Friday, May 20, 2011

1918: No longer a four letter word (but still a four number number)

Tonight, X Mark, The Spot, Sexy Boston Sports correspondent Joe Black and his little brother Chris descend on Fenway Park to welcome the Chicago Cubs back for the first time since the final game of the 1918 World Series.

Most good Red Sox fans and spiky-haired, half-witted Yankees fans know that 1918 was the last time the Boston Red Sox won the World Series before completing the greatest comeback in sports history in 2004 on the way to their World Series sweep of the Colorado Rockies. What a lot of Sox fans do not know is that their opponent in the Series was their former brothers in losing, the Chicago Cubs. Unlike the Sox, the Cubs continue to lose. The team has not won the Series since 1908 and in most years since then has not been particularly competitive. During the Red Sox draught, they at least had many competitive teams and made the playoffs and World Series a number of years. It’s the classic argument of whether it is better to have love and lost than to never have loved at all.

Since we no longer have to shudder at the mention of 1918, I thought it would be fun to turn back the clocks (as the Sox will do tomorrow night wearing throwback jerseys) and look at the last game these two teams played against each other in Fenway Park. Thanks to the incredible database, we can go back and see everything we need to know about the Red Sox clinching 2-1 win over the Cubs in Game 6 of the World Series.

On September 11, 1918, 15,238 fans turned out to see the Red Sox try and clinch their fifth World Series title leading 3 games to 2 over the Chicago Cubs. Starting for the Red Sox that day was 27 year old righty submariner Carl Mays. Mays was said to have such a pronounced submarine pitch that he scraped his knuckles on the ground quite frequently. In his fourth season, Mays was the ace of a great Boston staff with a 21-13 record, 2.21 ERA and 30 complete games (it was a different era). He was opposed by 29 year old New England native Lefty Tyler (guess which hand he threw with). Tyler, who won Game 2 of the series, came over from the Boston Braves that season and posted a 19-8 record for the Cubs with a shiny 2.00 ERA.

The Red Sox offensive attack was led by Hall of Fame right fielder Harry Hooper. Hooper was one of only two players on the team (we’ll get to the second one later) to post an OBP higher than .335 (.391) or a SLG higher than .346 (.405). He only had 1 HR, but nobody else, save for the mystery man, had more than 1 either. Again it was a different time (view this article for some of the differences in the game and in the country at the time).

The Cubs offense was significantly better top to bottom than the Red Sox. They had five regulars with an OBP higher than .335 and five with a SLG higher than .346. They also had 6 players with more than 1 HR, though none with more than 4. Their best hitter that year was 22 year old rookie short stop Charlie Hollocher, posting a triple slash line of .316/.379/.397. Hollocher was actually a fantastic hitter for the time, finishing his career with a line of .304/.370/.392, but he only lasted 7 years. According to Spanish reporter Wiki Pedia, Hollocher left the Cubs in 1923 due to severe depression. The depression would get the best of him 17 years later, when at the age of 44 he shot himself in the throat.

In Game 6, both pitchers traded zeroes through the first two innings. Then in the bottom of the third, Tyler ran into a bit of trouble. The pitcher, Mays, walked to lead off the inning and was bunted to second by the Sox best hitter, Harry Hooper. Normally a sac bunt by your best hitter in the third inning would give me an aneurism, but on a team where only one player hit more than 1 home run on the season it’s probably ok to do whatever you can to score just one run. Local boy Dave Shean drew a one out walk and he and Mays advanced on Amos Strunk’s groundout. With two outs and runners on second and third, cleanup hitter George Whiteman struck a ball to right fielder Max Flack that he misplayed leading to the Red Sox only two runs of the game. It’s very curious why Whiteman was batting in the cleanup position at all. While the Sox had few strong hitters, Whiteman was not someone you would consider one of their 3 or so best. In 1918, Whiteman was 36 years old. Before the start of the season he had played a total of 15 games in the Major Leagues. That season he played in 71 games for the Red Sox, but was hardly a regular starter let alone the cleanup hitter. And yet, in all 6 World Series game, manager Ed Barrow wrote “George Whiteman” in the 4 hole.

The real reason this was so strange? The man who hit cleanup and played left field for the Red Sox towards the end of the season was Babe Ruth, the guy I mentioned earlier who out hit Hooper on the season. Ruth started and won Games 1 and 4 for the Sox in the series, but for some reason never played left field in any of the other games except as a defensive replacement for Whiteman in the 8th inning of Game 6. Ruth frequently started in the field when he wasn't pitching so why didn't Barrow start his best hitter in every game in the Series?

The Cubs did not wait long to answer. Flack immediately atoned for his error leading off the inning with a single to center. Hollocher moved him up with a ground out to first. Mays hit the next batter, Les Mann with a pitch, but he was erased on a pickoff throw by catcher Wally Schang. With two outs, cleanup hitter Dode (Dode?) Paskert walked and Flack stole third. The next batter was Fred Merkle who singled, driving in Flack. Merkle was actually instrumental in the Cubs last World Series. Then playing for the New York Giants, Merkle was on first with another runner on third in the bottom of the ninth with two outs in a 1-1 game. The next batter singled scoring the winning run and everyone charged onto the field. The only problem was Merkle never touched second base. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed this and retrieved the game ball and stepped on second base. Since the play was a force out, the run didn’t count. The game remained tied and the Cubs and Giants made up the game later that year. The Giants would lose the game and the pennant to the Cubs. The play would be forever known as “Merkle’s Boner”. The mainstream media does a shitty job of nicknaming things these days. They just throw “Gate” after any controversy and call it a day even though “Watergate” was the name of the hotel, not two words where “Gate” meant scandal. Let’s start calling things boners again. At least that way we can chuckle a bit when talking about a controversy.

The Sox threatened in the bottom of the fourth, complete with 2 sac bunts, but came away scoreless. And that was it for the game. In innings 5 through 9 there was 1 hit total. The game ended when Mays induced a Les Mann groundout to second and the Red Sox, the premier team of the first 20 years of the American League, won their fifth World Series title. Little did they know this would be their last for 86 years.

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