Just finished Cait Murphy's Crazy '08, the recounting of the 1908 season, which is often touted as the most exciting year in the history of baseball. Need evidence of the insanity of 100 years ago? Well…
- The Cubs were the dominant team, with a World Series drought of zero years and the favorites to win it again.
- The Red Sox were irrelevant.
- The Yankees were the more dishonorable team in the league, known more for willingly losing games than winning them.
- New York fans would cheer other teams’ players for a job well done.
Murphy recounts the entire season, from the offseason to league championship, but manages to keep the narrative fresh throughout.
Part of it is because of the nature of the pennant chase. The National League featured a three-team chase with the volatile New York Giants, injury-riddled Cubs and the quiet, steady Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubs and Giants were lead by fiery managers in John McGraw and Frank Chance whose teams (and cities) hated each other. Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Three-Finger Brown, Ty Cobb and others are at the top of their game.
Of course, the other part is because what was mundane then is anything but now. Arguably the most controversial game took place in 1908 - The Merkle Game - couldn’t take place now because crowds don’t rush the field after every big game. Referencing the fourth point above, New York fans stormed the Polo Grounds to celebrate Wagner’s 5-for-5 day, which helped him overtake the Giants’ own Mike Donlin for the lead in the batting title race. Fans died inside and outside because of overflow crowds. Good times.
It’s not a book for die-hard fans only. For one, Murphy breaks up the season narrative with tangents about America during the time - a female serial killer on a farm in La Porte, Ind., to anarchism and racism. Another one of the tangents is about Cooperstown’s false claim to baseball history, and between that and the tales about Troy’s Johnny Evers, there’s plenty about upstate New York.
Oh, and I also learned that “malaria” was a euphemism for “venereal disease” on the injury lists.
Ultimately, it’s a nonfiction book that reads a lot like fiction, and I mean that as a compliment. I don’t have a hard and fast list of favorite baseball books, but I’m having trouble naming five I enjoyed more.