Bearing Up

I’ve been reading The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract off and on for over two years now and it just keeps on giving. It’s not the kind of book you read from cover to cover, it’s far too big for that. It has to be digested in small portions, but, even so, I’m still coming across things I’ve missed. It continues to yield surprising and thought-provoking information, such as the following from a short piece about the Chicago Cubs of the early 1900s.

The 1906 Cubs won 116 games, still a record for wins in a season, equaled by the 2001 Seattle Mariners, albeit playing a longer, 162-game schedule. The Mariners’ record was 116-46, the ’06 Cubs were an astonishing 116-36 in 152 games. (There was a 154-game schedule back then, but missed games were often not made up unless necessary.)

The 1907 Cubs won 107 games; combined with the ’06 record, the 223 wins is a record over two years. The ’08 Cubs won 99 games and the 322 wins 1906-08 is a record over three years. The pattern continues – they won 426 games from 1906-09 and 530 from 1906-10, both records for a four- and five-year span. They won 622 games over the six years 1905-10, still by far a record. The only team to come close to this was the Cardinals from 1941-46, with 606 wins.

The Cubs won 715 games over seven years (1904-10) and 807 over an eight-year period (1904-11), you guessed it, both records. (The Yankees won 799 games in the eight years between 1936-43.) The record-setting string continues with 898 wins 1904-12 and 986 wins 1904-13, the most for a ten-year period. Essentially, the Cubs averaged 99 wins for ten straight years.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I find this quite amazing. I was dimly aware that the Cubs were a great team from 1906-08, they were in the World Series each of those years. But I had no idea that they sustained this excellence over a decade. They were also in the Series in 1910 and just missed it in 1909, which would have made five straight appearances, equaling the 1949-53 Yankees. In ’09 they won 104 games, normally enough to win the pennant, but the Pirates won 110. (The Cubs split their four Series appearances, winning 1907-8, losing in ’06 and 1910.) From 1904-13, they finished first four times, a close second three times and a strong third three times. They had no way of knowing it, but their 1908 Series victory would prove to be their last; from 1910 to 1945 they would play in seven World Series, but managed to lose all of them and they haven’t had a sniff since.

If asked which team held the record for wins over a five-year period, I would have answered with some version of the Yankees, like most anybody else. Say, the Yankees of 1936-40, 1949-53, 1960-64, or 1996-2000. If not the Yankees, I would have guessed the Brooklyn Dodgers, from 1947-51 or 1952-56 or maybe the Cardinals, from 1942-46. Over a ten-year period, I would have naturally assumed the Yanks, maybe from 1936-45, 1947-56, or 1953-62. Or some permutation from that period. But no, it’s the Cubs, astonishing when you think of their association with losing and futility over the last 70 years.

The core of this team was a trio of¬†infielders – Joe Tinker at shortstop, Johnny Evers at second base, and first baseman Frank Chance, who also managed the team. These three and the double-play phrase “Tinker to Evers to Chance” were immortalized in the¬†1910 poem by Franklin P. Adams, as follows :

These are the saddest of possible words:

Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Trio of bear Cubs and fleeter than birds,

Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Ruthlessly plucking our gonfalon bubble,

Making a Giant hit into a double.

Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble,

Tinker to Evers to Chance.

The three went into the Hall of Fame together in 1946, selected by its Veterans Committee. This has become a source of some controversy and ridicule, it’s common to bash their selection and claim it was just the famous poem that put them in. It’s easy enough to look at their hitting statistics and claim they don’t belong – they’re only mildly impressive – but then again, these men played in the very height of the dead-ball era, when there were almost no home runs, pitching/defense dominated the game and runs were very hard to come by. A popular argument reasons that these three were not great ballplayers, but were celebrated in a catchy bit of doggerel and happened to play for a team that won a lot of games. Then again, the definition of a great ballplayer is one who helps his team win a lot of games, is it not?

Bill James himself admits to flip-flopping on this issue. At various points he sees these three as marginally qualified for the Hall, yet at others has made strong arguments on their behalf as great players, especially Evers. He keeps returning to the central point though: that if these guys weren’t great players and don’t belong in the Hall, then how do you explain the incredible success of their team?

Of the three, James seems to be most impressed with second baseman Johnny Evers. On the down side, his career batting average is just .270, and, with just 12 career home runs, he had no power. But, he was widely regarded as the best defensive second baseman of his time, very quick and with great range. He had one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios of all time – 778 walks and just 142 whiffs. He was also an excellent base-runner, with 342 stolen bases. Evers was very sound fundamentally, highly skilled in the small-ball strategies then prevalent: bunting, the hit-and-run, sacrifices and so on. He was also regarded as one of the smartest and most intensely competitive players of his day, or any other. Mostly he cared about winning and he never let up on himself or his teammates, earning himself the nickname “The Crab”. His head was always deeply into the game and he got on everybody’s nerves with his high-pitched, edgy squawking – indeed, he suffered a nervous breakdown himself in 1911. It was said he had so much electricity in him that he couldn’t wear a watch, they just wouldn’t keep time when near his body. Frank Chance acknowledged that Evers was a great player, but wished he’d played in the outfield so Chance wouldn’t have had to hear him so much. Evers did a lot of little things to put runs on the board and a lot to keep the opponent off it.

Chance was probably the most famous of the three, yet James finds him the least qualified for the HOF. This is mostly because Chance only played regularly from 1903-08 in his 17-year career, owing to injuries. During those years he was some player though, regularly hitting over .300 with great defense, leadership and excellent speed. He twice led the NL in stolen bases, totaling 405 in his career. He was also very highly regarded as a player-manager before this was really in vogue, earning himself the nickname “The Peerless Leader.” An intelligent and graceful player and one whose integrity stood out in that bribe-stained era.

James does not regard Joe Tinker quite as highly as Evers, but still considers him a well above average shortstop, both on offense and defense. He was quick, with a strong arm and was very durable and consistent, rarely missing many games. He had a little more pop than the the others and like them he was fast and an excellent base-runner, stealing 336 bases in his career. A feud developed between Tinker and Evers in 1907 and though they continued to perform in the field like Astaire and Rogers, they barely spoke after this.

Obviously with all this winning, it wasn’t just these three, the Cubs had some other strengths. The question is, where these other assets great enough to marginalize the contributions of this trio? The answer, quite clearly, is no.

Their catcher for most of this period was Johnny Kling, who was good, smart and defensively sound. He wasn’t the MVP-level catcher that you see on other dynasties though, such as Mickey Cochrane, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella or Johnny Bench.

The third baseman left out of the poem was Harry Steinfeldt, and he was solid, had his moments, such as leading the league with 83 RBI in 1906. But, he only played with the Cubs 1906-10 and wasn’t nearly as much a constant as the other infielders.

The Cubs had a very good left-fielder in Jimmy Sheckard and a good right-fielder in Wildfire Schulte. Sheckard was wildly inconsistent: he did a lot of things well, but not often at the same time, or for long. He set a National League record with 147 walks in 1911 and led the league in runs scored that year; he also led the league in walks with 122 in 1912. He didn’t have much power but was fast, twice leading the league in steals before joining the Cubs in 1906, stealing 465 bases in his career.

Schulte was their main power source, he led the league in home runs with 10 in 1910 and had a huge year in 1911, leading the league with 21 homers (a very high total for that time) and 121 RBI. He never drove in more than 70 runs in any other season though; both he and Sheckard were very up and down. Their center-fielder most of the time was Solly Hofman, an average player at best, mostly noted for his defense.

While both Sheckard and Schulte were good, neither was considered among the great outfielders of that time – Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Sam Crawford, and Elmer Flick in the American League; Sherry Magee, Fred Clarke, Ginger Beaumont, and Zack Wheat in the National.

The Cubs had very good pitching, though not as deep or strong as that of their main rivals, the Giants and Pirates. Their ace, Three Finger Brown, was great, their one true star and most bona fide Hall-of-Famer. He won twenty games six straight years from 1906-1911, and was outstanding against the Giants and their ace, Christy Mathewson. The secondary pitching was good, with Ed Reulbach, Jack Pfister, Orval Overall and Carl Lundgren. But, as James points out, good pitching and good defense go hand in hand, and all these men, including Brown, had much better results pitching with the superb interior defense of the Cubs than with other teams.

James isn’t able to find conclusive evidence in their double-play numbers and other fielding stats that these three were utterly dominant defensively. He does find that they turned more double-plays than might have been expected almost every year and that they were consistently among the top two or three infields every season in this regard for the period 1902-13 – twelve years, a long time in baseball. He says that when you look carefully at the Cubs during these years, you’re forced to conclude that they won more games with infield defense than any other team in history. Personally, I’m glad these men have been recognized mainly for their fielding – it’s the aspect of the game that has improved and evolved the most and also the one most misunderstood and taken for granted.

So, the Cubs of this period were a great team and Tinker, Evers and Chance formed a team within a team. The fact they went into the Hall of Fame together has raised some eyebrows, but it’s far from the worst decision the Hall has ever made. In fact, I kind of like it. Along with Three Finger Brown, they were the guts of one of the greatest teams ever, a fact that is hammered home if you do any reading about baseball in that era. It becomes pretty clear from the eyewitness accounts of many players, fans and writers that the play of Tinker, Evers and Chance regularly knocked people’s socks off and this has to be given some weight. There is no objection to the key players of other great teams being in the Hall together or entering around the same time, such as Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra of the 1950s Yankees. Or Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella from the ’50s Dodgers. Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez from the 1970s Reds (Pete Rose could have been with them if he’d been able to keep his betting slips in his pants.)

As to the poem itself and its role…… well, it’s a bit of dross and Franklin P. Adams isn’t in any danger of being confused with Walt Whitman or Robert Frost. But, he didn’t simply pick their names out of a hat, he was putting something down on paper that was strongly in the air, that Tinker, Evers and Chance were great ballplayers on a fabulous team. It wasn’t the poem that made them famous, but the other way around.

© 2013 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

1 thought on “Bearing Up

  1. Wow! How often does one run across “gonfalon”? Seems baseball-appropriate, as it’s a kind of pennant, but FPA better work on the bubble part…

    Thanks, Steve — always good to read bad/good poetry…

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