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.
Continue to the next page to see headlines from the 1908 baseball season.
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1908 Baseball Season Headlines
All eyes were on the pitchers' mounds during the 1908 baseball season, as that's where the majority of the news was being made. See for yourself with this selection of 1908 baseball season headlines:
Ty Cobb Takes 1908 American League Batting Title
Ty Cobb won the American League batting crown in 1908 with a .324 average, a low figure even for that time. Sam Crawford was second with a .311 mark and Matty McIntyre came in three places behind him at .295 to make it a trio of Tigers that finished among the top five. Detroit's .264 team batting average led the league.
The other seven clubs hit a combined .236, which suddenly gives Cobb's circuit-topping figure quite a different look. Cobb's .324 average would be his lowest mark in the next 20 years. In 1928, his final season, he batted .323.
Nap Rucker Picks Up Slack
Nap Rucker's offensive support in 1908 included a trio of outfielders who hit .243, .216, and .195 -- and had just 74 RBI combined. Rucker, nevertheless, won 17 games. In 1916, when Brooklyn finally assembled enough hitters to go with its always-excellent pitchers and won the pennant, he was nearly through.
Hooks Wiltse an Odd Man Out
Hooks Wiltse was a very good pitcher -- he went 23-14 in 1908 with a 2.24 ERA and 118 strikeouts -- who happened to be on a team that, during his peak years, had a couple of great hurlers. The upside was that he got to play on five pennant-winning clubs. The downside was that with people like Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity around, he was always the odd man out whenever there was a big game to be pitched.
Roger Bresnahan Catches 139
During most of his career, Roger Bresnahan would sometimes play other positions besides catcher; he was capable of playing them all, in fact. In 1908, though, he was stationed only behind the plate -- for 139 games, no less -- and it left its mark on him. He never again was a full-time player.
Sam Crawford Leads in HRs
Not only did Crawford top the American League in home runs in 1908, he also set a new club record for the Tigers. He totaled seven four-baggers that year. Cobb swatted nine circuit clouts the following season to set a new team mark that endured until 1920, when Bobby Veach banged 11.
Ed Reulbach Wins a Pair
What makes Ed Reulbach's doubleheader win against Brooklyn on September 26, 1908, all the more extraordinary is that never during his career was he considered a workhorse. He seems in retrospect merely to have been a good pitcher -- at times, a very good hurler -- who on one particular day, with a pennant in the offing, was able to rise to greatness.
Christy Mathewson Still a Winner
The 1908 season was the last in which Mathewson won 30 or more games. His 37 victories were one short of the number the Giants needed to claim the National League flag, as he was beaten by the Cubs on the last day of the season. His circuit-topping numbers included 34 complete games, 11 shutouts, five saves, 391 innings, 259 strikeouts, and a 1.43 ERA.
Find more highlights from the 1908 baseball season on the next page.
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1908 Baseball Season Highlights
The 1908 baseball season was known for great pitching, especially by Hall-of-Famers like Ed Walsh, Christy Mathewson, Addie Joss, and Cy Young. The season also produced one of the most controversial pennant races of all time. Below, you will find highlights from the 1908 baseball season:
- Sam Crawford of Detroit becomes only player ever to be a league home run leader in both the National League and American League, as he leads the American League with seven.
- Fred Merkle commits his famous boner, costing the Giants a crucial win in the pennant stretch.
- The Cubs win the pennant by one game when they beat the Giants in the makeup of the Merkle game.
- The White Sox's Ed Walsh wins 40 games, hurls 42 CGs and 464 innings.
- The Tigers win the 1908 American League flag by a half-game, the smallest margin of victory in American League or National League history.
- The Cubs win the 1908 World Series -- their last championship.
- Hooks Wiltse of the Giants throws a no-hitter on Independence Day, blanking Philadelphia.
- In July, the Giants stun the baseball world by paying $11,000 for minor leaguer Rube Marquard.
- George Baird of Chicago invents the electric scoreboard.
- Cleveland's Addie Joss pitches a perfect game over Chicago on Oct. 2, the first ever in a pennant race.
- Joss is second in American League in wins (24) and has the top ERA (1.16).
- Ty Cobb leads the American League in doubles (36) and triples (20).
- Cobb wins his second batting crown (.324) and leads in SA (.475) and total bases (276).
- Teammates Cobb and Crawford finish one-two in the American League in RBI (109-80), total bases (276-270), and SA (.475-.457).
- Honus Wagner again tops the National League in BA (.354), hits (201), and steals (53).
- Wagner leads the National League in doubles (39), triples (19), SA (.542), and total bases (308).
Continue to the next page for even more highlights from the 1908 baseball season.
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More 1908 Baseball Season Highlights
The amazing pitching performances of the 1908 baseball season -- and the low offensive statistics that resulted -- continued until the Cubs won the World Series, which would be their last for almost 100 years and counting. See more 1908 season highlights below:
- The Cardinals score a record-low 371 runs and finish last.
- On Sept. 26, Ed Reulbach of the Cubs notches two shutouts in one day.
- Christy Mathewson leads the National League in wins (37) and ERA (1.43).
- White Sox finish third, just 1-1/2 games out, despite hitting .224 and having just three homers.
- the Cubs' DP combo Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance is immortalized in a poem.
- Giant Roger Bresnahan, wearing shinguards and a padded mask, catches a record 139 games.
- The National League as a whole has a record-low .239 BA and .306 SA.
- The song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is first introduced to the public.
- Ed Reulbach beats Brooklyn a record nine times.
- In the American League, Ed Walsh beats both New York and Boston a record nine times.
- Cy Young throws a no-hitter vs. New York on June 30.
- Cleveland's Dusty Rhoads no-hits Boston on Sept. 18.
- Frank Smith of the White Sox no-hits the A's on Sept. 20.
- Nap Rucker of Brooklyn no-hits Boston on Sept. 5 and fans 14 hitters.
- Bill Donovan pitches a two-hitter on the season's last day to beat the White Sox and give Detroit the flag.
- Walter Johnson pitches three shutouts in a four-day period vs. New York.
- Ed Walsh's 464 innings set a 20th-century record, breaking Jack Chesbro's old mark.
- The A's finish sixth with only 68 wins -- but 23 of them are by shutouts.
- White Sox Billy Sullivan's .228 SA is the lowest in American League history by a player with at least 400 at-bats.
- The Giants' Fred Tenney hits just .256 but leads the National League in runs (101).
- Interim manager Kid Elberfeld goes 27-71 for New York American League; the team finishes 51-103.