I recently read a fantastic book “Level Playing Fields: How the Groundskeeping Murphy Brothers Shaped Baseball.” Author and baseball historian Peter Morris makes a powerful case for the critical importance of what we sports field managers do and have done for the game, and how two men should finally get their due in baseball lore as masters of their craft, and for being foundational to the game.
In the late 1800s, John and Tom Murphy, sons of Irish immigrants, left Indiana to pursue careers in baseball. Fate had other plans, and the Murphy brothers instead invented sports field management and left an indelible mark on the game. Back then, most people and many baseball teams lived a vagabond life, roaming the country and living in temporary homes: tents for the people and leased grounds for the games. Teams would travel to games played on any flat ground they could find. Games sometimes ended because the only ball got lost in the tall grass and bushes in the “field.” Obstacles such as quarried rocks behind the catcher’s box and mud so deep base runners got stuck and tagged out were more than common. Morris shows how these field oddities were the basis for “ground rules,” and how this phrase is misused even today. Baseball fields were obstacle courses that heavily favored the home teams. Morris uses these stories to show how baseball fields and parks evolved with early America, and how through the skill of John Murphy a sense of integrity was brought to these fields and, therefore, the game. The reader will learn how urbanization, industrialization, the automobile and changing agricultural practices compelled the need for a permanent home and a well-maintained playing field. Beyond this, Morris describes how the brothers’ skill set helped give baseball some integrity amongst the public and helped allow for the concept of charging admission to games.
Reading this book, I was amazed at how some basic issues in our industry today were evident 120 years ago. The early groundskeep- ers were not happy with their pay and prestige. Yet the players, both home and visiting, loved John Murphy. They often brought him gifts in appreciation for his skill and passion. However, he often felt a disconnect between the importance of what he did for the game and how his work was seen by his employers. Morris identifies this disconnect while making the case that the game as we know it today would not exist without the passion, skill and effort of these two pioneers. Morris tells how the advent of the pitcher’s mound was actually the groundskeeper’s idea of how to prevent rainouts. The next time you pull out field tarps, you will realize how easy it is today compared to when it was first tried in Pittsburgh’s Exposition Park in 1908. The sports field managers working on spring training fields this month may not know that it was John Murphy who made the concept of spring training sites possible.
PHOTO COURTESY OF STOCKXCHNG/KRISTIN NEUHARTH.
Like many of today’s sports field managers, Murphy’s skill produced fields that people raved about. Then, as now, a beautifully manicured ball field in an urban setting was a major reason folks bought tickets to the games. Morris’ research produces a wealth of newspaper stories and accounts of how this story evolves. Like all great historians (and turf managers) Morris sees what he is not looking for.
I chuckled at how in 1913 John Murphy had delivered such excellent fields at the early Polo Grounds in New York that ownership added a second team to the events schedule, as well as any other kind of event that would draw revenue.
“The arrangement brought inconvenience to many, but none felt the hardship more keenly than Murphy. A visiting reporter noted a difference at the Polo Grounds: ‘The roses and posies were the same, or similar, but the playing field lacked its old-time gloss, and its green was spotted.’ He asked John Murphy about it, the groundskeeper growled his alibi in no uncertain language. ‘That dod-swatted arrangement whereby the Giants share their plant with the New York American League team for this season is responsible for the change in the looks of the playing field.'”
This book is a must-read for anyone in the sports field management industry. With this story, Morris proves his thesis that the groundskeeper has often been overlooked as an integral and essential part of baseball and sports history. As a sports field manager, it will make you feel good about what you do. And, as you drag the infield for the hundredth time this summer, dead tired from a long season and a 10-game home stand, stop and think about the Murphy brothers and wonder if they would be pleased with your work.
Ross Kurcab, who holds a bachelor’s in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University, has 26 years of turf management experience and is the first Certified Sports Field Manager). You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.