a guy named Doc Crandall, who was a pitcher for the Giants. He had a reputation for breaking down in the late innings (note: logically, he later became the first modern reliever), but one day the Giants were playing the Cubs and he seemed able to keep it together. The Giants led 4-1 towards the end, so Christy Mathewson decided to leave early and heads for the shower. Crandall winds up getting in trouble, so their teammates run to the clubhouse to get Mathewson out of the shower and he throws his uniform back on and jumps out there in street shoes to finish the game. Another one is when fans of the Washington Senators gave the manager a gift before the game. He opened up the box and a wolf jumped out.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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