Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Baseball in 1908: Veriest Dubs, Rioting Ladies, and Gator-Wrestling Pitchers

Over at Loud, Please, the Titlepage books blog, I recently recommended Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy. The subtitle: "How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History." I was so entertained by the book, I figured I would double-post about it.

The primary focus is on the heated three-way race for the National League pennant that year, between the New York Giants, the Chicago Cubs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The first half of the book, before it turns mostly to the drama on the field, is packed with colorful detail about the game in the young century. Here are three examples I enjoyed:

1. As gloves improved, so did defense. Murphy writes:
This was the context for the suggestion by Sporting Life, which really should have known better, to take away outfielders' gloves and allow only small ones to the pitcher and infielders. "The big mitt has made the ballplayer," an editorial harrumphs in 1908. "We have no desire to revert to the glove-less game, but there is a wide margin between no gloves and the present huge mitts which enable the veriest dub to face a cannon shot."

The argument was ludicrous, even at the time. The "huge mitts" are webless slabs of leather little bigger than a man's hand. As for allowing the veriest dub to face a cannon shot, that was the point. It took an idiot, not a hero, to stick his hand in front of a hard-hit line drive, which is one of the reasons why games in the preglove era had scores like 103-14.
2. There was a bizarre rash of baseball suicides in that era, including George "Win" Mercer in 1903, who inhaled gas. Mercer "was so handsome and popular that his ejection from a game on Ladies' Day in 1897 sparked a riot by the disappointed females." He also left this sentiment in his suicide note: "Beware of women and a game of chance."

3. As you might imagine, the book is overflowing with outsize characters, including one Rube Waddell, who stars in this memorable paragraph:
In 1903, Waddell had a good season; once he finally bothered to show up in June, he won twenty-one games and led the league in strikeouts (with 302). It was a busy year in other ways, too: he also starred on vaudeville; led a marching band through Jacksonville; got engaged, married, and separated; rescued a log from drowning (he thought it was a woman); accidentally shot a friend; and was bitten by a lion. ... Among his more respectable hobbies were chasing fires (he adored fire engines) and wrestling alligators; he once taught geese to skip rope. Hughie Jennings, manager of the Tigers, used to try to distract him from the sidelines by waving children's toys.


Blogger David said...

It just so happens that I'm 2/3 of the way through this very book. I second the recommendation. For some reason, I was especially struck by the photographs included in the book; they were much better than what I expected for the time period (I don't know why this is, since I'm familiar with photographs taken during the Civil War and earlier). I guess it's that the players themselves look so normal, especially relative to the fans! Christy Matthewson and Ed Walsh wouldn't look out of place on a diamond today.

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband loves this book. He read it in a couple of months, which is saying a lot -- it took me years to read KRAKATOA by Simon Winchester.

9:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mention Hughie Jennings , who seems to be a story in himself-- he made strange noises (ye ha and lifted his right leg), had bells and horns and what not in the dugout to play with and even jumped into a pool not realizing there was no water--- almost had Rube beat -- I really don't think we will ever get back to those days -- for now I suppose we have to be happy with Manny

4:31 PM  

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