1906 Chicago Cubs
116 – 36 (0.763)
At the behest of manager John McGraw, the defending champion New York Giants proudly wore “WORLD’S CHAMPIONS” emblazoned on their shirt fronts in 1906. The previous year, the Giants had outpaced the Pirates with 105 wins and steamrolled the AL Champion A’s in a five-game World Series. As the 1906 season began, they looked well-prepared to make another run for the title. In early May, they stood in first place, and, despite falling behind the Chicago Cubs later that month, remained in contention well into June, just behind the Pittsburgh Pirates in the standings.
But neither the Giants nor the Pirates — indeed, few teams in history — could match the Cubs’ late season dominance. Powered by their stellar pitching, Chicago lost just ten of their last 65 games to finish twenty games ahead of the second-place Giants with a record of 116-36. It remains the best winning percentage ever recorded in the twentieth century and the most wins of any team in baseball history. Incredibly, they came close to doubling their opponents’ runs, outscoring all comers by a shocking 705 to 381 margin.
Led by manager Frank Chance, who also manned first base, “The Spuds” (as the Cubs had been known a few years earlier) used a devastating strategy built around stealing bases, moving runners along, and sacrificing outs for runs. It didn’t hurt that their pitching staff had a team ERA of 1.75 (the second-lowest of all time, bested only by the following year’s Cubs) and that their defense, featuring the legendary Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double-play combination, was among the best in baseball.
A hard-nosed competitor, Chance was never afraid to crowd the plate, and urged his teammates to do likewise. In 1904, he had been hit three times in a game to tie a major-league record; in the second game of the doubleheader, he was hit twice more. He showed little compassion for pitchers who threw at him. After being beaned by Reds hurler Jack Harper during the 1906 campaign, Chance pushed GM Charles Murphy to acquire Harper, then benched him after cutting his pay. Harper left baseball after making just one one-inning start for the Cubs.
Ironically, Chance taught his own pitchers to back hitters off the plate, believing it was the key to success on the mound. The strategy worked — the pitching staff was the crown jewel of the 1906 team. Out of the six men who started over 140 innings for the Cubs, Carl Lundgren‘s 2.21 ERA was the highest; Three Finger Brown led the team with 1.04 ERA, which even today trails only Dutch Leonard’s 1914 mark of 1.01 in the record books. Jack Pfiester and Ed Reulbach were similarly untouchable, winning 39 games combined. Jack Taylor and Orval Overall both went 12-3 after being acquired in separate deals during the season.
Chance later underwent brain surgery (possibly made necessary by the numerous balls that struck his head) but his mental faculties on the field were sharp. He demanded players that had good “baseball smarts”, and even encouraged wagering at the racetrack and poker as activities that would “stir up mental activity.” According to second baseman Johnny Evers, Chance would sometimes play poker with new players to get a feel for how well they could think on their feet.
As a result, the Cubs were an unusually cohesive bunch on the field. A variety of hand signals were employed to shade the defense depending on what pitch would be thrown. Shortstop Joe Tinker and Evers were the first double-play tandem to have the shortstop cover second on a hit-and-run when a left-hander was up. When a batter hit a fly ball they would sometimes dive as if the ball was hit on the ground, and double up inattentive runners as they raced to the next base. “Sherwood Magee was caught three times in one season on the play,” recalled Evers. “Finally, in Philadelphia, the Cubs tried again. Magee, not to be caught again, gave them a laugh and jogged back to first, whereupon Schulte dropped the ball, threw it to second, and Tinker fired to first, completing the double play.
Thanks in large part to smart positioning, the Cubs were the first team to make fewer than 200 errors in a season. Catcher Johnny Kling, an expert at manipulating umpires, was also a master of the delayed throw and caught many an unsuspecting runner loping towards second base. Stealing opponent’s signs was also a favorite pastime. Christy Mathewson recalled that Evers once learned sign language to foil the Giants, who had used their hands to communicate ever since deaf-and-dumb pitcher “Dummy” Taylor joined the club.
Often considered the Cubs’ weak link, their offense was still good enough to outscore the their closest competitors by 80 runs. Chance’s .327 average, coupled with the league-leading 83 RBIs compiled by off-season acquisition Harry Steinfeldt, provided a strong anchor for a well-rounded lineup which consistently plated the Cubs’ swift baserunners. Wildfire Schulte, sandwiched between the two, was one of the best hitters in the league. Realizing two to three runs was all he needed per game, Chance utilized his team’s speed whenever possible, ordering his men to run at any opportunity. Chance himself totaled a league-high 57 steals but he was by no means the only man in the Cubs’ lineup who knew how to swipe a bag. Even catcher Kling stole 14 bases in under 100 games.
Unfortunately, the Cubs’ many achievements were tarnished by an inexplicable World Series loss to a White Sox team that had been mired in fourth place in the American League in the beginning of August. Known as the “Hitless Wonders,” the South Siders had hit only seven home runs and posted an AL-worst .230 batting average, not to mention a .286 slugging percentage. Worse still, they weren’t even the league leaders in ERA or fielding percentage. Through four games, the series was knotted at two, but Cubs fans remained confident their team would emerge victorious. After all, the “Hitless Wonders” had managed just eleven hits in the first four games — a batting average of .097.
But the White Sox’ star shortstop George Davis, who had missed the start of the series with an injury, returned for Game Five and went two for five with three RBIs to lead the White Sox to victory, 8-6. Chance’s decision to rely on a tired Three Finger Brown in Game Six cost him the championship. The White Sox won again, 8-3, to close out the overconfident Cubs.