h1

Interview with Cait Murphy, author of Crazy ’08

April 30, 2008

  

“Maybe it was just a ball game. But it didn’t feel that way.” – Cait Murphy, Crazy ’08

I was recently asked to name my ten favorite baseball books. Despite never veering from my lifelong habit of reading about baseball, my list has remained the same for quite some time, so I immediately rattled off what I thought was my impenetrable murderer’s row as if I was reciting the alphabet. I may as well have pounded my fist on a podium as I answered. My immortal list! It shall never change!

A few days later, I started reading Crazy ’08, Cait Murphy’s electrifying tale of the 1908 major league baseball season. The narrative of her insightful, irreverent, illuminating book barrels forward like a high-speed train through a wonderland—you want the train to slow down so you can study the wealth of details flying by, but you can’t help charging ahead to see what’s around the next corner. Even before I was finished I knew the book would be hurtling like that train, or like Ty Cobb, spikes-high, into my personal top ten. I haven’t yet had the privilege of speaking with any of the other authors on my list, but happily for me the newest member, Cait Murphy, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, the 1908 season, and her own history in the game. Before turning to the conversation, here’s a brief glimpse of the riches of Crazy ’08, from a description of the moments before the season-ending game between the Giants and Cubs that would decide the greatest of all pennant races.

Larry Doyle is the first Giant regular to take the field. The youngster gets a warm round of cheers. He has had a good year . . .Not long after Doyle, a tall, hunched figure comes into view: It’s Merkle. Poor Fred gets a distinctly cooler welcome—an abrupt silence that speaks volumes. He has lost weight these last two weeks, and is a basket case. The pictures of Merkle as a rookie show a bright-eyed young man, looking out at the world with an optimistic gaze that Norman Rockwell might have painted. After 1908, every picture carries its own shadow. “Man is born broken,” wrote Eugene O’Neill. Merkle, the pictures testify, got broken. (p. 264)

Q: You start your book by saying that 1908 is the “best season in baseball history.” After reading the book, I have to agree. Can you say a few words to back up this claim for anyone who has yet to have the pleasure of reading Crazy ’08?

A: It’s the combination of a great year between the lines (both pennant races go down to the last day; the Merkle game and tons of great games and funny incidents); great personalities (Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb are all in their prime; Walter Johnson has his first good year and Cy Young his last); plus developments off the field. Of the latter, the most important, I think, is construction of Shibe Park, which opens in 1909. It is the first modern baseball stadium, and a huge leap forward for the game.

Q: You compare a baseball season to a Dickensian novel, and one of the great pleasures of the book is getting to meet the vivid cast of major and minor characters that collaborated on the unforgettable season. Who are some of your personal favorite minor and major characters from that season, and why?

 

A: I really like Jimmy Sheckard, who was an outfielder with the Cubs with a rather waspish sense of humor, and of course Germany Schaefer of the Tigers was regarded as the funniest man in baseball. I have a soft spot for Bugs Raymond, who gave up fewer hits per inning than Matty – and lost 25 games for the wretched Cardinals.

Q: Practically every paragraph of the book is bursting with rich, lively details, and yet the book never bogs down into a dry recounting of facts, the details always feeding the story. You obviously did a tremendous amount of work uncovering all the details. What sources were most helpful in gathering these details? Also, was it difficult to incorporate the avalanche of facts and anecdotes into a focused narrative?

 

A: Believe it or not, I left a lot out! The most important sources were newspapers and magazines of the era, particularly the NY Herald and the Chicago Tribune; Baseball magazine; Sporting Life and Sporting News. I put together a detailed chronology using all these sources (and others) that allowed me to see at a glance what the different papers were saying on the same day. That was the core of the research.

Q: Besides the details, the most arresting feature of the book is the authoritative, salty, funny voice, which helps bring the past alive in ways that few historical books are able to. Did you have the voice for the book from the start of your work on it, or did you discover it gradually as you went along? Also, was this voice inspired in any way by the entertainingly colorful sportswriting style of the early twentieth century?

 

A: Well, my family says that when they were reading the book, they laughed because it sounds very much the way I speak; so I think I came by the voice honestly. I very much wanted to stay away from the hushed-reverence school of baseball writing.

Q: I’m interested in hearing a bit about your own history in the game. Were you a big baseball fan growing up?

 

A: Yes. I’m a Mets fan. Like many people, I inherited the love of the game from my dad, who grew up not far from Wrigley, where his upstairs neighbor was Gabby Hartnett, the great catcher. He moved to NY as a boy, rooted for the Giants, then transferred his allegiance to the Mets when the Giants left for California. So I grew up in a Mets house. I now live in New York City, and have tickets for 14 games this year, which for me will be a record.

Q: What do you remember about your first major league baseball game?

 

A: It was 1969 and going to a game was my birthday gift. It turned out it was Cap Day, though, and the only seats we could get were way, way up. My parents were concerned that I would be disappointed. I was not – just enchanted by the whole thing. I wore my best outfit, and seeing that expanse of green bowled me over.

Q: You were one of the first girls to play little league. How did you do?

 

A: I was a scrappy second-baseman; average for the league.

Q: What is your favorite little league memory?

 

A: Well, our team wasn’t very good; I think we went something like 3-10, so winning our first game.

Q: Did your interest in baseball history start at a young age?

 

A: Yes. I was about 10 when I read The Glory of Their Times for the first time, and something about that really struck a chord.

Q: Do you have a favorite book about baseball history?

 

A: The Glory of Their Times and Babe by Robert Creamer

Q: In your book I was interested by, among many other things, the description of fan behavior in 1908. In what ways would you say fan behavior and the way fans follow baseball now differs from 100 years ago?

 

A: Fans are much more partisan now; they root for the home team, and would never consider applauding a nice play by the opposition. (I think the Phillies fans take this too far; I was revolted earlier this season, when they cheered when Jose Reyes got injured – he hit his head and could have been seriously hurt). Also, today’s stadiums are much more tightly policed, so there is less room for spontaneity. Sometimes a good thing – harder to throw bottles and punches – but perhaps a little too much.

Q: One of the themes of the book is that baseball left its childhood behind in 1908. The embodiment of the crueler connotations of this transformation is the teenaged Giants reserve, Fred Merkle. What was life like for Merkle after his baserunning error helped hand the Cubs the pennant?

 

A: Merkle was a solid ballplayer; he played for another 15 years or so, hearing the term “bonehead” regularly. He retired to Florida, had some difficult times (including the “B” word) but I think found some solace when he returned to NY for an old-timers game in 1950—and was cheered. No question Sept 23, 1908, was a life-changing moment for Fred, and not in a good way.

Q: It’s now 100 years since the Cubs last won a World Series. What do you think Frank Chance might say about such a painfully long drought?

 

A: I couldn’t print it.

Q: What do you think about the Cubs chances this year?

 

A: Intriguing team in a weak division; they should make the playoffs, and then it’s a crap shoot. The key may be Kerry Wood.

Q: From what I’ve seen here in Chicago, though the Cubs fiercest rivalry is with the Cardinals, Cubs fans still seem to loathe above all other teams the National League squad from New York. Conversely, from my years of living in New York, I saw that Mets fans harbor no particular ill will for the Cubs. Why do you think this is in 2008, and was there any trace of a similar unequal dynamic in 1908?

 

A: In 1908, there was no question that the Cubs and Giants were baseball’s fiercest rivalry, and it worked both ways. Today, you’re right, Mets fans have no particular animus for the Cubs, probably because the Cubs have never been much of a threat.

Q: Do you have any plans to write another baseball book?

 

A: Not at the moment; I am working on another book, this one about two 19th century NY lawyers. I am not opposed to writing a baseball book, but have not come up with a subject. Ideas are welcome!

(First published in 2007, Crazy ’08 is now available in both hardcover and paperback.)

35 comments

  1. 1.  I have a copy at home that’s rocketing up the to-be-read pile. I didn’t know until just now that Cait was a Mets fan. We kick ass, don’t we?


  2. 2.  I have a copy at home that’s rocketing up the to-be-read pile. I didn’t know until just now that Cait was a Mets fan. We kick ass, don’t we?


  3. 3.  1 : It’d be interesting to compile a list of authors by the teams they’re fans of. The Mets would have you (author of Mets By The Numbers) and Cait Murphy plus the minor comedian, I forget his name, who wrote “Seinlanguage” (conversely, the Yankees have Larry David). I think Roger Angell counts himself as a Mets fan. I’m sure there are a lot of others. The Indians have the great Terry Pluto and great Joe Posnanski. (And Jim Jarmusch is an Indians fan, I think.) The Royals have the Gehrig-Ruth one-two of Bill James and Rob Neyer. The Red Sox have Stephen King, of course, plus the late great short story writer Andre Dubus and Vermont’s own Howard Frank Mosher (I have a Red Sox hat with the autographs of the latter two) plus, unfortunately, just about every other would-be rhapsodizer of the “verdant green fields” who ever shoveled down a free meal at Breadloaf.


  4. 4.  So, if Crazy ’08 has cracked your top ten, what are the other nine books?


  5. 5.  Jonathan Lethem is on our team.


  6. 6.  4 : Here are my nine survivors (in no particular order). O Holy Cow (the verse of Phil Rizzuto) got bumped. It’s a gimmicky book, in a way, but it really does give me a lot of enjoyment, and shows the wide-open spaces of the game by presenting Scooter’s inimitable mind. Luckily whether or not it’s in my “top ten” means nothing, and I can continue to enjoy it just as much as ever.

    The Southpaw, Mark Harris

    Bang the Drum Slowly, Mark Harris

    The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, Brendan C. Boyd, Fred C. Harris

    The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

    The Donald Honig Reader

    Hang Tough, Paul Mather, Alfred Slote

    The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Robert Coover

    Five Seasons, Roger Angell

    The Wrong Stuff, Bill Lee


  7. 7.  6 Wow. No Roger Kahn?


  8. 8.  5 : A couple other personal favorite authors and their favorite teams…

    Underappreciated 20th century master realist James T. Farrel: White Sox

    Contemporary novelist of great humor and depth, Jonathan Ames: Mets (I think)

    I’ve seen it said that Jack Kerouac was a lifelong Red Sox fan, which makes sense given his Lowell roots.

    I know Bukowski was a baseball fan–one of his billion poems is a batting order of his favorite writers (the pesky ee cummings batting leadoff, I believe)–but I don’t know if he was a fan of a particular team. He was an L.A. guy, of course, so it’s sort of amusing to imagine him in his first bloom of renown, middle-aged and pocked and high, rooting for the likes of Steve Garvey.


  9. 9.  7 : I loved The Boys of Summer. I can’t explain why it’s not on my list except to note that after I read it and loved it a long time ago I haven’t read it again, which I can’t say for any of the repeatedly read titles on my list.


  10. 10.  9 The Boys of Summer is a wonderful book, and if you enjoyed it (and Kahn’s style) I also heartily recommend two of his other books: Good Enough To Dream (1985) and The Era (1993). Good Enough is the story of Kahn’s season owning the minor league Utica Blue Sox. The Era is an account of the golden age of baseball in New York City, 1947-1957. A Flame of Pure Fire (1999), Kahn’s exhaustively researched biography of Jack Dempsey, is also excellent, though obviously not about baseball.


  11. 11.  10 : Thanks for the tip. I’ll check those out.

    Anybody got any thoughts on Cait Murphy’s call for suggestions on what to write next? Or, to put it another way, what piece of baseball history would you like to read a book about?

    Me, I’d like to read a book about Pete Alexander. I don’t know if there’s a definitive bio about him. I’d also like to read–or maybe even write–a book-length recap of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders’ season in hell (20 wins, 134 losses).


  12. 12.  I took a semester long class on the history of baseball at Cal State Hayward about five years ago. Among the required reading was “Only the Ball was White” by Robert Peterson. It’s a very comprehensive and interesting history of the Negro Leagues as well as the exclusion of black players from the major leagues after 1884.


  13. 13.  Roger Kahn? Don’t talk to me about Roger Kahn.

    http://griddle.baseballtoaster.com/archives/317999.html


  14. 14.  12 : Gotta read that book.

    13 : Gotta stay off that list.

    FYI: Alex Belth of Bronx Banter just posted the interesting results of the “10 essential baseball books” survey I was part of:

    http://tinyurl.com/6eysuy


  15. 15.  While “Only the Ball Was White” is great, a book on the Negro Leagues that I treasure even more is “Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues” by John Holway. It’s done in the style of the Ritter/Honig oral histories, and is every bit as fascinating as those are, perhaps moreso. It’s not just a smattering of players from the last gasp era of the Negro Leagues, either — it was done in the 1970s while people like Hilton Smith and Willie Wells and Cool Papa Bell were still alive.


  16. 16.  Kismet. Alex Belth is talking about top ten books today.


  17. 17.  13 What do you have against Roger Kahn?


  18. 18.  17
    As they say on “Lost”, “It’s complicated.”


  19. 19.  18 I’ll concede that Roger Kahn the human being can be a bit, shall I say, prickly at times. I’ve dealt with him both personally and professionally. But there is no arguing against the quality of the man’s prose.


  20. 20.  Have you read The Unforgettable Season about the 1908 National League pennant race? I thoroughly enjoyed Crazy ’08, but I found The Unforgettable Season to be a more gripping telling of the story. The 1908 season is certainly worthy of two outstanding books with the story told in different ways.


  21. 21.  If memory serves, James Michener was at least a casual Phillies fan.

    The last thing of Roger Kahn’s I read was a lengthy description of a drunken, middle-aged Mickey Mantle hitting pitifully on a waitress.
    It was tawdry without being revelatory, and I came away from the piece thinking, “I didn’t need to read about that shit.”

    On the other hand, since I moved to Pennsylvania, I enjoy his “Boys of Summer” chapter about Billy Cox more than ever.


  22. 22.  15 : That Negro Leagues oral history sounds great. Can’t wait to read it.

    20 : I haven’t read The Unforgettable Season but I’ll definitely track it down.


  23. 23.  While Don DeLillo’s Underworld isn’t a baseball book, the prologue about a kid crashing the gate for the Bobby Thomson game is some great stuff. In typical DeLillo fashion, even the prologue runs fifty pages — I like it as a free-standing work.

    Growing up, Alfred Slote’s Jake was one of my favorite baseball books. I’d completely forgotten about it until Bill Simmons brought it up recently.


  24. 24.  23 : I first read the long prologue, “Pafko at the Wall,” when it came out before the publication of Underworld in a magazine (Esquire or Harpers or something). After Underworld came out it was published on its own as a novella. I totally agree that it’s one of the best pieces of baseball fiction ever written.


  25. 25.  I really enjoyed Clemente by David Maraniss – I tend to read a lot of books about individual players (Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig is another one I really enjoyed). I’ll definitely be adding some of these books to my list though – including Crazy ’08.

    Also – in terms of celebrity fans, the yankees may have Larry David – but the cubs have Jeff Garlin and Bill Murray. I’m not sure of authors though.


  26. 26.  25 : I wonder which major league team’s fans would win a “laugh-off”? Is Chris Rock a Yankees fan? I think so. If so, his formidable funniness would be mostly cancelled out by Billy Crystal, much like Garlin and Murray’s funniness would be seriously compromised by the stylings of Jim Belushi. The first comic that comes to mind for the Red Sox is Dennis Leary, who I never liked that much, especially when I heard rumblings that he ripped off Bill Hicks. But I think I recall Steven Wright covering up his bald dome from time to time with a Bosox cap, so we’ve got that going for us.


  27. 27.  Two really good novels nobody’s mentioned yet:
    “The Celebrant,” by Eric Rolfe Greenberg. Set in the early 1900s, where one of the characters is obsessed with Christy Mathewson. Vivid, well-written, gives a great sense of what it was like to watch & play the game then.
    “The Greatest Slump of All Time,” by David Carkeet. Getting inside the heads of a pretty screwed-up pro baseball team. Observant (about people, and about the game) and often laugh-out-loud funny.


  28. 28.  27 : The Celebrant was mentioned in a related conversation elsewhere on Baseball Toaster (either The Griddle or Bronx Banter, or maybe both), and it’s now definitely on my list. The other sounds great, too. A novel about a slumping baseball team? That would be the epitome of being “right up my alley.”


  29. 29.  Great interview! Buying this book will have to be a priority.

    One nit: Fans cheer opposing plays these days. Maybe not a Yankee catch in Fenway, but in general, they do.

    I loathe his politics, but George Will’s “Men at Work” is an amazing book.


  30. 30.  This made my day! can’t wait to read Cait’s book.

    a coupla musings:
    The Universal Baseball Association is SO great.

    O Holy Cow
    1st thought: hmm, you hate the Yankees, of course it dropped off
    2nd thought: I can see how Holy Cow is not, actually, about baseball at all. good call dropping it off.

    “Pafko at the Wall” was published in Harpers. I think I still have that issue; it just blew me away.

    been meaning to check out The Wrong Stuff for a while.

    I haven’t read a great baseball book in a while: I remember Lords of the Game, a fairly revelatory book about the owners, and High Wide and Tight, about Billy Martin, which I liked because it revealed Steinbrenner as the insane asshole that he is, not the Rubenstein PR-white-washed version currently on display.


  31. 31.  29 : Thanks for checking in, JoS. I agree that fans still applaud the opposition on occasion, but Crazy ’08 does vividly portray a fandom that’s much more unpredictable in its behaviors than today’s version. They could cheer an opposing performer in the midst of a golden moment more than they were cheering their own team; they could break into song; they could turn into a roiling mob, etc.

    30 : If you check the Bronx Banter post from earlier today, it shows that I actually originally had “Pafko at the Wall” on my list, but I changed it to “Bang the Drum Slowly” because I read the latter chronically and have only read “Pafko” twice (in Harper’s and in Underworld). So the idea, which I started the post off with, that my list is set in stone: it’s a lie! But it has stayed pretty much the same by and large. A few months ago, on the occasion of Mark Harris’ passing, I listed my top ten baseball books in a post on Sparky Lyle. The list differs from this one only in the fact that it includes only nine books (way to count, Josh!) and has Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo instead of Bill Lee’s The Wrong Stuff. So there might be something to your comment about my anti-Yankee bias after all.


  32. 32.  30 : By the way, Ellen, Crazy ’08 uses The Baseball Timeline as a source, a book I recall proofreading for you while hungover, the day after the Yankees won the Subway Series and made baseball the last subject in the world I wanted to think about, let alone read the entire story of from start to finish, looking for typos.


  33. 33.  6

    … I really liked Angell’s Five Seasons as well, Josh.

    A couple of my favorites that haven’t already been mentioned in this thread:

    -Nine Innings, by Dan Okrent
    -Pure Baseball, by Keith Hernandez

    Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts from 1982-88 are prized (and well worn) in my collection.


  34. 34.  My favorite comment from Cait: “I very much wanted to stay away from the hushed-reverence school of baseball writing.” That alone, and your description of the book’s “authoritative, salty, funny” voice, makes me want to read it.

    30 I’m surprised to see Lee’s “Wrong Stuff” overtake “The Bronx Zoo” — nothing against the Spaceman’s eminently enjoyable book, but having seen you deeply inhale the spirit of the Zoo it seems like that book was a watershed experience for you.

    31 An awful lot of hungover proofing has been done in Ellen and Mark’s service over the years. Including, as you’ll remember, my frequent jobs on dead-tree tie-ins to The Little Mermaid and other Disney juggernauts. Picture: 6am on a Monday morning, and unshaven, boxer-clad lout who smells of the bar is hunched over Beauty and the Beast galleys that were due Tuesday last week; painstakingly squeezing onto a Post-It a query about a plot disconnect. All the while muttering remonstrations to himself about his losing battle with procrastination.


  35. 35.  34 : By god, you’re right about the Bronx Zoo. It was a huge book for me. It’s got to be on my list. Lee would understand–he always liked Lyle.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124 other followers

%d bloggers like this: