Most of us are familiar with the futility that is the Chicago Cubs. They haven’t made a World Series since 1945, didn’t make any kind of playoff between 1945 and 1984, can’t win the big one. But once upon a time (yeah, I know it’s a fairy tale opening, but some of you will think this is a fairy tale) the Cubs were good and even won the World Series.
Between 1906 and 1910 the Cubs were the best team in the National League. They went to the World Series 4 times, winning- yes, I said winning-twice (The Series they missed was 1909). In 1906 they lost to their crosstown rivals the White Sox and lost in 1910 to the bulding Philadelphia Athletics dynasty. In between they won.
The 1907 team won the pennant by 17 games over Pittsburgh. It faced off against a Ty Cobb led Detroit Tigers team that won 92 games. Game one of the Series was a 12 inning tie called because of darkness. At the time, players win/loss shares were determined by gate receipts for all games played. There was talk that the teams had deliberately tied in order to raise the Series cut each player got. The rule was changed later to give the players a cut of only the first 4 games played, thus making this a significant Series despite the outcome. After game one, the Cubs blew by the Tigers in 4 straight posting a 257 batting average (to 209 for the Tigers) and on 0.75 ERA (to 2.15 for Detroit). The Cubs hitting star was third baseman Harry Steinfeld who hit .471 with 8 hits and the only team triple.
The next season saw a rematch of the Series as Chicago topped New York in one of the most famous pennant races ever, winning on the last day of the season in a make up game (the so-called “Merkle game”), while Detroit also ended up on top by a half game in another terrific pennant race. The Tigers did better in this Series, they won game three. The Cubs picked up their second consecutive World Series title (and last so far) with a .293 batting average (to .203 for Detroit) and an ERA of 2.60 (to the Tigers’ 3.68).
In 1909, the Cubs lost the pennant to Pittsburgh by 6.5 games. In 1910 they won the National League again, this time by 13 games over the New York Giants, but lost the Series to the A’s in 5 games. The run was over and it took until 1918 for the Cubs to make it back to first place.
It was an era of small rosters and little turnover, so much of the team that won the two World Series’ was the same. The infield constisted of (this time from third around to first in honor of Franklin Adams) Harry Steinfeldt, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. The outfield was Frank “Wildfire” Schulte, Jimmy Slagle, and Jimmy Sheckard, with Johnny Kling behind the plate. The same starting eight began most of the games in both seasons. The bench (all players with 40 or more games played) consisted of outfielder Solly Hofman, catcher Pat Moran, and first baeman-outfielder Del Howard in 1907 and Hofman, Howard, Moran, and new guy Heinie Zimmerman in 1908.
It’s not an overly impressive set of hitters (Chance, Evers, and Tinker are the only Hall of Famers). It’s not bad, just not impressive. Only Evers managed to hit 300 (exactly 300 in 1908), and Schulte’s .386 in 1907 is the highest slugging percentage. Only Steinfeldt in 1907 managed as many as 70 RBIs. Those aren’t bad numbers for Deadball baseball, but a lot of players did a lot better.
Their fielding, despite the poem, was middle of the pack, although Kling is generally considered the finest fielding catcher of the day. What they really could do was pitch and pitch well. Hall of Famer Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown was the ace of the staff winning 20 and 29 games in the two seasons with ERAs of 1.39 and 1.47. He struck out 240 men in the two seasons combined, which isn’t a bad number for the era. Orville Overall (ain’t that a great name?) won 23 and 15 games and contributed 308 strikeouts, which is great for the era. Ed Reulbach won 17 and 24 games, while the team lefty Jack Pfeister won 15 and 12 games. In 1907 Carl Lundgren added 18 wins.
I have no idea how to explain the Cubs futility since. They’ve certainly had better players. If I were putting together an all-time, all-Cubs team Brown is probably the only one of these guys to make it, but they did do something that none of the teams with the better players managed to do–they won.