A year or two ago, Russell told me I ought to read Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy. I did, and I enjoyed it. Yesterday, July 17, 2011, with the Pirates and Indians atop their respective divisions, I thought about that book and a column I wrote after reading it that appeared in the Star Beacon.
There was a time when the only way to see a ballgame was to go to the ballpark. Why, there was even time when there weren't any radio broadcasts to listen to. To find out how his team did, the fan had to wait for the newspaper.
After reading Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History by Cait Murphy, I've decided the wait would have been worth it. Whatever their failings, the writers of that era churned out some interesting copy.
Murphy's primary focus is the battle for the 1908 National League pennant between the Giants of John McGraw and Christy Mathewson, and the Cubs of Tinker, Evers, Chance and "Three Finger" Brown. On Sept. 20, the New York World declared the Giants had the pennant all but wrapped up, and the Giants began spouting what is now called bulletin-board material. Murphy chides the Giants for there public display of confidence, but she forgives the press: "Sportswriters," she says, "can be excused for saying stupid things; it is part of their job."
For a sportswriter who has said his share of stupid things, that's a comforting thought. But while stupidity might still linger in the press box, some of the flair is gone. Of Tinker's two-run, game-winning double in a July game against the Giants, the Chicago Tribune reported, "Joseph [Tinker] leaned his faithful pestle against the first pitch and - bingerino! Away went the ball."
A week or so earlier the Giants had lost to the Pirates when Wee Tommy Leach ended the game with an inside-the-park home run.
"There was a sharp report as Tommy caught the pellet squarely on its proboscis and sent it screeching toward the distant middle," the Pittsburgh Post reported. "Cy Seymour turned and hurried in that direction, and then the wee one settled into a sprint around the circuit which would have made a race horse pale with envy."
In late September, the Giants' Rube Marquard pitched for the first time in the major leagues. It was a disappointing performance which the New York Times described this way: "He was worse stage affrighted than a school-of-acting young woman at a professional debut and besides this, he was wilder than a hawk and nowhere near as harmful."
That florid prose might be too much in an age when nearly everyone interested in the game will have watched it on TV or seen the crucial moments replayed on SportsCenter. But the truth is, the written word can often create more vivid images than an all-fact and no-imagination slow-motion replay.
And there were times when the hyperbole stopped and the writers went forward without embellishment. The Pirates could of won the pennant that year, but they lost their final game, 5-2, to the Cubs. The Buc's Honus Wagner made two errors that day, and the Pittsburgh Post described his play in the field as "a cheese sandwich without mustard."
The Cleveland Naps, with Napoleon Lajoie and Addie Joss, had one of those what-might-have-been years, battling the Tigers and White Sox for the American League crown. In late September, after winning 16 times in 18 games, the Naps lost two to Washington. After the second loss, the Plain Dealer said, "That little god of baseball luck let Cleveland get all its hopes up for a victory, only to overwhelm it with defeat at the eleventh hour."
When the season ended the Naps and Tigers had each won 90 games. The Tigers, who finished a half game ahead of the Naps because the Tigers hadn't been able to make up a rain out with Washington, won the pennant and went on to lose to the Cubs in the World Series. If the White Sox had played their entire schedule, they too might have finished with 90 wins. The following season, the American League changed its rule on make-up games, and any unplayed games that could affect which team won the pennant had to be made up at the end of season.
The Plain Dealer summed up Cleveland's 1908 season this way: "there's no consolation in 'if.'"
But it sure was fun reading Crazy '08.