I tend to read strange things sometimes. I look around, see something that interests me, and tend to pick it up. That just happened to me recently when I found a used copy of Level Playing Fields: How the Groundskeeping Murphy Brothers Shaped Baseball by Peter Morris.
This is a book about baseball fields, not stadia, not players, but fields. Through a look at the life of two of the first groundskeepers, John and Thomas Murphy, Morris takes us into the entire idea of how a baseball field is maintained and why it matters. John Murphy, the older brother, was head groundskeeper (and for a while the only groundskeeper) at the Polo Grounds during the entire period of the New York Giants 1904-1913 run (Murphy died in 1913). Thomas Murphy, the younger of the brothers, took command of the old 1890s Baltimore Orioles field. Both men helped shape the dynasties that followed.
Tom Murphy tailored the field in Baltimore to the specifications of the Orioles. He tilted the foul lines, he made the area just in front of home especially hard for the famous “Baltimore Chop.” He solved drainage problems by making right field so low that the catcher could barely see the cap of the right fielder. John Murphy set out to create a field that was less tailored to his team, although he did make the base paths quick for John McGraw’s runners. With parks located in less than desirable places, the two men had to deal with fields that were uneven and had poor drainage. They attacked and solved each problem, but with varying success. Both of them helped make the modern baseball field.
But the book uses the Murphy brothers more as examples of why it matters what a field looks like. Morris argues that the leveling of the field (literally) made the game more fair, made the crowds more willing to come to a game they felt was somehow “democratic” in its outcome. He uses a number of examples. One of the best deals with club houses rather than the field itself. He points out that early visiting teams had to dress in their hotels, then walk or ride to the park. It might let fans know there was a game, but it looked cheap and frequently the uniforms got dirty on the way (mud and dust and things thrown by fans of the home team) and were certainly dirty on the return trip. It made the game look unkempt, cheap, and lower class. The advent of a visitors club hours changed that and when added to a clean, level field without quirks in the dirt or the outfield itself did much to make baseball acceptable to the middle class, which made it profitable.
One of his more interesting assertions involves baseball versus cricket. He argues that field size helped make baseball a preferred sport in crowded cities. The field for cricket requires a lot of room, including behind the wickets and off to the side. Baseball, on the other hand, makes those spaces foul territory and they can be reduced to minimal size, making the field itself a factor in baseball’s success. I have to admit I’d never considered that idea.
The book is worth a read simply because it deals with an area of baseball almost entirely overlooked by fans. It also provides something of a social history of the era, especially as it pertains to baseball. Although I found my copy used I did check and the book is available through Amazon.com. It was published in 2007 by the University of Nebraska.
And BTW take a look at the cover above. The man in the center of the picture (the man with jacket and tie) is Thomas Murphy. He is surrounded by four members of the Baltimore Orioles who are also Hall of Famers. From left to right they are Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, and John McGraw. Not bad company for the groundskeeper.