1908: That Other Race

The 1908 season is most famous for the National League pennant race and the Merkle Game. but there was a heck of a race in the American League too. Three teams were in contention on the last day.

After five months of solid baseball, the American League race came down to September and October. Detroit was in first place with St Louis (the Browns, not the Cardinals), Chicago, and Cleveland all bunched 2.5 games or less behind. By the 23rd, the date of the Merkle Game, St. Louis had fallen off, but the other 3 were still tightly bunched with Cleveland 2.5 games ahead. On the 25th, Detroit would begin a run that led to 10 consecutive wins against the A’s, Washington, and St. Louis. Then they dropped two in a row to the White Sox.

Meanwhile the ChiSox and Cleveland had kept pace. On 2 October they met each other in one of the finest pitching duels ever. White Sox pitcher Ed Walsh, on his way to a 40 win season, struck out 15 and gave up a single run. Addie Joss, the Naps hurler, was even better. He threw a perfect game.

By 6 October, the end of the regular season, Detroit was a half game up and played Chicago. They won 7-0 to put the Sox back 1.5 games. Cleveland beat St. Louis 5-1 to finish a half game back. Detroit ended the season 90-63, Cleveland 90-64, and Chicago 88-64. Only the Naps had played a complete schedule, both Chicago and Detroit losing a game to a rainout. Under the rules of the day, the  game didn’t have to be made up. So the Tigers went to the World Series and promptly lost in 5 games. The American League moved to change the rules requiring ties and rainouts be made up if they impacted the pennant. There is no record of the Naps’ asking “What took so long?”

On an individual basis, Walsh ended the season 40-15 over 66 games (49 of them starts) and led the league with 269 strikeouts and 7 saves (a stat not yet invented). Joss’ 1.16 ERA topped the league. In hitting Ty Cobb won the batting, slugging, hits, doubles, triples, and RBI titles, while outfield teammate Wahoo Sam Crawford took the home run crown (in 1909 Cobb would complete the Triple Crown). The other Tigers outfielder, Matty McIntyre, led the league in runs scored , making it one of the more productive outfields ever. Chicago’s Patsy Dougherty led in steals with 47.

Over the years the American League race has been obscured by the National League. That’s a great shame because it was equally sensational. There just wasn’t one game and one incident that turned the season quite so dramatically as Fred Merkle’s dash toward second.

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