I've been a little crazy myself, in the last year or so, amassing a collection of 1908-1911 T206s from various sources, and displaying them in my office. 'cuz I'm awesome and exciting like that. From behind SGC- or PSA-graded cases peer the faces of Jack Pfeister, Hooks Wiltse, Red Ames, Dave Brain, Red Murray, Solly Hofman, Clark Griffith, Dots Miller, Fielder Jones, Chief Meyers, Laughin' Larry Doyle, Lee Tannehill, Harry Steinfeldt, Wild Bill Donovan, Nap Rucker, Doc Crandall, Wee Willie Keeler, Al Bridwell, Rube Marquard, Frank Smith, and Cy Seymour. And Joe Tinker, from a 1911 T205. All of them played baseball in the year wonderfully carzy baseball year of 1908. They played for the teams most covered in this book: the Chicago White Sox; the New York Giants; the Detroit Tigers; the Chicago Cubs; the New York Highlanders (soon thereafter known exclusively as the Yankees) and the Pittsburgh Pirates. I've got their T206s, and they're all in this book.
And it is captivating reading. Like the cards themselves, the book is a time capsule of 1908. Life. Baseball. People. Living conditions. It's all there. The book is not just about baseball. In it you see the personalities of all these guys, plus the more popular players I can't afford: Ty Cobb; Honus Wagner; Eddie Plank; Frank Chance; Christy Mathewson; Walter Johnson, and so many more. You see a typical day and a typical life in 1908--equal parts gritty, harsh, hard, yet alluring.
Countless of these guys played baseball because otherwise they'd be digging and dying in the Pennsylvania mines. They're spotted by scouts and managers playing for semi-pro or mine teams in the middle of nowhere, for teams of towns with populations less than 500. They're typically given one chance, and one chance only, by a system in which the teams don't have to sell them to the major league team, and often didn't. The manager--who was a manager, a general manager, a scout, and a bookkeeper, all in one--would take one look at a player, and say Yes or No based on a five-minute appraisal. The players in this book (and in The Glory of their Times, which will be reviewed soon, too) all say that better players than they did not play major-league baseball not because they lacked the skill--but because they lacked the good fortune.
Honus Wagner politely declined to play baseball in 1908, he says, so he could go home to his farm and raise his chickens. Turns out, this was a salary clash behind the scenes. He played it quietly, like a gentleman, and he got the money he wanted. A similar salary dispute--and not a disagreement about his likeness being sold with tobacco products--led to his insistence that his T206 baseball cards be destroyed. They were. Only about 50 supposedly survived the purge. The one known to be in the best condition is worth, literally, millions of dollars. I don't have that one, naturally. So I instead got Honus Wagner's constant double-play partner, the second basemen to his shortstop: Dots Miller.
Ty Cobb was despised by his peers, his own teammates, the umpires, and the fans. He was considered the second-best player in the majors, behind Wagner--who was the equal to Cobb as a hitter and as a baserunner, but who was a Gold Glove-caliber fielder at every position, and very well-liked to boot.
Christy Mathewson lost a lot of very important games towards the end of that season.
Fred Merkle's mental lapse wasn't the only reason the Giants missed the playoffs that year. A rookie pitcher beat them three teams in the final ten days of the season. Mathewson lost a lot of close games--but still won over 30. The Giants were 10-6 in their last 16 games. And so on.
A team could lose their chance to make the playoffs by half a game due to a rain-out. And it happened in 1908. The rule that all necessary, rained-out games must be played at the end of the year didn't go into effect until 1909. Unbelievable.
Ballplayers played amidst terrible conditions, on the field, physically, and otherwise. It was common for teams to play exhibition games during the season, on travel days between cities, in small towns. They played 154 games that counted, minus rainouts, plus perhaps a dozen or more games that didn't count. And the stars were expected to play in all of them.
Very good teams counted on their HOF starting pitchers to the extent that such pitchers pitched both games of a doubleheader, or for three or more consecutive days, or in relief--often all in the same week. The end of 1908 saw Mathewson, Plank, and Three-Finger Mordecai Brown pitching all of the final dozen or so games.
Most games had just one umpire. (!) So players would do things like miss third base by fifteen feet as they were running home, and the lone umpire was looking elsewhere. The league finally bent and put two umpires on each game.
Spitballs were legal. Pitchers openly spit and loaded up the ball. Players were expected to use the very same one ball all game long. Games were often stopped so a player could go into the stands and retrieve a foul ball.
And so on. Not just baseball: the serial killer of the Chicago-area farms--a large, unattractive woman who lured men to their deaths through soliciting for romantic partners in the paper--gets its own chapter. This situation, which I will make into a novel someday, has never been conclusively solved. Some say the woman escaped capture. Her name was Belle Gunness. Look 'er up.
Vaudeville--very popular. Popular New York players could make a second career--or a first--on vaudeville stages during the off-season. Many of them did. One of them, Mike Donlin, left baseball for the stage. And then came back, of course.
The writing is crisp, and clear, and very authoritative--and with a slight bite and attitude. It is very quick reading, though I cannot say that non-baseball fans will love it, too. I think you have to be a fan to read it, but there's a lot of history and 1908 reality here, too.
And this, from George Will, reviewing the book for the New York Times:
"Murphy’s book is rich in trivia — not that anything associated with
baseball is really trivial. Did you know, for example, that when the Yankees
were still the Highlanders (they played at the highest point in
Manhattan) they adopted their interlocking NY lettering “based on the
Tiffany design for the Police Department’s Medal of Honor”?
of “Crazy ’08” can almost smell the whiskey and taste the pigs’
knuckles. This rollicking tour of that season will entertain readers
interested in social history, will fascinate students of baseball and
will cause today’s Cub fans to experience an unaccustomed feeling —