This article was written by Lenny Jacobsen
One of the most controversial figures of the Deadball Era, Charles W. Murphy owned the Chicago Cubs from 1906 to 1913, the period during which they reached their greatest heights. The Cubs won four National League pennants and two World’s Championships under his ownership, making Chicago the center of the baseball universe. But instead of being revered by the fans, his players, and his fellow owners, the ambitious, energetic Murphy was generally despised. Years later he explained his unpopularity. “When I had the Cubs I was too busy for entertaining, or cultivating people,” he wrote. “It is some task to run a championship ball club and cater to 25 ‘prima donna’ ball players. When night comes you are all in and don’t care for wine parties or bacchanalian revels–at least I did not.” As for the baseball establishment, he had this to say: “Some I had refused to loan money to, others were not in love with me because my club had beaten theirs so often, and the Chief Executive [John Tener] was not pleased with me because I had refused to sign his contract–the only club owner who kicked on his compensation, which was more than baseball could afford.”
The son of Irish immigrants, Charles Webb Murphy was born in Wilmington, Ohio, 60 miles northeast of Cincinnati. Moving to Cincinnati to study pharmacology, Murphy graduated from pharmacy school and worked for a while at Keenan’s drugstore. Before long, however, he quit to become a writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, a newspaper owned by Charles Phelps Taft, the older half-brother and advisor of future president William Howard Taft. (President Taft later endorsed baseball in his speeches and frequently attended major-league games; one contemporary credited Murphy for convincing the president to lend his presence to the national pastime.) Murphy eventually became sporting editor, and in that position he became friendly with John T. Brush, owner of the Cincinnati Reds.
The young baseball writer left the Enquirer to become assistant city editor at the Cincinnati Times-Star, but he wasn’t there long before Brush hired him in 1905 as press agent for the New York Giants, the first press agent a baseball club ever employed. One day Murphy suggested to Brush that he should mix around more with people and increase his personal popularity. The elderly Giants owner, who was in poor health and “did not know 100 persons in greater New York, aside from his players, smiled and said: “If the Giants win, I will be popular. If they lose I will not be. All the personal popularity in the world gets the club owner nothing if his club is a loser.” On his first western road-trip with the Giants, Murphy overheard NL president Harry Pulliam tell Cincinnati Reds owner Garry Herrmann that James Hart was putting the Chicago Cubs up for sale. Taking the midnight train from Cincinnati to Chicago, the 37-year-old press agent obtained an option from Hart to purchase all of his Cubs stock for the bargain price of $105,000, or a 51% interest for $65,000. Securing a $100,000 loan from his friend and former employer Charles Taft, Murphy closed the deal on July 31, 1905.
Chicago was an up-and-coming team, and Murphy and new manager Frank Chance went to work during the off-season on making the Cubs even stronger. Relying on Chance’s knowledge and insights, Murphy acquired third-baseman Harry Steinfeldt and pitcher Orval Overall from the Cincinnati Reds, the team he used to cover, and outfielder Jimmy Sheckard, pitcher Jack Pfiester, and catcher Pat Moran from other sources. In their first full season under Murphy’s ownership, the Cubs became the greatest team in the history of baseball by winning a record 116 games, finishing 20 games ahead of Murphy’s former employer, the defending World’s Champion Giants. To cap off a nearly perfect year, the Cubs met their cross-town rivals, the Chicago White Sox, in the 1906 World Series. In his first season Murphy reportedly earned profits of $165,000, which he used to pay back all of the money he had borrowed from Taft.
The Cubs continued their winning ways in 1907, again running away with the NL pennant and, according to some observers, achieving a triumph for “clean ball” over the dirty and underhanded methods favored by McGraw’s Giants. Before long, however, Murphy began engendering ill will of his own. His Cubs continued traveling to visiting ballparks in horse-drawn carriages festooned with bells and banners, defying a league rule banning such parades. Murphy also ignored a league edict requiring him to build a clubhouse for the visiting team at Chicago’s West Side Park. But any bad feeling caused by those transgressions was minor compared to the maelstrom of ugliness Murphy stirred up over the “Merkle Game.” His behind-the-scenes machinations and bombastic comments in the press made him numerous enemies. “Charles Murphy, president of the Chicago club, has no sentiment for baseball, only for the money there may be in it for him,” wrote Sam Crane in the New York Evening Journal. “In fact, the ‘Chubby One’ is considered a joke all over the National League, and nowhere more so than in Chicago.”
Murphy got himself into even more hot water during the 1908 World Series by relegating his former brethren in the press to the back row of the grandstand for games at West Side Park, and he also was reprimanded for selling World Series tickets to scalpers for a profit. By the end of the Series, Murphy rivaled John McGraw as the most hated man in baseball. An even more serious malfeasance occurred in 1911 when he falsely accused St. Louis Cardinals manager Roger Bresnahan, a former Giant player and close friend of McGraw’s, of conspiring to allow New York to win the pennant. Murphy induced Philadelphia Phillies owner Horace Fogel, another former sportswriter who was backed by Murphy money, to charge that NL president Thomas Lynch and the league’s umpires were co-conspirators in the plot. The National League expelled Fogel, and Murphy came in for sharp criticism from the other owners.
During the 1912 season Murphy engaged in a public feud with Chance. While the manager was hospitalized for an operation on a blood clot, Murphy accused his players of drinking and not bearing down. Chance defended them. Shortly thereafter, the Cubs announced that the Peerless Leader wouldn’t return in 1913, though whether he resigned or was fired never became entirely clear. No longer under contract, Chance at that point talked openly with the press, claiming that Murphy refused to spend money to acquire players or improve West Side Park–offering to bet $1,000 that the Cubs magnate would never follow through on his oft-quoted promise to build Cub fans a new ballpark. As if to prove Chance right, Murphy started slashing the Cubs payroll that winter, trading Joe Tinker to Cincinnati and Ed Ruelbach to Brooklyn, and sending Mordecai Brown to the minors.
The final straw for Murphy came in his shameful handling of Johnny Evers. The respected second baseman replaced Chance as player-manager in 1913, but Murphy dismissed him after a third-place finish and shunted him off to the Boston Braves. When Evers threatened to jump to the Federal League, joining former Cub stars Tinker and Brown, AL president Ban Johnson and several National League owners pressured new NL president John Tener to do something about Murphy. In a move that was universally applauded, Tener reportedly persuaded Charles Taft to buy Murphy’s stock for $500,000, and the deal was consummated on February 21, 1914. (Less than two years later, Taft sold the Cubs to former Chicago Whales owner Charles H. Weeghman for $503,500 as part of the settlement of the Federal League war.) As one last parting gesture before leaving Chicago, Murphy hired Hank O’Day, the umpire who had ruled in his favor in the 1908 “Merkle Game,” as Cubs manager for 1914.
For years the general belief was that Murphy had been driven out of baseball; in the December 1918 issue of Baseball Magazine, for example, F. C. Lane wrote, “Murphy was forced out of his holdings by his unpopularity with his own associates and the general public.” After reading that article, however, Murphy actually took the time to write a lengthy response (he was a former sports writer, after all). “It was not hard for me to take a half-million dollars for my franchise,” he wrote in an article that appeared in the February 1919 issue. “No force was required. Despite that fact I read every once in a while that I was forced out of baseball–knocked down the back steps, as it were, and kicked into the yards behind. That is simply camouflage. It is true that the Chief Executive of the National League at that time was not ‘crazy’ about me and that he had called a meeting to have me quartered and boiled in oil, or shot at sunrise, I don’t know which. He asked me to attend the meeting and I declined to do so. I was not only ill, but thinking of how much I would likely lose in the impending Federal League war–money that I had worked hard for. Before the meeting could be held, however, I sold out to Mr. Charles P. Taft and without force, but for what every other thing of value is obtained–a price. Imagine a man being forced to take $500,000 for a baseball franchise, with a war on and money being sunk by everybody concerned in large gobs. One or two baseball politicians shouted with glee over my retirement, but I think events have since shown that the laughing was all on my side, because I got out at the psychological moment.”
After leaving baseball, Murphy returned to Wilmington, the town where he had grown up and his mother still lived, and, using some of the proceeds from his sale of the Cubs, set out in 1916 to build the “best small theater in this section of the country.” To prove that luck had played no part in his business success, he chose Friday, October 13, 1917, to sign the contract for construction of his amusement palace. Nearly 200 railroad cars of material went into it, and Italian and English craftsmen worked for weeks on the interior. The theater featured a half-barrel foyer ceiling; carved ornamental plaster with a continuous row of Cupid heads; a lobby decorated with a sunburst chandelier, marble floors, and polished oak doors; and three painted stage curtains (one with pictures of Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale, another with Betsy Ross, and a third with a Wilmington street scene showing the courthouse). J. L. Dillon, the top decorator of the Mandel Bros. interior-design firm from Chicago, proclaimed it “the prettiest thing he had ever seen.”
Two years and $250,000 after the project was begun, the Murphy Theatre officially opened on July 24, 1918, to much fanfare and capacity crowds for three performances in the afternoon and evening. Speeches, singing, and music by the Wilmington Band and the regular theater orchestra preceded the movies, which starred Douglas Fairbanks and Fatty Arbuckle. Murphy sold 2,000 15-cent tickets and 1,000 10-cent tickets, donating all of the money to the Clinton County Red Cross. The next day he declared that his mother had been “so overcome with emotion that she could not go to the opening,” but his wife, Marie Louise Murphy, was there, and she called the theatre “the Chicago of Southern Ohio.” Speaking to the architects at the opening, Mrs. Murphy said, “You must now tell your friends at home that the reason Cincinnati does not grow faster is that it is too close to Wilmington.” Charles Murphy himself was well pleased with the day and said that it was worth the entire investment to hear the children scream with delight.
Leaving Wilmington again around 1920, Charles W. Murphy followed the same path he had taken as a young man, moving to Cincinnati for a while and ultimately settling in Chicago. At the age of 63, Murphy died of a paralytic stroke at his home in Chicago on October 16, 1931, leaving a $2.25 million estate to his widow and four brothers. Half of the estate represented ownership of the National League Baseball Park in Philadelphia (the Baker Bowl), which Murphy had acquired when Horace Fogel was “forced” out of baseball in 1912. The historic Murphy Theatre underwent a recent restoration and was used as a set in the 1993 movie Lost In Yonkers. Today kids of all ages still delight to the entertainment served up on its stage. Charles Murphy’s words when it first opened in 1918–“That’s not an investment; that’s a monument”–have proven apt.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004).
For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
Charles Webb Murphy
January 22, 1868 at Wilmington, OH (US)
October 16, 1931 at Chicago, IL (US)
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