Did you ever play the time-machine game? As in, if you had a time machine, what date would you punch into the dials? Where would you go? Why? Have you ever played this particular wish-casting game with baseball at the center? If you could jump into a time machine right now, armed with a blackberry that had baseball-reference on-line, ready to spit out any date, what game would you visit? I have so many answers to this question. Maybe July 2, 1963 – for Warren Spahn versus Juan Marichal over 16 innings. Perhaps I would type in August 22, 1936 and watch Satchel Paige, Biz Mackey, Josh Gibson and Hilton Smith battle during a Negro League All-Star game. Or just maybe I would pocket a small transistor radio and journey to September 9, 1965, take a seat at Dodger Stadium, plug the earpiece into my right ear and listen to Vin Scully call Sandy Koufax’s perfect game. All justifiable choices, no doubt. And there are hundreds more. But if pressed for one final, definitive answer, I would grab a heavy sweater, climb into the capsule and answer, “October 8, 1908.”
Nearly 100 years ago, on October 8, 1908, the Chicago Cubs found themselves at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, preparing – in the most hostile environment imaginable – to play the New York Giants in a one-game, winner-take-the-pennant contest. The intrigue, controversy, permutations of circumstance, and combinations of coincidence that forced the scheduling of this game are mind-boggling, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, and just plain absurd.
On September 23, 1908, the Giants and Cubs met at the Polo Grounds for the third game of four-game set. The Cubs had swept a doubleheader the day before to virtually tie the Giants for first place in the National League. The Giants — due to numerous postponements earlier in the season – had 17 games and a slew of doubleheaders remaining on their schedule. The Cubs – just percentage points behind New York – only had 11 games left to play. So on Wednesday, September 23, 1908, the Giants and Christy Mathewson squared off against the Cubs and Jack Pfiester in a game that would have much to say about the eventual National League pennant winner. And when the Giants’ Al Bridwell hit a two-out single to drive in Moose McCormick in the bottom of the 9th to win the game 2-1 and give Mathewson his 34th win of the season, the Giants looked like they had regained their status as favorites for the pennant. But as McCormick was crossing the plate, the Giants’ runner at first – Fred Merkle – was running toward the clubhouse, anxious to escape the mob of fans already invading the field. Merkle would never touch second (a not uncommon practice of the time in this particular circumstance) and his negligence would be spotted by the Cubs’ second baseman, Johnny Evers. Evers (after trying, and failing, to get hold of the game ball to step on second and force Merkle out) would confront umpire Hank O’ Day with the situation, and O’Day (who was also watching Merkle intently because the exact same play – although without Merkle – had taken place in a Cubs’ game weeks before, and O’Day had been forced to admit at that time he hadn’t been watching the baserunner) would eventually rule Merkle out when Evers (with another baseball in his hand) stepped on second. Which meant that the third out of the inning had been recorded by forceout, which meant the winning run didn’t score, which meant the game was still tied, which meant the teams were still tied in the National League. League president Harry Pulliam would eventually rule the game a 1-1 tie and announced that if the outcome of the game played a role in determining the pennant winner, it would be replayed from the start. Of course, the Giants and Cubs would finish the regular season with exactly the same record, and on October 8, 1908, the two teams readied themselves for one final contest.
This is the game I would visit if I had a time machine. And I would sit somewhere in the stands and watch two of the game’s greatest pitchers – Christy Mathewson and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown – duel. Brown did not begin the game for Chicago, however. Mathewson started against Pfiester in a reprise of the September 23 match up, but the Cubs’ left-hander never made it out of the first inning. With a run already in, manager Frank Chance called on Brown to come in for relief. And then, two of the game’s greatest pitchers resumed their one-on-one battle that had begun in 1903.
Over the course of 14 seasons, Mathewson and Brown faced each other on 24 separate occasions. Each would win 12 games. At one point, Brown won eight in a row- a streak that ended on September 24, 1908 (the game following the 1-1 tie), when Mathewson, a day after pitching a complete game, relieved and threw three innings to earn the win. For the baseball fans of today, imagine if Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez – in their primes in the mid to late 1990’s – started facing each other two or three times a year, and continued these marquee match ups for a decade. This was Mathewson versus Brown.
1908 witnessed the apex of the Brown versus Mathewson confrontations. When Brown relieved Pfiester on October 8, the game marked the fourth time that season the two great righties squared off. Mathewson was the winningest pitcher of the decade. Brown owned the lowest ERA of the 1900’s. Each was the ace of his staff. Brown’s right hand was a gnarled mess – he was missing most of his right index finger and two other fingers on his pitching hand were either bent permanently or paralyzed – which enabled him to throw devastating pitch whose movement bewildered batters. Mathewson was a heroic, mythic figure. With matinee-idol looks, an appearance that connoted (and cultivated) a certain superiority, and a fadeaway pitch that was unparalleled for its effectiveness, Mathewson was perhaps the most beloved and highly respected ballplayer of his era.
But on October 8, 1908, Brown emerged as the superior pitcher. With the Giants’ offense held at bay by his assortment of pitches, the Cubs exploded against Mathewson in the third inning. Matty – who later admitted that he “never had less on the ball” – allowed four runs on a triple, two doubles, and a single. It would be the only inning in which the Cubs scored (Mathewson shut them out for the next four innings before being lifted), but it was enough. The Cubs won the game and the pennant, 4-2. Brown earned his 29th win. Mathewson – who had pitched in nine of the Giants’ last 24 games – was saddled with his 11th loss of the season. Brown would go on to win two games over 11 scoreless innings in the World Series that year, helping his club win their second consecutive title. As of May 1, 2008, the Cubs still have not won another World Series. In 1908, Mathewson led the league with 37 wins, a 1.43 ERA, 34 complete games, 44 games started, 390.2 innings pitched, 259 strikeouts, and 11 shutouts. He and Brown were also tied for the league lead with five saves (Mathewson’s teammate, Joe McGinnity, also had five saves).
After October 8, 1908, Brown and Mathewson would pitch against each other nine more times in their Hall of Fame careers. The last match up came on September 4, 1916, when both pitchers, far past their prime and struggling to record outs, pitched complete games in a 10-8 slugfest. Mathewson would win that game, giving him a National League record 373 career victories. Neither man would ever pitch another game in the Major Leagues. Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown lives on as a connection to a time and era when the Cubs were perennial contenders for the pennant. From 1906-1910, Chicago won 530 games (the most wins over a five-year stretch in history), four pennants, and two World Series. And they had the infield that not only inspired the Franklin P. Adams poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” (These are the saddest of possible words/”Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance“), but also created the always-fun trivia question, “Who played third in the infield with Tinker, Evers, and Chance?” (answer: Harry Steinfeldt).
Christy Mathewson was elected to the first class of Hall of Famers in 1936. His 373 wins remains the most in National League history (tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander). His feat of three shutouts in the 1905 World Series has never been duplicated. Mathewson’s mythological status – burnished by some of the most heart-wrenching and inexplicable losses in baseball history, an untimely death at the age of 45, his performances on the field, and his association with the New York Giants and John McGraw – remains strong to this day. His perch on baseball’s Mt. Olympus seems assured.
Christy Mathewson and Three Finger Brown. Beginning in the early 1900’s, they pitched at the top of their profession and led their respective teams to a total of nine pennants. They remain at the top of baseball’s all-time leaderboards in multiple categories. They are among the greatest pitchers in history-each illuminating their performances on the field with tales and elements often seen in books of mythology. For me, their stories are intertwined, each lending poignancy, texture, and significance to the other.
Worth a trip back in time, don’t you think?
Grateful acknowledgment and thanks to a few sources that helped immeasurably with this piece:
Baseball Dynasties, by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein
Christy Mathewson: A Game-By-Game Profile of a Legendary Pitcher, by Ronald A. Mayer
If you’re interested in learning more about the 1908 Season (the greatest season in baseball history, in my estimation), Christy Mathewson, or Mordecai Brown, here are some recommendations for further reading.
Matty: An American Hero: Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, by Ray Robinson
The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg
Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story, by Cindy Thomson & Scott Brown