Thursday, August 18, 2016

Finishing The Season Strong: The 1908 Pennant Races

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(West Side Park, home of Chicago Cubs, game with NY Giants, August 30, 1908, from chicagology)

On the evening of August 18, 1908, the Pittsburgh Pirates, led by their great shortstop, Honus Wagner, sat atop the National League with a record of 64 win and 40 losses.  They finished the season even stronger, winning 34 of their last 50 games, a .680 winning percentage.  The Pirates did not win the pennant.

The New York Giants were in second place that night, sitting 2 games behind Pittsburgh.  Over the next seven weeks, they'd outdo the Pirates, winning 36 of their last 50, a winning percentage of .720.  The Giants also failed to win the pennant.

On that same evening, the Chicago Cubs were in third, 5 1/2 games behind Pittsburgh and only a half game ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies.  But the Cubs would win 40 of their last 49 (including 9 of 11 against the Pirates and Giants), scoring 232 runs and yielding only 94, to win the race by one game.  Remarkably, it was only the second hottest streak by the Cubs in their historic run from 1906 to 1910, during which they captured four pennants.  In 1906, they'd won 37 of 39 games from mid-August to mid-September and ended the season going 48-6 (for more, see Cubs Hot Streak Ends).  The 1909 club won 37 of its last 51 contests.  Coincidentally, that adds up to 154 games, giving them a 125-29 record over their three season ending streaks.

What a thrilling and nerve wracking time it must have been to be a fan of any of those clubs as they remained so tightly bunched, for so many weeks.

I'd been familiar with the great pennant races of 1908, and its most famous contest, the Merkle game, as well the dramatic replay of that contest on October 8 between the Cubs and Giants to end the season.  What I had not been aware of was the torrid collective pace of the three contending clubs over the last seven weeks; 110 wins against only 39 losses!  Apart from their 19-19 record against each other (with the one tie that forced the playoff), they went 91-20 against the other five National League teams. to Wikipedia, this is a photo of the Merkle game, September 23, 1908, at the Polo Grounds)

It was while rereading The Unforgettable Season, GH Fleming's 1981 chronicle of the National League race of 1908, that I realized what these teams had accomplished.  Fleming uses daily newspaper accounts, mostly from New York City papers, to tell the story, and includes a weekly summary of the standing.  The book contains no mention of this amazing collective hot streak, and it was only while looking at the weekly standing summary that Fleming includes that I was prompted to look more closely and figure it out.

That remarkable seven week sprint to the finish line breaks down into two parts.  The first lasts precisely one month, ending with the games of September 18, which left the Giants with a 4 1/2 game lead over the Cubs, and five up on the Pirates.  During those 30 days, the Giant won 25 of 29, the Cubs 26 of 33 and the Pirates went 21-9, a collective record of 72 wins and 20 losses, including winning 59 of 66 games against the rest of the league!
1908 Chicago Cubs Vs. Pittsburgh Pirates Vintage Panoramic Photograph 39 Long
(Cubs vs Pirates, 1908, from terapeak

Then came a scheduling oddity unlike to happen in today's game. As of September 18, the Cubs and Pirates had played 138 and 139 games respectively, while the Giants had played only 133, so over the last 20 days of the season, the Giants had to play 21 times, while the Cubs and Pirates had only 16 and 15 contests, respectively, giving them more time to rest pitchers and players.  The schedule may be reflected in the results, as the Cubs won 14 of their last 16, the Pirates 13 of 15, while the Giants only managed 11 wins in their final 21 contests.

One other aspect jumped out for me when checking the day by day performances in the book, Baseball Reference, and Retrosheet, was the usage pattern of pitchers by the Giants and Cubs, specifically Christy Mathewson, Three Finger Brown and Jack Pfiester (who started both the Merkle game and the replay, as did Mathewson).  As best I can tell (unfortunately, box scores for the 1908 season are yet available on Retrosheet) here's the story.

Mathewson went 37-11 that season, appearing in 56 games, starting 49, completing 34, throwing 390.2 innings (a career high), racking up 5 saves, and posting an ERA of 1.43, leading the league in each category.

On August 29, Christy lost 3-2 to the Cubs, with Brown picking up the win.  Including that contest, during the 43 games the Giants played over the last 41 days of the season, Mathewson started 13 times and made two relief appearances, accounting for 9 wins (including 3 shutouts), 4 losses, one save and one tie.  My estimate is he pitched at least 119 innings.  Matty threw twice on three days rest, seven times on two days, three on one day and once on consecutive days.  The only time he had four days rest was prior to the final game, against the Cubs on October 8.  His average rest during that period was 1.8 days, and he made nine appearance between September 15 and October 3, with no more than two days rest between any of them, an average of 1.44 days.

Chicago ace Three Finger Brown went 29-9 that year, pitching 312 innings, starting only 31 games and relieving on 13 occasions.  Including the August 29 matchup against Mathewson, Brown made ten starts through the end of the season, twice on five days between starts, and twice on four (though I can't determine if he made relief appearances), with the Cubs winning 7.  When he relieved Jack Pfiester in the first inning of the final game, won by the Cubs 4-2, he was pitching on three days rest.
One-game playoff between the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs, Polo Grounds, 1908(Cubs vs Giants, October 8, 1908, Polo Grounds, from greatbigcanvas)

Pfiester is a very interesting figure.  He went 12-10 in 1908, starting 29 games, only relieving four times and pitching 255 innings.  After the Cubs lost two of his starts to the Giants early in the season, they won three times against the Giants in games Jack started against them in August, and he pitched well in the Merkle game, a 1-1 tie.  Even with the Cubs in the midst of a pennant race, he didn't start again until the last game two weeks later!

The pitcher who came out of nowhere to really kill the Giants was 22 year-old Harry Coveleski, who started only five games for the Philadelphia Phillies that year.  From September 28 though October 3, the Giants and Phillies played eight games in six days.  The Giants won five, but Coveleski started the other three (on Sept. 29, Oct. 1 and 3, the first two in the second game of doubleheaders), beating the New Yorkers 7-0, 6-2 and 3-2 .

During the seven weeks, the Pirates were in first place on six days and tied for first on four occasions, the Cubs led on nine days, with five ties and the Giants held first on 27 days with nine ties.


The American League race wasn't too shabby either that year, with a four team race as late as September 25:

Cleveland   83-62
Detroit        81-61
Chicago      81-62
St Louis      79-63

Although the Browns faded quickly, the other three battled it out till the final day.  In a mini-version of the long National League collective hot streak by the top three teams, the Naps - named after Cleveland star second baseman and manager, Napoleon Lajoie - (9-2), Tigers (7-2) and White Sox (7-2) went 23-6 over the next two weeks, winning 19 of 21 against the other five teams.

The Tigers finished only a half-game ahead of the White Sox and 1 1/2 games up on the Naps, winning their second consecutive pennant with young Ty Cobb (for more on him, see my review of Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty).  In another oddity of the 1908 season, only the White Sox played 154 games to a decision.  Detroit had only 153 and the Naps 152.  If they'd had to each play 154 games, a three way tie might have occurred.

The highlight of the two weeks was the extraordinary pitching duel in Cleveland on October 2, in which the Naps bested the White Sox by a score of 1-0.  Played in front of 10,598 fans in Cleveland, the game took between 1:29 and 1:40 to play, depending on which account you read.

                                                                                                     (Big Ed, from sabr)

Pitching that day for the Sox was Big Ed Walsh, in the midst of a season in which he'd toss 464 innings (on top of 422 in 1907), start 49 games, completing 42, and go 40-15.  Walsh was starting on two days rest, having started both ends of a doubleheader won by the Sox on September 29.  In turn, he had pitched the doubleheader on only one day's rest.  And prior to that, he'd made seven starts between September 11 and 27, throwing 4 times on two days rest and twice with one day of repose.(Addie Joss from pinterest)

On October 2, Ed was superb against the Naps, striking out 15, yielding only 4 hits and walking one.  It wasn't good enough, as the masterful Addie Joss, who went 24-11 that year with a league leading 1.16 ERA, threw a perfect game using, according to one report, only 74 pitches to do so (he struck out three and induced 16 ground ball outs).

The only run scored in the third.  After Joe Birmingham singled, Walsh tried to pick him off.  On the throw, Birmingham took off for second and first baseman Frank Isbell's toss hit the runner, carooming into the outfield with Birmingham ending up on third.  He then scored on a wild pitch by Big Ed.

After the game, Joss praised his teammates, saying "the boys played grandly behind me".

In 1909, Big Ed Walsh would reduce his workload and hurl only 230 innings, but from 1910-12 he'd average 377 innings before his arm finally gave out.

Addie Joss became ill during the 1910 season and died in early 1911, at the age of 31.  Both Joss and Walsh are in the Hall of Fame, joining Mathewson and Brown.

The Cubs beat the Tigers in five games to win the World Series.  It was the last time the Chicago Cubs were the champions of major league baseball.

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