Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eagle Lands in Hall of Fame

     Between August 7, 1992, and March 23, 1999, the Blackhawks traded four future Hall of Famers, getting practically nothing in return. That is pretty bad, even by the abysmally low standards set by Bill Wirtz and Bob Pulford, who mismanaged the franchise for decades.
     When the Hawks traded backup goalie Dominik Hasek in the summer of 1992, they could be forgiven because starter Ed Belfour was already established as a stalwart, having won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year and the Vezina Trophy as outstanding goalie in 1991, and having led the Hawks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992.
     When they dealt center Jeremy Roenick in 1996, Belfour himself in 1997, and defenseman Chris Chelios in 1999, there was no excuse. And they paid the price. After making the playoffs 38 times in 39 seasons from 1959 through 1997, the Hawks missed the playoffs in nine of the next ten years.
     Fortunately, the Blackhawks are under new management now, they captured the Stanley Cup last year, and they are likely to be perennial contenders for the foreseeable future.
     The four future Hall of Famers who were traded in the Hawks’ darker days are all retired now, and each will be entering the Hall in the next few years. Belfour, the first one eligible, was elected two weeks ago. “I didn’t expect it in any way,” Belfour said. “I was just flabbergasted.”
     In addition to winning the Calder Trophy and the Vezina twice, Belfour won the Jennings Trophy for lowest goals-against average four times—three times for the Hawks and once for the Dallas Stars (in 1999, when the Stars won the Stanley Cup). His 953 games between the pipes ranks fourth in league history, and his 484 wins ranks third.
     When his election to the Hall of Fame was announced, “Eddie the Eagle” said something that any Hall of Famer in any sport can well understand: “It is hard to put into words what this means to me.”
     Hasek, Roenick, and Chelios will have the same feeling some day.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

When Cubs vs. Sox Really Counted, Part 2

     For the first four games of the 1906 World Series, the White Sox “Hitless Wonders” were true to form, with just 11 hits in 113 at-bats for an average of .097—yet the upstarts had given the heavily favored Cubs all they could handle. In the latter respect only, the remaining games of the Series would be no different.
     A throng of 23,257 filled every nook and cranny of the West Side Grounds for Game 5. Thousands more were outside, the Tribune noted, “packed on adjoining roofs, clinging to telegraph poles and wires like monkeys, or fretting behind locked gates and trying to gain from the incessant yelling some idea of how the tide of battle was going within.”
     Ed Walsh was back on the mound for the Sox, just two days after his complete-game shutout in Game 3, and Ed Reulbach went for the Cubs. Both pitchers had trouble in the first inning. Reulbach was touched for a run on three hits before he wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam. Walsh allowed his first runs of the Series, through no fault of his own, when errors by Frank Isbell and Jiggs Donahue led to three tallies by the Cubs.
     Cubs fans were ecstatic, figuring that the three runs would be sufficient to subdue the Sox, who’d scored only six times in the first four games. But suddenly the South Siders’ popgun attack erupted. When Isbell and George Davis rapped back-to-back doubles to lead off the third, Reulbach was through. The Sox weren’t. Jack Pfiester came on for the Cubs and retired the side, but not before Isbell and Davis scored. In the fourth, Pfiester got only one man out before he too was sent to the showers. By the time Orval Overall finally got the third out, the score was 7-3, and it was the Sox fans who had something to shout about.
     The Cubs scored once in the fourth and twice in the sixth, again on miscues by the Sox infielders (who committed an astounding six errors among them). Doc White relieved a tiring Walsh in the seventh and yielded just one scratch single over the final three innings to preserve Big Ed’s second win of the Series. The final score was 8-6; it could have been 8-0 if not for what the Tribune called “the rankest exhibition of fielding a team of champions ever gave in public.”

     With the vaunted Cubs now at the brink of elimination, their ace Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown returned for Game 6 on two days’ rest. And despite his own rather lengthy stint just the day before, White started for the Sox. Like most managers in those days, neither Frank Chance of the Cubs nor Fielder Jones of the Sox was shy about using his best pitchers to, and often past, the point of exhaustion.
     A crowd of 19,249 packed South Side Park to see whether the Sox could pull off their miracle. The answer was not long in coming. Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the first, the Sox had two on and one out when Davis banged a long fly to right. The Cubs’ Frank Schulte drifted back, circled, and then stumbled as the ball fell safely behind him for a double. The Cubs claimed that a policeman placed on the field for crowd control had purposefully kicked Schulte in the pants as he reached for the ball, but their pleas fell on deaf ears, and the game was tied. Shortly thereafter, Donahue doubled to left, scoring two more runs. He wouldn’t have batted if Davis’s ball had been caught. “Three runs scored where there should have been none,” Charles Dryden wrote in the Tribune, “and more disaster followed.”
     When Brown easily retired the first two Sox hitters in the second, it seemed that he had settled down, as Dryden wrote, and “might yet finish the game in his usual form.” But then he unraveled completely. Eddie Hahn singled, Jones walked, and Isbell singled to load the bases. Cubs shortstop Joe Tinker leaped and almost made a sensational catch of a line drive by Davis, but the ball ticked off his glove as two runs scored. George Rohe then singled, loading the bases again. With this, Overall replaced Brown. He promptly yielded a single to Donahue and a walk to Patsy Dougherty for two more runs before retiring Billy Sullivan, who had the dubious distinction of making two outs in the inning.
     The White Sox’ stunning two-out rally produced seven successive base runners and four runs. It also put the game out of reach. “Realizing only the most unexpected events could rob their heroes of the hard fought for honors,” the Tribune reported, “the thousands whose sympathies were with the Sox turned the affair into a jubilee of noise. The waving banners, the tin horns, the dinner bells, the megaphones, the counting of the score in unison—all were suggestive of a gridiron contest. Nothing like it ever before was seen on a baseball diamond.”
     For the first time in the Series, the home team won. The final score was 8-3. Against the Cubs pitching staff whose collective earned-run average of 1.76 remains the best of all time, the Hitless Wonders had exploded for 16 runs on 26 hits in the two games that decided the world championship. Their triumph still ranks among the greatest upsets in World Series history.
     Owner Charles Comiskey handed Jones a check for $15,000 and told him to split it evenly among the White Sox; this was in addition to the $25,052 they were to share from the gate receipts. Jones and the players, naturally, regarded the extra $15,000 as a gift from their grateful boss. They didn’t learn until later, and much to their chagrin, that it was really intended as an advance against their 1907 salaries.

Part 2 of 2.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert

Friday, July 1, 2011

When Cubs vs. Sox Really Counted, Part 1

     The Cubs and White Sox took divergent paths to the first single-city World Series in 1906. The Cubs blasted out of the gate and never looked back, racking up a phenomenal record of 116-36—still the best of all time—and outdistancing the defending world-champion New York Giants by 20 games. The White Sox started slowly, crept over .500 in mid-June, won 19 straight in August to assume first place, fell back into second several times in September, and finally surged to the finish line three games ahead of the New York Yankees (then known as the Highlanders).
     The Cubs led the National League in hitting, fielding, and pitching. They scored 80 more runs than the second-best offensive team and yielded 89 fewer than the second-best defensive team. They got better as the season went on, winning 50 of their last 57 games. They were 56-21 at home and 60-15 on the road. When asked whether he was amazed that the Cubs had won 116 games, pitcher Ed Reulbach said, “I wonder how we came to lose 36.” First baseman and manager Frank Chance led the league in stolen bases with 57 and runs scored with 102; third baseman Harry Steinfeldt tied for the lead in runs batted in with 83. Between them on the infield were Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers, the shortstop and second baseman later immortalized with Chance in the most famous baseball poem after “Casey at the Bat.” Johnny Kling was one of the finest catchers of his day, the first in the majors to throw from a crouch. Pitchers Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, Jack Pfiester, and Reulbach finished one-two-three in the league in earned-run average; Brown’s figure of 1.04 remains the best ever by a National Leaguer.
     Against this juggernaut stood a White Sox club disparagingly nicknamed “the Hitless Wonders.” Their anemic .230 team batting average and puny total of seven home runs both ranked last in the American League. “It must be admitted,” Fred Lieb wrote, “that [manager] Fielder Jones won his pennant with mirrors.” Lieb should have said mirrors and pitching, for the Sox posted 32 shutouts. Frank Owen, Nick Altrock, and Doc White won 22, 20, and 18 games, respectively, and White’s ERA of 1.52 led the league. Ed Walsh added 17 victories, 10 of them shutouts. The cocky 25-year-old Walsh, described as “the only man who could strut while standing still,” had just mastered the spitball (which was then legal) after two years of trial and error. He was destined for the Hall of Fame.

     To an extent that has probably not been equaled since, Chicagoans in the first decade of the 20th century were absolutely mad about baseball. “All the honors worth winning,” an anonymous Tribune writer gushed, “in the most sensational, record-breaking, and most financially successful season in baseball’s history belong to Chicago, admittedly the greatest, most loyal, and enthusiastic baseball city in the world.”
     Chicago’s huge population of recent immigrants from Germany and Ireland was neatly divided in its loyalties. The Germans favored the Cubs, whose roster included Solly Hofman, Kling, Pfiester, Reulbach, Steinfeldt, Jimmy Sheckard, and Frank “Wildfire” Schulte. The Irish supported the White Sox, who featured Jiggs Donahue, Patsy Dougherty, Ed McFarland, Bill O’Neill, Billy Sullivan, Walsh, and White.
     Although the Sox’ record of 93-58 was excellent, it nonetheless would have placed them 17½ games off the pace set by the Cubs. It was no surprise, then, that the South Siders were overwhelming underdogs to their West Side rivals (the Cubs didn’t move to the North Side until 1916). But Giants manager John McGraw, for one, wasn’t so sure. “They say the White Sox won the flag without hitting,” he said, “but I know better. Their grounds prevent anyone from hitting heavily, and as they played 77 games there, it made their averages look very small. On the road, they hit as hard as anybody.” It was true that the Sox’ very spacious home field, South Side Park at 39th and Princeton, contributed substantially to the apparent futility of their hitters and mastery of their pitchers. When owner Charles Comiskey built his new park in 1910, he gave it, at Walsh’s urging, similarly gargantuan dimensions.
     The Cubs were being called the mightiest ballclub ever to take the field. They had good reason to be confident as they opened the Series with their ace, Mordecai Brown, on the mound. He’d had 26 victories in this first of his six consecutive years with 20 or more. Walsh was slated to oppose Brown in what would have been a dream matchup, but according to legend Sox manager Jones changed his mind at the last minute because he believed that Walsh’s spitballs would freeze in the unseasonably cold air. So the two greatest pitchers in Chicago history did not face each other. Altrock went to the hill for the Sox.

     Game 1 was played in the Cubs’ park, the West Side Grounds at Polk and Lincoln (now Wolcott), on October 9. “Never was such a contest, for such high stakes, played under worse conditions,” the Tribune reported. “A cold, raw day was made more disagreeable by a chilling wind, and cold gray clouds denied the sun more than a single, fleeting chance to light up the picture.” Snowflakes floated over the crowd of 12,693.
     Brown and Altrock were sharp, and the game was scoreless for four innings. In the fifth, Sox third baseman George Rohe drove one past Cubs left fielder Sheckard for a triple. Rohe, a seldom-used benchwarmer who was playing only because George Davis was injured, would figure prominently throughout the Series. He scored the Sox’ first run when Dougherty tapped a weak bouncer back to Brown, whose throw home somehow eluded the usually sure-handed Kling.
     Brown committed the cardinal sin of walking Altrock, a .152 hitter, to lead off the sixth. Altrock moved to second on a sacrifice by Eddie Hahn, then tried to score on Jones’s single to center. But Hofman’s throw to Kling was perfect, retiring Altrock while Jones took second. Jones advanced to third on a passed ball by Kling and scored on Frank Isbell’s single to left.
     Leading off the bottom of the sixth, Kling walked. Brown twice failed to bunt him to second, then swung away and singled over the middle. After Hofman sacrificed, Altrock threw a wild pitch that scored Kling and pushed Brown to third. But Brown, representing the tying run, went no further. First, shortstop Lee Tannehill raced back into shallow left to make an over-the-shoulder grab of a blooper by Sheckard. Then first baseman Donahue stretched to scoop Rohe’s low throw out of the dirt, retiring Schulte and the side.
     Altrock clung to the narrow lead for three more innings, and when it was over he and the Sox had escaped with a 2-1 win. “One swallow does not make a summer,” Cubs owner Charles W. Murphy remarked. “I might add one snowstorm does not make a winter, but it keeps fans away from ball games.”
     Game 2 was played before 12,595 at South Side Park, also amid snow flurries. The Cubs scored early and often, knocking White out after three innings and roughing up his successor, Owen, as well. They pounded out 10 hits and seven runs. Reulbach, meanwhile, allowed but one hit and one unearned run. In three different innings he walked the first batter and in another he hit the first man up, but only in one of these instances did the man reach second base. Brilliant fielding by the Cubs repeatedly rescued Reulbach from his self-imposed peril, and the Series was tied up. “That’s one and one,” said Comiskey. “And we’ll be there with the right kind of goods tomorrow.”
     Walsh, the right kind of goods, started Game 3 against the Cubs’ Pfiester. The weather had improved markedly, and 13,667 showed up at the West Side Grounds. They saw a superb pitching duel in which neither team scored for five innings. In the top of the sixth, the Sox loaded the bases with none out. Pfiester didn’t give in. He got Jones on a foul pop-up to Kling, who leaned well into the crowd behind the plate to make a fine catch. Then Pfiester fanned Isbell. He was on the verge of squeezing out of the jam when the unknown Rohe came up. Rohe hit the first pitch down the left-field line, where it bounced into the crowd for a ground-rule triple. The three runs were all that Walsh needed as he scattered two harmless hits and struck out 12. The Sox won 3-0.
     Game 4, played before 18,384 at South Side Park on October 12, featured a rematch between Brown and Altrock, who had battled memorably in Game 1. George Davis was back in action for the Sox, replacing Tannehill at shortstop while Rohe remained at third base. Right fielder and leadoff man Hahn was also in the lineup, unfazed by the broken nose sustained when he was hit by a pitch in the previous game. “They can hand me the beanball or push my nose aside every day in the week,” he said, “if the Sox can only win.” Hahn singled with two outs in the sixth for the Sox’ first hit off Brown, but he was stranded. In the seventh, he lost Chance’s drive in the sun and allowed it to fall for a single. Two successive bunts moved Chance to third, and Evers’s solid single to left scored him with the only run of the game.
     Brown blanked the Sox on two hits. In the ninth inning, with two out and the potential tying and winning runs on base, he was literally knocked down by a vicious shot off the bat of Isbell. He recovered both his bearings and the ball in time to throw to Chance for the game’s final out.
     Altrock was philosophical about finding himself on the short end of the 1-0 score. “There is no great loss,” he said, “without its compensating gain. Had I won this game and another, the irksome ethics of this profession would compel me to wear a collar and necktie all winter.”

Part 1 of 2.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert