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Book Review: "Crazy '08"

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When I was at the Michael Barrett event last weekend, I overheard someone say something that was both incredibly optimistic and an incredibly sad truth about us as Cubs fans:

"In the entire history of baseball, the Cubs always have won in '07 and '08."

Well, let's hope that bears out to be true this century, as well as it was the last.

Which brings me to this post, a review of Cait Murphy's "Crazy '08", the chronicle of the 1908 season, as we all know, the last one in which a Cubs team won the World Series, and the year that Murphy rightfully and correctly calls the greatest season in baseball history.

It was, really and truly, exactly that. And 99 years later, it still is. The pennant races in both leagues came down to the final day of the season -- with three teams in each league having a shot at the title, the Cubs, Giants and Pirates in the NL, the White Sox, Tigers and Indians in the AL. And, of course, the Cubs only got there because of the famous "Merkle Game", arguably the most significant regular season game in the history of baseball (you can read more at the above link and also in the BCB top 100 profile of Johnny Evers), which Murphy describes in vivid detail. Had the Giants been given the victory in that game -- and there was ample precedent in baseball history that says they should have been, though rules and customs all changed afterwards -- we'd now be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the last Cubs title this year, in 2007.

While there's far more to "Crazy '08" than the Cubs, our favorite team is given extensive portions of this book, naturally so as they were not only the champions of that year, but in a run where they won four out of five pennants from 1906-1910 (and set a record that still stands in 1909, when they won 104 games and finished second to the Pirates, who won 110). Murphy describes those Cubs this way:

Modern fans have been schooled to see the Cubs as a franchise of charming failure, with a gift for finding ways not to win the biggest games. The fans of 1908 would have boggled at that description. Their Cubs are not lovable and they are not losers; the players would have kicked in the teeth of anyone who dared call them the "Cubbies".

"They were grizzlies, these Cubs," a Washington sportswriter would write. "Ursine Colossi who towered high and frowningly and refused to reckon on anything but victory." Even a 1908 spring training game on St. Patrick's Day between the ethnic Irish and German players (those of neither background choose a side; pitcher Orval Overall calls himself O'Verall to align himself with the Celts) is hotly contested. To everyone's relief, the game ends in a 4-4 tie. A few weeks later, the team stops off in Terre Haute to play a pickup game against the neighbors of pitcher Mordecai Brown. The locals are thrilled; they sport splashy new uniforms, and are accompanied by a brass band. And the Cubs are merciless, stealing five bases and winning 10-1. Unpleasant, perhaps, but it is this fire that makes the team formidable.

A lesson that could, perhaps, be learned by the Cubs of our own day.

The book is more, though, than just a chronicle of the 1908 season. We are introduced to the biggest stars, the biggest names, of the era: John McGraw, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Tinker & Evers & Chance, Christy Mathewson, Rube Marquard, Ed Walsh, Napoleon Lajoie (nearly forgotten today, but so loved by the fans in Cleveland that the team became, for a time, nicknamed the "Naps" -- and just as we might today, when the Indians performed a late season fold, the fans -- also called "bugs" or "cranks" in those days -- began calling them the "Napkins") and others.

That's the sort of color that makes "Crazy '08" so fascinating and readable. Murphy intersperses descriptions of the unfolding of the season, with stories of other events that went on in that era, the stories that help us to understand why and how baseball absolutely captured the country in those days -- at one point, the replay of the "Merkle Game" brought the business of the Democratic National Committee, busily running a presidential campaign, to a complete halt -- with mini-chapters entitled "Time-Out", describing what the city of Chicago was like in those days outside of the baseball arena, stories of serial killers and anarchists, giving the reader of 100 years on a real flavor of what life in 1908 was like.

I enjoyed this book immensely and learned quite a few things I hadn't known before, including an entire list of superstitions of the era. Example: the Cubs, for good luck, wore their gray road uniforms for the first home game of the 1907 World Series. Why? Because they had lost three home games in 1906, and thought this would change their luck. Luck or not, it worked: the '07 Cubs didn't lose a World Series game, winning 4-0 with one tie. "Crazy '08" is not only fun, but brings to life an era in baseball and American history that is nearly forgotten today. Highly recommended.