Everything You Need to Know about the 1908 Chicago Cubs

This was the last Chicago Cubs team to win the World Series. (via George R Lawrence)

This was the last Chicago Cubs team to win the World Series. (via George R Lawrence)

The Chicago Cubs have had a wonderful summer so far. Their fans, which are legion, are fully confident that Joe Maddon’s men will steamroll through the playoffs.

The further this team advances, the more we are going to hear that they have not won a World Series in 108 years.

We know a lot about 2016’s North Side baseball entity, but we may not be as familiar with the Cubs of 1908.

For one thing, that team did not even play on the North Side. Wrigley Field was still a few years away from being built for the Federal League’s Chicago Whales (In fact, its original name would be Weeghman Park, after club owner Charles Weeghman.). The Cubs in 1908 played in a dilapidated wooden firetrap called West Side Park, situated on a plot of land bounded by Polk Street to the north, Taylor to the south, Wood to the east, and Lincoln (now Wolcott Avenue) to the west. The area is currently home to the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center.

The Cubs began the 1908 season as the two-time defending National League champions. After losing in the World Series to the crosstown White Sox two years prior, they took on Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers in 1907. Chicago won the opener, but Game Two was ruled a 3-3 tie after 12 innings because of darkness. The Cubs swept the next three games to take the Series. They squared off against Detroit again in 1908, winning it all.

What a year it was. Teddy Roosevelt was busting trusts from his office in the White House. A Ford Model T, fresh off the assembly line, could be purchased for $850. Oklahoma became a state. Jack Norworth wrote “>Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” And the Chicago Cubs were a dynasty.

It was two years before Franklin Pierce Adams would pen the poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” more popularly known as “Tinker to Evers to Chance.” But the trio of bear cubs was in its prime in 1908. A lot has been written about how it may not have been as great a double-play combination as its reputation suggests.

Sabermetrics guru Bill James, however, believes they were as good as advertised, based on a formula he came up with called “expected double plays.” Shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers, and first baseman Frank Chance combined for 491 double plays from 1906-10, tied for third best in the NL. James, however, after crunching some numbers, concluded that they turned 50 more double plays than would have been expected. As for F.P. Adams, he was a newspaper columnist and an expert on drinking songs. We will just have to take it on his authority that Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance were the saddest of all possible words.

Chance, who was also the Cubs’ manager, had begun his career as a catcher. After threatening to retire rather than accept a permanent move to first base in 1903, he acquiesced, developing into one of the better fielders in the game at the position. A smart baserunner, he led the majors in stolen bases in 1903 (67) and ’06 (57).

Evers was 26 years old in 1908, and possessor of one of the more unusual nicknames in baseball history: The Human Crab. In fact, at 5-foot-9 and 125 pounds, he was more of a shrimp of a man. By most accounts, he acquired the nickname from the way he slid across the infield to scoop up groundballs. His cantankerous personality could just as easily have been the reason. “They claim he is a crab,” one manager said of him, “and perhaps they are right. But I would like to have 25 such crabs playing for me.”

Joe Tinker was a stellar glove man at short. He and Evers supposedly got into a spat over cab fare in 1906 and stopped speaking to each other for decades. Tinker, however, maintained that the situation was never that bad, and that the press blew it all out of proportion. It did make for great newspaper copy, however. Tinker led the Cubs in 1908 with a 7.9 WAR; only the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Honus Wagner had a higher figure in all of baseball (11.5).

Rounding out the infield was third baseman Harry Steinfeldt, who owned one of the strongest throwing arms of his day. Catcher Johnny Kling was, in the words of Cubs pitcher Ed Reulbach, one of the greatest ever to wear a mask. He was also the world pocket billiards champion of 1908.

Left fielder Jimmy Sheckard could do it all on the baseball field. Evers claimed he was “a bigger cog in the old invincible Cub machine than he ever received credit for being.” In 1901, he became the first player in the 20th century to hit two grand slams in a season.

Sheckard also was a top-notch trash talker. Most of the time, he could back it up. On the eve of the 1906 Series, however, he had boasted that he would hit .400 against White Sox pitching. He wound up hitless in 21 at-bats, failing to get the ball out of the infield. On June 2, 1908, Sheckard was involved in a clubhouse fistfight with teammate Heinie Zimmerman that nearly turned tragic. During the brouhaha, the rookie Zimmerman grabbed the nearest object, a bottle of ammonia, and hurled it at his opponent, the glass shattering as it hit Sheckard in the face. Sheckard was lucky not to lose an eye, but he was sidelined for several weeks.

The Pianist and Satchel Paige
A pianist finds inspiration in games from his childhood.

Young outfielder Frank Schulte was the superstitious type; he was constantly on the lookout for hairpins, which he felt were indicators of how he would fare at the plate that day. A small hairpin meant he might go 0-4; a big one, and he could count on a couple hits. Before his 15-year career was over, he would steal home 22 times. Solly Hoffman was a valuable utility man for the Cubs, capable of playing anywhere Chance put him. He also played a key role in one of the most famous plays in baseball history, but more on that later.

On the mound, The Cubs featured a formidable staff anchored by 31-year-old right-hander Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown. When he was just a boy, Brown lost most of his right index finger in a mishap with a piece of farming equipment. Soon afterward, while chasing a rabbit, he fell and broke the fingers on the same hand, resulting in permanent disability. Once he started playing baseball, Brown discovered that his gnarled hand allowed him to throw a tremendous curveball. A six-time 20-game winner with the Cubs, he finished his career with 239 wins. Ed Reulbach, another starter who boasted a devastating curve, pitched 44 consecutive scoreless innings during one stretch in 1908, the NL record at the time. In late September, he threw two complete-game shutouts in a doubleheader, the only major leaguer ever to do so. Brown and Reulbach combined for 53 wins in 1908.

Pitcher Orval Overall was one of the few major leaguers of his time who had attended college. A former agricultural science major at the University of California-Berkeley, he was elected the president of his freshman class. Like Brown and Reulbach, he had a wicked curve. Jack Pfiester was the Cubs’ only lefty starter. Known as “Jack the Giant Killer,” he shut out John McGraw’s team nine times over his eight-year career, with a 15-5 record.

The Cubs in 1908 were the beneficiaries of Fred Merkle’s famous “bonehead” play. On Sept. 23, the Cubs were tied with the New York Giants for first place, with the Pirates only a game and a half back. Merkle, a 19-year-old first baseman, had been a bench player most of the year, but was getting his first big-league start against the Cubs in a game at the Polo Grounds. The crucial late-season affair featured perhaps the most controversial play in baseball history.

Future Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson was the starting pitcher for New York, with Jack the Giant Killer Pfiester on the hill for Chicago. With the score deadlocked at 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Merkle came to bat with two outs and Moose McCormick at first base. Merkle laced a hard single to right, and McCormick made it all the way to third.

The next batter, Al Bridwell, drove Pfiester’s first pitch into center field for an apparent walk-off hit. McCormick danced across home plate, the Polo Grounds crowd rushed out onto the field in celebration, and Mathewson walked off the mound dejected.

At that point, things got a little crazy.

Merkle, halfway between first and second, saw the fans swarming onto the field following Bridwell’s hit. Not wanting to get mobbed, he immediately turned and made a dash for the Giants’ dugout, which at the Polo Grounds was in deepest center field. Evers, noticing that Merkle never touched second base, began shouting and waving at Hoffman in center field to throw the ball in. Evers knew the baseball rule book inside and out, including section 4.09, which clearly stated that “A run is not scored if the runner advances to home base during a play in which the third out is made … by any runner being forced out.”

A scramble for the ball ensued. Conflicting accounts of what happened next paint a picture of confusion. The upshot was that Evers eventually got the ball and managed to find second base in the sea of humanity. He stepped on the bag, forcing Merkle, and the umpire gave the out sign, despite protests from the Giants. The game could not continue because of the huge crowd on the field, and a tie was declared.

The Giants, of course, felt that their victory had been taken away on a technicality. Both Chicago and New York finished the regular season in first place with identical records of 98-55, necessitating a one-game tiebreaker. The Giants lost, ending their summer in discontent, while the Cubs went to the World Series for the third straight year.

Once again, the Detroit Tigers proved to be no match for the mighty Cubs. Chicago won in five games, the last two on shutouts by Brown and Overall. Frank Chance and his men danced on the field at Detroit’s Bennett Park in celebration of their second consecutive World Series championship. Since then, the Cubs have gone to the postseason 14 times, including seven trips to the World Series (none since 1945), but have come up short every time.

So let us raise a glass to the 1908 Chicago Cubs, long gone but not forgotten. Will the Windy City be toasting a new champion this postseason?


Scott Ferkovich edited Tigers by the Tale: Great Games at Michigan & Trumbull, published by the Society for American Baseball Research. He is the author of Motor City Champs: Mickey Cochrane and the 1934-35 Detroit Tigers, coming in 2017 from McFarland. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Ferkovich.
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Bob
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Bob

Why was Mathewson walking off the field in dejection if he thought the Giants had just won?

Scott Ferkovich
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Scott Ferkovich

You are correct, Bob. Thanks for pointing that out. I must have been having a Leon Durham moment when I wrote that paragraph. Of course, we all know that the pitcher I was referring to was actually Rick Sutcliffe.

Dan
Guest

Rick Sutcliffe? He obviously wasn’t alive back in 1908. You must’ve had another Leon Durham moment. I think you meant to say Jack “the Giant Killer” Pfiester who walked off the field in dejection.

GFrankovich
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GFrankovich

Slight correction to the 1907 World Series. The tie game occurred in the first game of the series, when with 2 out in the ninth and the Tigers ahead 3-2, Charlie Schmidt allowed a passed ball on strike three of the 3rd out, the Cubs tied the game and it was called after 12 innings because of darkness. The Cubs then won the next 4 games to take the series.

Joe Pancake
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Joe Pancake

“We will just have to take it on his authority that Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance were the saddest of all possible words.”

Well, many times they have popped my gonfalon bubble, that’s for sure.

Mark P
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Mark P

Good article, especially the focus on the pre-Wrigley Field part of the team’s history. The Merkle incident, I submit (with tongue somewhat in cheek), is the real source of the “Curse.” The Giants well and truly won that game and thus the pennant in 1908, and it’s not at all clear that Evers secured the batted ball for the force out. More importantly, the incident caused human suffering beyond the disappointment of Giants’ fans at the outcome of the game and season. Merkle was tormented about it for the rest of his life, and if memory serves, the National League… Read more »

Scott Ferkovich
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Scott Ferkovich

I stand corrected, Mark P. But you have to wake up early around here, because Bob above beat you to it. But my answer remains the same. Thanks for reading!

mando3b
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mando3b

As a lifelong Cubs fan, I revere the 1908 team. Hell, I worship the number “1908”. Bill James’s comments about Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance perhaps being overrated are very interesting, actually: “The essential question is this: If Tinkers, Evers, and Chance were not great players, how do you explain the success of the team … [which] won more games, over any period of years, than the Yankees with Ruth and Gehrig, more games than the Dodgers with Robinson [et al.], more games than the Reds with Bench [et al.]–more games than anybody.” He also adds that “it is impossible to avoid the conclusion… Read more »

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

A plug here for Matty’s book “Pitching in a Pinch,” which is a really good read. Of interest to this conversation is the lengthy and detailed section about the Merkle play from someone who was on the field at the time. Matty also apparently revered John McGraw, so there’s a lot of McGraw explaining strategy. The book is in the public domain now, and I read it as a free download on a reader. Highly recommended.

Scott Ferkovich
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Scott Ferkovich

Hey Bucdaddy, I agree that it is a very good book. I read it last summer. But I paid for my copy. Worth every penny, though.

JaysSask
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JaysSask

From Wikipedia:

“Official rule 4.09 states that “A run is not scored if the runner advances to home base during a play in which the third out is made … by any runner being forced out”.[20] However, in 1908, it was the usual practice of defensive teams to not appeal to an umpire for enforcement of this force-out rule on walkoff hits”

Perhaps the Cubs have had bad Karma ever since.

Philip
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Philip

Great timing with your article, Scott. Please note, the Cubs and Giants did not end up in a tie at the end of the regular season, nor engage in a “playoff game.” They were tied after playing 153 games. They then finished the season by playing a make-up game for the wild tie game. Sometimes forgotten is that it was a three way pennant race, with the Pirates a half game behind after their final game (and hence eliminated since someone would push them to one back). Also forgotten is Johnny Evers was told after an earlier September vs the… Read more »

Philip
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Philip

Postscript: In the deciding 8th game of the 1912 World Series (game 2 had ended in a tie), John McGraw’s New York Giants pushed over a run in the top of the 10th inning at Fenway Park to take a 2-1 lead going into the bottom half of the inning with the great Christy Mathewson still pitching strong for the Giants. Hopes were raised for the Red Sox when Giants center fielder Fred Snodgrass muffed a routine fly ball hit by pinch-hitter Clyde Engle. After failing in an attempt to sacrifice himself to move Engle up to third, Harry Hooper… Read more »

Carl
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Carl

Wonderful article Scott. I strongly suggest Crazy ’08 by Cait Murphy. She chronicled the entire season in the National League. Cait proposed that Merkle’s error in judgement wasn’t that bad as it was the custom of the time not to run to second and the game ended once the run scored and the batter reached first. Her description of the Peerless Leader (Frank Chance) made the Cubs winning the Merkle game a bit like the Pine tar game.

Gary Mehok
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Gary Mehok

Joe Tinker has been vastly underrated.

Gary Mehok
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Gary Mehok

I make the above comment with the understanding that for the majority of fans, the opposite seems true; for years, Tinker’s place in the Hall of Fame has been questioned. Most people understand that Frank Chance was indeed a “peerless leader,” and Evers was one of the more accomplished and famous players of that entire area. But I’ve heard many people, even Cubs fans, say that Tinker got into the Hall of Fame strictly “because of a stupid poem.” Not true. Actually, at the time Tinker was inducted, in the late ‘forties, he was the single greatest glove man in… Read more »

Gary Mehok
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Gary Mehok

I make the above comment with the understanding that for the majority of fans, the opposite seems true; for years, Tinker’s place in the Hall of Fame has been questioned. Most people understand that Frank Chance was indeed a “peerless leader,” and Evers was one of the more accomplished and famous players of that entire area. But I’ve heard many people, even Cubs fans, say that Tinker got into the Hall of Fame strictly “because of a stupid poem.” Not true. Actually, at the time Tinker was inducted, in the late ‘forties, he was the single greatest glove man in… Read more »

emily
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Hello i am writting a thesis statement can you help me