- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

Many fine books have been written about baseball in the early years of the 20th century, among them Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s “The Celebrant,” Frank Deford’s “The Old Ball Game” and W.P. Kinsella’s terrific tandem of “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy” and “Shoeless Joe.”

Now there is a new old entry, so to speak. In “Crazy ‘08,” ($24.95, Smithsonian Books/Collins, 368 pages, illus.) Fortune magazine assistant managing editor Cait Murphy engagingly recreates what she calls the greatest year in baseball history, with multi-team, down-to-the-wire pennant races in both major leagues.

That season featured the so-called “Merkle Boner,” when young baserunner Fred Merkle cost his New York Giants a pennant by failing to touch second on an apparent game-winning hit by a teammate in a crucial September game against the hated Chicago Cubs. Merkle was declared out, the run was nullified, the Cubs won the replayed game and the pennant two weeks later and poor Merkle was stuck for the rest of his life with the ignominious nickname of “Bonehead.”

Murphy describes the game and controversy in fascinating detail and adds an inescapable bit of reality: Although Merkle was only following the custom of the day when he sprinted for the clubhouse as soon as the game seemingly ended and was unfairly vilified, Murphy notes that “as close to an objective truth as it is possible to come … Merkle never touched second.”

How long ago was 1908? Murphy reminds us there was no radio, much less television, and “bugs” (i.e. fans) crowded the streets in New York, Chicago and elsewhere waiting for Western Union updates posted on huge mechanical scoreboards.

New York’s Polo Grounds was packed to overflowing for what became the “Merkle Game,” and thousands of others crowded onto Coogan’s Bluff overlooking the Giants’ ballpark in Harlem. Yet they were so far removed from the action, Murphy notes, that “they became the deadball era’s equivalent of Kremlinologists trying to glean meaning from distantly observed portents.”

It would be hard to find a better game and perhaps harder still to find better writing about it.

Murphy sets the stage for the epic contest this way: “Whoever wins will be in first place.

“No one does.”

(Thanks again, Fred.)

Murphy identifies 1908 as the season baseball came of age. Gone are the bewhiskered, gloveless pioneers of the 1870s and ‘80s in favor of such contemporary (and all-time) heroes or villains as the Giants’ John McGraw and Christy Mathewson, the Cubs’ poetic trio of Tinker to Evers to Chance plus ace Three Finger Brown and, in the so-called “Junior Loop,” the Detroit Tigers’ young but terrifying Tyrus Raymond Cobb.

Many others make the scene of course, and Murphy delightedly weaves them in and out of her narrative. Along the way, some enduring images are burnished and others battered.

“The image of Christy Mathewson as a faultless golden boy [and the first truly national baseball hero] is wrong,” she posits. “He likes cigars, knows what to do with a Scotch bottle and once punched a loudmouthed boy selling lemonade. He also is an expert card player whom McGraw once fined for taking too much money off his teammates.”

Good grief! Is nothing sacred? Criticizing Matty in retrospect seems the equivalent of some future author doing the same to Cal Ripken in 2100.

Like any competent historian, Murphy puts us right there — and reinforces the time warp by writing in the present tense as she relates the events of nearly a century ago.

We sit on wooden slats in wooden parks that sometimes burned down at the errant flick of a cigar ash or match. When foul balls sail into the stands, we are expected to throw them back because the home team provides only three to start each game, meaning that discolored, lopsided horsehides remain in play. Uniforms have high collars, long sleeves and no numbers. Baserunners slash with their spikes anything or anybody that gets in their way. Umpiring “crews” consist of two men who are subjected to incredible abuse from the field and stands. Star players earn perhaps $5,000 a season.

Murphy contends, probably accurately, that the pennant races and World Series (between the Cubs and Tigers) overshadowed the presidential race between Republican William Howard Taft and Democrat William Jennings Bryan (ultimately a three-time loser). Other notable events in “ought-eight” included the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model-T, the births of Lyndon Baines Johnson and Milton Berle and the deaths of Grover Cleveland, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But for many in an emerging nation, baseball was center stage. After all, this was the year Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer wrote “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

One of baseball’s greatest charms is its colorful, checkered past and the characters within. If you’re any kind of fan, you ought to relish and revel in this wonderful book.

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