J. D. Thorne

It’s a Panic Pennant Race

The Milwaukee Brewers are a major surprise in major league baseball. They find themselves entering the dog days of August with short lead in a four team race for the National League Central flag, and guarantee of the NL Play-off second round.  The Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds are all close behind.  All the teams have head-on-head games down the stretch.  It is going to be exciting to watch – and excruciating!  The Brewers are not now at the point in the season where wins and losses from day-to-day might drop the team from contention.  We are “in it.”  Individual games can be important, but as long as the team contends for the championship, let us not call them “big” again for now. Hopefully, truly “big” games will come towards the end.   For the fans, it is during pennant chases like this that great moments in baseball often can come.

The 1908 season featured close races in both eight team leagues.  In the American League, it was a three team race featuring teams with marquee players.  The Detroit Tigers had a young, mean Ty Cobb.  The Cleveland Indians had a then veteran second baseman Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie [pronounced “Lah – joo - way”].  A son of French – Canadian immigrant parents from Rhode Island, he was a Sir Lancelot so good the team itself in one year was officially renamed “The Naps,” by a vote of its fans.  He still holds the record of the highest batting average in baseball history.  Let me repeat that:  He still holds the record for the highest batting average ever.

The third marquee player was “Big Ed” Walsh of the Chicago White Sox, a workhorse pitcher who threw a type of spitball, then legal, called an “eel ball” it was so slippery.  Talk about tough, he was once a Pennsylvania coal miner.  Detroit centerfielder Sam Crawford said of his pitch, “I think Walsh’s spitball disintegrated on the way to the plate and the catcher put it back again.  I swear, when it went past the plate, just the spit went by.” (Reference Archived column, “Big Ed Walsh”).  Big Ed won 40 games in 1908, most ever.  In 1906 his team, the weak-hitting, but good defense and pitching “No Hit Wonders” rode his back to the World Series Championship.

That was just one league.  In the 1908 season the National League also featured a three team race for most of the season.  The Pittsburgh Pirates featured at shortstop the “Flying Dutchman” Honus Wagner in his prime.  Some contemporaries called Honus the best player ever overall, not Babe Ruth. Honus was that good hitting, fielding, and running.  He was also in the first class of inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, like Cobb, Lajoie, and Ruth. The Babe had yet to burst onto the scene.

The New York Giants were led by the pugnacious manager John McGraw and his gentleman pitcher, “Big Number 6” Christy Mathewson.  He was a gentlemen because he had not one, but two years of college at Bucknell University.

The third team, the Chicago Cubs, had won the pennant in both 1906 and 1907.  They featured the infield of Tinker, Evers, and Chance.  The 1906 Cubs were so dominant they still hold the record for highest winning percentage in a regular season winning 116 games against just 38 losses!

Fans in all the cities were found gathering at downtown scoreboards in the late afternoon to check the progress of that day’s games as the batter-by-batter reports clattered over Western Union telegraph wires.  Indeed, it was in 1908 that with every posted inning that the term “pennant race” first became popular as part of the lexicon of baseball fans across the country.  All this interest even before the age of radio, let alone T. V. and internet media communication.  This was entertainment in 1908!

Extraordinary player efforts were typical.  For example, in a double header a Detroit pitcher after winning the first game was asked to also pitch the second one.  He did winning the second game too throwing two complete games.  Ed Walsh of the White Sox did the same a few days later.

Eventually, the Cubs won a one game play-off game against the Giants in NY to win the National League.  The Tigers surprised everyone by beating Chicago and Cleveland on the regular season’s last day.  In 1908 WS the Chicago Cubs won their most recent World Series victory.  The Brewers, and Brewers fans, need their first WS victory.

There is lots of fun with a chance of “rain” ahead it seems to me.  Go Brewers!