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

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