by Cait Murphy Smithsonian Books, $24.95
BACK IN 1908 a majority of baseball games were
officiated by just one umpire, which gave rise to on-field mischief. The ump
stood behind the pitcher and would have to turn his back to the plate when a
ball was hit. Savvy catchers would then trip up the batter on his way to
Such picaresque details are what make Cait Murphy's
Crazy '08 such a fun and revealing journey through the early days of baseball.
The book's central argument, that 1908 is "the best season in baseball
history," is perhaps a stretch—other years had tight pennant races too and
future Hall of Famers facing off—but fortunately Murphy doesn't spend too much
time arguing her case. The claim is really just a MacGuffin that allows her to
explore the game back then.
Along the way come eager detours into such topics as
the high suicide rate of ballplayers in that era and the rash of stadium fires
that set off baseball's first building boom. Murphy, a FORTUNE assistant
managing editor, even calls "timeouts" to present minichapters on such
nonbaseball topics as Chicago's red-light district and serial killer Belle
Gunness, who lured doomed suitors to her farm via personal ads.
Best, though, is the season's most dramatic episode:
Merkle's Boner, upon which turned the Cubs-Giants pennant race. In a late
September game against the Cubs, with two out in the ninth, Giants rookie Fred
Merkle failed to run to second on an apparent game-winning hit; as fans rushed
the field, the Cubs tagged second for a run-nullifying force-out. The game was
then called for darkness and had to be replayed weeks later to decide the
pennant. The victor is known to every Chicago fan because 1908 is the year in
which the Cubs last won the World Series.