The Cubs had won three straight pennants, and were going for a fourth... but without a key member of the team.
In 1909, the Cubs were coming off three straight pennants and two straight World Series wins; virtually all of the key players were returning, and the Cubs were generally considered the best team in baseball.
They won 104 games. This number of wins, 103 years later, is still tied for the third-most in franchise history. It's also significant for another reason: the 1909 Cubs are the only team in major-league history to win that many games and not finish in first place.
That's because the Pirates chose that year to win a franchise-record 110 games -- one of only two seasons in Pittsburgh history (1902 was the other) that they've won 100 or more games.
One of the reasons for that six-game deficit could have been the major-league record of the man you see pictured at the top of this post. Go ahead, look. What stands out when you first look at it? That's right, a missing season, 1909. Johnny Kling was the catcher for four Cubs pennant-winning teams (1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910). He was generally regarded as one of the best catchers of his time.
He sat out the 1909 season. Why? There are a number of stories, but this SABR biography perhaps sums it up best:
Following the Cubs' championship year in 1908, Kling won the world pocket billiards championship. He then invested about $50,000 in a billiard emporium in Kansas City, informed Murphy of the investment and requested an indefinite leave of absence. Murphy granted this in writing and Kling promised that if he could subsequently arrange his affairs so that he could leave his business in the hands of others, he would join the team. The arrangement was on the best of terms according to the investigative report by the National Commission in 1910, when Kling had applied for reinstatement into baseball. This story, as told in the Commission's report, varies with news articles that described Kling as a holdout, unable to negotiate a satisfactory contract with Murphy. But those statements were not true. Kling had a valid contract for 1907, '08 and '09 as pointed out in the Commission's report. And in spite of receiving an indefinite leave from Murphy, Kling was held to be in violation of his contract for not playing. He was fined $700 and allowed to return to the Chicago team. He was given a $4500 salary, the same as in 1908.
103 years ago, a man could think he'd make better money in pocket billiards than baseball. But there it is, and that's apparently why Kling skipped a full year in baseball. ($50,000 was a large sum in 1909 -- worth about $1.25 million in 2012 dollars, according to this calculator.)
Kling's replacements, Jimmy Archer, Pat Moran and Tom Needham, combined to hit .221/.259/.280. Even with the generally lower numbers posted in the deadball era, that was pretty bad (Kling hit .276/.315/.382 in 1908, which was good for a 119 OPS+). Kling posted 3.8 rWAR in 1908 and, had there been a MVP award then, probably would have received some votes (he did in 1911). His replacements combined for 0.7 rWAR; that implies Kling alone would have given the Cubs three more wins. That wouldn't by itself have made up the six-game gap, but who knows? The 1909 Cubs pretty much crushed everyone in the league except the Pirates; they were 9-13 against Pittsburgh, but 95-36 against everyone else.
They had held first place briefly early in the season, but fell into second (as it turned out, to stay) on May 30, when they got swept in a doubleheader by the Pirates. They began to close the gap in early August, and on August 8 at West Side Grounds, they won their 10th straight game, 7-0 over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Here's how I.E. Sanborn of the Tribune led his game wrap:
Mordecai Brown, T.F.S., and the Cubs made short work of the Dodgers, nee Superbas, yesterday in the second skirmish of the current campaign against Brooklyn. Brown plastered whitewash all over the enemy and let them down with three hits, while the Cubs were making such swell use of the six hits they gathered off McIntyre that the final count was 7 to 0. Incidentally it was Mordecai's tenth straight victory.
They don't write 'em like that any more. What "T.F.S." means, I have no idea. Here's how Sanborn described the Cubs getting out of a jam:
Burch startled the bugs a little by rapping a single off the reel. Clement sacrificed him to second, but the runner got all tangled up on Marshall's rap to Tinker and was run out by Joe and Steiny, with Evers as executioner. Alperman whiffed for the first of three straight times.
Translation: Burch surprised the fans in attendance with a leadoff single; after a sacrifice, Burch got caught in a rundown, tagged out by Evers, and then Alperman struck out to end the inning.
The win brought the Cubs to a record of 66-30, 2½ games behind the Pirates at 68-27, but they could get no closer, despite going 38-19 the rest of the way. The Pirates went 42-15 and won the pennant. If not for that season, the Cubs, after winning the NL pennant in 1910, would have become the first major-league team to win five straight league titles.