I thought I’d write up a companion article about the last Cubs team to win the World Series, 108 years ago, and how that came about.
You certainly know the famous story about Fred Merkle and his failure to touch second base on what appeared to be a game-winning hit by Merkle’s Giants in a game against the Cubs at the Polo Grounds in New York on September 23, 1908. The game was later declared a tie by league officials and was replayed October 8, with the Cubs winning 4-2. That gave them the pennant by one game over the Giants (and Pirates, too) — otherwise we’d have been subjected to “1907! 1907!” taunts instead of the last World Series title being in 1908.
The pennant won, the Cubs had just two days to prepare a trip to Detroit for Game 1 of the World Series against the Tigers, which was played October 10. The oddly-scheduled Series had Game 1 in Detroit, Games 2, 3 and 4 in Chicago and then Game 5 again in Detroit.
Ty Cobb, who was just 21 years old but already acknowledged as one of the biggest stars in the game, singled in a run in the first inning for Detroit, but the Cubs put four on the board off Tigers starter Ed Killian in the third. Two Tigers errors helped the Cubs take the lead, and another error helped the Cubs to a 5-1 lead in the top of the seventh.
But the Tigers put together a three-run rally in the bottom of that inning to make the score 5-4, and two Cubs errors helped lead to two Detroit runs in the eighth.
Leading 6-5, they needed just three outs to take a 1-0 Series lead. After Johnny Evers was retired for the first out in the ninth, the Cubs put five straight singles on the board to take an 8-6 lead, and after a double steal put runners on second and third, Johnny Kling singled in both runners for a five-run inning. The Tigers got two runners on off Mordecai Brown in the bottom of the ninth, but Cobb grounded out to end the game and the teams headed to Chicago with the Cubs up one game to none.
There was a reason for the sloppy play, as the Tribune reported: “The battle took place under the most wretched conditions imaginable, as it was started in the early stages of a rain storm which never ceased and it was finished on a field so soggy that footing was insecure and the base lines nearly two inches deep in mud.”
Travel day? Not for this World Series, not with Chicago only a few hours’ train ride from Detroit. The teams traveled on “a special train,” said the Tribune, arriving in time for a 2 p.m. start at West Side Grounds. The game went scoreless into the bottom of the eighth, when Joe Tinker homered with Solly Hofman on base after a single. That was the first Cubs home run in a World Series game. It opened the proverbial floodgates: Kling doubled, but after a groundout made two out in the inning, Jimmy Sheckard singled him in and stole second. Another single made it 4-0, and Frank “Wildfire” Schulte’s triple made it 5-0 Cubs. Schulte scored on a wild pitch to complete the Cubs’ scoring.
Cobb drove in a consolation run off Orval Overall in the ninth, but the Cubs had a two games to none Series lead.
The attendance was announced as 17,760, but others watched on what the Tribune called its “Electrical Baseball Board” at the Auditorium Theater. In this pre-radio, pre-TV age, large electric boards with representations of fielders, batters and runners were set up in public or private places to follow baseball games. The Theater charged 25 or 50 cents, or $1 for “box seats.”
The Cubs took a 3-1 lead into the sixth behind Jack Pfiester, but after a walk and a single, there was a sacrifice bunt attempt. All runners were safe to load the bases and Detroit followed with three straight singles to plate four runs for a 5-3 lead. A double play seemed to right the ship, but a run-scoring double followed to make it 6-3, and Pfiester was touched up for two more runs in the eighth.
14,543 attended this game, played on a Monday afternoon. Ticket scalping had been a serious problem for these games, as the Tribune reported: “Letters and disgusted fans poured into newspaper offices yesterday, all with the same tale of being unable to buy reserved seat tickets from the box office, but of being offered the coveted pasteboards from scalpers before the public sale began. The result has been an estimated loss of attendance of 15,000 for the two games played in Chicago, and an estimated loss in receipts of $25,000, the bulk of which would have gone to the players.”
The more things change... In that pre-Commissioner era, the game was ruled by something called the National Commission, whose members were A.L. President Ban Johnson, N.L. President Harry Pulliam, and Cincinnati Reds President August “Garry” Herrmann. The only one who would speak on this topic was Johnson, quoted in the Tribune: “I think, in response to public demand and to relieve clubowners from charges of favoritism, it will be necessary for the national commission to assume charge of all sale of tickets, both reserved and general admission.”
Whether this was done at that time is unclear, but there were charges of favoritism and tickets given over to local politicians, among others. This helped lead to even smaller attendance figures for the rest of the series.
Mordecai Brown twirled a four-hit shutout with no walks and the Cubs plated two runs in the third inning on RBI singles by Harry Steinfeldt and Solly Hofman. That would have been enough, but with two runners on in the ninth, Frank Chance hit what the Tribune called “a vicious fly ball” right at Cobb, who muffed it, a run scoring.
The smallest crowd of the series at West Side Grounds, 12,907, watched the Cubs take a three games to one lead. But 3,500 more watched the “electric board” at the Auditorium Theater, and the Tribune (who sponsored the board) was enthusiastic in writing:
Just what is to be done with the big score board after the World’s series is over is getting to be a serious matter with the fans who have watched it day after day. Each of the little electric lights has come to have its own personality, and as each was switched on yesterday it was greeted with calls of “Go to it, Tinker!” “Come on, Frank, old boy!” that had as much affection in them as the players themselves had ever called forth.
They don’t write ‘em like that anymore, that’s for sure. Keep in mind that electric lights were still somewhat of a novelty to people in 1908, and a board like this was the rough equivalent of having the MLB At Bat app on your phone today, the height of new technology at the time.
Once again traveling to Detroit and playing with no off day in between, the Cubs got another brilliantly-pitched game, a three-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts by Orval Overall. To this day no other Cubs pitcher has struck out that many in a World Series game — perhaps a mark to be bettered in 2016! The most K’s by a Cubs pitcher in a World Series game since 1908 is seven, done five times, most recently by Jon Lester in Game 1 this year.
Of this game, I.E. Sanborn of the Tribune wrote:
Not in the memory of this generation of fans has any team won its honors with greater credit than that which belongs to Frank Chance’s warriors. Not in a thousand years has a team been compelled to fight as hard for its titles as the Chicago team, which won the National league pennant twice inside of five days under the most trying circumstances. But, once assured of the National league’s banner, the rest proved comparatively easy, just as Chance’s men and their admirers have contended. For the same reason undoubtedly today’s final crowd of the year was the smallest that had watched a world’s series battle under modern conditions, the official count showing only a little over 6,000 fans present despite ideal conditions.
To this day, the crowd of 6,210 that day is the smallest to ever watch a World Series game. There will be just a few more inside Wrigley Field tonight for Game 3 of the 2016 World Series, the first World Series game at Wrigley in 71 years, and few reading this were alive when that happened.
Here’s hoping for three more Cubs wins this weekend, so players like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks and the rest of this year’s squad will be remembered by future generations the way we look back fondly at long-ago Cubs World Series winners.