Rick's Reviews > Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History

Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy
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Apr 21, 08

bookshelves: sports
Read in April, 2008

The book has a long sub-title, How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History. Long sub-titles tend to stretch a point, sometimes wittily (Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), sometimes not. This one strains to suggest more madcap fun than it delivers and its glib tone can’t gracefully or convincingly manage the shifting from the high sunshine of major league’s coming of age with its numerous dark shadows. There is the exuberance that leaves some in riotous throngs dead. There is the reminder of the nation’s and major league baseball’s racist ban on players of color. There is alcohol consumption with no restraint coupled with a tendency to madness that reaps crops of suicides. There is the steady drum-beat of rumors about gambling’s influence on the game—always dismissed as an impossibility and therefore investigated the way one might investigate the likelihood of the moon’s surface being comprised of green cheese, which is to say not at all. A satire or a brilliant social history might have been able to balance this with a time when spitters were legal, college men and coal mine escapees were teammates. A time when vaudeville was a good second career for this year’s hero on the ballfield, when players brawled with each other, fans, umpires, managers and whomever riled them up and everyone strove to do just that—abusive profanity was the lingua franca of the game. A time when one ball could see two teams through nine innings—wonder why ERAs are so low, errors so high, try seeing that stained, misshapened and torn sucker after it came off the pitcher’s hand or the hitter’s bat? It’s an era when pitchers sometimes threw both ends of a doubleheader, where a 17 inning game could be played in less than three hours with both starters going the distance. A season when Ed Walsh (40 wins, 6 saves, and nearly 400 innings pitched), Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Rube Waddell, Christy Mathewson, Mordecai “Three-Fingered” Brown, and Cy Young were stars. It was an era, finally, where sportswriters wrote very bad poetry about double play combinations that yet, on occasion, found immortality: “These are the saddest of possible words: Tinkers to Evers to Chance.” The year is 1908, the last year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Ever. It's a year when the New York Yankees are synonymous with prolonged ineptitude and the Chicago Cubs are the very personification of arrogant excellence. Says Chance on his way to the last game of the regular season, a winner take all game with the New York Giants in New York, “Whoever heard of the Cubs losing a game they had to have?” Four generations of Cub fans that’s who. But that is the long now of the past century. Back then things were different. The Cubs have not only been in the Series before, they’ve won it! And in Crazy ’08 they knock off the Tigers in five games. A bad series, Murphy writes without bothering to recap at all. So anti-climatic after the Merkle game and two pennant races that have three teams each chasing each other to the very last afternoon of the season. But if I’m a Cub fan I want the inevitable spelled out in some detail. Up three games to one, is victory inevitable? Maybe for this Cubs team but for all the ones that followed not at all. Sure I enjoyed the Marxist madness of the end of the Merkle game—the one that ended in a declared tie and had to be replayed on the last day of the season. It ended in a declared tie because in this late September classic the Giants and Cubs were tied for first place and tied in the bottom of the ninth. The Giants though have the winning run on third with two outs. The runner got there thanks to the runner on first, Fred Merkle, a rookie first baseman playing only because of injury. Merkle singled the run to within 90 feet of home and then Al Bridwell delivered the sharp single that should end the game with a Giants victory. The winning run in fact does come jogging home to a celebratory reception. Merkle starts for second base, sees the crowds in center field and right, already on the outfield grass because in those days that’s what they did with overflow crowds, put them in the outfield behind a rope and a few policemen. Merkle sees the joyous mob and veers off at a dead run for the clubhouse, not coming anywhere near second base. Johnny Evers is now calling for the ball from his centerfielder. Evers knows that if he gets the ball and steps on the bag before Merkle it’s a force out and the third out of the inning, automatically nullifying the run that’s already in the dugout. The third base coach for the Giants sees this unfolding and rushes onto the field and grabs the ball from the Cubs fielder and heaves it into the stands. By the time the field is overrun by fans. The two umpires are lost in the crowd. Another ball is tossed toward the infield and the Cubs retrieve, stomp on second, and demand the result the rules require. Eventually they get it and the game is replayed and true to Chance’s words, which didn’t jinx the Cubs then but have ever since, the team wins the replay and, in short order, the Series. A very fun read for baseball fans, but neither the social history nor baseball masterpiece it might have been. It Merkles before it gets there.
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