Thursday, February 3, 2011

Murder, Suicide, Fire, Theft, Racism and Boners: Cait Murphy's Case for Baseball's Greatest Season

At the heart of Cait Murphy's very entertaining Crazy '08 is a simple thesis: that the 1908 baseball season is the greatest in the history of the game. To prove this, she combines daily results for a handful of teams over the 154-game season with character studies of the richly idiosyncratic founding fathers of the national pastime and a selective but enlightening contextual look at American culture and baseball at the turn of the last century. Both approaches have their benefits and shortcomings, and while simultaneously pursuing them provides a natural counterpoint that helps to pace the season and deepen our understanding of it, both elements can at times inhibit the other from feeling fully realized.

On an "and then what happened?" level Murphy's approach is efficient and fairly easy to grasp. She focuses on a team's fortunes over the course of a few weeks, then switches to another team, allowing us to watch the see-sawing of luck, injury, slump and serendipity peculiar to baseball's long season. Non-fans frequently make the complaint that this is exactly what's wrong with baseball — its interminable pace both in-game and over the course of the year. These people are idiots. To the purist or even a lightly engaged fan, this is the essence of baseball: a long journey that inevitably wrenches honesty from the performance of its players, tempering hot streaks during (then) 154 games with their counterparts, the slumps, at the end giving us a fairer idea of the capabilities of all involved.

Thus Murphy shows us the New York Giants on a roll and then suddenly dropping games to weaker opponents. Pitchers lose "their stuff" for a few games and give up heartbreaking losses. Giants legend and Hall of Famer, the gentlemanly Christy Mathewson, comes into a game with an arm that feels like jello, or meets a batter whose owned him for years now and gives up another hit. The Pirates, Cubs and Giants rise and fall in the standings, while other teams languish in the basement. Of course, even under the best of circumstances, this style of recap doesn't always work.

Following just four teams over the course of a season requires the results from roughly 600 games, and here we enter territory akin to the problems intrinsic to things like military history. Unless a reader is a slavish follower of the sport, sedulously reading and taking note of each result, these games will start to bleed together. Modern sports books recapping championship seasons don't encounter this problem as much because they rely on being purchased and read by fans who likely saw many of the games in the first place. Spartan descriptions or tables of results are vivified by existing memories. But with these essentially "antique" games played with different strategies and equipment, in ballparks that have vanished, it's difficult to visualize the players and circumstances. Like the military historian poring over maps for years while writing a treatise, surely these games and their results appeared more distinct for Murphy. For the reader, outcomes crowd upon outcomes, becoming a kind of noise, the forest indistinct for all the trees.

To spice things up, Murphy frequently focuses on a few innings of a key game. This can draw the reader in and convey a sense of tension and significance, but clearly it only works for the games she's chosen. Each stands out, but consequently others recede into the mass of overall results. She tries to offset this with colorful summaries spanning several contests, but these too can be awkward. For instance, it's easy to spot moments where she's absorbed sportswriter-ese from her period sources. Terms like "fine fettle," see repeated uses. I don't remember if she actually said that a starting pitcher "twirled a dandy," but it probably shows up at least once.

Nothing about these passages or quirky anachronisms is expressly bad. For any reader, they come down to a matter of taste; sometimes they can feel a little precious. From a purely mechanical standpoint, though, how they enliven and differentiate scads of important moments from a time that seems inescapably ethereal for most readers is at best a mixed bag. Maybe the expressions can transport the reader, but they can also folksily gloss an abundance of data that can't fully be internalized without more than a little effort.

Gloss is sometimes broadly intentional as well. Murphy all but ignores the American League's pennant race, devoting a single chapter to it. It's a curious choice given her thesis, that 1908 "was the best season in baseball history." It either powerfully reinforces or fatally sabotages her contention. To wit, either the National League pennant race was so amazing that both the American League pennant race and the World Series (pretty much skipped in her book) are completely irrelevant compared to the NL's dramatic power, or the fact that half of the teams in the game barely merit sustained mention proves that she can't possibly be right. It's either boldness or folly or the former leading to the latter. Mostly it's kind of a shame. The forays she makes into mentioning AL players in other chapters are all enjoyable. It's clear there's something there to work with. Those moments of anecdote or context leave you wanting more. The latter is definitely Murphy's strong suit.

Chapters officially titled "Time Out" dot Crazy '08 in six different spots. Though all the chapters feature contextualizing digressions, these six attempt to create a fuller backdrop for both the game and America at the turn of the century, running from topics as diverse as serial killing and American anarchism to more expected fare like baseball's color barrier and the fraudulent and poetically overwrought origins of the game. Glancing at reviews elsewhere, critics appear neatly split on these Time Outs, finding them equally ponderous and irrelevant as others find them instructive and welcome. I firmly side with the latter interpretation, especially because Murphy's fascination with period detail bolsters every part of the book, sometimes arresting the flow of "and then this happened" with unassuming revelations that challenge our characterization of the whole era.

Two historical digressions are at once so obvious and so arresting that they merit singling out, despite the fact that neither occurs in a Time Out chapter.

1. No Antibiotics
There are two received truisms about old-time baseball, and those are that probably nobody played harder than Ty Cobb, and nobody was a bigger prick (pun not intended). Cobb was known for sharpening his spikes and sliding into second base hard, trying to stick the second baseman or shortstop with the weapons on the bottom of his shoes. What Murphy reminds us (or tells us for the first time) is that doing so ran the risk of sending those players to a hospital for months with blood poisoning. Or, worse, they could be forced to have a leg amputated. At a time when players had no pharmaceutical means of fighting off infection, Cobb's spike-first "just rub some dirt on it!" hustling attitude meant that he slid into a baseman who was trying to make a double play with the implicit threat that they might lose a leg forever.

Every time baseball Hall of Fame voting comes up, and bafflingly stupid baseball writers start talking about the Hall's "character clause," it's important to remember that Ty Cobb was voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He was a virulent racist, a violent man who beat fans in the stands, an almost universally loathed and arrogant bastard, a paranoid who fired off guns in hotel parking lots, and a man who slid into people with the full knowledge that he could actually potentially kill a person via doing so. Assuming you can still remember baseball's institutional segregation, decades of amphetamine abuse and the fact that as far back as a century ago a Hall of Famer was shooting up testosterone (the hilariously named Pud Galvin, who injected himself with ground-up monkey testicles), adding people like Ty Cobb to the list of baseball's already-excused sins goes a long way to explaining why anybody complaining about Barry Bonds and the purity of the game should shut the fuck up.

2. Suicide
Murphy cites charming depictions of baseballers in transit and at the game, some of them quite affecting for their uniqueness. She quotes an account of how a team passed the time on the trains between cities — some men reading Savonarola, some reading technical tomes, others playing games together. Surely, some of this is contemporary-sportswriter gloss — "these are men of quality, all!" — but some of it is surely authentic as well. At the time, men could drop out of the Ivy League to play organized ball, just as the poor compensation accorded players meant that some were full-fledged gentleman farmers, consulting almanacs and the latest agricultural science when not on the diamond.

In spite of these bucolic moments, early baseballers were strikingly prone to suicide. Murphy can't quote effective national demographics about suicide (especially because medical examiners and police both politely euphemized cause of death or simply falsely attributed it to something more socially acceptable), but the numbers of ballplayers dead by their own hands is startling and moving. They work in a culture of even more rigidly demanded masculinity and before any understanding of mental illness as something normal, circumstantial or correctible. They spend hundreds of days without the ameliorative presence of family, living in periodic squalor, with nagging injuries for which science has no remedy. They work in indentured servitude to owners who possess all rights to their work product, and they must defend themselves against a national media that colludes against them on behalf of ownership, uses platitudinous and faulty rhetoric to protect ownership and zealously militates against any assertive ballplayers as "ungrateful."

Even the best ballplayers have almost no options to monetize their talents. The mediocre and the merely hanging-on have absolutely nothing. It's no wonder they kill themselves in numbers that would scandalize us today.

This topical sobriety might make Crazy '08 seem bereft of fun, but that would mischaracterize the book. What helps the day-to-day and the bigger ideas run, as a narrative, are the momentary stories Murphy includes for love of characters even temporarily bigger than the game. Take the Detroit Tigers' Germany Schaefer, who did vaudeville when not playing baseball, and also once did a piece called, "Why Does Tyrus [Ty] Cobb Tyrus?" — i.e. tire us. During a game in 1907, he was sent in as a pinch hitter and
announced himself as the "world's premier batsman, who will now give a demonstration of his marvelous hitting power." That was kind of funny coming from a dumpling-shaped infielder who would hit all of nine home runs in his career. But damned if he didn't hit one then—not only a home run, but an over-the-fence home run, and this in Chicago. Schaefer is not a man to let a situation speak for itself. So he slid into first, and shouted: "At the quarter, Schaefer leads by a head!" Into second: "Schaefer leads by a length!" At third: "Schaefer leads by a mile!" After sliding into home, he rose and announced, dusty in uniform but dignified of mien: "That concludes the demonstration by the great Schaefer, and I thank you one and all." (217-8)
Other stories are less hilarious but just as gripping.

There is, of course, the matter of Merkle's Boner, a story infamous to baseball fans, young men in middle school or anyone who hasn't gotten over how funny it is to still think, even in a small way, like Beavis and Butt-Head. There's the fact that John McGraw was one of the dirtiest players in history and also one of the dirtiest managers in history. He owned a pool-hall that featured a battle of hustlers (one which inspired the Paul Newman/Fast Eddie vs. Jackie Gleason/Minnesota Fats scene in movie The Hustler), between Jack Conway and Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. (Reminder: despite the "Character Clause," John McGraw, a man who cheated openly and proudly and was connected to the most infamous gambler in baseball history is in the Hall of Fame.) There are also stories of men falling to their deaths trying to watch a ballgame, people being crushed to death trying to watch a ballgame, and one man bludgeoning a man to death to make a point about a hitter.

Crazy '08 is full of game detail, period detail and idly fun anecdote, so why doesn't it feel perfect? It runs on the insistent thrum of a pennant race, and it slows the story down for backstory illuminating the world in which the race existed. Both of these approaches are handled well; however, they unavoidably succeed at the expense of each other. Murphy presents a thoughtful history of the game and the country as background to a well-paced "and then what happened?" competition for the 1908 pennants. While each sometimes serves as a welcome counterpoint to the other — a kind of allegro/adagio series of beats about a season — each also prevents the other from developing to its full potential.

While the topic, more than Murphy, earns this knock, she does show some authorial complicity in this approach. Any reader must be fair to her: not only could she never have published an obsessive game-by-game recap of the 1908 season — complete with details to vivify each contest — nor could she have published an atmospheric societal look at the players, managers, fans and scribes that supplied the atmosphere for baseball. An inchoate meeting of the two doubtless drove the marketability of the book and thus drove the content to some extent. But that doesn't change the fact that this structural bargain still feels more incomplete than necessary.

Murphy all but dismisses an entire league, relegating it to a single chapter and stray stories. Her coverage of months of baseball amongst several teams necessarily makes them fly by without a great deal of differentiation. Even devoted fans can't latch onto games or single moments with a few antique turns of phrase like, "Hurled the sphere prodigiously." Moreover, not all those moments of context are necessary. Chicago corruption is ongoing and not revelatory. Nineteenth century serial killers have been covered better by other books, notably Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. And, despite my history background, I wonder what needs are filled by clarity — or, really, to borrow Murphy's summary on the matter, "whatever" — about anarchism.

With the space available, I wish she'd done more about the big moral questions and the big probable questions of the baseball she detailed. On the former, even fans don't know the scope of the indentured servitude engendered by the "reserve clause," and her coverage of it is probative and compelling but still too brief. Further, no matter how obvious baseball's racism was, nobody has yet exhausted comparing the abilities of contemporaneous white and black players. Murphy's look at baseball management in 1908 offers substantially more moral indignation than the toothless Ken Burns documentary, Baseball (whose formula seemed to be to spend 90 minutes per decade of the game mythologizing its greatness before issuing perfunctory boilerplate about how it was a racist criminal enterprise actually run by a kettle of vultures). It certainly does a better job of how much contemporary journalists gleefully served as management lackeys, betraying their pledge to the public trust in order to make some vainly ephemeral mark as "arbiters" of the game. (See also: Hall of Fame Voters.)

When it comes to big probable questions, the elephant in the room is sabermetrics, the revolution of statistical analysis of baseball outcomes. Though it only emerged in the popular consciousness in the early 2000s, Murphy admits she's a huge fan of Bill James, the man who effectively created the sabermetric revolution. She knows how much 1908 baseball differs from today's game, but it would be fun to see her wrestle with the game and try to determine if the predominant thinking was as flawed then, with vastly different equipment and performance standards, as it would be in the current game. Instead, she relates the high-risk and high-anxiety moments of games without offering a challenge to the faith in their thinking at the time. Given that she's making a case for 1908's being peerlessly great, even compared with modern contests, why not take a few pages and see if some ratiocination of modern baseball can look at outcomes differently? At the worst, it might have helped to differentiate some of the game-by-game results and let the readers feel more engaged with these distant contests.

However, the last two complaints likely explain the quality of the book better than enumerating its good points: that, after 300 pages, it erred only in failing to be two great books and a great speculative exercise that might well be impossible to pull off. Murphy could have written a season-recap or a cultural history of the game and produced a perfectly solid book either way. That she attempted both at once and came so close to making both great does her credit. I don't buy her central contention about the superlative standard of the 1908 season, but I'm glad I listened to her argument.

Rating: 4
Close to an ideal combination for the baseball fan and history buff, but it will probably not fully satisfy those who identify only as one or the other. Fans of the game might find historical digressions too ponderous or political, while strict history fans will surely have trouble staying emotionally invested in pages of game results, to say nothing of the difficulty they might face in visualizing the games themselves. Unfortunately, the dual approach might also fail to fully engage people who like both topics, since the presence of historical context likely truncated the depth of per-game exposition, while the need to keep up with stats and standings naturally crowded out more asides about America at the turn of the century. Still, the attempt to accomplish both in one book should earn it the benefit of the doubt.