By Cait Murphy ’83. New York City: Smithsonian Books, 2007. 368 pp.
To Cait Murphy '83, the 1908 baseball season had
everything: the bizarre, the beautiful, the sublime,
Review by Doug Battema ’91
In the introduction to Crazy ’08, Cait Murphy ’83 argues that the greatest season in baseball history occurred in 1908. It had everything, she writes: “Besides two agonizing pennant races,” the season featured “history’s finest pitching duel, hurled in the white heat of an October stretch drive, and the most controversial game ever played.” There were “riots and deaths; scandal and arrests; the bizarre (stealing first base) and the beautiful (a perfect game); the sublime (the Brown-Mathewson pitching duels) and the ridiculous (anything having to do with Rube Waddell).” While much the same might be said of, say, the 2007 baseball season, which included the Red Sox-Yankees pennant race, the death of St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Josh Hancock, various steroid-related scandals, Barry Bonds’s successful assault on Hank Aaron’s home run record, and more), Murphy’s account of the 1908 season makes it difficult to dispute her claim.
Crazy ’08 offers an engaging look at professional baseball and U.S. society during a time of immense institutional and cultural change, both on and off the diamond. Murphy, who played softball at Amherst, brings to life the pace and feel of American culture a century ago, while simultaneously telling the tale of the hard-fought season. Though this is undeniably a book for baseball fans, filled as it is with the arcane details of the campaign between the foul lines, it also effectively traces many of the tensions and concerns extant in American culture at the time.
Before 1908, Major League Baseball was a fragile institution. Baseball was unquestionably the national pastime; boxing and college football were the only sports even remotely as important. Yet at the turn of the century, the National League—which had bullied competitors since its inception in 1876 by using fairly ruthless, predatory and innovative business practices—was emerging from a brutal decade, having barely survived the twin calamities of the economic depression of the 1890s and tough competition from the Players League, an organization created by players tired of being exploited by National League owners. National League attendance in the 1890s was significantly lower than in the 1880s, and the league’s survival was hardly guaranteed. The creation of the American League in 1901 further challenged the National League’s hegemony; resentment between the two leagues was palpable, and the World Series, created in 1903, was a much higher-stakes competition as a result.
Ballparks at the time were fairly impermanent structures, with wooden grandstands and ropes delimiting the outfield boundaries; only an owner who was unfathomably rich, certifiably insane, or both would have gambled on investing in a more elaborate stadium. Moreover, the ferocity of the game on the field and the often unrefined character of ballplayers (genteel college men like Amherst’s Alan Storke, Class of 1906, an infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, notwithstanding) gave professional baseball a somewhat unsavory reputation.
But by 1908, baseball was a game in flux: it was becoming an established and respectable presence in American society and developing into a more refined consumer spectacle. Murphy’s book captures the game as this process is unfolding, allowing the reader to see how developments on and off the field were rooted in the history of the game and the nation.
In many ways, Crazy ’08 is reminiscent of Frank Deford’s The Old Ball Game, which recounts how the unlikely friendship between New York Giants star pitcher Christy Mathewson and his longtime manager, John McGraw, helped to create modern baseball. Not only is there some overlap in subject matter (Mathewson, McGraw and the Giants were runners-up in the 1908 National League pennant race) but Murphy, an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, writes with a verve and flair that echoes Deford.
Unfortunately, the frequent allusions to subsequent events and outcomes rob the prose of some of its dramatic potential; less foreshadowing would have allowed the reader to get swept up in the flow of events as they unfold in the story. The well-intentioned digressions that explore incidents unrelated or tangentially related to baseball prove disruptive to the narrative flow; while they successfully flesh out many of the social concerns and mores of the early 1900s, they undermine the drama on the diamond. And even if the World Series was anticlimactic, with the Chicago Cubs trouncing the Detroit Tigers to become the first championship team to defend its title successfully, it seems dismissive to relegate the event to only five paragraphs, especially given how compellingly Murphy describes the tense, dramatic, exhausting three-way National League pennant race.
Still, Crazy ’08 is pleasurable and evocative. It is exhaustively researched and brilliantly written, mimicking the almost poetic style that characterized the era’s sports journalism. It promises a little of everything, and it delivers.
Battema teaches communication and sports journalism at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass., where he is an assistant professor of communication.
Photo: Chris Preovolos, The Advocate. Copyright 2007 Southern CT Newspapers, Inc.