Cannon, Jason. Charlie Murphy: The Iconoclastic Showman Behind the Chicago Cubs. University of Nebraska Press, 2022. Pp. 376. Acknowledgments, bibliography, epilogue, index, introduction, notes. $36.95 hardback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo
Charlie Murphy would have been in his element in today’s sports world. Controversial, opinionated, and never one to mince words, the man who owned the Chicago Cubs from 1906 until early 1914 would have been the darling of ESPN, podcasts, and the back pages of newspaper tabloids. He is a cross between Chris von der Ahe, the entrepreneur who owned the original St. Louis Browns from 1881 to 1899, and George Steinbrenner, the bombastic owner of the New York Yankees from 1973 until his death in 2010. Profit was important; sentimentality was not.
“I have a right to run my club as I see fit,” Murphy said during the winter meetings in 1914, when a movement was afoot by his fellow owners to oust him as owner of the Cubs. “If I play a Chinaman at first base it is nobody’s business but mine.” American League President Ban Johnson, who on more than one occasion referred to Murphy as “a menace to the integrity” of baseball, was equally blunt. “If I had had my way Murphy long ago would have been figuratively shot against the wall,” Johnson said during those same 1914 meetings. “The owner of the Cubs will have to behave or get out.”
Obviously, political correctness was not an issue in the early twentieth century. Murphy’s mercurial personality is caught perfectly by Jason Cannon in Charlie Murphy: The Iconoclastic Showman Behind the Chicago Cubs.
The franchise under Murphy’s ownership was one of baseball’s best, winning four National League pennants and two World Series and never finishing worse than third place in the eight-team league. For years, the 1906 Cubs held the record for most victories in a season with 116. Even though the team lost in the World Series to the crosstown White Sox that year, Murphy’s first season as team owner was a foreshadowing of what was to come. “Hate him or like him, he is always interesting — and that is something,” sportswriter Hugh Fullerton wrote (p. 282).
The franchise that Murphy owned was pre-Wrigley Field. There were no “Friendly Confines,” as the Cubs played at the West Side Grounds. Tinker to Evers to Chance was not just “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” but the anchors of a rough-and-ready, brainy and intense squad that dueled with the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates for National League supremacy. Chance would manage the team for seven full seasons during Murphy’s tenure as owner, followed by Evers for one season. While both men originally were fans of their owner, they would come to despise him.“Murphy antagonized and annoyed people, including players, fans and, especially, his fellow owners,” Cannon writes (p. 2).
Chance had been given free rein to pursue players to strengthen the team, but, by 1912, Murphy believed the “Peerless Leader” was losing his grip. When Chance suspended Frank Schulte without pay in September for drinking, Murphy “recklessly and unfairly” projected the slugger’s behavior onto the rest of the squad, undercutting his manager’s authority (p. 228). Murphy later implied that Chance had resigned and would not manage in 1913, which was not true. An angry Chance sold ten percent of his stake in the Cubs, and Murphy justified his moves by saying that the first baseman’s popularity among Chicago’s fans was “an abstract feeling that neither pitched well nor produced base runners.” (p. 234). Chance would manage the New York Yankees in 1913 and 1914, while Murphy chose Evers to run the team. It would be a stormy season, as Evers’ prickly personality was not a good fit with Murphy’s boisterous style. “I bounced Evers because he was a disturber who could not control his temper and was unable to handle his men,” Murphy would tell reporters in February 1914. This was Steinbrenner versus Billy Martin, six decades before the fact.
Interestingly, Murphy had the chance to be remembered as a baseball innovator. In 1907 he toyed with the idea of issuing numbers on the uniforms of his players. “I intended to bring the matter before the National League, but I forgot it,” Murphy said. (p. 92).
Cannon writes about two other episodes that were significant at the time but have since faded into obscurity. One was a ticket scandal that occurred during the 1908 World Series between the Cubs and the Detroit Tigers. Fans in Chicago, eager to buy tickets at face value for the games, soon discovered that scalpers had access to “hundreds, if not thousands” of tickets that they were selling at highly inflated prices. “It was a public relations disaster for Murphy,” Cannon writes (p. 138). The second was Murphy’s attempt at syndicate ownership. While still the owner of the Cubs, Murphy entertained the idea of buying into the Philadelphia Phillies and the team’s ballpark, Baker Bowl, “but the loathing for syndicate baseball complicated matters.” (p. 194). It was mostly a ploy to give Murphy two votes at National League meetings against retaining league president John Heydler. Murphy wanted someone heading the league office who would protect him, Cannon writes. The Phillies were eventually sold in November 1909 and Horace Fogel was named team president. Fogel denied that the Cubs’ owners had supplied his investment group with money to buy the team, “but the lie didn’t fool anyone.” (p.196).
Murphy’s wheeling and dealing can be traced to his youth in Wilmington, Ohio. Cannon goes into great detail about Murphy’s formative years as the son of an Irish immigrant. He and his two brothers enjoyed baseball, but Charlie played the game “with an edge.” (p. 17). Moving to Cincinnati, Murphy worked as a drug store clerk, but by 1892 he became a journalist and wrote for newspapers in the Queen City. At the Cincinnati Enquirer, he piqued the interest of baseball fans by “publishing baseball ‘dope’” that included rumors, off-season news, and gossip. He would be lured away to the rival Times-Star by Charles Taft, the older half-brother of the future president of the U.S. Murphy would later team with Taft as a business partner when he bought the Cubs. The collaboration between the two men made them both wealthy.
In 1905, John T. Brush hired Murphy as an assistant secretary of the New York Giants in charge of public relations. Murphy was tasked with promoting the team to New York sportswriters and securing coverage when the Giants were on the road. It was a natural fit, but when the opportunity arose. Murphy and the Taft family bought the Cubs.
At first, Murphy was beloved by Cubs fans and players, but as Cannon notes, the owner’s sharp tongue and penchant to tweak his fellow owners came back to haunt him. Even with the threat of a Federal League franchise in Chicago, National League owners did not shed a tear when Murphy lost control of the team. Taft bought out his former partner for $500,000, and Murphy also kept an interest in the West Side Grounds. The value of the stadium would drop after Charles Weeghman bought the Cubs from the Taft family and moved the team into a North Side ballpark that would be renamed Wrigley Field. Murphy made a substantial profit by selling the team, but his reputation was “in tatters,” Cannon writes. (p. 284). Chance and Evers joined the chorus of critics who were not sad to see Murphy exit the game.
After leaving baseball, Murphy returned to his native Ohio and achieved a goal of building a state-of-the art theater in Wilmington. He spent $250,000 for a project that took about thirty months to complete. The Murphy Theater would open on July 24, 1918. (p. 302). Cannon attended the theater’s centennial, noting that the spirit of Charlie Murphy, while largely forgotten in Chicago, remained strong in Wilmington.
“That’s not an investment to me,” Murphy would tell Dan Foland, the druggist he worked for as a youth who called the theater a “bad investment” when it opened. “That’s a monument to me….If I were building that theater as an investment it would be in New York City or Chicago and not in Wilmington, so let’s forget the investment.
As he aged, Murphy occasionally would offer his opinion about baseball. In an interview with The Wilmington Daily News-Journal in May 1931 — five months before his death from a stroke — Murphy criticized baseball’s switch from the scientific game of the Cubs’ heyday in the early twentieth century to the power hitters of the 1920s and 1930s. “The game will be better off when men like (Babe) Ruth and (Hack) Wilson pass on,” Murphy told the newspaper. “Then there will be a return to the machine-like play and the finer points of the game that characterized baseball in the old days.”
Cannon’s biography has extensive notes, and he draws from 29 different books. Of greater value are the many newspaper articles that Cannon uses in his research. It is a treasure trove of information and gives the reader a sense of the politics that occurred in baseball during the first two decades of the twentieth century. There was rarely smooth sailing among baseball’s owners, and Murphy was only too happy to agitate the waters.
Cannon writes that Murphy is an unfairly forgotten figure “who was independence personified with audacity to spare.” (p. 324). It is an accurate portrayal. Murphy had his friends and enemies, and both were passionate in their opinions about him. Cannon’s biography unlocks a baseball character who was audacious for his time. In Murphy’s obituary, The Associated Press reported that the former Cubs owner was “one of the most picturesque characters of the sport.”
“If Murphy was guilty of anything in terms of baseball operations, it was being ahead of his time,” Cannon writes. (p. 308). Cannon brings that audacity back to life.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.