An exciting and controversial three-team pennant race developed in the National League in 1908, with the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and New York Giants battling right down to the wire to determine which club represented the senior circuit in the World Series. In the end, a 19-year-old rookie named Fred Merkle played a huge role in determining the eventual outcome.
With the Cubs facing the Giants in a pivotal September 23 matchup at New York’s Polo Grounds, the home team put runners on first and third with two men out and the score tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning. With Merkle on at first base for the Giants, Al Bridwell delivered what appeared to be a game-winning single to centerfield for New York. Thinking the game had ended, Merkle bypassed second base and headed straight for the New York clubhouse. However, Chicago second baseman Johnny Evers got the attention of the umpire who, after seeing Evers tag second base with the ball, declared Merkle forced out at second, thereby nullifying the winning run. A storm of protests, counter-protests, and league hearings followed, with National League president Harry Pulliam finally ruling that the game would have to be replayed in its entirety at the end of the regular season if it proved to have a bearing on the pennant race.
As it turned out, the Giants and Cubs finished the regular season with an identical record, forcing the two teams to meet in a decisive season finale to determine the league champion. Chicago defeated New York by a score of 4-2 in the make-up game, with Mordecai Brown outpitching Christy Mathewson in a battle of staff aces. The victory gave the Cubs a record of 99-55, placing them one game ahead of both the Giants and the Pirates in the final standings, and giving them their third straight National League pennant. The Cubs then experienced little difficulty defeating the Detroit Tigers in the World Series for the second consecutive year, needing only five games to dispose of their overmatched opponents. The Cubs outscored the Tigers 24-15 during the Fall Classic, outhit them 48-33, posted a team batting average of .293 to Detroit’s mark of only .209, and compiled a team ERA of 2.60, while Detroit’s staff posted a team mark of 3.68. Mordecai Brown pitched particularly well for Chicago, going 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA, and allowing the Tigers only six hits over 11 scoreless innings. More than 100 years later, the Cubs have yet to win another world championship.
While the 1908 Cubs exhibited their usual combination of great pitching and outstanding team defense, neither the Giants nor the Pirates had as much team balance. However, the Giants had the league’s best pitcher, while the Pirates featured the senior circuit’s finest all-around player.
Despite losing the season finale to Chicago, Christy Mathewson clearly established himself over the course of the season as the National League’s premier hurler. Mathewson led all N.L. pitchers with 37 victories, a 1.43 ERA, 259 strikeouts, 390 innings pitched, 34 complete games, 11 shutouts, and five saves. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner topped the circuit in nine different offensive categories, including batting average (.354), runs batted in (109), stolen bases (53), on-base percentage (.410), and slugging percentage (.542). With a career-high 10 home runs, he also came within two long balls of winning the Triple Crown.
Other outstanding performers, notable events, and points of interest from around the league follow:
• Hooks Wiltse of the Giants threw a no-hitter on Independence Day, blanking Philadelphia.
• The Giants stunned the baseball world in July by purchasing minor league pitcher Rube Marquard for the inordinately high sum of $11,000.
• The St. Louis Cardinals scored a record-low 371 runs en route to finishing last in the league.
• On September, 26, Ed Reulbach of the Cubs tossed two shutouts in one day.
• A frustrated New York sportswriter immortalized Chicago’s double play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance in a poem.
• Wearing shin-guards and a padded facemask, Giants receiver Roger Bresnahan established a new major league record by catching 139 games.
• Ed Reulbach defeated Brooklyn a record nine times.
• Nap Rucker of Brooklyn threw a no-hitter against Boston on September 5, striking out 14 batters in the process.
- 1908 World Series, Al Bridwell, Chicago Cubs, Christy Mathewson, Ed Reulbach, Frank Chance, Fred Merkle, Harry Pulliam, Honus Wagner, Hooks Wiltse, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Merkle Bonehead Play, Mordecai Brown, Nap Rucker, Roger Bresnahan, Rube Marquard