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crazy '08

29 september 2016

Cait Murphy's Crazy '08 was one of the best-reviewed baseball books of 2007, and I'm just getting to read it nine years later … time flies even when you think you read a lot of baseball books. I can say that it's held up splendidly during that near-decade. It's a marvelously-researched, keenly and intricately written history of some of the most implausible stuff ever to occur on ballfields and off.

The 1908 baseball season had passed well out of living memory by the time that Murphy wrote Crazy '08. Both my grandfathers were born, in or near Chicago, in 1908; I knew some of my great-grandparents, but I never heard them talk directly about Tinker, or Evers, or Chance. Still, the highs and lows of the Cubs of the oughts were still well within the oral tradition when I was growing up. It was a shame that their greatest club, the 1906 version, lost the World Series to the White Sox (a crosstown matchup still unrepeated to this day), but it was the greatest biennuim in Cub history, naturally, and people were still talking about it at second hand in the 1960s. I write this "review" in the last week of September 2016 when all things are still possible, the Cubs headed easily to the playoffs and a 108-year drought potentially quenchable (the crazy '08 factor in play again, perhaps). But still, for now, Northsiders have to look back to 1908 for their last moment of glory.

The '08 Series barely figures in Murphy's narrative, of course. The Cubs beat Ty Cobb's Tigers handily, almost as an afterthought. The big story is the National League pennant race, a three-team scramble that hinged on a replay of what's still the most controversial result in the game's history, the tied "Merkle game" at the Polo Grounds between Chicago and the New York Giants.

Murphy tells the story with suspense, wit, and craft. Her language is an elegant pastiche of old-timey sportswriting clichés, wordplay, lucid exposition, and keen attention to verb tenses. I am usually not fond of the historical present ("John McGraw wakes in a foul mood") or or mixed tenses, but Murphy has found a way, unique in my reading, to combine a sense of depth and a focus on the vector of time in telling a century-old story. She consistently uses past tense for anything that happened before the moment she and the reader are "in" in 1908, and consistently present for the events of that moment. (Some future tenses mix in here and there, obviously, for 1909 and after.) Once you get the hang of it and realize the conscious, consistent attention to time, you're hooked; it's a marvelous device and I'll guess extremely hard to do.

Murphy presents a ton of archival research, and though Crazy '08 comes in at a scant 300 pages, she manages to work in several digressions about mores and demographics of the time. The best of these is an account of the murderous Belle Gunness, an Indiana femme fatale of 1908 whose fate is still mysterious (72-78).

1908 may be particularly famous, but I'd read Cait Murphy's account of just about any random baseball season. I'm not sure she'd be crazy about writing a series of year-books of that sort (she has made no move to write more baseball books that I know of, and her followup book was called Scoundrels in Law, about headline-grabbing trials in late 19th-century New York). But a market of one is out there for Roaring '27 or anything else she'd like to write, and I doubt I'm alone.

Murphy, Cait. Crazy '08: How a cast of cranks, rogues, boneheads, and magnates created the greatest year in baseball history. New York: Smithsonian [HarperCollins], 2007.