December 14, 2017

The Best “Bad” Owner There Ever Was

October 3, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Charles Webb Murphy was the kind of “bad” owner any team would love to have. When he owned the Chicago Cubs he brought them their greatest success, four pennants and two World Series Championships. However, his personally flamboyant style and some rather cloddish personnel moves put him in the doghouse with his fellow owners who forced him out of the game in 1914. The Cubs have never been the same.

Born in Wilmington, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, his first job was as a pharmacist. Soon, however, he found the vocation that would directly lead to his future as a baseball owner; reporter for the  Cincinnati Enquirer.  He covered sports and endeared himself to his publisher, Charles P. Taft. Part of the “first family” of Cincinnati, Taft was exceptionally well connected, as his half brother was William Howard Taft, future President of the United States.

As sports editor he caught the eye of Reds owner John T. Brush. When Brush went to New York to take over the Giants franchise he brought along Murphy as baseball’s first press agent, the forerunner to today’s general managers. He was not in that job very long before he heard that the Cubs franchise was for sale.

With a loan from his former boss, Charles P. Taft, he was able to buy the Cubs for the bargain price of $125,000 in 1905. Murphy was the fourth owner of the Cubs.  He hired Frank Chance, of the legendary double play combination, as manager and together the two built a great franchise. The Cubs won the National League pennant for three straight years from 1906-1908.

His distinctions from the other owners in the league appeared almost immediately. He lavished his players with attention and ensured that his Cubs would be winners at all costs. Among the niceties he denied other teams was their own clubhouse at the West Side Grounds, in direct violation of league policy. He also ticked off the media, his former brethren, by consigning them to the cheap seats. His shrewd business practices paid off immediately, and he repaid his debt to Taft after just a single season.

One of the true villains of the Merkle game, Murphy used his press connections to slander the Giants and their ownership. The resulting tensions and subsequent pennant, which most of the rest of baseball felt had been achieved through devious means, further alienated baseball’s ownership cabal. To the rest of the league it really came as no surprise to learn that Murphy himself had been scalping tickets to the 1908 World Series.

Despite these various sideshows the Cubs were doing one thing exceedingly well, winning.  They returned to the October Classic in 1910 for their fourth pennant in five years.

In 1911 he accused the St. Louis Cardinals of conspiracy. The charge; that the Cardinals were lying down in games with the Giants to give New York the Championship. Needless to say the rest of the National League was less than impressed.

His personal nadir came in 1914. Already despised by baseball for his summary dismissal of Frank Chance, he compounded the anger by firing popular Johnny Evers in February and replacing him with Frank O’Day, the very umpire who had played such a crucial part in the Merkle game. The resulting firestorm in Chicago caused an instantaneous backlash from all of the city’s fandom. The immediate beneficiary of this
controversy was the nascent Federal League.

For Joe Tinker, who had played along side of Evers and Chance in the Cubs glory years, and manager to be of the Chicago Whales of the Federal League, this was the last straw. An article written by Irving Vaughn of the Chicago Record Herald put it succinctly, “The few officials of the Federal League now in the city considered it a ten strike. Manager Tinker, before boarding a noon flyer for New York, said that Murphy had gulled his last play. The manager of the local “Feds” argued that Murphy’s loss will be Weeghman’s gain. Tinker did not say that he would resign his post in favor of Evers if the third league could sign up the “canned” Cub leader.

“There is now an outward attitude of hostility towards Murphy,” said Tinker. “When Chance was unceremoniously thrown into the discard it was said that Murphy had killed the sentiment that attached West side rooters to the club. Many did quit the club while those remaining were Evers admirers.

With Evers receiving the same treatment as did Chance only about a year ago, Murphy must expect a reaction. You can only get away with things for just so long and regardless of what the league or national Commission takes to discipline the Cub boss for his apparently rash act there will be a falling off in attendance at the West Side Park. We will benefit therefrom.”

The major leagues, already appalled and paranoid at the prospect of the Federal League, were enraged that Murphy’s actions had made the Federals the sentimental favorite in Chicago. Under Murphy the Cubs had been baseball’s most profitable franchise. Now, he seemed intent on killing the golden goose.

What happened next is a matter of controversy. According to National League President, Governor John Tener of Pennsylvania, Murphy was “forced” out of baseball.
According to Murphy, he saw the writing on the wall and decided to cash out while prices were best. In any event Murphy sold his franchise to Charles P. Taft later in February for a tidy half a million dollars.

As it turned out the majors had good reason to worry. Charles Weeghman, owner of the Chicago franchise of the Federal League spent lavishly. The Chi-Feds were very successful in Chicago, finishing just a game and a half out of first in 1914 and bagging the Federal League pennant in 1915. During those two years the Feds easily outdrew the Cubs.

Later, as part of the settlement with the Federal League, Charles Taft cleared $503,000 when he sold the Cubs to Weeghman. Weeghman moved the Cubs into the ballpark he had built in the winter of 1913 for his Federal League franchise. Known today as Wrigley Field, the Cubs have never won a World Series there.

Out of baseball, Murphy built a lavish theater in his hometown of Wilmington, Ohio.
Eventually he relocated to Chicago where he died in 1931 with an estate of over two million dollars.

The Cubs have had four owners since Murphy sold the team. Some were good and some were bad. Today the Cubs are owned by a major newspaper and may be for sale once again. Whoever buys the team will most probably be nowhere near as flashy or as controversial as Charles W. Murphy. Without question he will not be as successful.

Sources:

Jacobson, Len “Charles Webb Murphy,”  Deadball Stars of the National League by SABR and Brassey’s  Inc., Washington, D.C. 2004  p.113-[115].

Vaughn, Irving, “Murpy’s Act a Great Boost, Claim Federals”, Chicago Record-Herald, February 12, 1914 p.10

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