One-time wonders

Looking back 110 years after the first – and still only – Cubs-White Sox World Series, and the striking similarities between the 1906 and 2016 versions of Chicago’s two baseball teams

By Randy Richardson

“Dreaming of a Cubs-White Sox World Series? You should be.”

Remember that headline? It was splashed across the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, a somewhat respected newspaper, earlier this year.

That was on May 9, and, at the time, the Cubs and the Sox had the two best records in baseball. The Cubs were tops, at 24-6, and the Sox were right behind, at 22-10.

Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey was looking ahead to this week, when the Cub and Sox would be squaring off in a four-game interleague series, and thinking that it might really matter, that it might give us a taste of bigger things to come in October.

“Both teams have the staying power to make this a season-long conversation,” Morrissey wrote back then.

Now here we are, two and a half months later, and it looks like only one of Chicago’s teams potentially has the staying power.

The Cubs enter this crosstown series still holding the best record in baseball. They look to be legitimate contenders.

The Sox? Not so much. They’re roller-coaster season looks like it is in free-fall. A team that a month into the season had the American League’s best record now sits in fourth-place in the AL’s Central Division.

Those dreams of a Cubs-Sox World Series? They look like a pipe-dream now.

But could it still happen? Are the Cubs strong enough to go farther than last year? Can the White Sox catch fire again and leapfrog all those teams in front of them? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. History tells us this. All we need to do is look back 110 years ago, to the one – and still only – time that the Cubs and Sox met up on baseball’s grandest stage to see that it has happened before and under strikingly similar circumstances.

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At the end of July in 1906, the White Sox were stuck in fourth-place, trailing the defending champion Philadelphia Athletics by 7.5 games. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The White Sox, led by dominant pitching, went on a remarkable 19-0 run, shutting out their opponents in seven of those games. In that same stretch, the three teams ahead of the Sox took a nosedive. And just like, against all odds, the Sox had catapulted into first place. A 7.5 game deficit had turned into a 5.5 game lead by streak’s end.

The White Sox never looked back. Improbably a team that owned the league’s worst batting average at.228 – earning them the nickname “The Hitless Wonders” – managed to snag the American League title.

The stage was now set for what would be the first – and still only – crosstown World Series in Chicago.

“Last night Chicago was baseball mad,” the Chicago Tribune reported after the Sox clinched the American League pennant. “Men stood and cheered in elevated trains when the news was passed along that the Sox were safe and that Chicago had two pennants – and the world’s championship.”

The Cubs that season were not unlike this season’s Cubs whose entire infield started the All-Star game. That 1906 version is considered one of the best of all time, a powerhouse for the ages, a winning machine propelled by the league’s most dominant pitcher, Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown, and the double-play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, who would be immortalized in Franklin Pierce Adams’ 1910 poem, Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.

The Cubs had wrapped up their spot early on, winning the National League pennant with a record of 116–36, a full 20 games ahead of the second-place New York Giants. The team’s 116 wins is still the most by any team in National League history and its .763 winning percentage is still the highest in modern MLB history.

Game 1 would be on Oct. 9, the 35th anniversary of the city’s worst tragedy, the Great Chicago Fire. The timing was not lost on the Tribune, which wrote in its cover story that day: “Thirty-five years ago today the city was swept by a destructive fire, which marked an epoch in its history. Today, a fire is raging through the city that has been smoldering for weeks and will burst into its full fury at 2:30 o’clock this afternoon, when Chicago’s two teams of champions face each other on the green battlefield which is bounded by Polk, Wood, and Lincoln streets on the west side.”

As that story notes, the Cubs were not North Siders back then. Their home ballpark was the West Side Grounds, where Stroger Hospital currently stands. True South Siders, the White Sox played at a ramshackle park at 39th & Princeton, four years before they moved to the original Comiskey Park.

The Cubs came in as heavy favorites. Few gave the Hitless Wonders much of a chance against the mighty Cubs, a team that seemingly had no weaknesses to exploit. Pitching, fielding, hitting, running – the Cubs were solid at every aspect of the game.

“Amid all that din, bets were openly being laid, with those taking the Cubs obliged to offer odds of 2 to 1 or even 3 to 1 because, for all the excitement, the Series, looked as if it would be a runaway for the Nationals, a David-and-Goliath rematch, this time without divine assistance on David’s side,” wrote Bernard Weisberger in his 2006 book, “When Chicago Ruled Baseball.”

Imagine then the shock when the White Sox managed to take Game 1 at the Cubs home ballfield on a frigid day as snow flurries fell on the grass. The Sox’s Nick Altrock out-dueled Cubs’ ace Three Fingers Brown for a hard-fought 2-1 victory. And just like that there was a chink in the Cubs’ seemingly impenetrable armor.

After game 1, Fans rush the field and police protect Sox pitcher Nick Altrock

After game 1, Fans rush the field and police protect Sox pitcher Nick Altrock

“Ecstatic Sox fans poured onto the field, carried Altrock away on their shoulders, pummeled and hugged his teammates, tore at their uniforms,” wrote Weisberger. “It was only one game, but a supposed walkover for the confident Cubs had turned into a loss for them.”

The weather turned even worse for Game 2, played at South Side Park, as the mercury dipped to a subfreezing 30 degrees and flurries fell again. But the Cubs regained their swagger, coasting to a 7-1 victory behind a one-hit gem by pitcher Ed Ruelbach.

The Sox had been resilient all season long and proved to be so again in Game 3, as they bounced back at Cubs Park. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Ed Walsh tossed a 2-hit shutout and third baseman George Rohe cracked a two-out, bases-loaded triple to left in the top of the sixth off Jack Pfiester for the only runs of the game, giving the Sox a 2-1 edge in the Series.

The see-saw battle continued in Game 4, which featured a rematch of the two starting pitchers that had faced off in Game 1. This time Brown bettered Altrock, tossing 5 2⁄3 innings of no-hit ball for the Cubs before settling for a two-hitter to even the series once more at two games apiece. Nick Altrock was the hard-luck loser, giving up the game’s lone run on Johnny Evers’ two-out single in the top of the seventh scoring Frank Chance.

Game 5 at West Side Park.

Game 5 at West Side Park.

The West Side Grounds did not prove to be the friendliest of confines for the home team. Almost in spite of themselves, the Sox once again bettered the Cubs at their own ballpark in Game 5. Overcoming six errors, the Hitless Wonders broke out with a 12-hit attack to take a wild one by an 8-6 margin.

Through five games the home team had not one a game. Game 6 would be played at the Sox’s home field but given the way the Series had gone that didn’t seem to be to their advantage. But down 3-2 in the best-of-seven Series, the Cubs couldn’t afford to lose. They took a risk, putting Brown back on the mound after one day’s rest. Perhaps it was there best shot but it backfired. Brown didn’t have anything left in the tank and didn’t make it out of the second inning. The temperatures had warmed into the 70s and the Sox’ bats had heated up as well. The Hitless Wonders battered Brown for seven runs on eight hits in route to an 8-3 victory. Sox fans swarmed the field to celebrate one of the biggest upsets in World Series history.

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If history tells us anything, when the Cubs and Sox meet up for their annual crosstown classic, records don’t mean a thing. The slates are wiped clean. There are no favorites or underdogs. All that happened before those four games – two at U.S. Cellular, followed by two at Wrigley Field – means little if anything. It’s a new game. A new battle. And just because the Cubs look to be the more dominant team against a Sox team whose anemic offense recently went 34 innings without scoring a run, history also informs us not to get too cocky when playing the Hitless Wonders.

The Cubs came back from losing the 1906 World Series to win the next two titles, giving them some redemption. But of course they have not won a championship since then. Wouldn’t it be something if they had that chance this season and if they could do it against the team that upset them in 1906? An opportunity, 110 years later, to even the historical score between the city’s two baseball teams.

Dare to dream.

Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.