A couple years ago we had one of the wildest finishes to any baseball season: on the same night, four games decided who got into the postseason. Maybe you remember Boston’s bullpen collapsing against Baltimore, the Yankees blowing a seven-run lead to Tampa Bay, a 13-inning marathon between the Braves and Phillies or Chris Carpenter pitching a complete-game, two-hit shutout against Houston. Wild stuff, right?
It doesn’t hold a candle to the 1908 season, where both leagues had pennant races running to the last day. Baseball was then the dominant sport in America. People didn’t just go out of their way to watch, they sometimes put their lives at risk. Sometimes they even died trying to watch a game. It’s a world Cait Murphy taps into with Crazy 08, a fun read that’s marred by some strange editorial choices.
Being a baseball fan back then was different than it’d be even a few decades later. Radio and TV coverage hadn’t been invented and games were played in rickety, often poorly constructed ballparks. Sometimes they collapsed, killing fans. If they couldn’t grab a seat, the outfield was usually roped off for a standing crowd. And if you couldn’t get into the ballpark, your best bet was to go to one of the giant scoreboards set up around town. But you could join a crowd leaning over a fence, off a neighbouring building or watching from Coogan’s Bluff.
The year Murphy covers in her book is one of baseball’s most exciting. The teams were littered with of some of the biggest names in baseball history: Honus Wager, Ty Cobb, John McGraw, Three Finger Brown, Christy Mathewson. And both leagues had exciting pennant races. In the AL, the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers all raced to the finish, closing within two games of each other and Detroit winning in the final game.
But Murphy’s book mostly focuses on the National League season, where another three-team race lasted all summer: an intense Chicago Cubs and New York Giants rivalry, with a surging Pittsburgh Pirates team biting at their heels. This was an era where the Cubs were the NL’s dominant team: between 1905 and 1910, they’d go to four World Series, winning two. But the Giants and Pirates were also perennial contenders, too. And these teams hated each other: John McGraw once fined his team for just chatting with the opposing team before a game.
This was a wild, wild summer, with brawls on the field and riots off of it. There were one-sided blowouts and two of the greatest pitching duels in baseball history. And it went down to the wire, with the Pirates, Cubs and Giants tied for first on Sept. 23. That day, the Giants and Cubs played one of the most infamous games in history, which Murphy recounts in detail.
The game went something like this: with two out and the score tied at one in the bottom of the ninth, Giants shortstop Al Bridwell knocked in what should’ve been the game-winning run. The crowd rushed the field and the ball was lost in the chaos. But was the game over? Rookie Fred Merkle didn’t touch second after the hit, instead veering away towards the clubhouse. Somehow the Cubs found the ball, touched second and protested to the umpires that Merkle was out and the run shouldn’t have counted. They agreed and called the game a 1-1 tie amidst the chaos.
It got worse as the season ended and the Giants and Cubs finished with identical records, necessitating a replay of the game where the winner would win the NL pennant and advance to the World Series. This game, where Mathewson and Brown pitched against each other provides the book’s exciting climax.
But it’s not just about the pennant races: 1908 was the beginnings of the modern age of baseball, from the introduction of the above-mentioned scoreboards to the rookie seasons of Hall of Fame players like Rube Marquard or Walter Johnson. Meanwhile, Cy Young threw his final no-hitter,
Despite her great recapping of the season, a few things keep Crazy 08 from being an essential read. First, Murphy occasionally interrupts her narrative for short essays on topics she finds interesting: serial killers, a history of anarchists in the US, a look at the myths around baseball’s origins. These Time Outs, as they’re called in the text, don’t add anything and only distract from the story. But they’re easily skipped over.
The second is a more serious problem: an overwrought writing style Murphy uses throughout the book. Long sections of the book feel overwritten, laced with hyperbolic prose like this:
“Turkey Mike watches four pitches with, one imagines, the kind of sneer with which the mystical Casey regarded the sphere. On the fifth one, Donlin swings. Unlike Casey, he does not strike out, but launches the pellet into the stratosphere. In plain English, he hits a homer over the right field wall. The Giants win 3-2.” (pg 64)
In a short Q/A section at the back of the book, Murphy explains some of her writing style, saying she was looking for a sense of immediacy. I think it probably goes a little further, with her mimicking the sportswriting style of the day: hyperbolic, excessive and, unfortunately, archaic. Often, it’s hard to tell her writing from the Grantland Rice quotes she often opens chapters with.
It’s too bad: these two flaws took away from what should’ve been a great read. After all, its clear Murphy knows her stuff and the book’s not only well researched, it’s fully annotated too, with a lengthy section of sources. She covers the ins and outs of the season, everything from boardroom meetings to on-field confrontations to backroom dealing between gamblers and players.
Although it’s marred by her writing style, Murphy’s Crazy 08 is a good read about one of the wildest and most interesting baseball seasons on record. If you can get past the purple prose, it’s an informative and enjoyable read about one of baseball’s wildest seasons.