TCR Book Review: The Best Team Ever
The Best Team Ever -- A Novel of America, Chicago and the 1907 Cubs
Authors: Alan Alop and Doc Noel
It started out like this.
Rob G. mentioned that they were promoting a new Cub related book and if I would write a review, he’d get me a copy.
I read the book last December and planned on the review in time for spring training. To enhance the book review, we contacted the authors with a list of questions.
Then I got this e-mail response from one of the authors,with an unusual addendum:
I have one unique question for Dr. Hecht...
Since my maternal grandmother was… sister of the famous writer Ben Hecht. I wonder if any family connection with you is possible. All of us were born in Chicago.
A funny thing happened while I was supposed to review this really wonderful book about the 1907 Cubs. I found one of the authors (Doc Noel) is my cousin I never knew I had.
I knew the famed author (Ben Hecht) from the early 20th century (most famous for The Front Page) was a cousin to my dad. He’s always been the one really famous relative that I knew of. That set off a firestorm of fact finding about members of my family that I knew little of (and a few hours of rambling phone conversations with Doc Noel). To make a longer story shorter, this weekend I’m meeting for the first time with my “new” cousin…we’re going to both weekend games at Wrigley with a chance to cover a lot of untouched family ground. I hopefully will provide more baseball related stories that come out of this wonderful cyber-linked weekend gathering.
Thank you TCR, for making this family re-uniting possible.
Procrastination (also known as Hecht’s 4th Law, it's a real law--just scroll down the link!), a vacation to China and then my real job intervened so the next deadline was the All-Star break (ouch). Of course, the books co-authors think I’m a doofus for asking to get their answers in so quickly (which they kindly did), and so finally, one not-so-World Series bound baseball season later, their day in the TCR Sun has arrived!
Now, on to the review of: The Best Team Ever:
This book isn’t what you would think. It’s not just a book chronicling the Cubs having a rare championship season from over a century ago.
This is a NOVEL, with a story woven into the fibers that made America a young and ruthless country that was growing into the industrial power it would become. It is reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle. but flavored by the emerging national pastime. It’s about the strong preying on the weak. It’s about the use of political clout 1900’s style. It’s about ethnic America and cultural taboos. It’s also has a Herman Wouk styling to it ala, Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Through the eyes of rookie southpaw pitcher, “Kid” Blaine Durbin, Chicago and the people of the era (some very real people and places yet some fictional to enhance the storyline) come to life. Kid Durbin is the David Patton (with pink backpack) of his era, an innocent bystander passing through historic and troubled times, with the authors spinning a grand tale, sometimes sinister and yet inclusive of a not-too-syrupy love story. The authors transport us to 1907 after they discover that the aged Blaine Durbin is still alive and thereby get access to his “journal” entries. It’s a portal to quite a tale.
It’s also about THE MOST dominating Cubs team and season EVER. The Cubs won 116 games in 1906 but that season was marred because they lost the World Series (no less to the White Sox, known as the “hitless wonders” from the upstart AL), so this version of the Cubs had something important to prove. It’s a team that went 107-45, winning going away, some 17 games ahead of the 2nd place Pirates and then went unbeaten in the World Series, winning in 5 games (4-0-1, vs. Detroit).
Kid Durbin’s adventure starts with an invite to Chicago after a good minor league season in the Western Association (possibly scouted by Arizona Phil’s grandpa?). He’s brought to Chicago because the Cubs want to get more left-handed (hmmm, slightly familiar). Arriving in the frigid January ’07 weather at the heart of Chicago’s State and Randolph Streets, he soon enters the Illinois Masonic Building. Using the relatively new invention that he had only read about before, an Otis Elevator, he goes to the 11th floor where signs his first professional contract with team owner Charles W. Murphy. The rookie gets a 2 year deal, starting at $1750 for the 1907 season, and it’s BACK-LOADED to a whopping $1900 for 1908 (some things never change with the Cubs).
Then on to spring training in West Baden Springs, southern Indiana, spring home of the 07 Cubs as well as a fancy resort built around Spring No. 7 and it’s life prolonging Sprudel Water. Durbin keeps his bottled Sprudel Water (he orders it by the case) long after his baseball days, leading to a very long life and (is it really possible?) an eventual encounter with the authors.
The 1907 Cubs were full of characters. On the famous side of the ledger, some immortal baseball players stand out. Baseball poetry forever links Joe Tinker to Johnny Evers to Frank Chance. Frank Chance, known as “the Peerless Leader”, leads the team in almost every way. Chance was the team manager and star first baseman with an iron will and sometimes fist. Imagine combining a feisty/young Lou Piniella and the quiet leadership of Derrek Lee? That’s a tough image to conjure, but Chance was able to pull off that mix. As a player-manager he knew how his players worked and played best, even encouraging the team to loosen up with a few beers after games. I wonder how the modern day Frank Chance would have dealt with Milton Bradley. “We do it my way or we meet after the game and let our fists decide who is right”. It’s a different world now. There’s a Chance anecdote about him getting hit by a pitch, limping to first base, then stealing second. At second he’s quoted saying to the pitcher: “Hit me again, asshole. See what it gets you.”
Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, called by teammates “Miner” was a curveball artist with a hand deformity that paralleled the modern era Cub story of catcher Koyie Hill.
Excerpt: “My paw gives me a firmer grip on the ball,” Brown told his teammates, ‘paw’ being how he referred to his mangled right hand, “so I can spin it over the hump. It gives me a greater dip.” A reporter once asked him whether missing most of his index finger made it more difficult to pitch. Mordecai Brown answered honestly. “Don’t know. Never done it the other way.”
A true pitching staff ace Brown repetitively battles nemesis Christy Mathewson of the NY Giants. Brown and the rest of the Cubs staff including Ed Reulbach, Jack Pfeister, Carl Lundgren and Jack Taylor produce a team ERA of 1.73.
Some of the lesser-known players are terrific character portrayals including Johnny “The Jew” Kling and Jack “Brakeman” Taylor.
Catcher Johnny Kling was a great defensive catcher and learned to be a solid hitter. He may have been the glue that was responsible for the Cubs championships. Kling’s on the field story was as interesting as the off the field adventures (see Alan Alop’s reply to question #6). He isn’t recognized as a Jewish ballplayer because of anti-Semitism of the era. Apparently he (and his wife) tried to mask his background to enhance his candidacy for the hall of fame, which he never was elected to.
Excerpt: With one out in the bottom of the 11th, Johnny Evers cracked his fourth hit of the game, a single to center. Kling came up next, and Chance signaled for a hit and run. The Cubs catcher responded by walloping the ball over the right fielder’s head. Evers scampered around the bags to score the winning run. He lingered at home plate as Kling jogged in.
Evers patted Kling’s back and said, “Nice hit, Jew.”
Kling winked his appreciation. Umpire James Johnstone, still hovering around home plate, asked Kling if he was Jewish.
“Would it help me or hurt me getting’ a call from you, Jimmy?”
“Don’t half matter,” replied the man in blue.
“Then I’m half Jewish.”
Moody side-armer “Brakeman” (aka Old Iron Arm) Jack Taylor, whose record of 187 consecutive complete games from 1901-1906 will doubtless never be broken is brought to life. He’s a junk-baller, who hated when catchers came out to the mound,
“Lord knows you ain’t pitching today. Get your fat catcher’s ass back behind the plate.”
Damn, I’d love to believe Theodore Roosevelt Lilly said those words to Geo Soto sometime this season.
Some of the best parts of the novel surround Brakeman Jack, including a wondrous chapter about “de zaggeratin powduh”. Taylor goes fishing and almost drowns trying to save his worm while the powders influence takes hold. Then a headlight fuse blows in their car going home at night so Brakeman’s cousin Daniel uses the bullet from his gun in the glove compartment to bypass the fuse. Needless to say the bullet eventually goes off doing nearly maximal harm (like a fastball below the belt).
There’s more baseball of course, Ty Cobb, John McGraw, Honus Wagner all are here. Real in season trades like sending young Cubs Newt Randall and Billy Sweeney to the Boston Doves for Del Howard, too. I’m just trying to pass on a small taste of what’s behind the hood of this wonderful book.
There is the love story, too. Not sappy but full of innocence surrounded by a world of cruelty, greed, alcoholism, prostitution and political corruption that the 1900’s represented. Seeking big city employment upon leaving Wilton, Iowa after her parents have died, 20 year old Connie Dandridge comes by train to Chicago, full of dreams and looking for adventure. Quickly things get twisted as she gets drugged and forced against her will to work for sinister and evil Percy McGill who was dealing in the “white slavery” market. She refuses to be broken, which usually is a death sentence and Kid Blaine quite accidentally gets involved with the young woman as she escapes the clutches of McGill’s brothel. This begins a winding story of really evil men, lawyers and judges, prisons (including well schemed escapes) intertwined with focal points, Kid Durbin, Chicago ‘Nationals’ owner Charles W. Murphy (portrayed as a good guy…hello, Tom Ricketts) as well as famed turn of the century Performer/Magician, “The Great Thurston”. Eventually, Durbin and Connie…well you’ve got to read it to find out. It’s a great read and the historical baseball archive photos included are fantastic.
As I mentioned, we were fortunate enough to get to ask questions of the Authors. Here are highlights of the Q&A graciously provided by Alan “Ace” Alop and David “Doc” Noel:
Question 1) I loved the way you used Kid Durbin as an observer of the 1907 Cubs as well as a way of participating in America of that era. It reminded me of John Kinsella's, Shoeless Joe, at least in the aspect of his using a real player with almost no stats as the focal point of his story (Moonlight Graham vs. Kid Blaine Durbin). Did these influence your storytelling? If not, what influences helped you in your approach to telling the story of the 1907 Cubs?
Reply from Alan Alop) …while I read and loved Shoeless Joe, I do not think it consciously influenced the selection of Kid Durbin as a focal point for our story. Durbin was a convenient protagonist; he was present for the entire year and not much is known about him—which gave us some leeway. One book that did influence me, strangely enough, is Moby Dick. Melville’s great novel interspaced with the narrative some chapters dealing with factual topics such as the whaling industry. We used this technique to include relevant historical information like the chapters on typhoid fever and burial practices in the early twentieth Century.
Question 2) America has changed decade by decade and so has baseball. I just watched Ken Burns's documentary after reading your book. Are there any members of recent Cub teams that could have fit in well with the 1907 Cubs? Conversely, of the 1907 Cubs, who would you pick to get the 2010 Cubs into the World Series?
Reply from Alan Alop) This is a very difficult query given how different today’s game is from dead-ball baseball as played in 1907. There were no power hitters then; no relief pitchers and starters went the full nine innings in most outings. The closest the Cubs now have to a dead-ball type player is probably Reed Johnson. He isn’t swinging for the fences, he’s alert on the bases, and he will run into the center field wall if that’s what it takes to make a catch. As for a 1907 Cub who would get the 2009 Cubs to the Series—that would have to be manager/first baseman Frank Chance. Throughout his career Chance exhibited an extraordinary will to succeed. He never backed down—at the plate or face to face with arch-enemy John McGraw or other ill-disposed opponents. If the pitcher threw a ball inside—even chin music—Chance never attempted to elude the ball. He was hit by a pitch 137 times, many times in the head, in an era long before the batting helmet. The man was fearless and his players, with a few notable exceptions, loved him.
Question 3) The Chicago politicians like Alderman Hinky Dink Kenna and the Chicago brothel and bars (like your Workingman's Exchange) of the era were infamous. How much fun was it to do your background research and come up with your sinister character Percy McGill whose revenge plot focused on Kid Durbin's gal Connie Dandridge?
Reply from Alan Alop) The research took three years and was remarkably enjoyable. In the process we discovered a Chicago that was like a Wild West frontier town, with all the spit, blood and gore that comes with that turf. The Percy McGill character is an aggregation of many real low-life “monsters” of that time. But the true facts regarding prostitution in Chicago at the turn of the century are a little scary. Most of the prostitutes were forced into that life against their will and many were girls under15. Which is why a Chicago congressman got the White Slave Traffic Act enacted in 1910.
Reply from Doc Noel) My background research began in Chicago in February 1946, and it continues through today. In- utero, gestation was a bitch in Chicago. Don’t even mention being yanked out of the birth canal with forceps and immediately held upside down by my feet and beaten up by the doctor dude who delivered me (who will remain anonymous since one never can tell what others might do to one another in Chicago). When I finally got my wits about me I drew on my observation and experience of connivers, liars, cheats, thieves and murderers that I encountered in my sojourn of twenty some odd years of residence in Chicago to communicate the characteristics of the nefarious rascals in our book. Have we all not met such vermin in Chi-town?
Question 4) The 1907 Cubs were full of characters some more famous than others. Of the most famous--Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance, and Mordecai Brown--who seemed to be the most interesting to you?
Reply from Alan Alop) Johnny Evers was a real character, a brainy pepper pot that lived and died baseball. He hated his double-play partner Tinker and didn’t speak to him off the field after 1905. Evers would curl up in his bed with a Hershey bar and the baseball rules every night while many of his teammates were out carousing. When his career with the Cubs was over he sparked the Boston Braves to a World Series in 1914 and won the MVP. His personal life was a disaster, with the death of a child, divorce, a shoe store venture with an embezzling partner, and a nervous breakdown. But he persisted on the field. Inventive and mean, a small man with a big heart, he earned his $6000 a year salary and Hall of Fame slot.
Question 5) Of the lesser-known team members, veteran pitcher "Brakeman" Jack Taylor was one of my favorite characters that you brought to life. Where did you come up with some of the fantastic anecdotal stories on him? For instance, what inspired the fishing sequence (while under the influence of the zaggeratin powder) in New Orleans with Brakeman Taylor and his cousin Daniel?
Reply from Alan Alop) There is a good deal of factual material that exists regarding Jack Taylor because he messed up frequently. There were several investigations into charges that he accepted bribes and his affidavits and testimony in these proceedings are fun to review. The newspaper writers of the time carried snippets that suggested certain things about the Brakeman. But the story of Jack and the zaggeratin powder is just that—fiction.
Reply from Doc Noel) The general ambiance of the New Orleans sections were researched during on of our many site visits. Alan and I traveled to the Big Easy, and soaked up the local flavor and color, along with many Beignet donuts. Brakeman is the character that haunts me the most to this day. I am also amused by the MLB Network show on THE RECORDS THAT WILL NEVER BE BROKEN. They make no mention of Brakeman’s record that will last forever. 187 complete games. Maybe this record is so incomprehensible to the modern fan or journalist because it is such a monumental accomplishment. They appear to cognite as if they have imbibed zaggeratin powder.
Question 6) Of the lesser-known Cubs on that team, did you have any other particular favorites? Johnny Kling, Jack Pfeister, Frank Schulte or Harry Steinfeld, for example?
Reply from Alan Alop) My favorite was Johnny Kling, the unheralded catcher who should be in the Hall of Fame. This guy was probably the best catcher of the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Only the Giants’ Roger Bresnahan gave him a run for the money. Bresnahan is in the Hall and Kling is not. It might be because Kling was Jewish and the folks voting for HOF players in the thirties and forties were not above anti-Semitism. His wife certainly thought that was the problem. Lillian Kling (who was Jewish too) started to claim that Johnny was not Jewish after he died. Lillian was not too good at this; sometimes she said he was Baptist and on other occasions she thought him to be a Lutheran. In any event, “the Jew” (that really was his nickname) could field, throw out runners, hit and handle pitchers. He might have been the first major league catcher to throw out runners from the crouch, a la Benito Santiago. Kling took a year off from baseball in 1909 and won the World Billiard’s Championship. But without Kling that year, the Cubs finished second. With Kling behind the plate the Cubbies won pennants in 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910. Off the field he became a millionaire and helped out his old teammates financially in their old age. What a guy!
Reply from Doc Noel) I wonder if Kling was circumcised. Can you please research that, Alan?
Question 7) The Cubs are about to get a new owner in Tom Ricketts who supposedly met his wife in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. In the book, you portrayed the 1907 Cubs owner, Charles Murphy, and his wife as quite caring, particularly regarding their role with Kid Durban and Connie. What attributes that you found in C.W. Murphy would you hope Mr. Ricketts brings to the table (outside oodles of money)?
Reply from Alan Alop) While we generally portrayed team owner Murphy in a favorable light, we also showed that many of his players (like Kling) thought they were underpaid and that Murphy was a tightwad. But where Murphy got it right was in management. They didn’t have general managers in those days, so the owner was extremely dependent on the field manager. Charles Murphy listened carefully to what managers Frank Selee and then Frank Chance told him to do in terms of acquiring new talent. Shrewd player acquisitions brought Orvie Overall, Three Finger Brown, Big Ed Reulbach and Harry Steinfeldt to the Chicago Nationals, assuring them success. After 1910 Murphy paid little heed to Frank Chance’s counsel, and the Cubs crumbled.
Reply from Doc Noel) The finest attributes of a baseball owner are love for the game, appreciation for the performers (players), an esthetic sense of place, and compassion for patrons. When I attended Cubs games from 1949 to around 2002, there was no signage in our Field of Dreams at Clark and Addison. Dear Mr. Ricketts: PLEASE RESTORE THE PASTORAL AMBIANCE TO WRIGLEY BY REMOVING THE SIGNAGE THAT TARNISHES THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BALLPARK EVER!
Question 8) That was a nice touch; attributing Kid Durbin's "longevity" to Sprudel springs water from their spring training site at West Baden Springs, Indiana. Fortunately, I recently came into possession of 6 bottles of Sprudel water. Do you have any ideal of its current market value?
Reply from Alan Alop) The federal government has outlawed the Sprudel water that fueled the Cubs success. Too much lithium to meet current federal safety guidelines. You could get arrested if you try to peddle that stuff on EBay but if you use it yourself it could help your mood-swings. But the Sprudel water sure as hell didn’t harm the Cubs. By the way, the resort hotel in West Baden Springs was re-opened a few years ago. You can pace the same atrium as the 1907 Cubs and walk the ball field where they played.
Reply from Doc Noel) Alop and I are going to…take the secret paths to (Kid) Blaine’s current residence in Indiana, and have a sip of his secret stash of Sprudel Water. He had to lie about running out of it in the version of his journal that he shared with us, lest the legions of readers, including Charlie Rose and Oprah, would find their way to his haunts. To retain one physically immortal identity forever, one must hide out from the agreed upon realities of the diseased, aging and dying people. He is a brilliant yogi that “Kid”.