1909 Pittsburg Pirates
110 – 42 (0.724)
Had Chicago catcher Johnny Kling chosen to guard home plate for the Cubs in 1909 instead of taking the year off to pursue a second consecutive billiards title, his team might have been able to outpace the Pittsburgh Pirates for their fourth consecutive pennant. Instead, Kling’s absence played a key role in the Pirates’ newfound success against their perennial rivals. In the process, Pittsburgh won 110 games to edge out the dynastic Cubs for the NL pennant by a six-and-a-half game margin.
The Pirates started the season slowly. Ominously, star shortstop Honus Wagner was stopped for speeding on his way to the ballpark for Opening Day. Ten days later, Pittsburgh was 3-5 and in last place for the first time in a decade. But the Bucs soon pulled themselves out of the cellar with a well-balanced mix of strong defense, daring baserunning, and the best hitting in the league.
Two May doubleheaders at Chicago’s West Side Grounds firmly established the Pirates’ dominance over the Cubs. In the first, on May 2, Pittsburgh immediately took advantage of Kling’s absence. The Pirates stole two bases in the opener en route to a 5-2 victory, and in the first inning of the second game (also won by the Bucs) they stole six. Three of those first-inning swipes belonged to Wagner, who pilfered second, third, and home; he would repeat the feat the very next day. The convincing sweep moved the Pirates into first place for good. Another sweep on May 30 helped the Pirates avoid second place.
Along with Fred Clarke, Sam Leever, Tommy Leach, and Deacon Phillippe, Wagner was one of just five players who remained from the roster of the 1902 National League champions. Wagner’s large hands and powerful arm made him one of the games’ best defensive shortstops; “The Flying Dutchman” also anchored Pittsburgh’s lineup as the cleanup man and won his fourth straight batting title with a .339 mark. He led the league with 100 RBIs, 242 total bases, 39 doubles and a .489 slugging percentage. Still a formidable presence in the lineup at the age of 36, Clarke batted third and hit .287 with eleven triples, 68 RBI, and 31 stolen bases. He also led the league with 80 walks. Leever, 37, lost just one of his nine decisions, appearing mostly in relief.
Wagner was the lone .300 hitter for the Pirates (there were only four in the whole league) but the Bucs’ lineup provided few easy outs. Pittsburgh had easily the best offense in the league, leading in runs, doubles, triples, batting average and slugging average. No regular hit below .261; with the exception of catcher George Gibson, all had more than 14 stolen bases. Third baseman Bobby Byrne, acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in late August for light-hitting Jap Barbeau, was used mainly in the leadoff spot and made just two errors while hitting .256 for his new club down the stretch. Centerfielder Tommy Leach, batting second, led the league by far with 126 runs while finishing second with six home runs. Second baseman Dots Miller was charged with making teams think twice before pitching around Wagner, and he performed his duty admirably, smacking 31 doubles (third in the league), thirteen triples (fourth in the league) and driving in 87 runs (third in the league). Rookie Ham Hyatt was ham-handed in the field, but was valuable as an extra bat off the bench. He led the league in pinch-hits.
The Pirates pitching staff was equally well-balanced; their team ERA of 2.07 was second only to Chicago’s microscopic 1.75. The main beneficiary of Pittsburgh’s 110 wins was staff ace Howie Camnitz, who tallied 25 victories against only six losses. Impressive as it was by today’s standards, his 1.62 ERA was only good enough for fourth in the league. Vic Willis won 22 times and threw 24 complete games, while the aptly-named Lefty Leifield picked up 19 wins and Nick Maddox chipped in 13.
The savior of the season may have been an unknown 27-year-old left-hander named Babe Adams. In his first full big-league season, Adams posted a 12-3 record to go with a sparkling 1.11 ERA in 130 innings. His biggest contribution came in the World Series, when Clarke turned to him three times against the Detroit Tigers. Adams responded with three victories, including a complete-game shutout in Game Seven in which he held Ty Cobb hitless. Thanks to Adams, the 1909 Pirates can still claim the highest winning percentage (regular season and post-season) of any modern World Series winner.