It was a season that began with an announcement by Honus Wagner, that he would not return to the club, opting instead to retire. He would recant the decision, playing his first game April 19th, missing 4 games. Those missed games might have cost Wagner the triple crown as he won the batting title at .354, 20 points over the Giants Mike Donlin and 46 over Larry Doyle also of New York, RBI’s with 109 and was two homers short of that crown. Statistics that were extremely impressive considering they were in the middle of the Deadball Era as the league batting average had dropped to .239.
While the team ERA was impressive at 2.12, second in the league, it would be done so despite key injuries to three of their key hurlers early in the season. By June Nick Maddox contracted Typhoid fever, Lefty Leifeld developed boils on his pitching arm as well as having what was referred to as two muscles in his elbow that were out of place (this type of injury was mentioned often at that point and time and can be assumed to be anything from minor inflammation to Tommy John type injuries) and the original deacon, Deacon Phillippe whose injury was described as a stoved thumb on his pitching hand. Maddox would survive and be the third successive Pirate to lead the team in their first full season as he went 23-8. Leifeld went on to post a 15-14 mark while Phillippe never made it back only tossing 12 innings all season. Howie Camnitz was injury free and finished 4th in the NL in ERA at 1.56.
Offensively the team added two rookies in Owen “Chief” Wilson and David “Beals” Becker with the purpose of making the club a much faster team and giving some punch to an anemic outfield situation. Both struggled in their freshman campaign as Becker, who eventually became a decent power hitter for the time with the Braves, Phillies, Reds and Giants, hit .154 after 20 games and was sold to Little Rock in June and Wilson struggled at .227 for the season.
Wilson, who turned out to be one of the best players in franchise history, was helped out with the addition of centerfielder Roy Thomas of the Phils. Thomas added some stability to the outfield situation and also took Wilson under his wing and was credited with helping make Wilson a better ball player. Chief had all the tools included a rifle of an arm that prevented teams from taking extra bases when the ball was hit towards him.
Harry Swacina took over, the first base carousel at least for the moment. Swacina was not having a good season to begin with when he was injured in a game early in the season against Brooklyn. The injury would turn out to be severe as he had his groin operated on and would miss a huge chunk of the campaign because of it. Jim Kane and Alan Stoke would take over for the better part of the season hitting .241 and .252 respectively, better than Swacina’s .216 mark, although Clarke’s hope for the future was a prospect by the name of Bill Abstein, who would take over the following season.
Storke would turn out to be an interesting story himself, as he would miss the first part of the season to study law at Harvard before joining the club for the next two seasons. He unfortunately would pass away in March of 1910 at the young age of 25.
The pennant race would turn out to be a classic as the Cubs, Giants and Pirates were all involved in a neck and neck race throughout the campaign as Fred Clarke guided the team deftly even when his hurlers were on the shelf. Pittsburgh was only 18-16 in fourth place by the end of May, as they were going through a horrendous offensive slump to start the season. Cold and wet grounds, to which Clarke purchased the first tarp in baseball history to cover the field, hoping to keep the constant flooding at Exposition Park from canceling so many games, wiped out a lot of the early part of the season. Mired only 2 games over .500 they took on Chicago for a three games series and crushed the Cubs by a combined 33-15 score. It would be the series that would vault the Bucs into contention for the senior circuit crown.
After a 28-16 run, the Pirates won 3-2 against Boston when Fred Clarke walked with the bases loaded in the 10th, to take control of first place on July 15th.
The lead lasted until August 22nd when the Bucs would take on the Giants in yet another controversial game against their rivals. Giants skipper John McGraw would protest a game on the 24th claiming he wasn’t given 24 hours notice that it was to be a double header. After his players decided they wanted to play, he relented. Unfortunately for the Pirates, the games were played as the Giants swept the contests, 4-1 and 5-1, sending Pittsburgh into second place for the first time in over a month.
The team was still in second, 1.5 games out when they played Chicago on September 4th. With Warren Gill and Fred Clarke on base, Owen Wilson singles in Clarke with 2 out for an apparent 1-0, 10th inning victory. After the single, Gill turned around before touching second. Johnny Evers of Chicago got the ball and tagged Gill, claiming the force out and the run be denied on the basis of Gill would be the third out. Umpire Hank O’Day had left the field not seeing the play, so the run counted. The Giants Fred Merkle would not be so lucky later in the season as he would be called out in the infamous Merkle boner costing the Giants the pennant.
The Pirates remained out of first until when they swept the Cardinals on October 2nd, 7-4, 2-1. The final day of the season came two days later when they met the Cubs, who were ½ game behind, for the title on October 4th. If the Pirates won the game they would capture the NL pennant and go to the World Series. 30,247 packed Chicago’s West Side Grounds as Hall of Famer, Three Finger Brown shut down Pittsburgh 5-2 eliminating them from the race. The crowd was packed which caused a true home field advantage as four Cub hits went into an area where there were people jammed and gave them 4 ground rule doubles. Under normal circumstances without the people there, they would have been foul balls. Ironically Abbaticchio hit a ball that struck a woman with the bases loaded that was called a foul. The women sued the Cubs and admitted in her statement that the ball was actually fair.
Chicago would defeat the Giants 4 days later 4-2 in New York, to win the three-team race. They went on to win their second consecutive world championship 4 games to 1, again against Detroit. Unfortunately for Cubs fans, it would be their last world title.
Overall, the Bucs were satisfied with their 1908 performance, satisfied with everything but the way they were treated by the fans of Pittsburgh. Clarke felt that everything they achieved they achieved for themselves, not for the fans, and was quite irritated the way the crowds treated certain players like Leifeld. Lefty had been accused of being a drunk and not giving his all, which befuddled the Pirates manager. He claimed that Lefty never drank to excess and was always there when they needed him. Despite the controversy it truly was a remarkable season for Pittsburgh, no matter whom they played hard for.By Pirates Encyclopedia
- Alan Storke, Beals Becker, Bill Abstein, Chief Wilson, Deacon Phillippe, Exposition Park, Fred Clarke, Harry Swacina, Honus Wagner, Howie Camnitz, Jim Kane, Lefty Leifield, Nick Maddox, Roy Thomas, Warren Gill