1902 Pittsburg Pirates
103 – 36 (0.741)
The 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates romped through the season with a 103-36 record, a winning percentage of .741 — the second-best ever compiled in the twentieth century. They finished the year 27½ games ahead of the Brooklyn Dodgers — a record that stood until 1995, when Cleveland beat Kansas City by 30 games in the AL Central. In the process, the Pirates outscored every other team in the league by at least 142 runs — over a run a game! — while allowing 61 runs fewer than their closest rival.
Of course, it helped that most of the top players in the National League had already left to join Ban Johnson‘s upstart American League. Johnson had compiled a list of forty-six players he had hoped to woo before the 1901 season; by 1902, all but one had been signed by American League clubs. The sole holdout was Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner, who had been born and raised in Western Pennsylvania and greatly enjoyed hunting in the area. Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, who spared no expense when it came to fending off his rivals, raised Wagner’s salary above the mandated league maximum. At the same time, he tried to prevent former team owners William Kerr and Phil Auten from forming a rival American League franchise in his backyard by surreptitiously leasing a host of potential ballpark sites in the area.
The spectre of the new league hovered over the Pirates all season, but the team held together and — as expected — dominated their decimated competition. The Bucs won thirty of their first thirty-five games; by the end of May, they were already 20 games over .500 and ten games ahead of the second-place Cubs. They never lost more than two in a row, and were especially dominating at home. In Exposition Park, they won 56 and lost just 15 — another NL record.
The Pirates might have won even more had manager Fred Clarke not left for a week in September to attend his parents’ wedding anniversary, leaving Wagner in charge of the club. With Wagner employing a minimum of strategy on his first day on the job (“let’s just beat ’em”) the team lost both ends of a doubleheader in New York. It was the only time the Pirates were swept in a twin bill all year.
Wagner, the Pirates’ leading hitter with a .353 average the previous year, started the season at short, but was pressed into outfield duty when centerfielder Ginger Beaumont suffered a leg injury early in the season. Filling in for fragile teammates throughout the year, Wagner proved he could perform admirably at any position and led the league in five offensive categories, including stolen bases. He even took the mound on September 5, throwing two wild pitches but striking out five Boston Braves in five innings.
It’s doubtful Wagner would have enjoyed the same pitching success against his own teammates. Pittsburgh’s batters topped the league in virtually every major category: runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases, average, and slugging percentage. Manager Fred Clarke hit a solid .321, and Beaumont led the league with a .357 batting average. Third baseman “Wee” Tommy Leach blasted six homers to lead the league.
The Pirates’ pitching staff boasted an ERA of 2.30 (second only to the Cubs’ 2.21), led the league in strikeouts and shutouts, and featured three twenty-game winners — Jesse Tannehill, Deacon Phillippe, and “Happy” Jack Chesbro, a 28-game-winner who at one point recorded 41 consecutive scoreless innings. Rounding out the rotation were a pair of 16-game winners, Ed Doheny and Sam Leever; the latter topped the team with two saves. Pirate hurlers threw complete games in all but eleven of the team’s contests.
The Pirates were indeed dominant, but their competition was a joke. Never was it more obvious than on the last day of the season, when the Pirates set a major-league record with their 103rd win — with more than a little help from the opposing Cincinnati Reds. The Reds — who had hoped to cancel the game on the grounds that the rain-soaked field was unplayable — spent the day switching positions at whim and generally clowning around. One batter came to the plate smoking a cigarette. With first baseman Jake Beckley on the mound, pitcher Rube Vickers took his turn behind the plate and promptly set a major-league record with six passed balls. As each sailed to the backstop, Vickers stood and slowly blew his nose.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, inter-league squabbling ended the hope that Pittsburgh would face the American League champion Philadelphia A’s after the season. But despite the discord, a four-game series between the Pirates and an all-star team of AL “All-Americans” was arranged in early October, even though four key Bucs (Chesbro, Tannehill, Davis, and Leach) had already expressed their wish to sign with American League clubs. Working with a two-man pitching staff, the Pirates won the first two games; the third was called with no score in the eleventh, and the AL took the series finale by a 1-0 margin.