Pros: Little descriptions really put you into the scene
Cons: Hasn't yet reached the official best baseball books echelon
The Bottom Line: And the Giants and Dodgers both used to play in New York City! Wasn't baseball wacky?
When you hear of the year 1908 mentioned in a baseball context, it usually means one thing: You're on the North Side of Chicago and some drunk collegiate frat boy is waxing poetic about the last time the Chicago Cubs won the Fall Classic. Usually it gets mentioned in a tirade about the various curses which have befallen the team: The Called Shot, the Billy Goat Curse, the Black Cat, the 1969 Meltdown, the 1984 Choke, The Bartman Foul, the Corked Bat, and those ugly first round playoff losses to, respectively, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yeah, the Cubs are one of THOSE teams.
At first glance, Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy looks like it's going to be yet another chronicle of the Lovable Losers. It even takes care to point out in the flap that 1908 is the last time the Cubs won the World Series. But I don't have to repeat what is often said about judging books by covers, now do I?
Amazingly enough, the Cubs aren't really the focal point of Crazy '08. Yes, they play a prominent role, but they're in the book mainly because they just happen to play one of the main roles in the story. The focal point is more of the three teams in the National League that got the most attention - the Cubs, the New York Giants, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were all involved in one of the most hotly contested Pennant races in history. The subtitle of Crazy '08 promises to formulate a case for the year 1908 being the greatest year in baseball history, and that's just what Cait Murphy does. Since the Cubs, Pirates, and Giants were the big three competing for the top prize that year, Murphy spends a lot of time ruminating on the adventures of those three particular squads.
But it isn't as though Murphy writes as if she is completely oblivious to the fortunes of every other team in baseball, even though she doesn't cover them quite as extensively. The Dodgers, Phillies, Braves, and Cardinals all played roles in the baseball season too, and Murphy also devotes a chapter to what was happening in the American League, where Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit hit September 29 just one game apart from each other, a date when all three teams won doubleheaders.
Crazy '08 is a very engrossing book because Murphy takes her sweet time painting verbal pictures which try to remind us of just how different everything was a century ago. 100 years is a lifetime, but Murphy slaps those history goggles right across our faces and plunks us right down in the middle of the action. Not just the baseball action, mind you, but the action of life, the very pulse of American society circa 1908. She accomplishes this in part by writing in the present tense, by mostly by concentrating on little things which the dayworkers can relate to. In one chapter, she writes about a massive heat wave and reminds us that people didn't have air conditioning back then. In another, she writes about fan behavior and points out that fans were a fairly new thing back then, and that newspapers didn't know what term to use to describe the people who kept going to the games. Side bars show up every now and then. One of them gives us a very detailed description of the anarchist movement in America.
It's mainly through this historical lifestyle research that Cait Murphy is really able to accomplish the creation of a baseball past atmosphere. Because of this obviously painstaking research, it truly sinks in that the Cubs were once an unstoppable dynamo of angry grizzly bears. It sinks in that the Yankees and Dodgers once appeared destined for a lifetime of bottom-feeding while the Giants would always be the class of New York City. You're not just reading, but you're really believing that baseball was the scrappy rebel game, that hard sport of bruisers who would drink, fight, and screw well into the early morning hours without regard to curfew or respect for the next day's game. (Actually, that probably hasn't changed very much, now that I mention it.)
Murphy will occasionally drive us even further into the past. One of the things I found particularly fascinating - as well as horrific - was the description of what it was like fielding in the sport's earliest days. Imagine balls, hit hard, flying at you with ridiculous velocity and your job of having to catch those balls without the aid of the tough leather padding which adorns the hands of today's players. As it turns out, players in the 19th century didn't have to imagine. Bare-handed was once the way all fielding was done. And to make it even more insane, some people saw the introduction of the baseball glove as detrimental, citing the ever-popular (and ever-terrible) excuse of "it's tradition!" as the reason. Fielding back then, Murphy writes, was far worse.
Despite the focus on the past, one of the more endearing aspects of Crazy '08 is the abundance of winking acknowledgements about just how much baseball has changed. This is most evident when Murphy first brings up the current image of the Cubs, saying that a fan in 1908 would have been dumbfounded at the current reputation of the team.
Crazy '08 has very few minute descriptions of on-field happenings, although the infamous Merkle game is naturally visited in depth. This keeps the pace good and brisk, so that even the few games that are covered in depth are more tolerable. Cait Murphy seems more of an atmosphere writer, telling you just what the game and the era were like and just letting your own imagination fill in the gaps when she offers descriptions like "hard-fought" or "pitchers' duel." She also describes the various characters we meet in Crazy '08 as well-ounded human beings, reminding us that John McGraw had a past which he was determined to prevent from returning and biting him again, and that Christy Mathewson was nice but still as ruthlessly competitive as his manager liked to see.
Many baseball experts claim to know about the past, good and bad, of baseball. Cait Murphy may know more than most of us about it. Crazy '08 not only paints us a picture of the past, it grabs us by the scruff and drops us right into said picture without the aid of a safety net. A lot of people are very certain they could hang with today's Chicago Cubs, but how big a deal is that, really? So could Mickey Mouse. It would take a true ruffian to fit in with the Cubs of 1908. If my proverbial frat boy from the opening paragraph of this review was overheard referring to those old Cub teams as the Cubbies, Frank Chance probably would have kicked his teeth right in.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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A chronicle of the historical 1908 baseball season documents the contributions of numerous personalities who shaped the game, from Detroit outfielder Ty Cobb to New York pitcher Christy Matthewson, in an account that also explores how the sport was influenced by crooked politics, crime, and everyday Americans. Reprint.