“Charlie Murphy: The Iconoclastic Showman
Behind the Chicago Cubs”
The publishers website
At Skylight Books
At Diesel Books
The review in 90 feet or less
Murphy’s Bleachers, the human circus with the green awning holding down the corner of Waveland and Sheffield, is among the must-observe places in Chicago’s Wrigleyfield when soaking up the neighborhood vibe before a Cubs’ game. Perhaps even break through the fence and order a beer if time allows.
From the center-field bleachers at Wrigley Field, you can look down upon it, but don’t look down on it. You find yourself asking: What I am doing up here if all those folks are jammed into that brick-building patio below seem to be having so much fun?
It started as a hot-dog-and-beer stand in the 1930s right after prohibition. It became Ray’s Bleachers in ’65. It was sold to a Chicago police detective named Jim Murphy in 1980, and his family has taken care of it ever since (his name is even officially posted on the street corner sign).
Charles Webb Murphy, the pre-Wrigley caretaker of the Cubs franchise from 1906 until he was forced out in 1913, doesn’t seem to have any familial roots to the place. Too bad. That would make it all the more historic and hysterical.
So let’s pretend anyway.
“You don’t know the history of the Chicago Cubs until you know the story of” this “ebullient and mercurial owner” of the franchise that, under his watch, won four National League pennants plus the 1907 and ’08 World Series titles — then went into championship hibernation for about 108 years.
The book-jacket blurb to encourage picking up this heavy-duty biography also wishes you to know this gentleman with the bowler cap, sporty mustache and holding a cigar on the cover has also been labeled as, in no particular order: Impetuous, lucky, sharp, lovable and loathable. Full of brash, bluster and hustle with explosions of creativity. Act first, apologize later.
“Hate him or love him, he is always interesting, and that is something,” said his longtime friend and sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, the famous whistle blower in the Black Sox Scandal (played by Studs Terkel in the 1988 movie, “Eight Men Out.”
He’d also refer to “Murph” as someone whose “spectacular success, and his brilliant showmanship naturally made enemies, especially of other club owners. He out-witted them, out-traded them and out-talked them.”
The Bill Veeck/Charles O. Finley of his time was a combination of Teddy Roosevelt and P.T. Barnum, the reformed sportswriter from the Cincinnati Esquire and the game’s first legit press agent for the New York Giants and found an opportunity when Chicago’s Cubs came up for sale. Murphy secured a loan with the older half-brother of future president William Howard Taft, became part-owner and full-time huckster, challenging the establishment. It worked.
But in the end, he was pushed out by a group of NL owners led by Brooklyn’s Charles Ebbets, whose Trolley Dodgers’ nickname was soon to be replaced by the Robins after manager Wilbert Robinson (and wouldn’t officially go back to the Dodgers until 1932).
If that’s all you know and want to move on, enter at your own risk and enjoyment.
For a large snippet to justify the journey, jump ahead to Chapter 12 – “The Malicious Mistake of Mr. Murphy” is the title. The excavation by author Jason Cannon, where he credits is the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Box 4, Folders 1 and 2, takes us to a 1914 incident when Murphy went to New York for the National League winter meetings at a time he was trying to refresh his club with Hank O’Day as the new manager even though future Hall of Fame player Johnny Evers was still employed as the skipper.
Charles Hercules Ebbets, Sr., chaired this event because Murphy, one of eight NL owners, didn’t want to see another star like Evers jump to the new Federal League. The other owners wouldn’t stand for it, having already tried to oust Murphy for his previous fumbles and bumbles.
Ebbets’ explosions of frustration and anger are all over the transcript:
You have got us in a position here, Mr. Murphy, and you have to take, in a measure, what we want. It is seven clubs you have got here into a hole, damn it!”
His franchise was one of two (along with the Boston Braves) willing to take Evers off Murphy’s hands and keep him in the league. Evers eventually went to the Braves, won an MVP Award and took them to the World Series title, hitting .409 in the sweep.
Then American League president Ban Johnson dug in, “tired of the blunders of this man, and for the good of baseball I think a change in the ownership of the Cubs is necessary … the American league is determined to purge baseball of persons within the ranks who are enemies of the sport.”
Murphy, who threatened to sue Johnson for slander, knew he was on his way out and did all he could to cushion the blow as the NL owners did a workaround – even making a nice profit in the sale of the team.
But, as Cannon writes, “his reputation lay in tatters.”
Insert a Frank McCourt reference here.
How it goes in the scorebook
Nothing to apologize for here. We’re just sorry we hadn’t heard of this gent earlier. Now all is good and generous and fulfilling. Cue up “The Sting.”
Cannon, with a BA in English from Azusa Pacific and an MA in English from Cal State LA plus a MA in American Studies from Cal State Fullerton, is already off and running on another project related to Willie McCovey and Billy Williams, says his LinkedIn account. Why not after this accomplishment. They are in good hands.
From Classic Chicago magazine – yes, it’s a thing – David A.F. Sweet tells us Cannon was motivated to do this because he was originally interested in pursing information about two Cubs’ players of that era who lived near where he grew up in Central California, and was intrigued reading about by their contract squabbles with the owner.
Murphy’s name kept coming up.
“As I looked up information about Charlie, I couldn’t find out anything about him,” said Cannon, also motivated as he dug into his research by the fact that Murphy received zero credit for the great teams he oversaw. No personal letters or belongings from the childless owner are known to exist, meaning unearthing information about Murphy was extremely tough. Cannon cited the National Baseball Hall of Fame as an invaluable resource.
“Going over the National League meeting minutes was like reading court testimony,” he said. “If you want to get to know the mechanics of how the business of baseball worked, you could find it, and you could get to know the owners.”
Thus Cannon spent 4 ½ years researching and writing and accumulated 33 pages of notes.
That is duly noted.
The Chicago Cubs’ only 2022 visit to Los Angeles this weekend is also a reminder that … well, they don’t come often enough. They were, after all, a Southern California-territorial business much longer than the Dodgers decided to plant a flag.
William Wrigley built what was known as the “Million Dollar Palace” in 1925 at 42nd Place between Avalon and San Pedro in South Central L.A. a few blocks east of the newly built Coliseum in Exposition Park. It became home of the Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles Angels — as the American League expansion team with the same name when it came into existence in 1961.
This was a couple years before the family name was attached to the fabled ivy-covered-walled brick facility in Chicago – 12 years after the place actually opened in 1914 as Weegham Park for a team trying to help the Federal League build a franchise. (Even though the T-shirt I bought there many years ago wants you to know Wrigley Field as an establishment in Chicago long before the Wrigleys knew about its existence).
Wrigley’s Cubs also would come out to spring training on a piece of property he owned nearby – the entire Catalina Island. The field in Avalon is still worth looking for.
Cubs Hall of Fame player and legendary manager Frank Chance, who guided the team to Murphy’s ’07 and ’08 championships, had ties here, too. He once owned a ranch in Glendora and when he died at age 47 in 1924, he was buried in Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in the Pico-Union district of L.A., among such luminaries as the area’s builders, shakers and a host of L.A. mayors and politicians.
Fat chances some of them didn’t measure up to Murphy.
This sets the stage – if the life and times of this “small plump man, quick of wit, brilliant in repartee, quick of temper, quick to forgive, even quicker that he is to seek forgiveness,” as Cannon quotes Fullerton, was ever made into one of those “Black Sox Scandal”-era flicks, who would be the lead actor?
Imagine Zach Galifianakis.
Or Josh Gad, Jonah Hill, Kevin James or Eric Stonestreet.
Jim Bellushi still around?
Just as long as Charlie Day can play Charles Ebbets and do all the screaming.
You can look it up: More to ponder
== From Stay Home with SABR videos earlier in June:
== From the Pandemic Baseball Book Club:
== Baseball By The Book has Cannon on its podcast Episode No. 320.
== Charlie Murphy’s SABR bio project post by Lenny Jacobson starts: “One of the most controversial figures of the Deadball Era … (made) Chicago the center of the baseball universe. But instead of being revered by the fans, his players, and his fellow owners, the ambitious, energetic Murphy was generally despised. Years later he explained his unpopularity. ‘When I had the Cubs I was too busy for entertaining, or cultivating people’ he wrote. ‘It is some task to run a championship ball club and cater to 25 ‘prima donna’ ball players. When night comes you are all in and don’t care for wine parties or bacchanalian revels—at least I did not.’.”
== For those who know their history: In 1945: Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis was told to leave Wrigley Field during the Tigers-Cubs World Series game because the odor of his pet goat, Murphy, was bothering people. Sianis put a curse on the Cubs and said that the Cubs would not win a World Series again.
The official Billy Goat Tavern website explains more about Murphy.