David Voigt’s History of Baseball, Part 4
This is the fourth installment of David Voigt’s history, as fine a brief telling of the tale as I know. This series commenced at: http://goo.gl/E4adJX.
Peace and Prosperity: 1903-1920
By reviving the dual major league system with World Series play, the framers of the National Agreement harked back to the successful format of the golden 1880s. To that profitable format was added a National Commission charged with keeping the peace between the two major leagues. The combination launched the major leagues on a stable course which produced no franchise changes for the next fifty years.
In the 1903-1919 era the pattern was set and the two major leagues enjoyed a silver age of popularity and prosperity.
In these years the popularity of the national pastime was buoyed by rising attendance, increased media coverage including motion pictures, and the ever-popular song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” introduced in 1908.
The game’s increasing popularity swelled annual profits, but as always these were unevenly distributed. In these years attendance at major league games increased steadily; from 4.7 million in 1903, attendance rose to 10 million in 1911, before falling under the impact of the Federal League incursion and the nation’s involvement in the First World War.
To house the growing numbers of fans, durable ballparks constructed of concrete and steel were built during the construction boom of 1909-1911. Capable of housing 30,000 or more fans, these parks served until the post-World War Two construction boom. At this time increasing profits boosted player salaries. By 1910 annual salaries ranged from $900 to $12,000, and by 1915 salaries of superstars like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Walter Johnson approached $20,000.
In this era stability also characterized the style of play. Only a few rule changes were made. Among them, a rule limited the height of pitching mounds to fifteen inches above the baseline level, the infield fly rule was invoked, a foul bunt on a third strike was ruled a strikeout, and earned run averages by pitchers were included in annual records. On the playing fields teams employed the deadball style of play that resembled the “scientific game” of the 1890s.
With new balls seldom being introduced into games, pitchers took command, using a variety of deliveries including spitballs and defacing balls with other foreign substances. In this era, earned run averages of 3.00 or below were seasonal norms, and seasonal batting averages, now affected by bigger parks and improved gloves, hovered around the .250 mark.
Offensively, teams relied heavily on bunts, hit-and-run tactics, and base stealing to produce a few runs which power pitchers protected. Not surprisingly, pitching masters like Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Eddie Plank, and spitball artist Ed Walsh sparkled among the leading stars of this era. But pitted against these dominant hurlers were some of the greatest hitters of all time. The masters of the deadball offense included Detroit’s Ty Cobb, who won thirteen AL batting titles while scoring runs and stealing bases at unprecedented rates, and Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner, who won eight NL batting titles and stole 722 bases. Other hitting stars included Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Sam Crawford, and the ill-fated Joe Jackson. The decline of the “deadball style” was foreshadowed by the 1910 introduction of the cork-centered ball. When widely used later in the era, it ended the conservative style of offensive play. The transformation was signaled in 1919, when Babe Ruth of the Red Sox hit 29 homers to set a new seasonal homer mark.
By 1919 the stability of the silver age had been undermined by a series of disturbing events. In 1913 interlopers launched the Federal League and vied for major league recognition. That fall President James Gilmore lined up enough wealthy backers to plant Federal League teams in Chicago, Baltimore, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Brooklyn, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Over the next two seasons, the “Feds” took to raiding major league rosters with offers of higher salaries. The surfeit of games in 1914 and 1915 lowered major league revenues, but the Federal League invaders suffered more. There were two Federal League campaigns; Indianapolis won the 1914 pennant and Chicago took honors in 1915. The 1915 season was the last gasp of the Feds. Staggered by financial losses, the Feds surrendered when the established majors paid $5 million in compensation and awarded major league franchises to two Federal owners. But an antitrust suit pressed by dissident Baltimore owners against the majors eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1922, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for a unanimous court, dismissed the suit and judged major league baseball to be mainly a sport and not a commonly accepted form of interstate commerce. But the 1922 decision did not end the controversy, and the major leagues would have to defend the reserve clause against future attacks in the courts and in the Congress of the United States. Nevertheless the FL challenge was the last full-scale incursion by a rival major league against the established majors.
Soon after the Federal League war, major league baseball faced another crisis brought on by America’s entry into World War One. In supporting the nation’s total war effort, dozens of major league players entered the armed services, and clubs staged patriotic displays, donating money and equipment to troops. For all that, in 1918 the provost marshal ruled major league baseball to be nonessential to the war effort, but his ruling permitted the majors to play a shortened 1918 campaign. That year attendance sank to 3 million, prompting tremulous owners to vote to shorten the 1919 playing schedule. However, to their surprise the war ended, and the attenuated 1919 campaign attracted 6.5 million fans. Caught short by this unexpected boom, officials sought to recoup money by upping the World Series schedule to a best-of-nine-games format.
As it turned out the expanded 1919 World Series precipitated the final crisis that ended the commissioner system. Embittered over their low salaries, eight Chicago White Sox players accepted bribes from gamblers to throw the World Series to the NL champion Cincinnati Reds. When revelations of this “Black Sox Scandal” came to light, it destroyed the National Commission and ended the old National Agreement. Chairman Herrmann resigned early in 1920, and that fall Federal Judge Kenesaw M. Landis was named the game’s sole commissioner, an action confirmed by the new National Agreement of 1921. As the autocratic Landis defused the Black Sox Scandal by barring the eight accused Chicago players from organized baseball for life, the major league game lurched into a new golden age of cash and glory.
Deadball Dynasties: The AL, 1903-1920
Over the years 1903-1920, Ban Johnson’s “great American League” surpassed its NL rival in attendance and also took an enduring lead over its rival in World Series victories. However, such dominance was not a result of the league’s competitive balance; indeed, this dream was never realized in any era of major league history until the early 1980s. In this early phase of AL history, four teams, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, dominated all AL pennant races.
The first of the AL mini-dynasties, the Boston Pilgrims relied in 1903 on the pitching of Cy Young, Bill Dinneen, and Tom Hughes to trample the Philadelphia Athletics by 14.5 games and then go on to win the first modern World Series over Pittsburgh. The following year Boston repeated, winning a close race by 1.5 games over the New York Highlanders. That year manager John McGraw of the Giants refused to meet the Pilgrims in World Series play, but the controversy was resolved over the winter of 1904 with the establishment of a permanent World Series format.
In 1905 manager Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics got 87 victories from the pitching corps of Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank, Andy Coakley and Chief Bender, to edge the White Sox by 2 games. But with league-leading pitcher Waddell sidelined by an injury, the A’s fell to the Giants in the World Series.
As the A’s faded in 1906, the most impotent of all pennant winners, the weak-hitting Chicago White Sox, won a close race by 3 games over the Highlanders.
In winning, the White Sox batted .230 and scored a mere 570 runs. Yet in World Series play against the Cubs, whose 116 victories were the most ever by a team playing a 154-game schedule, the White Sox prevailed, winning four of the six games.
The next three AL pennants were captured by the Detroit Tigers, the league’s most formidable dynasty to date. Managed by Hugh Jennings and powered by outfielders Sam Crawford and Ty Cobb, the latter the Georgia sensation who won the first of a record nine consecutive AL batting titles, the 1907 Tigers defeated Mack’s Athletics by 1.5 games.
The following year the Tigers eked out a half-game win over player-manager Nap Lajoie’s Cleveland team, and in 1909 the Tigers held off the Athletics by 3.5 games. But in World Series action the Tigers resembled kittens. In 1907 and again in 1908 they fell to the Cubs, and in 1909 they lost to the Pirates.
Those three consecutive World Series losses infuriated AL president Johnson, but four straight AL victories over the years 1910-1913 restored the aplomb of the portly czar. In 1910 Mack’s revamped Athletics, newly located in Shibe Park, used the pitching of Plank, Bender, Jack Coombs, and Cy Morgan, and the offensive and defensive skills of three-quarters of his eventual “$100,000 infield” to lap the Yankees by 14.5 games and topple the Cubs in the World Series. The following year Stuffy McInnis replaced Harry Davis at first base, joining Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, and Frank “Home Run” Baker, and the A’s repeated; this time they crushed the Tigers by 13.5 games and then beat the Giants in World Series play.
Mack’s A’s faded to third in 1912, but the renamed Boston Red Sox, now playing in their new Fenway Park, breezed to a 14-game win over the Senators. “Smokey Joe” Wood’s 34-5 pitching and Tris Speaker’s .383 batting led the Red Sox, who followed their league win with a victory over the Giants in the World Series. With this latest Series, the AL took a lead in this fall competition, which they hold to this day.
The Federal League war was beginning when Mack led his resurgent A’s to a 6.5-game win over the Senators and another victory over the Giants in the 1913 World Series. In 1914 the Mackmen captured their fourth AL pennant in five years as they outran the Red Sox by 8.5 games, but then they lost the World Series to the sweeping “miracle” Boston Braves who had come from last place on July 4 to take the NL flag. That fall, racked by heavy financial losses incurred by the Federal League war, Mack sought to recoup by selling some of his stars. As a result, Mack’s emasculated A’s spent the next seven seasons in the AL cellar.
As the A’s collapsed, the Red Sox and White Sox, both strengthened by player purchases from Mack, monopolized the next five AL races. By purchasing Jack Barry from Mack and snapping up minor league pitcher Babe Ruth, whom Mack had passed over, Boston was the first to cash in.
The Red Sox won the 1915 pennant by 2.5 games over the Tigers and went on to trounce the Phillies in World Series action. In this the last year of the Federal League war, Boston was one of only seven major league clubs to show a profit. But with the Feds out of the way in 1916, prosperity returned to the major leagues.
Despite dealing Speaker to Cleveland, where his .386 batting ended Cobb’s skein of nine straight AL batting titles, the Red Sox repeated.
Ruth’s 23 pitching victories led Boston to a 2-game victory over the White Sox and 5-game victory over the Dodgers in the World Series.
America’s entry into the First World War in 1917 sent major league attendance plummeting as manager Clarence “Pants” Rowland drove his White Sox to a 9-game win over Boston.
Shine-ball pitcher Eddie Cicotte’s 28 victories led all AL hurlers, and Eddie Collins, Joe Jackson, and Happy Felsch supplied the power as the White Sox capped their victory with a win over the Giants in the World Series.
But major league profits were low in 1917, and they touched rock bottom the following year, when the war effort forced the majors to cut their playing schedules to 128 games. The Red Sox rebounded to win the 1918 campaign by 2.5 games over Cleveland. And by drubbing the Cubs in the World Series, the Red Sox notched their fifth World Series title in as many tries. However, at this point the Red Sox fell victim to their impecunious owner, Harry Frazee, whose player sales soon divested the team of its ablest stars, including Ruth. As the Red Sox faded, so did their record of World Series triumphs. To this day Red Sox fans are still waiting for a sixth World Series victory.
Boston’s collapse opened the way for the powerful White Sox to win the shortened 1919 race by 3.5 games over the surging Cleveland Indians. In the wake of the White Sox victory came the sordid World Series of 1919, which saw eight Chicago players conspire with gamblers to throw the extended Series to the Cincinnati Reds. In 1920 the much-publicized revelations of that piece of skullduggery forced owner Charles Comiskey to suspend his eight Black Sox players in the last week of the red-hot 1920 pennant campaign.
Stripped of their stars, the White Sox finished second, a game ahead of the Yankees and two games behind the victorious Cleveland Indians. The gritty Indians lost their star shortstop Ray Chapman when he was fatally beaned by pitcher Carl Mays of the Yankees. To the present day, this remains the only fatality in major league history that was the direct result of a playing field accident. In the memorable World Series of 1920, Cleveland and Brooklyn were tied at two games apiece when Indian second-sacker Bill Wambsganss busted a promising Dodger rally by pulling off the first and only unassisted triple play in World Series history. And in that same game Indian outfielder Elmer Smith hit the first World Series grand-slam homerun. Such heroics, plus three pitching victories by Stan Coveleski, boosted the Indians to a five-games-to-two triumph in the 1920 fall classic. Cleveland’s victory also ended the Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago pennant monopoly of the AL’s deadball era, while Ruth’s 59 homers as a Yankee in 1920 heralded the incoming “big-bang” style of play that would characterize the coming decade of the 1920s.
Deadball Dynasties: The NL, 1903-1920
A similar pattern of competitive imbalance also marked the NL campaigns of the silver age. In this era three NL mini-dynasties, those of Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York, monopolized the first 14 NL campaigns. Moreover, even as outsiders rose up to win three consecutive pennants over the years 1914-1916, the Giants and Cubs came back to win pennants in 1917-1918 before yielding to the Reds and Dodgers in this era’s final two campaigns. Under manager John McGraw, “the Napoleonic genius” who jumped the AL in 1902 to skipper the moribund Giants, the New Yorkers won six pennants, finished second eight times, and suffered only one losing season.
In 1901 the first of this dynastic trio, the Pittsburgh Pirates, won the first of three consecutive NL pennants. Pittsburgh’s rise began in 1900, the year the NL cut back to eight teams. When his Louisville team was dropped in the NL’s cutback, owner Barney Dreyfuss purchased the Pittsburgh club, which he strengthened by adding Louisville stars Fred Clarke and Honus Wagner to his Pirate team. Powered by player-manager Clarke and Wagner, and unscathed by the disastrous roster raids by AL teams that were weakening his opponents, Pittsburgh won the 1901 NL race by 7.5 games over the Phillies; they then won the 1902 race by an awesome 27.5 games over runner-up Brooklyn, and captured the 1903 flag by 6.5 games over the Giants. In each of these campaigns, both Wagner and Clarke topped the .300 mark in batting. Moreover, Wagner’s .355 hitting won the 1903 batting title while outfielder Ginger Beaumont’s .357 batting won the 1902 batting title. The Pirate pitching staff was fronted by Deacon Phillippe, who won 66 games in these years, and by Jack Chesbro, who won 49 games in two seasons before jumping to the AL in 1903.
In postseasonal play, the 1903 Pirates lost the first modern World Series to the Boston Red Sox.
Pittsburgh sank to fourth place in 1904 as the Giants surfaced to win consecutive pennants in 1904-1905. In 1904 the Giants won 106 games to beat the runner-up Chicago Cubs by 13 games. Power pitching by “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity (35-8), Christy Mathewson (33-12), and “Dummy” Taylor (21-15) paced the light-hitting Giants to victory. But in the aftermath of the win, manager McGraw refused to meet the AL champion Boston Pilgrims in World Series play. That issue was resolved in 1905, the year McGraw drove his team to a 9-game win over the Pirates and then to an easy conquest of the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series, with Mathewson tossing three shutouts.
The following year, the Chicago Cubs emerged as the third NL dynasty of the deadball era. Pennant-starved since 1886, the Chicagoans recouped with a vengeance, winning an astonishing 530 games over the years 1906-1910.
Such mastery was good enough to land four pennants in those five years. Skippered by player-manager Frank Chance, who, along with fellow infielders Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker, is now immortalized in baseball folklore, the 1906 Cubs won their record 116 games. Powered by Chance and third baseman Harry Steinfeldt, and armed by Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown’s 26-6 pitching, this superb team buried the Giants by 20 games, but lost the World Series to their hometown AL rivals, the “hitless wonder” White Sox.
The Cubs made it three victories in a row by winning in 1907-1908. The 1907 Cubs crushed Pittsburgh by 17 games, and in the unforgettable season of 1908, the Cubs edged the Giants by a single game. With two weeks remaining in the 1908 season, the Giants, Cubs, and Pirates were locked in a close race. Then, in a fateful encounter with the Cubs at the Polo Grounds, Fred Merkle of the Giants blundered by failing to touch second base as his Giants were scoring what looked like the winning run. In the stormy aftermath of this play, Umpire Hank O’Day ruled Merkle out for failing to touch the base and declared the game a tie because the swirling masses of Giant fans on the field made resumption of play impossible. Later NL president Harry Pulliam supported O’Day’s decision and ruled that if necessary the game would be replayed at the close of the season. As it turned out, this was necessary because the Cubs and the Giants finished the season in a dead heat. To settle the outcome, the controversial game was replayed on October 8 at the Polo Grounds.
The Cubs won the sudden-death game 4-2, as Brown outpitched Mathewson. In baseball folklore the Giant defeat permanently stigmatized “Bonehead” Fred Merkle as the blamesake of the Giants’ defeat. As for the Cubs, they took full advantage of their quirky victory by defeating the Tigers for a second straight time in World Series action.
In 1909 the Cubs won 104 games, with Brown pitching 27 victories. But the Pirates won 110 that year to beat Chance’s men by 6.5 games. Wagner led the league in hitting, and pitchers Vic Willis and Howie Camnitz combined for 48 wins. In World Series action, the Pirates hung a third straight loss on the AL champion Tigers. But the Cubs rebounded in 1910, winning 104 games for a second straight year. This time it was enough to lap the Giants by 13, but the Cubs then fell to the Athletics in the World Series.
Over the years 1911-1913 the Giants dominated NL play. In winning three consecutive pennants, they piled up 303 victories; pitchers Mathewson and Rube Marquard accounted for 147 of these, while Giant hitters led the NL in batting each year. But in World Series appearances McGraw’s men repeatedly swooned, losing to the Athletics in 1911 and 1913 and to the Red Sox in 1912.
Over the years 1914-1916, a whiff of competitive balance settled over the NL as three outsiders wrested pennants from the three dynasty teams. In 1914 the “miracle” Boston Braves stormed from 10 games back in mid-July to win 60 of their last 76 games; the surge was enough to crush the Giants by 10.5 games. The following year, the Philadelphia Phillies landed their first NL pennant on the strength of 31 wins by pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander and 24 homers by Gavvy Cravath. The Phillies beat out the Boston Braves by 7 games.
And in 1916, manager Wilbert Robinson’s Dodgers got 25 victories from pitcher Ed Pfeffer as they edged the Phillies by 2.5 games. But this trio of outsiders produced only one World Series victory, which came when the Braves swept Mack’s Athletics to win the 1914 classic. As for the other interlopers, both the Phillies and Dodgers fell to the Boston Red Sox.
Like the AL’s, the NL’s wartime campaigns of 1917-1918 were plagued by poor attendance which caused some tremulous owners to sell players in hopes of recouping losses. But the pennant monopolists held firm. The Giants won the 1917 race by 10 games over the Phillies, but then fell for a fourth straight time in World Series play as the White Sox prevailed. And in 1918, after winning the attenuated NL race by 10.5 games over the Giants, the Cubs bowed to the Red Sox in the World Series.
The deadball era was drawing to a close in 1919, which was the year that manager Pat “Whiskey Face” Moran drove his Cincinnati Reds to their first NL pennant. The Reds won by 9 games over the runner-up Giants as future Hall of Fame outfielder Edd Roush batted .321 to lead the league. The Reds also won the World Series, but the stench of the Black Sox Scandal sullied their victory.
As breaking news stories of that scandal overshadowed stories of the 1920 pennant race, in progress when the news broke, the Brooklyn Dodgers went on to defeat the Giants by 7 games. But the Dodgers lost to an inspired Cleveland Indians team in the World Series. In the atmosphere of gloom caused by the Black Sox Scandal revelations, it was also apparent that the deadball era of stylized baseball play was ending. But a new era was unfolding in the 1920s that would launch the major leagues into new uplands of cash and glory.
This series will continue on Monday.