From the perspective of 2007, the unintentional irony of Chance's boast is manifest—these days, the question is when will the Cubs ever win a game they have to have. In October 1908, though, no one would have laughed: The Cubs were, without doubt, baseball's greatest team—the first dynasty of the 20th century.
Crazy '08 recounts the 1908 season—the year when Peerless Leader Frank Chance's men went toe to toe to toe with John McGraw and Christy Mathewson's New York Giants and Honus Wagner's Pittsburgh Pirates in the greatest pennant race the National League has ever seen. The American League has its own three-cornered pennant fight, and players like Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and the egregiously crooked Hal Chase ensured that the junior circuit had its moments. But it was the National League's—and the Cubs'—year.
Crazy '08, however, is not just the exciting story of a great season. It is also about the forces that created modern baseball, and the America that produced it. In 1908, crooked pols run Chicago's First Ward, and gambling magnates control the Yankees. Fans regularly invade the field to do handstands or argue with the umps; others shoot guns from rickety grandstands prone to burning. There are anarchists on the loose and racial killings in the town that made Lincoln. On the flimsiest of pretexts, General Abner Doubleday becomes a symbol of Americanism, and baseball's own anthem, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," is a hit.
Picaresque and dramatic, 1908 is a season in which so many weird and wonderful things happen that it is somehow unsurprising that a hairpiece, a swarm of gnats, a sudden bout of lumbago, and a disaster down in the mines all play a role in its outcome. And sometimes the events are not so wonderful at all. There are several deaths by baseball, and the shadow of corruption creeps closer to the heart of baseball—the honesty of the game itself. Simply put, 1908 is the year that baseball grew up.
Oh, and it was the last time the Cubs won the World Series.
Destined to be as memorable as the season it documents, Crazy '08 sets a new standard for what a book about baseball can be.
The Hot Stove League
Then it's hats off to Old Mike Donlin
To Wagner, Lajoie, and Cobb . . .
Don't forget Hal Chase and foxy Mr. Chance
Who are always on the job . . .
Good old Cy Young we root for,
And Fielder Jones the same . . .
And we hold first place in our Yankee hearts
For the Stars of the National Game.
—performed on vaudeville by
Mabel Hite and Mike Donlin1
small minds might check the schedule and conclude that the 1908 season begins on Opening Day, April 14. They would be wrong. The 1908 season began the instant that the last Detroit batter popped up for the last out of the 1907 World Series.
Having lost to the mighty Cubs 4-zip (with one tie), the Tigers limped home to lick their wounds. Their poor performance was particularly galling since they had shown true grit down the stretch, beating the Philadelphia Athletics in a pennant race that the New York Times called the "greatest struggle in the history of baseball." Hyberbole was as common as bad poetry on the sports pages in 1907, but the Times just might have had it right—albeit only for a year.
The turning point came in late September. The Tigers had ridden a five-game winning streak to overtake the A's. As they faced a three-game series in Philadelphia—already known for its aggressive fans—Detroit was anything but complacent. The series would go a long way toward settling matters one way or the other. The Tigers won the first game, then a rainout and a Sunday—the city of brotherly love did not allow ball games on the Sabbath—meant the clubs would play a doubleheader on Monday, September 30. In the event, only a single game was played—a seventeen-inning classic.
The A's jumped out to a 71 lead after six innings and Rube Waddell, the game's finest left-hander, was cruising. But he lost his fastball, or perhaps his concentration—the Rube was not wonderfully well-endowed mentally—and the Tigers scrapped for four runs in the seventh, then one more in the eighth. In the top of the ninth, they trailed 86. Slugger Sam Crawford led off with a single; the next batter was Ty Cobb. The 1907 season was the twenty-year-old's breakout year—as it was, not coincidentally, for the Tigers. Cobb led the league in hits, average, runs batted in, and stolen bases while confirming his reputation as a young man as distasteful off the field as he was wondrous on it. He dug in, took a strike—and cracked a home run over the right field wall. Tie game.
The Tigers scored a run in the top of the tenth; the A's did the same in the bottom. The game went on; the light thickened; the tension built.
In the bottom of the fourteenth, Detroit's Sam Crawford drifted back to catch a fly in an outfield that was packed with fans; Columbia Park had seats for only fifteen thousand, and the grass was roped off to provide standing room for thousands more. As Crawford reached for the ball, a couple of cops crowded him, either to keep the throng back or to help the A's, depending on one's view of human nature. At any rate, Crawford dropped the ball. The A's had a man in scoring position—briefly. Detroit argued that the cops had interfered with Crawford. There ensued a few minutes of civilized colloquy, marked by only a single arrest (of Detroit infielder Claude Rossman) and a trivial riot. Bravely, umpire Silk O'Loughlin decided against Philly, calling the batter out.
What becomes known as the "when-a-cop-took-a-stroll play"2 loomed large when the next hitter hit a long single, but, of course, there was no man on second to score. No one else did, either. At the end of seventeen, the umps ended the game on account of darkness. The box score called it a tie, but the Tigers felt as if they had won. The A's were certain that they wuz robbed. Manager Connie Mack, a kindly man, was uncharacteristically bitter: "If there ever was such a thing as crooked baseball, today's game would stand as a good example."3
The controversial tie turned the season. The A's had lost their best chance to track down the Tigers, who promptly ripped off five straight wins on their way to the pennant. Delighted with the team's first championship in twenty years, Detroit's happy multitudes celebrated by lighting bonfires and painting their pooches in tiger stripes.4
To flop against the Cubs after all that—well, it hurt.
The Cubs, of course, were exultant. They had gone into 1907 determined to erase the insult of losing the 1906 World Series to the crosstown White Sox, a team they considered—and probably was—inferior. The Cubs played well all year, finishing ahead of the second-place Pirates by seventeen games and twenty-five ahead of the New York Giants, their least-favorite team—a deeply satisfying result to the Cubs, and a mortifying one to the Gothamites. By finishing off 1907 with such élan, the Cubs restored their sense of superiority. They strutted home for the winter, their wallets engorged with their World Series winnings: $2,142.5
Just because the games are over, though, does not mean that the game is. Baseball never sleeps; instead, it huddles around the metaphorical hot stove to rehash the past and dicker about the future. Even in the depths of winter, there is always a thrumming pulse of wakefulness—deals to make, rules to refine, lies to swap, mangers to fire. At the February 1908 annual meeting of the National League, the air at the Waldorf-Astoria fairly reeks of smoke and self-congratulation. Baseball is "in a most prosperous and healthy condition," concludes NL president Harry Pulliam in his annual report. "My experience as president of your organization has been a very pleasant one during the last summer."6 Given what would happen to Pulliam in 19081909, the words are desperately poignant. Sporting Life, a weekly magazine that was a reliable barometer of what the bosses were thinking, is also sunny: "There is not one cloud in sight."7