Great pitching, lucky breaks, and clubhouse brawls brought the Chicago Cubs their (clears throat) most recent World's Championship in 1908. Stacked with four future Hall of Famers, including the immortalized "Tinker to Evers to Chance" double-play trio, and dominant pitching by Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, the Cubs beat the Detroit Tigers in five games in the lowest-attended World Series of all time. Save low attendance, what did this championship team have that the Cubs currently don't? Let's explore.
1908 was a season characterized by dominant pitching. This was the dead ball era, and "small ball" was the order of the day. Bunting, speed, and pitching was how a team scrapped out runs. In fact, the lowest average runs scored per game in baseball history, 3.4, occurred in 1908. Contrast that to today's World Series teams, where the Cardinals (4.83 RPG) and Red Sox (5.265 RPG) topped their respective leagues during the regular season, and the 2013 Cubs (3.71 RPG), by a margin of 1 to 1.5 RPG. The 1908 champion Cubs scored 3.9 runs per game, topping the worst teams in the National League, by the same margin, 1 to 1.5 RPG. Incidentally, the worst team in the Major Leagues that year was the St. Louis Cardinals, who lost 105 games and only scored 2.4 RPG. (I had to sneak that in there.) So while I realize the futility of comparing and contrasting two radically different eras of baseball, where it counts, scoring more runs than other teams, the differentials and margin of victory is about the same.
In the Cubs' current search for a new manager, much is being made about the prospective candidate's ability to create a positive clubhouse culture and winning environment, but the clubhouse culture of the 1908 Cubs can truly be described as dysfunctional. In one incident, Player/ Manager Frank Chance, along with the rest of the team, pummeled backup second baseman Heinie Zimmerman in a clubhouse brawl, sending him to the hospital. This melee started when Zimmerman threw a bottle of ammonia at outfielder Jimmy Sheckard's head, and nearly blinded him in one eye. Furthermore, shortstop Joe Tinker and second baseman Johnny Evers had also brawled three years earlier and didn't speak to each other (except when they had to for baseball reasons) until 1938, when they broadcast the World Series together. If ever there were a "lost clubhouse", this was one. These fightin' Cubs sound more like the Cubs of a few years ago, when the likes of Carlos Zambrano, Derek Lee, Michael Barrett, and [name redacted] graced the North Side with their presence. And it's true, our most recent brawling teams did win a lot more games than the team the Cubs currently field, and they were at least more exciting to watch. Luis Valbuena doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would try to blind Nate Schierholtz with a bottle of Clorox, and Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro communicate just fine. Hell! Barney probably helps Castro study English! Does the current roster lack the fire needed to win it all? Does fighting help winning? Possibly.
The Cubs of 1908 were also older than the 2014 Cubs will likely be, with ages ranging from 26 to 32 for their best players. Compare that to the current roster's best players, ("best players", meaning, who is supposed to be the best). Today's Cubs range in age from 23 to 28, and the youth movement plan the front office is currently employing to build for the future, with a highly ranked farm system, does seem poised for success as our future stars gain experience in the Majors. However, winning with our current team hinges on whether Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija can turn into the future stars we all hope they are, as they enter their mid to late 20s. The 1908 Cubs contended in 1903, when they were younger, and went to the World Series from 1906-08. 2013 should have been our 1902, where the Chicago Orphans ended the season a game under .500. That didn't happen for the Cubs this past season. These days, most teams would rather have a high draft pick than a .500 season, but at some point (hopefully 2014) the Cubs may start to show the glimmer of hope that a .500 season is.
Let's compare individual players by position. Catcher Welington Castillo had an OPS of .746 last year, compared to Johnny Kling's 1908 mark of .697. Maybe this was due to the fact that Kling would have just as happily hustled pool than baseball. In fact, he sat out the entire 1909 season due to a contract dispute, and ended up winning the World's Championship of Pool against Charles "Cowboy" Weston that year. Let's hope our beloved Beef Castle doesn't have a second love that will take him away from the team. Luckily, Dioner Navarro's apparent love of Chinese Buffets hasn't seemed to affect his performance, sporting an OPS of .856 last year. Kling was a huge element of the Cubs success in the oughts. He was known as "Noisy John" for his incessant chatter, getting in the heads of opponents. Welly and Navarro can chatter in two languages, and they hit better too. Advantage 2014!
First base: Rizzo vs. Player/Manager Frank Chance. Well, there is no comparison yet. Veteran Hall of Famer vs. Kid. I sincerely doubt Anthony Rizzo will manage anything except a car dealership if he doesn't pull his batting average up. Kidding. Rizzo is actually pretty good, though he needs to improve drastically to get anywhere near Frank Chance. Rizzo's .742 OPS in 2013, helped by 40 doubles, pales in comparison to Frank Chance's deadball-era career .788 OPS. Could Rizzo be the team leader who would kick the stuffing out of a guy in the clubhouse for throwing a bottle of noxious cleaning liquid? A guy named Tony Rizzo might, but not Anthony. Anthony seems nice. We all hope Rizzo will blossom into the player Jed Hoyer has traveled all over the country with, but at this point, Advantage: 1908.
Second base: Johnny Evers was the brains behind the famous Merkle's Boner Play, where Evers pointed out to the umpires that Fred Merkle of the New York Giants had failed to touch second base on a walk off game winning hit. Evers retrieved a ball (most likely not the game ball), and touched second base, forcing Merkle out at second, thus, no game winning run. The game had to be replayed because the New York fans had already stormed the field, celebrating. The Cubs then won the makeup game, winning the pennant, and then won the World Series. Because of this heads-up play, Evers was known as one of the smartest players in baseball. Darwin Barney seems like the type of player with brains for the game as well. He is well spoken in interviews, and just seems like a smart guy. However, in 1908, Evers led the team by batting .300, and an OBP of .402. Barney has never come close to these numbers, even in the minor leagues. And though Barney's defense is exceptional, Evers was no slouch either. Advantage 1908.
Shortstop: HOFer Joe Tinker vs. Starlin Castro. Too early to tell. When Castro first came up to the majors, his talent was obvious, and the sky seemed to be the limit. Hopefully 2013's .245 BA was a fluke for Starlin and he can get back to his old self. Joe Tinker had his fare share of off years too, batting only .221 in 1907, a championship year, only to raise his batting average a full 45 points the next year. In Tinker's rookie season of 1902, he led the league with 72 errors, but turned it all around in 1906 where he had the best fielding percentage among shortstops with a .944 fielding percentage. He also topped the Cubs in the hits category with 146 with 14 triples and six home runs in 1908, while playing every single game of the season. Castro showed signs of being a better fielder by the end of last season, but he ended up with the worst fielding pctg in the NL. Hopefully, he can return to his 2011 form, where he batted .307, if so, we may have a perennial all-star in Castro. But a HOFer? Not yet. Advantage 1908, but hopefully this will change.
Harry Steinfeldt, the Cubs' 1908 third baseman, found out he was good at baseball while touring in Texas as a minstrel show performer, signed with the Reds. He was traded to the Cubs in 1906; he led the league in hits, stole 29 bases and finished second to Honus Wagner in batting average. Steinfeldt was a regular in the Cubs infield for five years. The 2014 Cubs have no third baseman, or at least we have no idea who it might be. The candidates are Mike Olt, who, like Jimmy Sheckard, is experiencing vision problems -- luckily, not because a teammate threw ammonia in his face; Donnie Murphy, who hit 11 homers in only 149 AB's, and Luis Valbuena who batted just .218 last year. Could Kris Bryant be the Cubs' Steinfeldt of the future? Let's hope! And he doesn't even have to be in a minstrel show. But there are too many "if's" here. Advantage 1908, at least so far.
The 1908 outfield was basically a platoon situation, with Jimmy Sheckard, Jimmy Slagle, and Frank Schulte sharing time with Jack Hayden, Del Howard, and "Circus" Solly Hofman among a few others. All three regular starters and Howard batted left handed, while Hofman has been called the "first utility man", playing both outfield and infield. Schulte led the trio of starters with a paltry .236 BA, but Howard batted a respectable .279, and Hoffman collected 100 hits at various positions. There is not a HOFer in the 1908 group, so the 2014 Cubs have a shot here. The 2013 Cubs outfield of Nate Schierholtz, Ryan Sweeney, and Junior Lake, with occasional appearances by Brian Bogusevic and Darnell McDonald, has Schierholtz hitting 21 home runs, Lake showing early promise by tearing up the National League in his first few weeks as a major leaguer, Sweeney showing a bit of pop with six dingers in a small sample size, and Bogusevic hitting a respectable .273, and McDonald providing one memorable moment by helping the Cubs win their final home game of 2013 with a three-run shot.
If Lake can prove he's a big leaguer, and Schierholtz can actually have the career year he had through the first half of 2013, we might have something here. I have a feeling we may also see a trade this winter for another regular outfielder as well, so who will be patrolling the outfield on April 1 in Pittsburgh is anyone's guess. Of course, we're all waiting for Jorge Soler to be ready, "The Great Cuban Hope". I'll give the advantage to the 2014 Cubs here. Though unproven, and unknown, I think any of the Cubs' current outfield could have played on the 1908 team and that team still would have won the championship. I'd like to believe the 2014 Cubs outfield will be full of promise.
Pitching: Is Shark the next Three Finger Brown? Well, the only physical handicap Jeff has is his hairstyle. Zing! Most of the innings in 1908 were eaten up by Mordecai Brown, Ed Reulbach, Jack Pfiester, and Orval Overall, with occasional starts by Chick Fraser and Carl Lundgren. The Cubs had a team ERA of 2.14, which was tied for third-best in the National League with the NY Giants. Brown had an ERA of only 1.47, while Reulbach has the distinction of being the only player in major league history to throw two complete-game shutouts on the same day -- something that will never happen again. Orval Overall, who might have the best name ever, had a 1.92 ERA, and was the pitcher on the mound when the Cubs won the World Series. Compare these guys to the current Cubs, and the only one that comes close in proven talent amongst Jeff Samardzija, Wood and Edwin Jackson -- who were the only Cubs to throw over 150 innings in 2013 -- is Wood with an ERA of 3.11. The Cubs' team ERA was an even 4.00, third-worst in the National League. This is an easy win for the 1908 Cubs. Mordecai Brown is legendary. I'm hoping Wood and Samardzija will be too someday. But it hasn't happened yet. Advantage 1908; obviously, pitchers in the deadball era had a huge advantage.
As far as the other pitchers who eat up innings, i.e. "the bullpen". It was a completely different game in 1908, with the starters regularly completing games. (108 complete games for the Cubs in 1908 alone!) But I think third-best vs. third-worst ERA in the National league pretty much tells the tale. Mordecai Brown had five saves that year and 29 wins! Advantage 1908.
Well, as you can see, the 1908 Cubs were clearly a better ball club than the 2014 Cubs are projected to be. No surprise here. So, what do the current Cubs need to do to succeed? Well, improvements in pitching, hitting, speed and defense would be a start. (Yeah, that's just about everything.)
The Cubs led the league in stolen bases in 1908, the 2013 Cubs were third to last with 63. The 1908 Cubs had an OBP of .311, second best in the NL, while the 2013 Cubs were second to worst with .300. The 2013 Cubs also scored the second fewest runs, while the 1908 crew scored the second most. It goes on and on like this. Champs vs. Chumps is a pretty good description. So what's the solution? Should Samardzija chop off a few fingers? Should Luis Valbuena attack Nate Schierholtz with a bottle of ammonia? Should Welington Castillo take up pool? Should we make Anthony Rizzo the new manager? No. Of course not, but that motley crew won it all in 1908. Hopefully, the 2014 Cubs will be a little bit more like the ghosts of Chicago's baseball past, at least when it comes to winning World's Championships.
Mordecai Brown (SDN-006870, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum)