The 2016 Chicago Cubs won 24 of their first 30 games for a winning percentage of .800 which, if maintained for the rest of the season would net them an unprecedented 129 or 130 victories for the year. Now, 30 games is only 18.5 per cent of the schedule, but with their strong starting pitchers led by the unworldly Jake Arrieta and a deep and talented roster featuring Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, it is possible to consider that they will indeed run away from the pack in the National League Central and set some kind of record before it all is over. With the possible exception of St. Louis, the Cubs aren’t facing very stiff opposition in their own division. On the other side of town, the White Sox are doing very well also, so Chicago fans are forgiven for fantasizing about an all Chicago World Series this year.
Which team had the best record ever for a full season in major league baseball? Why, it was the Chicago Cubs, of course, back in 1906. That team won 116 games and lost 36, a mind boggling percentage of .763. However, they were not World Champions. They got beat, four games to two, in the series by none other than the Chicago White Sox.
I had to look a lot of this stuff up because, in 1906, I was yet to even have my first paper route. Those Cubs rolled to the pennant by 20 games over John McGraw‘s New York Giants. They were managed by Frank Chance, the final link in the poetically famous Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combination. Chance was the first baseman. Many teams in those days had playing managers, saving a bundle in the process. McGraw barely qualified by playing one game at third base. Third place Pittsburgh was managed by outfielder Fred Clarke, who led the league in triples with 13. Unlike today, triples were much more common than home runs in 1906. Consequently, teams had to utilize what today’s Giants announcers Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow refer to as the ground attack. Sacrifice bunts, the hit and run, and stolen bases were all the rage. It was probably a lot more exciting than the steroid era solo home run parade at the turn of this century. The Cubs in 1906 led the National League with a team total of 20 homers while stealing 283 bases. The whole team got in on the act, led by Chance with 57 thefts and second baseman Johnny Evers with 49. Even the catcher, Johnny Kling, stole 14 bases.
It was the pitching, however, that really separated the 1906 Cubs from the pack, just as it has been so far this season. Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown completed 27 of his 32 starts for a 26-6 record with an earned run average of 1.04. Jack Pfiester was the only lefty on the seven man staff and he was 20-8 with an ERA of 1.56. The staff completed 125 games that season but that number did not lead the league. That honor went to the last place Boston Braves with 137. We made a big deal out of the Baltimore Orioles starters in 1971 because they had four twenty game winners. Well, how about the 1906 Braves, who had four twenty game losers? Gus Domer led the way with a record of 8-25 and he also lost a game for Cincinnati before joining the Braves, so he led the league with 26.
Not surprisingly,with the scarcity of home runs in those days there were also a lot fewer strikeouts. Maybe that’s why pitchers were able to pitch so many innings. Fred Beebe, who pitched in 14 games for the Cubs before being traded to St. Louis, led the N.L. with 171 strikeouts. Irv Young of the aforementioned Braves fanned 151 in his 358 innings of work. Hall of Fame righty Christy Mathewson of the Giants struck out 128 in 267 innings that year.
The White Sox were called the Hitless Wonders in those days and needed defense and pitching to secure the American League flag. They were led by playing manager Fielder Jones, the aptly named outfielder who matched the team batting average by hitting at a .230 pace. The Sox averaged 3.77 runs per game but had a team earned run average of 2.13. They featured lefty Nick Altrock, who won 20 games, and righty Frank Owen, who won 22, but the Sox had a more modest record of 93-58 as they edged the Yankees by 3 games for the pennant. Second baseman Frank Isbell led the team in batting average at .279 and the team collected 6 home runs for the season, led by Jones with two.
The Cubs hosted the first game and lost, 2-1, as Altrock bested Brown. They moved to Comiskey Park for the second game and the Cubs prevailed, 7-1. Ed Walsh of the White Sox shut out the Cubs, 3-0 in the third game and then Brown returned the favor against Altrock, 1-0 in the fourth. The Sox then went crazy (for them) by scoring eight runs in each of the last two games to win it all.
Can it happen again? Perhaps, but certainly not this way. For one thing, the prospect of four to seven night games in Chicago around Halloween is a bit daunting. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.