Book Review: Jason Cannon on Charlie Murphy and the Chicago Cubs

Author Jason Cannon has written a diverting, well-researched, comprehensive biography of Charlie Murphy (Publishing June 1, available for pre-order now), who owned the Chicago Cubs from 1906 to 1913 and led the team as club president for eight years. During his tenure, the Cubs earned four pennants, won two World Series championships, and never finished below third place.

Cannon develops the theme of controversy, confrontation, and stubbornness in Murphy’s baseball career. The club owner played to win, not to be loved. He often feuded with other club owners and league power brokers. Baseball writer Hugh Fullerton wrote of Murphy, “Hate him or like him, he is always interesting—and that is something.” Murphy once said, “I was as popular with the fans as a bag of rattlesnakes.”

Interestingly, Murphy became business partners and friends with Charles Phelps Taft, the older half-brother of future U.S. President William Howard Taft. Charles Taft loaned Murphy the money to buy the Cubs in 1905. President Taft later attended Cubs games, giving national profile to the sport.

The Cubs are one of the most beloved teams in American baseball–the ultimate underdog. In 2016, they overcame a 108-year drought to win the World Series.  The Cubs’ first two wins were under Murphy, in 1907 and 1908. That context gives the book a sense of fun and some amount of urgency. Also, Murphy seems to be the subject of much debate in the baseball history community.

The bulk of Cannon’s narrative, however, mostly targets diehard baseball fans and historians. The story is clearly important to baseball history, but not necessarily to broader themes in American history.

Maybe more exposition is necessary to draw in a broader readership. For example, the “Deadball Era” of baseball, during which Murphy worked, is mentioned, but not explained. How was it different from today’s ball? Cannon doesn’t adequately explain the notion of baseball as a “clean” sport. Did many in the public view the sport as dirty during the Deadball Era? Why? These are themes that could make the narrative more urgent and interesting, placing it in the timeline of U.S. sport history and cultural history.

Another idea: Why didn’t women attend baseball games during the Deadball Era? Was it just because of sexism or were there other cultural issues at stake? Cannon briefly describes “Ladies’ Days” when women were allowed to attend for free and that Murphy was one of the first in baseball club ownership to recognize women as a potential paying customer base. This is interesting and probably should have been developed more.

To situate Murphy’s story as a story of relevance to American history—not just American baseball history—it’s necessary for the author to guide the reader more.

Even within the world of baseball history, Cannon probably should have focused more of the narrative on Murphy’s unique innovations in the game—his legacy beyond the pennants and the World Series. In these early 20th century games, the distinctive traditions of the game—such as the seventh inning stretch—were still in development. He probably should have spent less time on Murphy’s childhood and more on his contributions to the game. He probably could have cut significant material on game scores and play-by-play tellings of games and repurposed those pages for stronger narrative.

Still, Cannon’s passion for the game is clear on every page and he develops a clear theme for Murphy. He clearly has a mission to burnish Murphy’s place in history, while acknowledging his controversies and bad behavior, and it’s fun to see that play out. Cannon even finds a story to tell after Murphy left baseball. In retirement, Murphy went about using his wealth to build a lavish community theater in his hometown of Wilmington, Ohio.

I look forward to Cannon’s next book on baseball, as he sharpens his craft as a writer and historian. Baseball history has many things to say about American history. For example, it is deeply interwoven with the American civil rights movement. There are many great fresh stories to tell!

Three Out of Five Stars–Recommended