This was your great-great-grandfather's baseball. Ballparks were little more than fenced-off meadows with splinter-trap bleachers, sniffed at by polite folks as dens of debauchery. A diamond was like a pool hall, without the walls or the class. In society's estimation, ballplayers ranked somewhere between embezzlers and cattle rustlers on the respect meter. Ballgames were nine innings of ribald behavior, public brawls always on deck. The average player salary was $2,500 but, since a six-room apartment rented for $30 and a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes cost 10 cents, the retro perspective obviously is skewered.
In 1908, culture and the nation were just beginning to write their significant histories. The Panama Canal was under construction. Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody still roamed the West. Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T. The Chicago Cubs, on the other hand, were coming to the end of theirs. They won the World Series that October, in five games over the Detroit Tigers. In a timeline of significant Chicago events prepared by the Chicago Public Library, that is the last mention of the Cubs. It was not an aberration, but the latest pillar in a Cubs dynasty, the middle season of a five-year stretch in which Chicago's National League club won 540 games. To many seamheads, the 1908 season remains the greatest in the sport's history for a variety of reasons, many of which grow more debatable with every turn of the calendar. However, one claim is irrefutable: The 1908 pennant race was the most torrid ever, waged on the highest level ever. It was the only 154-game season, which was instituted in 1904 and observed through 1961, in either league to finish with three teams winning 98-plus games. At 99-55, the Cubs finished one game ahead of the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates, both at 98-56. But that's a grievous case of beginning at the end ... The Cubs, defending 1907 World Series champs, spent 70 days in first place. The Giants held the lead for 34 days, the Pirates for 46. Those three clubs beat up on the rest of the eight-team league -- three other teams lost 90-plus -- and survived each other; every seasonal series among the front-runners ended in an 11-11 split, with the lone exception of the Pirates' 12-10 edge over the Cubs. Oh ... the standoff between the Cubs and the Giants actually stretched to 23 games, to 11-11-1, that "1" enduring as the most notorious and consequential tie in Major League history. If not for that tie, declared long after Al Bridwell's walk-off RBI single had given the Giants a 2-1 win in the Polo Grounds, the Cubs would already be working on their second century of misery.
But more later on Fred Merkle -- the anti-Bartman, a hundred years earlier -- and his gaffe.Led by multitasking Frank Chance, their first baseman and manager, the champs stormed out of the gate with 18 wins in their first 28 games to grab a four-game lead, which would be their widest of the entire season. Chicago lost the reserve it had evidenced even during the '07 title campaign, enthralled fans packing West Side Park (capacity 16,000, average ticket price 25 cents) at a pace that would mushroom the total attendance to 150 percent of the prior season's total. The fans came early in the morning and stayed late in the afternoon, smitten with players without flash but with plenty of substance, always certain of seeing taut drama. In a 77-game home schedule, the Cubs held visitors to two runs or less more than half the time (39 times). The Cubs didn't have anyone within sniffing distance of the league's offensive leaders. Johnny Evers was their top pure hitter with a .300 average, and Joe Tinker was both the top slugger (six homers) and run producer (68 RBIs). Sure, the 1908 season was still on the fringes of the dead-ball era, but the Pirates' Honus Wagner did hit .354 and he and the Giants' Mike Donlin did have 100-plus RBIs. No doubt, the Cubs stuck out like a bunch of banjos in the brass section. But they earned their keep, and opponents' fear and respect, on the mound -- even during a season-long "slump." Paced by Mordecai (Three-Finger) Brown and Big Ed Reulbach, two right-handers who combined for a record of 53-15, the Chicago staff had an ERA of 2.14. Astonishingly, that figure was four-tenths of a run higher than it had been the previous season and would be the following season -- but no apologies required. The three rivals blanketed each other all summer, at a relentless pace. The heat in the NL kitchen was intense: From Aug. 23, when they awoke 4 1/2 games behind, through Sept. 19, the Cubs went 22-4 -- and still trailed by 1 1/2. Then, given the breathlessness of the race, the Cubs picked the worst time for a stumble. Only splitting their next four games reeled them 4 1/2 games out, and they still trailed the Giants by two games when they reached New York for the teams' final scheduled meetings of the season. The Cubs doubleheader-swept into a tie for the lead on Sept. 22 ... then things got interesting ... or crazy ... or completely insane. The basics of arguably the most infamous play in Major League history are familiar to most fans: With the Sept. 23 tie-breaking game deadlocked at 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Bridwell's two-out single scored Moose McCormick from third base with the "winning" run. But Merkle, running from first base, stopped short of second before turning to flee the ecstatic mob overrunning the field. Evers, the Cubs' lightweight and studious second baseman, hollered for the ball from center fielder Artie Hofman and stepped on second. The umpires, already under police protection under the stands, ruled Merkle out -- disallowing the run -- and declared a tie. When the Cubs and Giants both play out 8-2 strings to carry their tie in the standings to the end of the season, they must re-play their tie game of two weeks earlier -- which Chicago wins, 4-2, claiming the pennant. But some sidelights with which you may not be as familiar: Forever immortalized for Merkle's Boner, he was a 19-year-old making his first big league start that day. Evers stepped on second base with a ball -- but no one ever determined what ball. There was little disagreement among witnesses that Joe McGinnity, the Giants pitcher who was coaching third base that day, quickly assessed what was developing and intercepted Hofman's throw meant for Evers and relayed it into the stands. The reactions to Bridwell's walk-off hit were typical for the times. Celebratory fans would storm the field, and players would run for cover with tacit approval from umpires, the letter of the rule book notwithstanding. Acutely aware of Rule 59 and its frequent dismissal, Evers lain in wait for an opportune time to spring his trap. In fact, he had "rehearsed" the ploy under identical circumstances on Sept. 4 in Pittsburgh, following a tie-breaking single with the bases loaded and two outs in the 10th inning. On that occasion, his attempt was laughed off by umpire Hank O'Day. But the ensuing rhetoric wasn't forgotten, and when Evers returned to his bag of tricks a month later, the reception was different from the umpire -- Hank O'Day. Two days after the Cubs condemned the Giants to eternal frustration, the World Series opened. Less than a week later, the Cubs became the first team to win back-to-back titles. The folklore was just beginning. They were known as the "Grizzlies" in those days, but gradually morphed into the "Cubbies," from dynastic to Lovable Losers. Even recently, a facetious Web site unearthed a newspaper dated Oct. 15, 1908. Blares The Daily Heckler's bold headline: "Team poised for century-long dynasty after second consecutive world title!" The story beneath quotes Mordecai Brown: "This is just the start. We'll definitely win again next year."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.