Level Playing Fields


Level Playing Fields

How the Groundskeeping Murphy Brothers Shaped Baseball

Peter Morris

194 pages
17 photographs, index


January 2013


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eBook (EPUB)

August 2022


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About the Book

Most baseball fans want to hear about stellar players and spectacular plays, statistics and storied franchises. Level Playing Fields sheds light on a usually unnoticed facet of the game, introducing fans and historians alike to the real fundamentals of baseball: dirt and grass. In this lively history, Peter Morris demonstrates that many of the game’s rules and customs actually arose as concessions to the daunting practical difficulties of creating a baseball diamond.
Recovering a nearly lost and decidedly quirky chapter of baseball history, Level Playing Fields tells the engaging story of Tom and Jack Murphy, brothers who made up baseball’s first great family of groundskeepers and who played a pivotal role in shaping America’s national pastime. Irish immigrants who tirelessly crafted home-field advantages for some of baseball’s earliest dynasties, the brothers Murphy were instrumental in developing pitching mounds, permanent spring training sites, and new irrigation techniques, and their careers were touched by such major innovations as tarpaulins and fireproof concrete-and-steel stadiums. Level Playing Fields is a real-life saga involving craftsmanship, resourcefulness, intrigue, and bitter rivalries (including attempted murder!) between such legendary figures as John McGraw, Connie Mack, Honus Wagner, and Ty Cobb. The Murphys’ story recreates a forgotten way of life and gives us a sense of why an entire generation of American men found so much meaning in the game of baseball.

Author Bio

Peter Morris is the author of Baseball Fever: Early Baseball in Michigan and the two-volume Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball.


"Maverick baseball historian Morris here gets down to fundamentals that most histories overlook: the dirt and the grass. We learn how significant aspects of the game's evolution can be traced far back to practical decisions made by Irish immigrants Tom and Jack Murphy. These men knew the likes of Connie Mack, Honus Wagner, and Ty Cobb, and their own contributions (which included pitching mounds and spring training camps) were just as influential. Morris's research and insights rescue these pioneer men from obscurity."—Library Journal

“Peter Morris’s short but masterly Level Playing Fields: How the Groundskeeping Murphy Brothers Shaped Baseball looks at the development of professional baseball and, indeed, at Americans’ changing image of their society, from a much-neglected angle, that of the material conditions of play. The careers of Tom and John Murphy were pivotal. . . . This book is packed with insight and telling detail on both baseball and the American temper.”—Katherine A. Powers, Boston Globe

“[A]n absolutely engrossing story. . . . You have to hand it to Morris for making such a prosaic subject come alive into such a fascinating story, but that's exactly what he accomplishes here.”—Dan Danbom, Time Out For Entertainment

“If you’re the kind of guy who watches the Fenway Park grounds crew for lawn mowing tips, here’s your summer reading. Most baseball fans are aware that grounds crews have long impacted the game by tailoring the fields to suit the home team, but this book goes beyond that, into the origins of the baseball diamond and the art of groundskeeping.”—Boston Baseball

“Robert Morris’s fascinating, compact text examines an underappreciated aspect of our national pastime: the playing field. . . . One may not always agree with the author’s assumptions about land use, but his arguments will have you thinking outside the diamond.”—New England Quarterly

“Peter Morris has done a wonderful thing here—baseball history is more than hits, pitches, managers, franchises, and championships. It is supremely a game played on a pristine field, an intricate complex of dirt, grass, and lines, a design of fair and foul zones. . . . Here is a heroic saga of engineering improvisation, a fierce understanding of the earth (the Murphy brothers were Irish potato farmers), and supremely an almost intuitive knack for how baseball more than any other sport save golf represents a cooperation between players and nature.”—Aethlon

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations  viii
Acknowledgements  ix
Introduction "The Dirt beneath the fingernails"  xi
1. Invisible Men  1
2. The Pursuit of Pleasures under Difficulties  15
3. Inside Baseball  33
4. Who'll Stop the Rain?  48
5. A Diamond Situation in a River Bottom  60
6. Tom Murphy's Crime  64
7. Return to Exposition Park  71
8. No Suitable Ground on the Island  77
9. John Murphy on the Polo Grounds  89
10. Marlin Springs  101
11. The Later Years  107
12. The Murphy's Legacy  110
Afterword: Cold Cases
Selected Bibliography


2007 Casey Award, sponsored by Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine, finalist