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On Thursday, in his Chicago Cubs Preview, Rob delivered the bad news. This isn’t going to be the year, Cub fans. Your team is good, just not good enough. There will be no championship banner flying on the north side of Chicago.

There has never been a championship banner flying on the north side of Chicago.

This promises to be a difficult six months, Cub fans - Prior and Wood and Zambrano will tempt you. They will raise your hopes.

You do know how it’s going to end, right.

So I’m here to cheer you up. I’m going to look at the Cubs, and I’m going to guarantee a World Championship.

Naturally - this is a Cubs story - we begin with bitter disappointment.

In 1906, the Cubs absolutely tore the National League apart. They played the season at an astonishing .753 clip, winning 116 games. They left a very good New York team, the defending champs and all, a distant twenty games back. And then they lost the World Series in 6 games to their cross-town rivals.

1907 will be better, Cub fans. I really like their chances of getting it done this time. This time, they will be ready. This year, when they get to the World Series, I predict they will simply demolish whoever the American League puts up against them. This year, the Cubs will be taking no prisoners.

The National League during the first decade of the last century was dominated by three teams: the Cubs, the Pirates, and the Giants. From 1905 through 1912, they finished 1-2-3 every year except 1907 when Philadelphia snuck into 3rd place ahead of New York.

The Giants - well, they were a little like today's Braves. They were really good, and they never went all the way. They had won an early championship in 1905, but after that came a long spell of coming up just a little short. Their manager was the one constant and enduring figure on the team. Their star player was Christy Mathewson, who was in some respects the Greg Maddux of his day - a man generally admired by players and fans alike, respected as much for his intelligence as for his ability. Mathewson, of course, was a big man by the standards of the day - his nickname, "Big 6," is a reference to his height - and hence a very imposing figure on the mound. Maddux... not so much.

The Pirates were like the Giants of recent vintage. They had some pretty decent players - manager and centre fielder Fred Clarke was one of the first great leadoff men in baseball history. But the main reason they contended year after year was because every day they ran out at shortstop a man who was simply the best baseball player in the world. By a mile. By several miles. Honus Wagner towered above everyone else in the game, arguably even more than Bonds does today. Wagner was the best base runner and the best defensive player in the game, besides being a mighty, mighty offensive force.

The Cubs had nothing like Wagner. (Well, nobody has ever had anything like Wagner.) They didn't even have anyone quite like Mathewson, although Miner Brown was himself a great pitcher.

Does their lineup impress you? No? They were either first or second in runs scored every year from 1906 through 1913. 1907 was in the midst of a pitcher's era: the league OBP was .301, the slugging pct. was .309 - these numbers are typical of the first decade of the twentieth century. Offense doesn't begin to increase until 1910. It is obviously important to keep that context in mind (and, of course, it only emphasizes just how incredible a hitter that Honus Wagner fella was.)

Baserunning was far more important - in a low scoring context, in a game without home runs, you couldn't win without being able to steal bases. If all you could hit were singles, you needed to get the runners into scoring position. And if you were the Cubs, and you had the best defensive team anyone had ever seen, and five starting pitchers with ERAs below 2.00 - well, you very seldom needed more than a couple of runs in a game.

So here's the 1907 Cubs team. Several of these guys, regulars on one of the greatest baseball teams that has ever stepped on a diamond, are almost completely forgotten. It seems strange somehow. Still, a hundred years from now, while the saga of Jeter and Rivera and Williams will probably be known to baseball fans, the names of O'Neill and Martinez and Pettitte may very well draw a blank.

The figures are BAVG, OBP, and SLUG, and you will notice that many players have higher OBP than SLUG. Welcome to 1907 ball.

Jimmy Slagle, cf (.258, .359, .294) - a little LH hitter, a veteran who could get on base. He hit just .258, but that was 15 points above the league average, and he drew 76 walks. He was 33 in 1907, but he could still run and it looks like he also cover still cover centre field.

Jimmy Sheckard, lf (.267, .373, .324)- another LH hitter, a man who was entering his prime years and in the process of remaking himself as a hitter. Earlier in the decade, with Brooklyn, he had been a slugger, hitting 11 HR and driving in 104 runs. By the end of his career, he would be drawing enormous numbers of walks. In 1907, he was in the midst of this progression. He also has a wonderful reputation as an outfielder. The Cubs bunted a lot - 194 sac hits, just two behind Cincinnati's league leading total; and Sheckard, batting 2nd behind the leadoff man, led the way with 35 sac hits, third most in the league.

Frank Chance, 1b (.293, .395, .361)- the manager, one of the team's four Hall of Famers and genuinely famous figures. His nickname was the "Peerless Leader" which somehow suggests a cool and calm tactician. He was not. He was a hard and demanding competitor, who believed in crowding the plate as a hitter, and having his pitchers brush back the other team's hitters. He got hit by a lot of pitches, and it probably shortened his playing career. He came up as a catcher and switched to 1B when Johnny Kling took over the whole catching job. This allowed Chance to play 120 games a year instead of 70, and for about five years he was a terrific player. Between his walks, his being hit by pitch, and his hitting, he was regularly on base, and once there he was one of the league's better base stealers. He was also regarded as one of the great defensive players in the league.

Harry Steinfeldt, 3b (.266, .323, .336) - Steinfeldt was the missing piece. Chance liked him enormously and wanted badly to acquire him, despite the fact that Steinfeldt's reputation around the league was a little... iffy? In March 1906, the Cubs sent pitcher Jake Wiemer (58-34 over the previous three years) and an unproven young 3B named Hans Lobert to Cincinnati for Steinfeldt. Wiemer would win 20 for the Reds, and Lobert would have a nice career; but Steinfeldt would have a career year in 1906, hitting .327 and leading the league in RBIs. He would never be anywhere near that good again, but he remained a solid run producer for the next few years. Evers described him as "a good fielder and a wonderful thrower." Evers also described him as "slow" - after all, in his five years as a Cub he stole only 94 bases.

Johnny Kling, c (.284, .342, .386)- Kling was probably not the best catcher in the league - that would have been Roger Bresnahan - but Kling was a good hitter for most of the decade. Again, we have to remind ourselves - a man hitting .284 and .386 is in fact a very valuable offensive player. That was, respectively, 41 and 75 points above the league averages. If you had a catcher who hit that much above league average in the 2004 NL - you'd take it. Because he'd be hitting .304 and slugging .498. Numbers very typical of Ivan Rodriguez (career .306 and .490), and like Pudge, Kling was the best defensive catcher in the league with a celebrated throwing arm.

Johnny Evers, 2b (.250, .309, .313) - is he the most famous guy from this team? It's pronounced Eee-vers, by the way; I had it wrong most of my life. Evers was a skinny little guy who was high-strung, got on everyone's nerves, and didn't even speak to Joe Tinker for years and years. As a hitter, think of a LH Ozzie Smith. Evers had no power whatsoever. He didn't hit for an impressive BAVG, although he was comfortably above the league average. But he did a great many other things that all added up to something useful. He never, never struck out. He drew walks, more and more as he got older. He was a base stealer. In 1907, he was a young player and still developing - he was a little better than an average offensive player at this point, and in 1908 he would take a major step forward. He was, at least early in his career, the best defensive second baseman of his time, and he was always one of the best.

Frank Schulte, rf (.287, .339, .386) - another of the team's "sluggers." Wildfire Schulte was a young LH hitter who would explode in 1911 to hit an amazing 21 HRs and win the MVP. Schulte and Kling were the only men on this team who seem to have definitely had below-average speed. I'm not completely sold on Evers' assessment of Steinfeldt.

Joe Tinker, ss (.221, .269, .271) - Tinker had a bad year at the plate in 1907. He had normally had a decent bat, and after 1908 he actually hit with a little bit of pop. This seems a strange thing to say about a man with 31 career HRs. Nevertheless, it's true. Tinker was a good glove man, although obviously not the best in the league - Honus Wagner played his position.

Rosters were smaller - the Cubs appear to have carried about 18 players. The bench essentially consisted of three guys. One was Pat Moran, the backup catcher. This was actually an important job in the first decade. Catchers did not play nearly as often as they do now, because they didn't have the same equipment. Shin pads were first used in 1907 by Roger Bresnahan, precisely so he could stay in the lineup. Think about that - catching major league pitchers without shin pads. And some of these men truly did throw hard.

Del Howard was the backup first baseman, an important job because NL pitchers did seem to enjoy throwing the ball at Frank Chance's head. Chance always missed at least 30 games a year. Howard was acquired in mid-season in exchange for backup OF Newt Randall.

The key bench player was a 24 year old utility man named Sol Hofman, who played 134 games divided among all four infield spots and all three outfield spots. He spent more time in RF than anywhere else because Wildfire Schulte missed about two months of the season. Hofman would take over the full-time CF job within a couple of years.

The Cubs carried seven pitchers - they were all starters, of course. The division of labour is a little unusual. Overall led the staff with 30 starts and 268.1 IP; by contrast, McGraw's Giants had two pitchers (Mathewson and McGinnity) who worked more than 300 IP. All of the Cubs pitchers posted amazing numbers - so amazing that we are forced to wonder just how much of that was really a tribute to the defense behind them.

Orval Overall (23-7, 1.68) - acquired from the Reds in mid-season 1906, gave the Cubs three very good years, and started the World Series opener in 1907.
Mordecai Brown (20-6, 1.39) - a truly great pitcher, with the 6th best ERA of all-time. His index finger was missing and his middle finger was deformed (farming accident as a boy) - it gave him a unique breaking ball.
Carl Lundgren (18-7, 1.17) - completely forgotten today, went 91-55 for the Cubs as a complementary starter. He went 35-13 in 1906-07 and didn't appear in either World Series.
Jack Pfiester (14-9, 1.15) - a LH power pitcher who won 20 games in 1906, Pfeister is one of the few players in history whose nickname was derived from his ability to beat a particular team. He was known as "Jack the Giant Killer."
Ed Reulbach (17-4, 1.69) - big Ed (six foot one) sometimes had a little trouble finding the plate, but he was an awfully good pitcher. His career is a little short for the Hall of Fame, but he had Hall of Fame quality. For some reason, I think of him as a Juan Guzman type, although Guzman was a small man for a power pitcher and Reulbach was a big guy by the standards of the day. They were a little erratic, but often overpowering, and at their peak all they did was win. From 1906-08, Reulbach went 60-15; Guzman started his career going 40-11.
Chick Fraser (8-5, 2.28) - Fraser was a 36 year old vet picked up in the off-season after three straight 20 loss seasons. In his 11 NL seasons before coming to Chicago, he had gone 156-198, 3.88; in his career ending coda with the Cubs, he went 19-14, 2.25. Again it makes you wonder how big an impact this defense was having.
Jack Taylor (7-5, 3.29) - Taylor had been the workhorse of the Cubs staff in the first few years of the century, before they traded him to St Louis in the deal that brought Mordecai Brown to Chicago. The Cubs brought him back in mid-1906. He pitched well for them that year but appears to have lost his effectiveness in 1907, which would be his final season in the majors.

So much of what we know about this team suggests that they won with their defense. You probably couldn't do that now - you probably couldn't assemble a defense that was that much better than everybody else's, that had that much impact on the game. But this team is famous for their defense. First, of course, there is the poem, and we couldn't possibly talk about this team without citing this poem:

Baseball's Sad Lexicon

These are the saddest of possible words:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Trio of bear Cubs and fleeter than birds,
Tinker to Evers to Chance
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double,
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
-----Franklin P. Adams, 1910

Their defense was what people remembered about them. Chance demanded smart players on his teams, and Tinker and Evers in particular were noted for their planned plays (they were running bluffs on baserunners long before Lonnie Smith was born) and innovative approach. They took positioning seriously, and are sometimes described as the first team that had the shortstop cover second when a LH batter was at the plate.

They were the first team to make fewer than 200 errors in a season; still it is very hard, at this remove, to figure out how good they were. We have range factor and fielding percentage and double plays - those numbers suggest that the Cubs were better than average, but not historically great. They could hardly suggest much else - the false normalization of defensive numbers confuses the issue enormously. If you put out a team that consisted of me and my friends, well sooner or later we'd record 27 putouts as well. It might take a while, but we'd get there.

So let's look at this. The Cubs in 1906 made a pair of mid-season trades. In each case, they traded a pitcher to another NL team in exchange for another pitcher. On June 2, they sent Bob Wicker and $2000 to Cincinnati for Orval Overall. On July 1, they sent Fred Beebe and Pete Noonan to St Louis for Jack Taylor. Here is what the four pitchers did as Cubs, and here is what they did as Reds or Cardinals:

Bob Wicker Chi 3 5 10 8 5 0 1 0 72.3 70 36 24 0 19 25 0 1 291 2.99 2.62 88
Bob Wicker Cin 6 11 20 17 14 0 3 0 150.0 150 69 45 3 46 69 1 3 617 2.70 2.76 102
Fred Beebe Chi 6 1 14 6 4 0 7 1 70.0 56 27 21 1 32 55 5 1 304 2.70 2.62 97
Fred Beebe StL 9 9 20 19 16 1 1 0 160.7 115 65 54 1 68 116 9 2 630 3.02 2.62 87
Jack Taylor StL 8 9 17 17 17 1 0 0 155.0 133 50 37 3 47 27 7 0 640 2.15 2.62 122
Jack Taylor Chi 12 3 17 16 15 2 1 0 147.3 116 42 30 1 39 34 6 0 565 1.83 2.62 143
Orval Overall Cin 4 5 13 10 6 0 3 0 82.3 77 52 39 1 46 33 4 2 365 4.26 2.76 65
Orval Overall Chi 12 3 18 14 13 2 3 1 144.0 116 43 30 1 51 94 4 5 601 1.88 2.62 140

It is very hard to tease any conclusions out of this data. Bob Wicker seems to have pitched slightly better after leaving the Cubs - in particular, he raised his strikeouts from 3.1 to 4.1 per 9 innings. That got him above the league average of 3.77. Otherwise, he looks like pretty much the same guy.

Fred Beebe did not fare quite as well in St Louis as he had in Chicago, but he retained most of his effectiveness. Beebe was a big-time power pitcher by the standards of the day - he was second in the league in Ks per 9 innings - and those types of pitchers do tend to be a bit more independent of their team's defense.

Jack Taylor never struck out anybody, and moving to Chicago helped him a great deal. He gave up significantly fewer hits, and as near as I can tell was getting more outs made behind him on balls in play. He was a RH finesse pitcher - I don't know, but I assume he threw a few ground balls.

And Orval Overall. Overall became a great pitcher after moving from Cincinnati to Chicago. However, it is easy to see what happened. His strikeouts suddenly went through the roof. He was just below the league average with 3.6 K per 9 in Cincinnati; in Chicago he suddenly became one of the league's top strikeout pitchers, fanning 5.9 per 9. What explains that? Frank Chance telling him to brush hitters back? Johnny Kling? I do not know.

I do know this - this was one hell of a baseball team. How good were they? Consider this:

Most wins in one season: 1906 Cubs (116-35 .757) and the 2001 Mariners (116-46, .716).
Most wins in two seasons: 1906-07 Cubs (223-81, .734).
Most wins in three seasons: 1906-08 Cubs (322-136, .703).
Most wins in four seasons: 1906-09 Cubs (426-185, .697).
Most wins in five seasons: 1906-10 Cubs (530-235, .693).
Most wins in six seasons: 1905-10 Cubs (622-296, .678).
Most wins in seven seasons: 1904-10 Cubs (715-356, .668).
Most wins in eight seasons: 1904-11 Cubs (807-418, .659).
Most wins in nine seasons: 1904-12 Cubs (898-477, .653).
Most wins in ten seasons: 1904-13 Cubs (986-542, .645).

They could play a little.

And in 1915, they packed up and left the west side of Chicago for new digs, a park built for Chicago's Federal League entry. They're still there, ninety years later. The Bulls and the Blackhawks still play in the western portion of Chicago, and they've won a title or two.

But as we all know, there has never been a championship banner flying on the north side of Chicago.

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Mike Green - Sunday, March 13 2005 @ 12:23 PM EST (#105972) #
So, it is Ee-vers.

There is a lesson for the 2005 Blue Jays offence in all this. If it is possible to run a successful long-sequence offence in the deadball era without much power, it is much easier to do so now.

Nice, Magpie.
Willy - Sunday, March 13 2005 @ 02:29 PM EST (#105994) #
Another nice piece, Magpie. As a one-time Cubs fan, however, I am chagrined by the 'no championship banner' refrain. I don't know what the current figure is for the number of *pennants* the Cubs have won (it used to be 16 when I was a kid--more than just about any NL team, I think). But that 1906 team must have been a powerhouse.

Don't mean this to get us side-tracked from old Cubs teams, but the Matthewson nickname business has always intrigued me. Why "Big Six"?

There seem to be three chief contenders for the answer to that query. The most commonsensical of these simply points out that Mathewson was over six feet tall (his height is usually listed as 6 feet, 1 1/2 inches), an exceptionally big man in the early 1900's. There were many other players over six feet tall in his time, however--even some on his own team; and his size alone does not seem sufficiently remarkable to account for the tenaciousness of 'Big Six'. (I cannot recall where, moreover, but I believe I have seen reference to Mathewson's not being, in fact, quite six feet tall; so perhaps even his height is uncertain.)

Fred Lieb, in his The Baseball Story (1950), credits Sam Crane, an ex-ballplayer turned sportswiter for The New York Evening Journal, with nicknaming Mathewson "Big Six". Lieb had known Crane after 1911, when he himself came to New York to join the New York Press (Crane would then have been 57 years old, and a well known baseball reporter; Lieb, a cub of 23). In his later book, Baseball As I Have Known It (1977), written when he was 89 years old, Lieb simply says that Big Six "was a name created by some sports writer before I arrived in New York." He goes on to say, however, that the name had two derivations: "Matty was a `big six,' standing 6 feet 1 1/2 inches, and there is an important typographical union in New York called Big Six. The very name suggested power." This reference to the typographical union indicates another possible source of the name usually cited in stories about Mathewson, but it's always seemed to me abit of a stretch.

The explanation that seems to have most currency, as well as most plausibility, is that the name had to do with a celebrated steam fire-wagon in New York City. The Big Six engine was big, fast, powerful and effective--just like Matthewson. (Similar comparisons appear in Walter Johnson's being called The Big Train in the 1920's; in Joe DiMaggio's being known as The Yankee Clipper in the 1940's and 50's; and possibly in Allie Reynolds being called Super Chief, after a well-known train of the 1950's--not simply because he was of Indian descent.)
Magpie - Sunday, March 13 2005 @ 02:58 PM EST (#105999) #
That's really interesting, Willy - all I'd heard about was his height and I had the impression that he had the nickname before he joined the Giants.

I wonder if it could have been a combination - Allie Reynolds was Super Chief because of the train and his heritage. Both elements made it work.

Magpie - Sunday, March 13 2005 @ 03:05 PM EST (#106002) #
And a quick peek at players' listed heights in 1907.

On the Giants, Dan McGann, Art Devlin, Cy Seymour, and Hooks Wiltse are listed at 6-0; Dummy Taylor and Christy Mathewson at 6-1; Frank Bowerman and Mike Lynch at 6-2.

On The Cubs, Frank Chance, Solly Hofman, and Del Howard are listed at 6-0; Ed Reulbach (called Big Ed) at 6-1; and Orval Overall at 6-2.

Mick Doherty - Sunday, March 13 2005 @ 04:58 PM EST (#106012) #
I think you're right, Magpie; from Baseball Digest...
    Although it is not known for sure, Christy Mathewson's six-foot height in an era of much shorter players is said to have been the reason for his nickname "Big Six." Historians believe that Mathewson was asked his size and said, "six feet," and someone then recorded it as a "big six." Mathewson actually stood 6-1 and a half. His teammates referred to him mostly as "Matty," however.
Willy - Sunday, March 13 2005 @ 05:34 PM EST (#106015) #
Perhaps no player in the history of baseball, with the probable exception of Babe Ruth it seems fair to say, was better known in his time than Christy Mathewson. For most of the first three decades of the Twentieth Century there can have been few people--baseball fans or not--who did not know who "Big Six" was.

There’s a story of a letter sent to Mathewson--addressed simply with the 4-inch-high number 6 cut out of an evening paper's headline--being safely delivered to him across half a continent. This is well documented in the December, 1914, issue of Baseball Magazine. (I drove down to the HOF Library at Cooperstown one summer to check the story out, among other matters.) The letter (containing the message, "Matty, if you get this please let me know.") was sent by a Mr. G Irwin from Chicago, and confidently forwarded by a postal clerk to Mathewson, then residing in Los Angeles (at 1337 W. 47th St.). Such celebrity, (and such postal service), is truly extraordinary. (Ken Smith, in his *Baseball’s Hall of Fame* also mentions this story.)

I expect the name was a combination of his size and the fire-wagon. Both work. It's hard for us to grasp the excitement and novelty that some of the old 'technology' had 100 years ago. There's a firemen's museum somewhere in NYC that still houses the Big Six engine. I have a photo of it somewhere. It was famous, too. But, of course, I don't expect we'll ever know "for sure".
Willy - Monday, March 14 2005 @ 08:50 PM EST (#106115) #
{Mick D.] I think you're right, Magpie; from Baseball Digest...

<i>Although it is not known for sure, Christy Mathewson's six-foot height in an era of much shorter players is said to have been the reason for his nickname "Big Six." Historians believe that Mathewson was asked his size and said, "six feet," and someone then recorded it as a "big six." Mathewson actually stood 6-1 and a half. His teammates referred to him mostly as "Matty," however.</i>

Well, I’ve sat on this for a full day, Mick; but I can’t let it go. *Baseball Digest* is a useful publication. I have a goodly collection of them. But it’s not a work I’d feel comfortable with as arbiter in a matter such as this. To acquiesce in its judgement here would be to contribute to the entrenching of probable misinformation. Yeah, it’s a small matter, but maybe we can get it right-ish.

All I’d like is for us to understand the fire-wagon reference as a possible, even probable, reason for the name.

Where to start? First, I suppose, we’d have to know how important fires, and hence fire companies and fire-wagons, were in the daily lives of New Yorkers in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Most buildings were made of wood, and whole neighbourhoods could disappear if fires weren’t dealt with in a hurry and effectively. Fires were at or near the forefront of people’s imaginations. In New York, Fire Company No. 6 was also especially famous because one of its founders, and later a foreman in it, was “Boss” Tweed, the Tammany Hall and Democratic Party major domo. (Though I haven’t seen it, I believe that the recent film “Gangs of New York” has some mention of this.) In short, without a little research, we have no idea why calling Matty “Big Six” after a fire-wagon could seem plausible. But the more one does look into it, the more sense the attribution makes.

I expect that nobody but you and I and Magpie will trouble to look at this now. So be it.

Here are some websites relevant to this topic. I found them just now with a bit of Googling:

Magpie - Monday, March 14 2005 @ 10:01 PM EST (#106117) #
we’d have to know how important fires, and hence fire companies and fire-wagons,

I think you're right about that - it was a fairly new and wonderful way of dealing with a big and persistent problem.

We know they sure as hell fascinated Rube Waddell, anyway.

I'd be inclined to think that however the name first got attached to Mathewson, it stuck because of everything - because of his size and because of the other big six connotations - especially the tall and admirable men who served their community.

Mathewson was one of the first great "role model" ballplayers - or at least one of the first from the east. Cy Young was a widely admired figure too, but Young was an Ohio farmer from another era; he was the paragon of honest country folk. Matty was new and modern and Eastern. Like the firewagon.

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