Stories You Should Know: The Best Pennant Race

As another ho-hum Baseball Season winds down we’re reminded about how far the “National Pastime” has fallen. When we should be excited about the pennant races down the stretch, the baseball braintrust has made it rather mundane. With three division and two wildcard teams in both leagues, that means that 10 of the 30 (⅓) of the Major League teams make the “Playoffs”. Compare that to when baseball was truly the “National Pastime” when only the team with the best record in each league faced off in the World Series. It’s interesting to note that only three times since the “Wild Card” was introduced in 1995 has the team with the best record in the National League faced the team with the best record in the American League in the World Series, 1995, 1999, and 2013. Baseball wonders why the World Series is an afterthought to the modern sports fan, we think it’s because of this. 


Another example of the farce baseball has become… since the introduction of “Wild Card” Teams, more “Wild Card” Teams have won the World Series than teams with the best record in baseball. “Wild Card” Teams have won six (1997, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2011, 2012, 2014), while the team with the best record has won only five (1998, 2007, 2009, 2013, 2016). So don’t be surprised if the Red Sox go out early, or the Colorado Rockies/Oakland A’s go all the way. Any team that gets in has a legitimate shot to win. That’s not rewarding the best teams, and no matter how the modern sports media spins it, baseball fans know it.


Let’s go back to when Baseball rewarded the best teams with the best records in each league, when the pennant races really mattered. Baseball’s greatest pennant race was the 1908 in the National League


National League:


From 1901-1913 three teams won every National League Pennant. The New York Giants won five, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs each won four. They completely dominated the league and 1908 saw them at the height of their power. The season would end with the three teams bunched at the top of the standings, one team winning 99 games and the other two winning 98.

TInkers to Evers to Chance
The famous Cubs infield, Tinkers, Evers and Chance.

The Chicago Cubs jumped off to the early season lead. Led by their Hall of Fame double play combination of Joe Tinker to Johnny Evers to Frank Chance and dominating starting pitching anchored by Mordecai “Three Fingered” Brown they were 3 1/2 games ahead on the first of June, with the Giants and Pirates barely above .500. The Pirates then went on a tear in June. With the incomparable Honus Wagner leading the way they went 22-8 during the month to take a one game lead over the Cubs. the Giants also had a good month, going 18-11 moving into 3rd place, 3 games behind the Bucs. John McGraw’s Giants went 21-10 in July and the teams  traded the lead through August, with only ½ game separating the squads going into September. McGraw was confident, the schedule favored his Giants as they would be home for most of the month, but the race was about to move into bizarre territory, ending with the most controversial finish in baseball history.

Honus Wagner hitting
Honus Wagner, the best of his era.

The controversy was caused by the fact that a common practice in baseball was a clear violation of the rules. Rule 59 stated: “One run shall score every time a baserunner, after having legally touched the first three bases, shall legally touch the home base before three men are put out; provided, however, that if he reach home on or during a play in which the third man be forced out or be put out before reaching first base, a run shall not count.” This was not the common practice at the time.


The situation first came up on September 4th in a crucial game between the Cubs and Pirates in Pittsburgh. The two rivals were tied for 2nd place, one game behind the league leading Giants. It was a classic pitchers duel between Vic Willis and “Three Finger” Brown (both would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame).


With a scoreless tie entering the bottom of the 10th inning, Fred Clarke (Hall of Fame Player-Manager for the Pirates) led off with a single, Tommy Leach sacrifice him to second bringing up the “Flying Dutchman” himself, Honus Wagner. Wagner singled, but Clarke was held at third. Brown then hit Warren Gill to load the bases with one out. Ed Abbaticchio struck out bringing up rookie Chief Wilson. Wilson lined the first pitch into center field for a clean single, and Clarke raced home with the winning run. Gill, seeing Clarke score the run did not bother to touch 2nd base, raced to the dugout. It must be emphasized that this was the common practice at the time.


Cubs 2nd baseman Johnny Evers then sprung his trap. He called for the ball and tagged second base and made his case to umpire Hank O’Day to call Gill out and nullify the run. It must be remembered that in 1908 only one umpired called many of the games. O’Day refused to call Gill out at second base and allowed the run to score. O’Day never explained his reason, but most speculated that he didn’t see if Gill touched second and couldn’t call what he didn’t see. The Cubs protested, but the league sided with O’Day and the Pirates without a clarification of the rule.


18 days later the Cubs and Giants met for the final time in a four game series in New York. The Giants had won 18 out of their previous 21 games to pull five games ahead of the defending World Champions. In a double-header on September 22nd the Cubs stopped the Giants cold winning 4-3 and 3-1. This set up the epic game three. McGraw sent the great Christy Mathewson to the mound, seeking his 34th win, to right the ship. In another tense pitching duel the Cubs led 1-0 in the 6th inning on a Joe Tinker’s Home Run. Before a huge crowd the Giants tied it on a Mike Donlin hit and Mathewson and the Cubs Jack Pfiester matched zeros until the bottom of the ninth.

Christy Mathewson.jpeg
Christy Mathewson

With one out Art Devlin singled, was the forced out at 2nd on a grounder by Moose McCormick. Fred Merkle single to right sending McCormick to third. Art Bridwell then laced a single to center, scoring McCormick, sending the fans into a near riot, swarming the field. To stay clear of the mayhem Merkle did not touch second base and immediately ran to the clubhouse. Johnny Evers again took notice and called for the ball. Cub’s outfielder Solly Hofman retrieved the ball and hurled it towards Evers, but the throw was wide and was lost in the maze of Giant Fans on the field. Evers somehow came up with  a ball (probably not the game ball) and tagged 2nd base. Two umpires were assigned the game. The bases Umpire was Bob Emslie and Evers pleaded his case to him to call Merkle out and nullify the run. Emslie didn’t see the play and consulted with the home plate umpire to find out if he saw what happened. Again the home plate umpire was Hank O’Day, and he agreed with Evers and called Merkle out. Because the fans had completely taken over the field, O’Day declared the game a tie and left the field.


The Giants protested, but again National League President Harry Pulliam backed his umpire, this time Evers ploy worked. The ramifications of this decision would be decisive. All three teams played marvelous ball in the month of September, the Pirates went 25-8, the Giants 24-8, and the Cubs 23-8. The Giants entered October percentage points ahead of Pittsburgh, with the Cubs ½ game behind.


October 1st saw the Cubs Ed Reulbach 2-hit the Reds in an easy win, the Giants split a doubleheader with the Philadelphia Phillies, losing the 2nd game on 4-hitter by Phil’s rookie Harry Coveleski, the second time Coveleski had beaten McGraw’s team in a week The Pirates had the day off.The three teams were tied for the lead.


On October 2nd the Pirates swept a double header from the St. Louis Cardinals, taking the first game 7-4, before winning the second game 2-1 in dramatic fashion on a 2-run home run by Honus Wagner in the 9th inning.The Giants routed the Phils, 7-1, while the Cubs again blanked the Reds, 5-0.


October 3 was the day Pulliam upheld the umpire decision in the “Merkle Game”, declaring it a tie, ordering a playoff game to be played on October 8th. On the field “Giant Killer” Harry Coveleski again frustrated the Giants. He entered the game in the 9th inning, runners on 2nd and 3rd with nobody out with the Phils up 3-2. Coveleski set the Giants down, preserving the 3-2 win. Both the Pirates and the Cubs won and the Giants found themselves in 3rd place..


October 4th saw the final meeting of the Pirates and Cubs. Over 30,000 fans jammed Chicago’s West Side Park. Behind “Three Finger” Brown the Cubs took a 5-2 lead into the 9th inning, when the Pirates began a rally. That man Wagner led off with a single, then Ed Abbaticchio hit the ball into the stands down the right field line. Hank O’Day was again behind the plate, he ruled the ball foul. The Pirates were incensed, a heated argument ensued. O’Day asked for help from his base umpire, Cy Rigler. After a long discussion Rigler backed O’Day, the ball was foul. Brown set down the Pirates in order to close out the 5-2 victory. This game ended Pittsburgh’s season at 98-56. The Pirates only chance for the pennant was for the Giants to lose one game in their three game series with the Boston Doves, and then beat the Cubs in their October 8th playoff game. If that happened the season would end in a 3-way tie.

Three Finger Brown
Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown

It didn’t happen, the Giants took all three games from Boston, which left both Chicago and New York with identical 98-55 records going into their playoff game and the Pirates on the outside looking in.. It created a classic match-up, one game for the pennant, The Giants went with 37 game winner Christy Mathewson, the Cubs with their “Giant Killer” Jack Pfiester. More than 35,000 fans attended. Prior to the game a rumor spread that the game was fixed, that the umpires, Bill Klem and Jimmy Johnstone, had been paid off. The Giants were picked to win. McGraw encouraged his players to pick a fight with the Cub’s Stars, hoping to get them tossed from the game. Cub’s Manager Frank Chance countered with a verbal barrage against the Giant players. The Great Matty entered the stadium to a rousing ovation. The scene was a spectacle never before seen in a baseball stadium.


The rumors seemed plausible when the Giants came up in the bottom of the first. Pfiester hit the lead-off hitter, Fred Tenney, then walked  Buck Herzog, two outs later Mike Donlin doubled in Tenney, this was followed by a walk to Cy Seymour. Frank Chance had seen enough. He called for his ace, 29 game winner Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. Brown had worked in 11 of the Cubs last 14 games, but he ended the threat.


Now the fans settled into a duel between baseball’s two best pitchers. In the top of the 3rd, down 1-0, the Cubs got to Matty. Joe Tinker tripled, catcher Johnny Kling ripped a single to tie the score. A sacrifice and a flyout brought up Johnny Evers, who worked Mathewson for a walk bringing up “Wildfire” Schultz who doubled in Kling. With runners on 2nd and 3rd and two outs up came the despised Frank Chance, the “Peerless Leader” of the Cubs. Chance crushed a double to right field plating both Evers and Schulz. Chicago led 4-1.


Brown was in complete control of the Giants until the bottom of the 7th. Art Devlin and Moose McCormick single, followed by a walk to Al Bridwell loading the bases. McGraw lifted Mathewson for a pinch hitter. Larry Doyle hit a foul pop-up behind the plate, as Johnny Kling stood under the ball the Giant fans began hurling trash and debris at the Cub’s catcher. Kling made the play. Brown worked his way out of the jam, allowing the Giants one run. Brown set down the Giants in the 8th, but before he came out to pitch the 9th a near riot broke out in the stands. The police were called to restore order.


Let’s let “Three Finger” Brown tell us what happened in the 9th, “As the ninth inning ended with the Giants going out, one-two-three, we all ran for our lives, straight for the clubhouse with the pack at our heels. Some of our boys got caught by the mob and beaten up some. Tinker, Howard and Sheckard were struck. Chance was hurt most of all. A Giant fan hit him in the throat and Husk’s voice was gone for a day or two in the World series that followed. Pfiester got slashed on the shoulder by a knife.”


The World Series would be anti-climatic. The Cubs would face Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers for the second straight time. The Tigers had won their own exciting pennant race in the American League, beating the Napoleon Lajoie led Cleveland Naps by ½ game and the Chicago Whitesox by a game and a half (at the time the American League did not require rain outs to be made up).


Led by “Three finger” Brown’s two wins without allowing a run, and Orval Overall’s two complete game victories, for the second year in a row the Cubs won in five games.


As for the 1908 National League Pennant race, Fred Merkle would acquire goat-horns for the rest of his days. Even today “Merkle’s Boner” is one of the most infamous plays in sport’s history. Bill James sums up the season best “The world has never seen the like of it.” (The Historical Baseball Abstract).

1908 Cubs

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