By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
A professional baseball scout arrives at a high school game and focuses his attention on the home team’s star pitcher but becomes smitten with the shortstop instead.
Jason Cannon, a native of Visalia, California, experienced a similar shift in the literary field as he researched Orval Overall, a Visalia High School graduate who helped the Chicago Cubs win World Series titles in 1907 and 1908.
“As I discovered that Orval was one of the first big star athletes from the Bay Area— in baseball, as well as in football—and an outstanding pitcher for many early, great Cubs teams, the name Charlie Murphy kept popping up,” Cannon recalls. “He owned the Cubs (from 1906-1913). I’d never heard of him, but his teams won four pennants and two World Series during an incredible run of success. Charlie was an interesting, brilliant, complicated character involved in so many things, from business to PR to journalism, before he bought the Cubs. His story captivated me.
“I thought, ‘There’s something here.’” Something turned into a book by Cannon, Charlie Murphy: The Iconoclastic Showman Behind the Chicago Cubs (The University of Nebraska Press, 2022). It took the middle school English teacher four-and-a-half years to complete it, with the first two-and-a-half devoted to research only. The biography won the 2023 Larry Ritter Book Award, presented annually by the Society for American Baseball Research’s Deadball Era Committee to the author of the best book about baseball (covering the years between 1901 and 1919) published during the previous calendar year.
The winner’s work must demonstrate original research or analysis, a fresh perspective, compelling thesis, impressive insight, accuracy, and clear, graceful prose.
All the more impressive was that the 44-year-old Cannon, before the publication of Charlie Murphy, had written as many baseball books as the Cubs had won World Series championships between 1908 and 2016.
Zero, to be exact.
“Learning all about the dynamic and colorful Charlie Murphy should intrigue your North Shore readers,” says Cannon, now a high school English teacher in Colorado. “I’m guessing he’s the only drug store clerk who ever became an owner of a National League baseball team. He was an incredibly hard worker, no matter where he worked, and driven to succeed, but he left bodies in his wake as a result of that relentlessness. There’s a survival aspect to Charlie Murphy’s story.
“The early 1900s was an interesting period of time, when the Cubs were at the center of the baseball universe,” Cannon continues. “I hope readers grow to appreciate what Murphy did during his short but spectacular tenure as owner of the Cubs.”
The late National Baseball Hall of Fame sportswriter Hugh Fullerton befriended Murphy when the two were teenagers in Ohio. Murphy lived in Wilmington, while Fullerton grew up 20 miles away, in Hillsboro. A journalist in Cincinnati— where Murphy worked as a newspaper reporter and sportswriter for 13 years—and later Chicago, Fullerton covered early Cubs and White Sox teams and was portrayed by Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel in the 1988 movie Eight Men Out.
“He was a showman, a baseball fanatic, a quick-thinking, quicker-acting fellow, whose fiery, impulsive temperament kept the entire baseball world bubbling,” Fullerton, cited in Cannon’s book, said of Murphy.
Murphy served as assistant secretary of the New York Giants— a fierce rival team of the Cubs at the time—before receiving a loan from Charles Phelps Taft to purchase the Cubs. Charles’ brother William Howard Taft was elected President of the United States in In 1906, Murphy’s first full season as owner, the Cubs won a record 116 games but lost to the White Sox in the World Series.
The Cubs then won consecutive World Series championships and reached another World Series in 1910, when they lost to the Philadelphia Athletics in five games, capping off a remarkable five-year run of 500-plus victories. But contentious players’ contract negotiations, a lingering ticket scandal, and Murphy letting his relationship with popular player-manager Frank Chance deteriorate combined to sully the final few innings of Murphy’s up-and-down stretch as owner.
And his fractious relationships with other team owners and baseball hierarchy, American League President Ban Johnson in particular, made him a target of his peers’ ire. “In 1914,” Cannon writes, “Murphy’s unwillingness to elevate league loyalty above his interest in the Cubs during Organized Baseball’s hostilities with the Federal League threatened the establishment and led to his ouster.”
But Cannon zooms out and chronicles the good associated with Charlie Murphy, including the state-of-the-art theater he constructed in Wilmington, Ohio, after his exit from baseball. Doubling as a monument to his family and gift to his hometown, it cost $250,000 (the equivalent of $4.7 million in today’s dollars) to build the theater in 1918.
Murphy died at his Sheridan Road home in Chicago at the age of 63 in 1931.
“The life of Charlie Murphy fascinates me,” says Cannon, who lives in Castle Rock, Colorado, with his wife, Reagan. “When he wrote about baseball for Cincinnati newspapers, he didn’t just write game stories; he also wrote about what went on behind the scenes. People loved reading about baseball but couldn’t get enough of it. Literacy in the U.S. improved back then, in part because there was a lot of interest in reading about baseball.
“History remembers Murphy’s faults all too thoroughly while ignorantly belittling his successes as the accidental results of consistently being in the right place at the right time,” he adds. “Charlie Murphy was an unfairly forgotten figure who was independence personified with audacity to spare.”
Cannon attended Golden West High School in Visalia and wrote for the school newspaper, The Pathfinder. He earned one varsity letter in tennis, an achievement that allowed him to skip P.E. class for a few months. The school’s baseball team, he remembers, featured at least seven Division I players.
Cannon got his degree in English from Azusa Pacific University in California and his “Ph.D.” in Authoritative Biography Writing after finishing his Murphy book.
“Writing about someone’s life is a great responsibility,” says Cannon, who has visited Wrigley Field at least six times and the North Shore several times. “I took the project seriously. I had a fear of missing something while researching, so I found out as much as possible about my subject.”
His next project is a book about the relationship between Cubs great Billy Williams and former San Francisco Giants slugger Willie McCovey. The future Hall of Famers grew up in close proximity in Alabama. Each played the bulk of his career in the shadow of a superstar—Williams in Ernie Banks’, and McCovey in Willie Mays’.
“I’m not a Cubs fan, but my eyes often wander to the Cubs’ box score when I’m looking at box scores,” Cannon says.
Jason Cannon’s debut book, Charlie Murphy: The Iconoclastic Showman Behind the Chicago Cubs, is available at amazon.com.