The 1908 baseball season was the biggest year for pitching in a decade of pitchers' years. Both leagues batted .239, both record lows. Only one of the 16 major league pitching staffs, the Yankees', had an ERA over 3.00. Seven pitchers threw no-hitters and seven of the all-time 50 lowest season ERAs came in 1908.
Individual milestones included Ed Walsh's 40 wins (the second-greatest total in history) and 464 innings pitched (the most ever); Christy Mathewson's 37 wins; Addie Joss's 1.16 ERA (seventh-lowest in history); and Cy Young's 1.26 ERA (the tenth-best).
This wealth of pitching produced two of the closest, most exciting, and most controversial pennant races of all time. A three-team National League race among Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York hinged on the still-talked-about Fred Merkle blunder, which occurred in a September 23 game between the Giants and the Cubs.
The score was tied 1-1 and the sun was setting over the Polo Grounds in New York. Fred Merkle, a rookie substitute, was standing on first and Moose McCormick occupied third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, when Giants shortstop Al Bridwell singled to center.
Thinking the game was won, and with a crowd of happy fans swarming the infield, Merkle bypassed second base and made for the New York clubhouse. But Chicago second baseman Johnny Evers got the attention of the umpire who, after seeing Evers tag second base with a ball (there was some dispute over whether it was actually the game ball), declared Merkle forced out at second, nullifying the winning run.
This ignited a storm of protests, counter-protests, and league hearings. Finally, National League president Harry Pulliam ruled that the game would be replayed after the season if it proved to have a bearing on the pennant race.
Unfortunately for the Giants, it did. New York and Chicago finished in a tie, which was broken when Chicago's Three Finger Brown defeated Mathewson 4-2 in the make-up game. The Cubs finished with a 99-55 record, 1 game up on the Giants and Pirates, both at 98-56.
While the 1908 Cubs exhibited their usual combination of great pitching and team defense, the Giants were carried by Mathewson, who led the league in wins, games, complete games, strikeouts, and ERA. He threw a league-high 11 shutouts and recorded five saves, pitching in a dozen games out of the bullpen between starts.
Once again, Pittsburgh was the Honus Wagner show, as Wagner won his usual batting title at .354 and led in on-base average at .410 and slugging average at .542. He also made a clean sweep of six other key offensive categories: hits, RBI, doubles, triples, total bases, and stolen bases.
In the American League, a four-team race came down to the wire, with Detroit (90-63) finally slipping past Cleveland (90-64) by .004 percentage points, the smallest margin of victory in American League or National League history. Chicago finished 1-1/2 back and St. Louis faded late to end up 6-1/2 behind.
As in 1907, Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford led the American League in nearly everything. Cobb won the batting title at .324 and was No. 1 in hits, doubles, triples, total bases, RBI, and slugging. Crawford led in home runs and was second in runs, RBI, hits, total bases, batting, and slugging.
For the second straight year, Cobb's team was humiliated in the World Series, this time 4-1. Cubs batters hit .293 off Tigers pitching, while Brown's 0.00 ERA in 11 innings paced the Chicago staff to a 2.60 ERA. Cobb's personal performance improved, as he batted .368 with four RBI and a pair of stolen bases.
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