Imagine that. A 20-year World Series drought. Why, Cubs fans could do that in their sleep! (And did. For decades longer. Anyway.)
The Philadelphia A’s, the Cubs’ opponent, had gone through a similar dry spell, though that was by design. After they won the pennant in 1914, owner/manager Connie Mack sold off all his veteran stars and the team lost 117 games in 1916. But slowly he built them back, and after a couple of very good 90+ win seasons in 1927 and 1928 they won 104 games and cruised to the A.L. title by 18 games.
The Cubs weren’t quite that good, but they were a strong 98-win club, their most victories since 1910, and won the N.L. pennant by a comfortable 10½ games. Most observers saw the World Series as a pretty even match.
The Cubs would have home field in the WS in ‘29, by the alternate-year home field scheme of the time, and so they got ready to host the A’s for Game 1, October 8. Everyone thought Mack would send out one of his pitching stars, Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg or George Earnshaw.
Instead, though, Mack had something up his sleeve. Howard Ehmke, a 35-year-old veteran who’d pitched in only 11 games for the A’s that year, had been sent on a scouting mission by Mack once it became clear the A’s and Cubs would match up in the World Series. Here’s how it came about, from Ehmke’s SABR biography:
According to Ehmke, the plan was hatched in early September when the two discussed the right-handed-heavy and free-swinging Chicago lineup. Prior to making his final start of the season, a victory over the White Sox on September 13, Ehmke had scouted the Cubs, who were playing the Phillies several blocks away from Shibe Park in the Baker Bowl.
It was brilliant. Ehmke struck out 13 Cubs — then a World Series record — and the A’s won Game 1, 3-1. The A’s also won Game 2, 9-3, so the Cubs then had to go on the road to try to make up the deficit.
Guy Bush threw a complete game and the Cubs won Game 3, 3-1. And they took an 8-0 lead into the seventh inning in Game 4, just nine outs away from evening up the series with their ace Charlie Root on the mound.
What could possibly...
Everything, that’s what. The A’s had plated four runs in the inning — one on a fly ball lost in the sun by Hack Wilson — and there was one out and two runners on base. Root had been lifted for Art Nehf and Mule Haas came to the plate. Then this happened:
Mule Haas, who had hit 16 home runs in 1929, sent Nehf’s first fastball on a line toward center field. Wilson drifted back. Despite his sunglasses, he again lost the ball in the glare. It soared over his head and rolled to the fence. The desperate outfielder ran the ball down, Boley and Bishop scoring. Haas, defying his nickname, sprinted like lightning around the bases. Wilson heaved a late throw in, and Haas slid into the home dish in a cloud of dust. Safe, declared Van Graflan.
Oh, brother. Now it’s 8-7 and two more Cubs pitchers could not put the rally out until three more runs had scored. The 10 runs still stand as the most ever in a World Series inning (tied by the 1968 Tigers). The Cubs lost the game 10-8, a game they should have won easily.
At the time only one World Series team had come back from a three games to one deficit, as the 2016 Cubs famously did decades later. It was of recent memory in 1929 — the 1925 Pirates did it against the Washington Senators.
So perhaps there was hope. If the Cubs could win Game 5, they’d come back to Wrigley Field for Games 6 and 7, not that home field mattered in losing Games 1 and 2.
Cubs righthander Pat Malone pitched brilliantly. Through eight innings he had allowed just two singles and a walk. The Cubs had fashioned a 2-0 lead in the fourth off their Game 1 tormentor, Howard Ehmke.
Three more outs and the Cubs would still have a chance.
Malone struck out Walt French. Two outs to go.
Max Bishop singled. All right, it’s just a single. Up stepped Mule Haas. Haas smashed a two-run homer to right, game tied.
Malone got Mickey Cochrane to ground out. One more out and the game would head to extra innings. Al Simmons followed with a double and Jimmie Foxx was intentionally walked. That brought Bing Miller to the plate. Irving Vaughan of the Tribune describes what happened on a 2-2 pitch:
The ball that brought Miller the glory he was seeking went zooming toward the scoreboard in right center. It was apparent from the instant it started that it was headed for open territory, but while Simmons was racing toward the plate with the winning run and a young riot was breaking out in the Mack dugout, Wilson kept chasing the ball. In the excitement he didn’t forget that it would be a pretty good souvenir. He picked it up and started his long walk to the clubhouse.
Miller was credited with a double and just like that, the A’s won the game 3-2 and were World Series champions.
The Cubs had both Game 4 and Game 5 in hand and lost both. They could have come back to Wrigley up three games to two — a scenario like the 2019 World Series, where the visitors won every game.
But no. The Cubs World Series drought continued. Team owner William Wrigley (termed “The King of Catalina” in the article) was interviewed by the Tribune’s Edward Burns on the train back to Chicago and said:
We did the best we could and that wasn’t enough. But already we’re thinking of next year. We’re going to strengthen, and fight and stick like anything. And you can put the loud pedal on that word strengthen. The Cubs are not going to sit around and figure what might have been in the series this year. They are going to figure out what is needed to prevent a recurrence next year.
I promised Chicago a pennant and we all plowed through disappointments till we got one. I now promise Chicago a world championship, and I hope and believe we have gone through all the disappointment required to effect this purpose. I have but one instruction for those two able men, Bill Veeck and Joe McCarthy. It’s ‘strengthen for 1930.’”
Oh, poor William Wrigley, who would be dead less than two years later. He’d never have believed you if you had told him it would take 87 more years to realize his dream.
And if not for two jaw-dropping blown leads, the Cubs might have won it all in 1929.