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Cubs' pitching duo dominated in 1908

Cubs' pitching duo dominated in 1908

CHICAGO -- Big Ed Reulbach had a stellar season in 1908, going 24-7 with seven shutouts. Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown may have been better, sporting a 29-9 record with nine shutouts. Luckily for then-spoiled Cubs fans (and Cubs hitters), Reulbach and Brown were teammates.

The great duos of Koufax and Drysdale, Maddux and Glavine and Johnson and Schilling can be named by many baseball fans today. But time has caused the success of Brown and Reulbach to fade from the memories of even the most astute followers.

One hundred years ago, they helped pitch the Cubs to their last World Series title.

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Brown is the more memorable of the two, partly because of his bizarre nickname. He stuck his right hand in a feed chopper as a child, severing his index finger, and, in a subsequent accident while still wearing a bandage, disfiguring his middle and pinky fingers. So, he actually had four fingers.

Brown's unorthodox grip produced pitches that nobody could replicate. He accumulated a 239-130 record, a 2.06 ERA and 1,375 strikeouts in 14 seasons. Brown was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1949 and was mentioned in an episode of "The Simpsons" in 1992.

If Brown was the Cubs' No. 1 in 1908, then consider Reulbach No. 1-A. Big Ed's likeness isn't on a plaque in Cooperstown, and he hasn't made "The Simpsons" yet and likely never will.

But Reulbach starred in 1908, perhaps the best season of his 13-year career. He reached the 20-win plateau for the first time. His winning percentage (.774) led the National League, and he struck out 133 batters, good for fifth in the league. Reulbach was a little wild, though. He walked 106 batters, and hit 12 -- both top-five marks in the NL.

Behind Brown and Reulbach, the Cubs stormed to a 32-17 record in June, but the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Giants caught up to make it a three-horse race in August, September and October. Brown and Reulbach took turns keeping the Cubs in the hunt.

Big Ed produced the greatest pitching performance of the season -- and maybe of all-time -- on Sept. 26 with the Cubs one-half game clear of New York and Pittsburgh.

Reulbach took the mound for both games of a doubleheader against the Brooklyn Superbas and didn't leave the rubber. He threw two complete-game shutouts, 5-0 and 3-0. Nobody had ever accomplished the feat before, and it's likely nobody will ever throw a doubleheader shutout again.

In 18 innings that day, Reulbach gave up nine hits and five walks and struck out 11 in fewer than three hours.

Reulbach's feat couldn't have come at a worse time for fame purposes. Pitchers had been known to throw every inning of a doubleheader during the dead-ball era, just not with zeroes across the board. Plus, he did it three days after the infamous "Merkle's Boner" tie game that helped force a rematch between the Cubs and Giants for the NL pennant.

That winner-take-all game took place on Oct. 8. Neither Brown nor Reulbach was scheduled to start for the Cubs. Left-hander Jack Pfiester, nicknamed "Jack the Giant Killer" because of his staunch record against the Giants, got the nod.

Brown didn't start because he needed to rest his arm. Regardless, according to Scott Brown, who co-wrote "Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story," letters were sent to Brown and other Cubs marked with black handprints, the calling card of the Italian Mafia. The message? Beat the Giants and we'll kill you. Gambling was very popular in the early 20th century, so a lot of money was riding on the game.

Brown, motivated by the threats, went to manager Frank Chance and begged that he pitch. Pfiester was pulled after giving up a run in the first inning. Guess who Chance called on from the right-center field bullpen at the packed Polo Grounds? Brown, of course.

"I had to push and shove my way through the crowd on the outfield grass," Brown was quoted as saying by Jack Ryan. "'Get the hell out of the way,' I bawled at them as I plowed through. Here's where you black-hand guys get your chance. If I'm going to get killed, I sure know that I'll die before a capacity crowd."

Brown pitched nearly nine innings of relief and outdueled nemesis Christy Mathewson, 4-2, to send the Cubs to the World Series. The Giants couldn't faze him. Neither did the mafia, which didn't deliver on its threat.

"I was about as good that day as I ever was in my life," Brown said.

The late-season drama made the World Series anticlimactic, as the Cubs tamed the Tigers in five games. Brown and Reulbach each made one start and one relief appearance. Brown didn't allow a run in 11 innings and picked up two wins. Reulbach struggled and gave up four runs in 7 2/3.

Those yearning to link 1908 and 2008 need look no further than Brown. Three Finger's full name is Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown.

Nick Zaccardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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