Archive for May, 2012

A Bad Century: The Nadir (“Friggin’ Sun”)

May 9, 2012

Woody English (from the Engish website)

Down one game in the 1929 World Series, the Chicago Cubs had game two at home. They managed to lose it 9-3 to go down 0-2, but a change of scenery to Philadelphia seemed to make a difference. They won game three 3-1 behind Guy Bush. So now down two games to one, Chicago was ready to tie up the World Series and make it at best of three championship. The next game was to become one of the most famous games in World Series history, primarily for one astonishing inning. It also represents, to me, the absolute nadir of the Cubs Bad Century.

Game four was scheduled for 12 October in Shibe Park Philadelphia. The Cubs jumped on A’s starter Jack Quinn. Getting six runs off Quinn in five innings and two more off a pair of relievers, the Cubs looked ready to tie up the Series when the Athletics came to bat in the bottom of the seventh down 8-0. Charlie Root (of Babe Ruth’s “called shot” infamy) needed nine outs to lock up the Series. He got one.

Al Simmons led off the bottom of the seventh with a home run (count ’em up with me, 8-1), then consecutive singles by Jimmie Foxx, Bing Miller, Jimmy Dykes, and Joe Boley brought in two more (8-3). Pinch hitting for the pitcher, George Burns (not the comedian) popped out for Root’s only out. Max Bishop singled to bring in another run (8-4). That sent Root to the showers and brought in lefty Art Nehf who sported an impressive ERA of 5.58. Mule Haas greeted him with a three run inside the park home run (8-7). Center Field Wilson managed to lose the ball in the sun, letting it get by him all the way to the fence, clearing the bases. That was bad enough but Wilson wasn’t through proving he was in the lineup for his bat not his glove. Mickey Cochrane then walked, bringing out the hook for Nehf and bringing in Sheriff Blake. Simmons and Foxx both singled bringing in Cochrane (8-8). Out went Blake, in came Malone, the ace, who managed to plunk Miller. That brought up Dykes who doubled over Wilson’s head (another ball that Wilson lost in the sun) to score both Simmons and Foxx (8-10). Then Boley and Burns, designated rally killers supreme, both struck out to end the inning. The A’s scored 10 runs on 10 hits, a walk, an error, and two misplayed balls. Burns managed to make two outs in a single inning. So far as I can determine, only Stan Musial in 1942 managed to equal that feat. When the inning was over, Wilson, back in the dugout, is supposed to have muttered, “friggin’ sun.” (OK, he didn’t say “friggin'”, but this is a family friendly site.)

Lefty Grove entered the game, no hit the Cubs for two innings and picked up the save. The Series now stood 3-1 in favor of Philadelphia. Teams had come back from that kind of deficit before (not often, it’s true, but it had been done), so Chicago still had a chance. There was no game on Sunday, so Monday 14 October, the subject of my next post, would see game five.

A Bad Century: The Nadir (Older than the Rockies)

May 7, 2012

Riggs Stephenson, Hack Wilson, Rogers Hornsby, and KiKi Cuyler in 1929

Most people might tell you that the failure to win a pennant since 1945 is the nadir of the Chicago Cubs’ “Bad Century”. Others might pick the long list of last place finishes as their nadir. And In one sense they’d both be right. But for my money I pick 1929 because of the way in which the Cubs lost an available championship. Somehow that’s more awful than simply finishing last. Anybody can finish last, but to blow an entire World Series in two innings takes Cubs-like effort.

After losing the 1918 World Series, the Cubs became also rans in the National League, falling back into the pack for a decade. By 1929, they’d righted the ship, found a way back to a pennant and under manager Joe McCarthy (yes, the same McCarthy who would lead the Yankees through the 1930s) had a chance to pickup a championship. It was a solid team consisting of an infield of Charlie Grimm at first, Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby, Woody English at short, and third sacker Norm McMillan. The outfield had Riggs Stephenson in left and Hall of Famers Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler in center and right. Gabby Hartnett was the normal catcher, but arm injuries limited him to pinch hit duties in the Series, so Zack Taylor took his place behind the plate. Hornsby and Wilson tied for the team lead with 39 home runs, and Wilson led the NL in RBIs with 159 while Cuyler had 43 stolen bases to cop the league crown. The staff consisted of  ace Pat Malone, Sheriff Blake, Guy Bush, and Charlie Root (not yet infamous for throwing Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in 1932). They were all right-handed, gave up  more hits than they had innings pitched, and both Blake and Bush walked more men than they struck out. So the pitching was a bit of a problem, but Bush did lead the NL in saves with eight.

In 1929 they faced Connie Mack’s resurgent Philadelphia Athletics, whose losing streak went back even farther than Chicago’s. The A’s hadn’t won a pennant since 1914, but had won a World series in 1913, five years after the last Cubs victory. The 1929 Series could be seen as redemption for one team or the other.

With Lefty Grove as the staff ace, everyone expected Mack to start him in game one. The A’s skipper opted instead for Howard Ehmke. Ehmke was 35 and in the words of one wit “older than the Rockies.” He’d started eight games all season (11 total games pitched), was 7-2 with a 3.29 ERA and 20 total strikeouts. Not bad, but not Lefty Grove. What Ehmke had going for him was great command of the strike zone and a fastball that topped out at about Jaime Moyer level. Ehmke had never been a blazing fastball pitcher, but now he was, to put it as nicely as I can, slow. But for Mack that was exactly the point. The Cubs were notorious fastball hitters and free swingers (for the era). Mack reasoned that the Chicago batters would be too impatient to wait on Ehmke’s “fast” ball.
The game was played in Chicago on 8 October and for six innings Ehmke and Cubs starter Root matched shutouts. Both men were pitching well, Ehmke was simply mowing down (can you “mow down” a batter with a slow fastball?) Chicago hitter after Chicago hitter and Root had given up only two hits. In the top of the seventh, with one out, Jimmie Foxx crushed a ball that put the A’s up 1-0.  That held up until the ninth. In the top of the ninth with the bases loaded on a single and consecutive errors, Bing Miller singled to drive home two runs. In the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs finally got to Ehmke, picking up one unearned run on an error and a single. Then Ehmke closed the door by striking out the final man to preserve the A’s 3-1 win.

Root had pitched well, so had reliever Bush, but Ehmke was the story of the game. He gave up the one unearned run, scattered eight hits, walked one, and in what had to be utter vindication for Mack, struck out 13 Cubs. It was a record for a World Series game that lasted to 1953 (Carl Erskine got 14 k’s). And remember that Ehmke had only 20 strikeouts for the entire regular season.

So the Cubs were down 0-1 with another game at home. The World Series had started badly, but it was still possible to save it and bring home a championship to Chicago. But, of course, this is the Cubs we’re talking about.

A Bad Century

May 3, 2012

Tinker, Evers, and Chance (left to right)

Ever have one of those days? You know the one I mean, the one where nothing goes right no matter how hard you try. One of those? Yeah, of course you have. Well, baseball has a team with an entire century of those kind of days, the Chicago Cubs.

It wasn’t always that way. Chicago won the first ever National League pennant all the way back in 1876. On the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, it was seen as an omen to a number of Chicago city boosters. For a while it was. They won again in the 1880s, picking up a postseason championship along the way. There were down times in the 1890s, but they bounced back in the early 20th Century with a pretty good team. The 1906 version still has the highest winning percentage in Major League Baseball. But it was the 1908 team that represented the peak of Cubs baseball.

The 1908 Cubs won the National League pennant, one of the most famous of all pennant races, by a single game over Honus Wagner’s Pirates (I wonder if Wagner walked around going “aargh” or not. Probably not.) and John McGraw’s Giants. Although defending world Series champs, the Cubs faced a formidable opponent in the American League’s Detroit Tigers and Ty Cobb. The Tigers featured Cobb and fellow Hall of Fame inductee Sam Crawford in the outfield with Bill Donovan, Ed Killian, and Ed Summers on the mound. They’d won the American League pennant by a half game and had won it with hitting. Their pitchers records reflected their hitters abilities as much as they did the individual pitcher’s skills.

The Cubs, on the other hand, could both pitch and hit. Three Finger Brown, Jack Pfiester, and Orval Overall were superior hitters and the infield of Frank Chance (who doubled as manager), Johnny Evers, Joe Tinker, and Harry Steinfeldt was one of the best in baseball. The outfield was good with Jimmy Sheckard, Wildfire Schulte, and Solly Hofman patrolling the grass. Johnny Kling was considered one of the finest catchers in the NL.

Games one through three were high scoring, particularly for Deadball Era games. The Cubs and Brown won the first game 10-6 by plating five runs in the top of the ninth. Kling, hitting eighth, drove in the winning run with a clean single. Game two ended with a Cubs 6-1 victory. With both teams shutout going into the bottom of the eighth (game one was in Detroit, but games two and three were in Chicago) when the Cubs bunched together all six runs, highlighted by Tinker’s two-run homer. Detroit won game three in an 8-3 shootout. Again Chicago scored all its runs in one inning (the fourth), but this time Detroit also had a big inning. Down 3-1 in the top of the sixth, the Tigers strung together four singles, a bunt, and a double to plate five runs and put the game away.

Games four and five were back in Detroit where Chicago pitching took over. Brown and Overall both threw shutouts, Detroit got seven total hits, and the Cubs scored three runs in game four and two in the fifth game to capture the World Series. 

The Cubs hit .293 (Chance hit .421), had an OBP of .343 (Chance also led in walks with three), slugged .360 including the Series’ only home run (Tinker’s in game 2). That game them an OPS of .702 (Chance’s was .921 and Schulte’s .950. Detroit hit all of .209 with Cobb leading the team at .368. Their OBP was .272, with a slugging percentage of .241 (OPS of .512).

Cubs pitchers Brown and Overall each won two games (Pfiester took the loss). The team ERA was .260 and Chicago gave up only 33 hits and 13 earned runs. Detroit’s pitchers wern’t nearly as good. Donovan and Summers each took two losses (Mullen got the win). The team ERA was 3.68 and they gave up 48 hits and 18 earned runs.

The Cubs won another pennant in 1910, but lost the World Series to Philadelphia, then the team began to slide. It won the NL pennant again in 1918, but lost to Boston and Babe Ruth. Futility has reigned since. As it turned out, 1908 was the last World Series Chicago won. Bad century, indeed.

Making the World Safe for Baseball

May 1, 2012

 

Downtown Kassel, Germany

All the way back in 1970 I was in the US Army standing on the “frontlines of freedom” making “the world safe for democracy” in Kassel, Germany. It’s a nice town and by 1970 had been pretty much restored from the Second World War. Most of the time you had a couple of days off during the week. A bunch of us would get together, grab a ball, a few bats, some company catcher’s equipment, our mitts, and “borrow” some bases and play a little ball.

Kassel had this big park area that was divided into two sections, one for families and individuals to stroll around, sit on benches, and enjoy the flowers and sunshine (when the sun was shining). The other area was for sports. There were basketball and tennis courts. There was a soccer pitch. There was also this big open area that, if we could get there quick enough, we’d turn into a baseball diamond. We could usually get six or seven players a side and play a few innings. Frankly, we weren’t very good but we enjoyed the time, the friendship, the game.

It didn’t take long for the local German fellas to come wandering over to see “What the heck are the crazy Americans doing?” Most of us knew a smattering of German like “Ein bier, bitte” or “Wo is der toilette?” (I won’t translate either, bet you can figure both of them out). A number of the Germans knew some English, so it might take a while but eventually we could explain to them baseball. They were fairly sure soccer (futbol) was better and much harder because you can’t use your hands. That led to the simple action of flipping a guy a bat, telling him to go stand at home, and “now try to hit the ball, slick.” They couldn’t. and that intrigued them so we began finding more and more Germans waiting for us when we came to play ball. We eventually ended up with enough guys to form two teams, have a couple of umpires, and even a sub or two on occasion.

I left after about a year to work on my degree. By that time I left, the Germans were getting better. They never understood the finer points of the game (and even I don’t understand all of them) but most could hit a little, could catch the ball most of the time, and were learning how to throw a baseball. They could run the bases well, but pitching seemed to absolutely buffalo them. I don’t recall a single local who could do more than lob the ball toward the plate.

I don’t know if they still play ball in Kassel. I know the army base closed. I don’t even know if the open space is still there. I do know that at least for a while, a handful of men and boys in Kassel, Germany got to experience the joys of a wonderful game. I hope some of them still do and that the ones my age still remember the moment fondly.