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Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Best Baseball Book in a While

I read all sorts of books, from popular fiction that's considered "beach reading" to military histories to all sorts of books about sports. I'll review a few of them here over the course of the next several weeks (highly recommending one, recommending another and suggesting that you read the third only if you haven't read anything on the topic anywhere else). In any event, I stumbled upon a gem at the book store over a month ago. I didn't know what to expect, and it turned out to be a real find.

The book is entitled Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, about, for the most part, the 1908 baseball season, the year of a torrid pennant race in the Senior Circuit among the Giants, Cubs and Pirates, the year of "Merkle's boner," of very brave umpires, corrupt or pusillanimous league officials, fiery players, some of whom literally did anything it took to win, while others displayed sportsmanship that was well ahead of its time. Mixed in with the detailed research and punchy, fluid prose, is some social history from the era. Murphy, a college softball player at Amherst a few decades ago who now is an editor at Fortune, hits a home run.

Baseball about 100 years ago was far different from the game today. Fans could actually sit on the field if the grandstands overflowed, thus creating some interesting ground rules. All players had jobs in the off-season. A future Hall of Fame catcher, for example, worked as a private detective. You'll read of the players' hatred of the reserve clause even way back when, the determination of many to make it at all costs because of the poverty they desperately wanted to leave behind, the threats that gamblers posed to the game, and you'll even see a photo of Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown's fabled right hand.

You'll read about the Cubs' Orval Overall and the Phillies' "Giant Killer" Harry Covaleskie, who beat the New York nine three times in the last few weeks of the season to cause the Giants endless grief. (And you'll hear a continuation of the stories told in Lawrence Ritter's brilliant Glory of Their Times as to whether the young pitcher left baseball because of a sore arm or because the bench jockeys swore he kept bologna in his back pocket and rode him mercilessly about his snacking habits, driving him from the game).

I wrote earlier that Cait Murphy hit a home run with this book, but she actually achieved a Triple Crown. First, she researched the heck out of the subject matter and tells detailed "back stories" to some of the stories that many baseball fans and self-described experts thought they already knew. Second, her writing style is unique, transcendant and entertaining. She doesn't mince or waste words, and the combination has a very real feel to it, as if someone were narrating a documentary with vivid photos scrolling on a screen. Third, she takes you back in time and makes you feel like it really is 1908 and you're there.

Baseball fans -- just go out and buy this book. You will not be disappointed.


Blogger John Thom said...

It's hard to argue that there's been a more exciting season than '08. The last two months of the year featured amazing performances. Glad to see someone has captured it. See for more

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