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Love, Loss and Baseball: Letters From the Hub, Chapters I - V

A story from the Great Beyond.

Editor's note: When the world went into quarantine, most of us began to fixate on the uncertainties of the future. Senior writer Tom Verducci took a different tack. He started digging through the past in search of a story that would resonate in what felt like a time of unprecedented chaos. “The usual nuts and bolts of baseball coverage seemed so trivial,” Verducci says. “I knew that to find something meaningful to write about required at least the backdrop of the pandemic.”

Verducci was aware that Silk O’Loughlin, a well-known American League umpire in the early decades of the 20th century, had died during the worldwide influenza outbreak of 1918. But while researching what he thought would be a feature on the umpire, Verducci stumbled upon the story of one of his baseball writing forebears: Eddie Martin, who covered the Red Sox for The Boston Globe from 1915 to 1918. Martin chronicled life at the center of the sports universe. The Red Sox, winners of four world championships between 1912 and ’18, were the most glamorous franchise in the country’s favorite sport. And in 1918 their best pitcher, a charismatic young lefty by the name of Babe Ruth, was turning himself into a slugging phenomenon, singlehandedly reinventing the sport and what it meant to be an American celebrity.

Of course there were darker historical currents flowing through 1918, and as it all coalesced in his research—a global pandemic, a world war, baseball celebrity, Martin’s personal story of love and tragedy—Verducci saw the makings of more than a simple feature. “Letters From the Hub” reads like a novella, but aside from Verducci’s epistolary literary device every bit of it is true. “I was blown away by the similarities between what a frightened public faced in 1918 and what we are facing in 2020,” Verducci says. “In the end, this is a timeless story. It is a love story. It is a story about how the random, evil nature of a pandemic makes us cherish even more the sweetness of small moments and those we love.”

Click here to learn more about the story behind Letters From the Hub. Click here to read chapters VI - IX of Letters From the Hub, and click here to read the final chapters. 

1918chapter

Dear Thomas,

Everything I am about to tell you is true. I wish that were not so.

My name is Edward Ford Martin Jr. You can call me Eddie, as everybody else did, though some who knew my namesake father called me Little Eddie. Given that I was born in 1884, it should come as no surprise that I am writing to you from the Great Beyond.

Discretion and wisdom prevent me, even as a writer, to begin any modest attempt to describe this place after life. Suffice to say, as with love, Yeats and sunsets, the moment you try to elucidate the ethereal is the moment you diminish it.

Rather, I am here as a fellow baseball writer to tell you a most important story that you must hear in your time of suffering and sacrifice. I lived during the worst pandemic in the history of humankind: the influenza pandemic of 1918. It struck one-third of the world’s population and killed between 50 million and 100 million people, including 675,000 in the United States. Boston, my home, was the early epicenter.

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So vicious was this killer virus that healthy, vigorous young people suddenly dropped in the street and were dead within as few as 12 hours. Horrible is too kind a term. It announced its lethalness when a victim turned a bluish purple, or “huckleberry” as we called it. Pneumonia blocked oxygen from entering the blood. The lungs filled with so much blood that upon autopsy the lungs sank like stones when placed in water.

When 1918 began, life expectancy for Americans was 54 years for women and 48 for men. By the end of the year the influenza pandemic had reduced that life expectancy by 12 years.

The reason I must write you is because I see so many similarities in what we experienced and what you are experiencing now. You need to know the arc of a pandemic, as well as the role of baseball in a society when fear, death and the unknown are constant companions. And you need to hear it from someone who was in the middle of it all.

Like you, in failing to understand how this pandemic began, we were guilty of creating irrational conspiracies to give some shape to a massive mystery. Considering we were at war against the Kaiser, some people thought the virus was delivered by gas clouds released by German U-Boats. Some said the virus was slipped into aspirin tablets made by Bayer, a German company. A politician in Colorado blamed Italian immigrants.

Like you, we had no idea when it would end.

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Like you, we were late to quarantine and quick to reemerge.

Like you, we wrestled with the “essentialness” of baseball.

You undoubtedly noticed I have chosen the form of a letter. It is because the epistolary method was one of my favorite literary devices as a Red Sox beat writer for The Boston Globe. Often when filing a dispatch from spring training, I would arrange my story in the form of a letter to a friend back home. Instead of a byline, my name would appear at the bottom, flush right, in the manner of the valediction: “With Every Good Wish, Edward F. Martin.”

Back in 1858, the great writer Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to the Boston State House as “the hub of the solar system,” such was its physical grandeur and civic importance. A great line like that becomes literary taffy: It never gets old but is easily stretched. So it was with Holmes’s observation. The entire city of Boston soon became known as “the hub of the universe,” in a not always complimentary commentary on what Bostonians thought of themselves. Eventually it was shortened to simply “The Hub.”

Without the slightest bit of exaggeration or immodesty I tell you that in 1918 I stood in the hub of the entire sporting world. Entering the 1918 season, the Boston Red Sox and Boston Braves had won five of the previous seven World’s Series (as we knew it then). Baseball was king in America, especially in Boston. As many as eight newspapers competed for readers’ attention in the first two decades of the century. At dusk, boys wearing their tweed newsboy caps and shouting out headlines would hawk their evening editions on the street corners as men and women made their way home from factories and offices. To sell the papers the boys always gave alerts on two subjects: how we were doing in The Great War and how the Red Sox did that afternoon.

Members of the Red Sox, including Babe Ruth (second from right), stand together.

Members of the Red Sox, including Babe Ruth (second from right), stand together.

It wasn’t just that they won the World’s Series in 1912, 1915 and 1916 and their owner, Harry Frazee, a theatre impresario, was desperate to win it back. Their appeal also had much to do with a fellow named George Herman Ruth.

Babe Ruth had been one of the game’s best pitchers, but 1918 was the year he became a two-way sensation and, to borrow from the glossary of your times, the first true superstar the sporting world had ever seen. He was 23 years old and every bit the devil-may-care jovial rascal you imagine. Covering the Babe each day began only after the last out.

I turned 34 years old in the spring of 1918. Life for me bloomed like the tulips and narcissus in Boston Common after a long, hard winter. This was my second full year on the Red Sox beat. I was covering the premier sports team in the country for the premier newspaper in Boston while riding trains, eating meals and doing my level best to stay out of trouble with the Babe.

Better still, I also was deeply, madly in love. I had been married only 15 months earlier to the former Delia Agnes Mulkern. I knew it then and know for sure now because of whence I write: Her beauty was the most the good Lord permitted on Earth from His Eternal Kingdom.

Life could not have been better.

Until it could not have been darker.

With Deepest Regard,
Edward F. Martin

1918chapter2

My Dear Thomas,

Before we go any further, I should tell you about myself. I am a Southie. South Boston through and through. I am a second-generation Irish American and part of a proud familial immigrant success story.

My grandfather, Jeremiah Martin, was born in 1813 in Garrettstown, County Cork, Ireland, a seaside village at the southern tip of the isle. As a young man who could neither read nor write, he left Ireland for New Brunswick, Canada. He eventually made his way to Brighton, Mass., before it was annexed by the city of Boston. There he married Eleanor Maguire, another Irish immigrant. Jeremiah was a salt-of-the-earth laborer. When he became a naturalized United States citizen in 1854, in place of a signature he simply drew an “X,” and the clerk noted “his mark.”

Jeremiah and Eleanor had three children. The youngest was my dad, Edward F. Martin Sr., who was born in 1850. Dad was born to be a fireman. He started as a lad with the famous Braintree Fire company and soon joined the Boston department, quickly working his way up from hoseman to foreman to captain.

After his first wife died of consumption, my father, at age 33 and the father of two boys, married Mary Ford in 1883. Their wedding reception was held at the home of the bride’s parents at 671 East Sixth Street in South Boston, where the newly married couple also would live. Owing to my father’s immense popularity, Boston fire commissioner John E. Fitzgerald and approximately 100 firemen attended. I still have no idea how they packed so many firemen into that two-bedroom house. But that’s how much my dad was beloved. At 7 p.m. that night, Edward and Mary left via the Fall River train line on their honeymoon: two weeks in New Jersey, New York and Brooklyn.

Four years later, I came along, with a first name from my father and a middle name from my mother. What I remember about my dad was an abundance of generosity and goodwill. A stout man with an impressive mustache that resembled the working end of a streetsweeper’s broom, he laughed easily and often. He loved his job. People were drawn to his good nature and wit. I am glad I received more from him than my first name.

I also remember his gold watch. In 1888, the year after I was born, Eddie retired as secretary of the Massachusetts State Firemen’s Association. They threw him a big party with lunch at Enghbert’s Café. Among the dignitaries was Fitzgerald. A tall, handsome man with a gift for public speaking, Fitzgerald was a big shot. By then he had been appointed by President Cleveland as tax collector for the state, the start to what would be an influential career in politics and public service.

It was an amazing life for someone who by all rights should have been dead. In February 1864, at the age of 19, Fitzgerald left Ireland as one of 200 Irish immigrants stuffed with cargo and mail in the steerage on the steamer Bohemian. Just off the coast of Maine on a foggy night, the ship smashed against Alden Rock. A hole tore open in the engine compartment. As the ship sank, some made it to lifeboats, others perished in the icy waters. By the time bodies stopped washing ashore two months later, the death toll was 42. Fitzgerald survived. He became a lawyer.

Fitzgerald watched proudly as they presented the gold watch to my father. I still remember that timepiece because in our humble house on East Sixth in South Boston it was the most exquisite thing I ever saw, standing out like a gold nugget in the black seam of a coal mine. It was a hunting-case pocket watch, the kind with a spring-loaded cover with the hinge at the nine o’clock position. It was made by the American Waltham Watch Company, an outfit on the Charles River that made the watch presented to Lincoln upon delivering the Gettysburg Address and the chronometers that kept most trains in America running safely and on time. Hooked to the watch was a massive gold chain with an enamel charm on the end. On one side of the charm was a depiction of a fire engine. On the other was his name and rank, captain.

One morning, a Monday in August of 1893, my father suddenly collapsed. They took him to City Hospital, where his body was seized in general paralysis. By 11:15 p.m., the captain of Boston Engine Company 18 and the strongest man I knew, was gone. The cause of death was listed as meningitis. He was only 43 years old.

I learned about death too early. I had to grow up fast. I was only nine years old.

***

We built schools back then not by low bidders cranking out giant boxes with comfortable student lounges. We built them the way the ancient Greeks built the Parthenon: massive, imposing structures and cultural landmarks meant by famed architects to inspire or even awe children like me.

My Parthenon was Lincoln Grammar School on Broadway, near K Street. Dedicated in 1859, it was designed by J.G.F. Bryant, who had just finished building the addition to the famed Boston State House, the hub of the solar system. Bryant designed a four-story building 93 feet in length topped by a Mansard roof and cupola. Atop the cupola stood a four-sided clock donated by Major Frederick Walker Lincoln, the edifice’s namesake.

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Lincoln School was an eight-minute walk from my house on East Sixth Street, where I lived with my widowed grandmother; my widowed mother, who took a job as a bookkeeper; two cousins; and my older half-brother, James, who worked in the mail room at the Globe.

At 16, I worked after school as an optician, helping people with their eyeglass prescriptions, something of which I had first-hand knowledge. But through James, I found out that fall about work at the Globe. On November 16, 1900, I was hired for a month to work there in something called the vote counters’ room. The Globe ran these reader savings contests in which people submitted their savings coupons to the newspaper. Weekly winners might receive baseball gear for boys or cameras, hatpins and stickpins for the girls.

I must have been fairly accomplished at counting coupons because on January 1, 1901 the Globe hired me as a state house messenger. That was a thrill: Little Eddie from East Sixth Street in the hub of the solar system!

That fall another Parthenon opened. South Boston High School was the first high school built in South Boston and it made Lincoln look like a shack. It was designed by Herbert Dudley Hale, who was educated at Harvard and Ecole de Beux-Arts in Paris. Hale designed the four-story Colonial with an outline to resemble the White House, though his palette included ochre brick and Indiana limestone.

In September of 1901, as part of the initial class, I stood in front of South Boston High School with all the wonder and awe Hale must have sought. I might well have been staring up at one of the pyramids of Egypt. I climbed the 16 granite steps and pulled open one of the three giant double doors, revealing a huge, gleaming vestibule of white and Knoxville marble. At the center of the lobby was a mosaic that featured a lamp encircled by a laurel wreath of inland brass. Hale had succeeded. It made a young man dream big.

What really blew me away was a new innovation that could be found in every classroom: a telephone, each one connected to the main office.

My schooling days were coming to an end. After graduating from South Boston, in the fall of 1902 I took a full-time job with the Globe as a night clerk. I was 18 years old. In June of 1903 I was put on the city staff as a reporter. Because of my dad, it was said that every police and fire official in the city of Boston knew me, and I cannot contest that observation. The Globe noticed. At 19, I was permanently assigned to cover Fire Headquarters and Police Headquarters.

Besides covering the firemen, I was part of the fire department’s South Boston baseball team. I was the official scorer. We practiced at the Randolph Street Playground. We even traveled to New York to play firefighters there. After one big win over Dorchester Heights, we had a party planned for Hyde Park. But when it rained, we moved the party to my house. It ran from 4:30 p.m to midnight.

Other than fraternizing with my police and fire buddies, most of my social activity happened through the church. I was an officer with the Knights of Columbus and an active member of the young men’s sodality at St. Augustine’s Church.

On April 27, 1904, St. Augustine’s hosted a Leap Year Party in its hall on E Street. It was billed as a reunion for the girls’ sodality. The young men’s sodality and ushers’ club also were invited. “Dancing was begun promptly at 8,” reports said.

Miss Agnes Norris was floor director. I don’t remember Agnes, but I sure do remember one of her assistants. Even in a constellation of people in a crowded dance hall, Delia Mulkern stood out like a North Star. She was 17 years old. Her thick, dark hair was swept up elegantly. She moved gracefully, even theatrically. Indeed, three months earlier Delia had played the lead role as the interlocutor in the sodality’s annual stage production. She was “the queen of the farm” in a presentation billed as The Farmers’ Daughters’ Holiday.

I was smitten, though it would be years before we became a serious item. Delia also went to South Boston High School and was the daughter of two Irish immigrants. The Mulkerns lived on Mercer Street, about 10 blocks from me. Delia went to work as an assistant buyer in the infants’ shoe division of Filene’s department store.

My career at the Globe, meanwhile, was going great. The policemen and firemen were like my brothers. I joined the Holden Club, a social group of 25 men, mostly policemen, firemen, postal workers and newspapermen. We held banquets twice a year.

I was the police and fire reporter for 12 years. Then one day in the summer of 1915 Walter Barnes, the Globe sports editor, approached me with an idea.

“Eddie, how would you like to cover baseball?” he said. “You can write about the Red Sox.”

Barnes knew I loved baseball. In addition to being part of the South Boston firemen’s team I also played on the Knights of Columbus team. The Boston Braves were the defending World Series champions and the Boston Red Sox were in first place on their way to leading the American League in attendance and winning the next World’s Series (as we knew it then). The police and fire beats provided friends and satisfaction but being asked to be a baseball writer at the Globe was something else entirely. For a reporter who loved baseball it was the equivalent of a ballplayer not just being called up to the big leagues, but also given the chance to be a star.

Indeed, the very man I would be working with on the Red Sox beat was the Babe Ruth of baseball writing. At a time when legends such as Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon graced sports pages with their craft, nobody was more respected within baseball circles than the man they called “The Silver King,” Tim Murnane. I could not say “yes” fast enough.

Little did I know that the writing partnership of Little Eddie and the Silver King would come to a tragic end.

Yours in Baseball Writing,
Edward F. Martin

1918chapter3

Dear Tom,

Barnes, my sports editor at the Globe, explained to me why he wanted me on baseball. Part of it was my training. By working the police and fire beats, I was expert at meeting deadlines, working quickly under duress and developing sources, all hallmarks of a good baseball writer. The friendly nature I inherited from my father, not just his friends around every firehouse in Boston, served me well in a profession with trust as its currency.

Barnes explained there was another component to his decision: Murnane was 64 years old. Barnes wanted to groom his replacement.

Tim Murnane was a giant, an impressive man by any measure. As he added weight in his later years on his 5-foot-9 frame, and as his thick, wavy head of hair turned brilliant white, and as he grew a bushy mustache that called more attention to the cleft in his chin, he looked regal, or to borrow a popular word from the times, like a magnate.

A first-generation Irish American, he was born Timothy Hayes Murnan in Connecticut, attended Holy Cross and played eight professional seasons, winding up with the 1884 Boston Reds of the Union Association as a player-manager. As a young man, clean-shaven and with his dark, wavy locks well combed, Murnane was stunningly handsome. He worked a bit as a scout. Then, in 1887, the Globe hired him as a baseball writer under a directive from publisher Charles H. Taylor to increase the paper’s baseball coverage.

At the suggestion of sports editor William D. Sullivan, himself an Irish American, he added an “e” to his byline (“Tim Murnane”), probably to appeal to non-Irish readers as well. In 1889 he switched to “T.H. Murnane,” which became the imprimatur of great baseball writing for the next three decades.

Murnane had it all. He wrote colorfully, knew the game inside and out, and enjoyed the respect of those in the game. He did not invent the Sunday notes column, but he certainly popularized it, first with “Murnane’s Gossip on the Game,” which became “Murnane’s Baseball Stories,” because he was, as you would say today, his own brand. He sold newspapers.

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