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Book Review: Level Playing Fields by Peter Morris
2007-08-04 04:00
by Bob Timmermann

On my recent trip to St. Louis, one of the games I attended at Busch Stadium was delayed at the outset by a thunderstorm and then further delayed in the third inning by another storm. And after each storm, the Cardinals grounds crew came in and covered the field quickly and then quickly uncovered it once the storm passed. Each time, the field was made playable in fairly short order. The crowd dutifully applauded.

But baseball field's were not always treated so kindly. It took until the early part of the 20th Century before groundskeepers became an important part of any stadium. In a new book by Peter Morris (who wrote the two volume Game of Inches last of year), the development of the craft of groundskeeping is examined in Level Playing Fields : How the Groundskeeping Murphy Brothers Shaped Baseball. The slim book (178 pages including the index and notes) uses the Murphy brothers as a peg for Morris to detail the early and somewhat erratic development of baseball playing fields.

In baseball's earliest days, teams would play wherever they could find open space. But sometimes the space wouldn't be so open. There would be trees on fields. There would be potato patches. Sometimes the field was all dirt. Sometimes it was all dirt. Sometimes the fields were mostly rocks. Sometimes runners had to run uphill going to some of the bases.

But much of that changed in the late 19th Century when the Murphy brothers, Tom and Jack, arrived on the scene. Tom got his break when the old NL Baltimore Orioles hired him to take care of their field in the 1890s. Tom Murphy was able to keep the grass long in the outfield, supposedly so the Orioles outfielders could hide baseballs on the field to throw in to catch unsuspecting runners. He also kept the dirt around home plate hard so the famous "Baltimore Chop", i.e. hitting the ball directly down so it would take a high hop and allow the batter to reach first, was much easier. However, Tom's career would run into some trouble when he tried to murder Connie Mack's brother and had to serve a few years in prison. (Attempted murder? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry?) But when he got out, he still found work grooming big league fields.

John Murphy got his start in Pittsburgh tending a field that flooded nearly every year and after a period, realized that he should go work some place where he would have more dry land. So he moved on to the new AL Orioles (now the Yankees), but eventually quit his job in a dispute with John McGraw and there is a tale that John Murphy was so angry that he spelled out "McGraw" in white posies on the diamond and then yanked them out one by one in anger. Personally, I'm hoping to be able quit a job in that fashion. Eventually, John Murphy and McGraw reconciled and he went on to achieve notoriety as the groundskeeper at the Polo Grounds.

As the 20th Century dawned, baseball decided to crack down on fields that were blatantly unfair and John Murphy was able to adapt to this and was well known for making fields that were smooth and grass that was mowed frequently. A photo in the book shows the Polo Grounds field during the 1912 World Series and the grass looks to be in great shape even in October.

Morris uses the phrase "level playing field" quite frequently because his point is that once baseball finally made its playing fields truly level, the game became much more equal. As field conditions improved, home field advantages dropped. And while baseball fields today are not uniform in size and almost assuredly never will be, they are a far cry from the days when managers would let overflow crowds encroach on to the field in the section that would benefit their hitters the most. There may be a hill in center field in Houston and a monstrous wall in Boston, but there are no more turtlebacks (think playing baseball with moguls) behind second base. And there certainly aren't any more fields with trees surrounding third base..

We watch baseball in an era when guys rolling a tarp get applause. The Murphy brothers would likely be pleased.

2007-08-04 11:23:31
1.   Linkmeister
Is George Toma in the index? I know he's famous for his work with the NFL, but I can't remember whether he's done baseball fields.
2007-08-04 11:42:52
2.   Bob Timmermann
The book stops well before George Toma's time.

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