The Hitless Wonders of 1906

How successful can a light-hitting team be?

Currently, the Cleveland Baseball Club is posting a slash line of .210/.290/.390, scoring 4.21 runs per game. About a week ago the numbers were worse. In the past week, they have taken on several division rivals: the Twins, White Sox, and surprisingly divisional leaders Royals. In each series, they managed at least two wins to remain in the hunt for the division lead. Tonight, in a three-way tie for first place, they are going for a four-game sweep against the Royals.

Despite their bottom-feeding offense, the club’s pitching shined enough to kept them average. At the beginning of the week, they were 13-13. While the bats have only created 103 runs, the pitchers only allowed 103, the lowest in the division, despite Logan Allen pitching himself to the Alternate Site and the four and five starters looking for consistency. Cleveland was 7-6 on the road and 6-7 at home.

MLB has seen the lowest batting average in April since 1943. Talking (and typing) heads that inflict opinions have raised concerns about the death, once again, of baseball.

Cleveland is a pitching first team. Reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber heads a pitching staff that includes Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale. The Bullpen has a three-headed monster of Byran Shaw, pitching well in Cleveland again, James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase. Even with some difficulties at the backend of the rotation, Cleveland had a top ten pitching staff. Offensively, the starting lineup regularly includes 3-4 players hitting below .200. Even if a few players improve on their current offensive stats (and yes, they are offensive, just ask fans on the bird app) or players are called up from the minors a safe bet is that Cleveland will have an offense that is near the bottom of the league.

After Cleveland took the series from the White Sox with Skipper Tony LaRussa now in the Chicago media’s crosshairs, I stumbled over a box of old material about the 1906 World Series champs, the Chicago White Sox. Topical tripping, I explained to the missus, not “too lazy to put things away.” Hmm, a team in contention for the playoffs, with a terrible offense and one of the best pitching staff in the league? Is there hope for bad offenses in a league dominated by pitching? I give you the 1906 Chicago White Sox, the “Hitless Wonders.” They were not a one-hit-wonder either. Between 1904-1910 they were, well, not good offensively. Could they provide hope for a team like Cleveland this year? Would a shift to high-contact guys that strike out less but have less power benefit a team without access to batters with high slugging percentages?

NOTE: When talking about league averages in regards to seasonal stats, I am not separating between the American League and National League. When referring to “the league”, I am referring to MLB, all 16 teams in 1906.

 

The Hitless Wonders

 

The White Sox finished 1906 with a slash line of .230/.301/.286; for those that don’t like math, that is a .587 OPS. MLB average for that year was .621, and the White Sox tied for third lowest with the Boston Americans. The Boston Beaneaters stood last with a .567 OPS, the Cardinals of St. Louis second-worst at 0.586. Cleveland and the Chicago Cubs sat at top of the OPS leader board with .682 and .667 respectively.

This year, the current league average slash line stands at .234/.311/.394. Cleveland and the Cubs would be in the bottom 10 offensively. In 1906, the league average slash line was .247/.306/.314. Given those numbers, one would think the two eras were pretty close offensively. Numbers without context lie. In 2456 games in 1906, 261 home runs were hit. In 872 games this year, 1019 home runs have been hit.

The White Sox were near the bottom with total hits and below league average in doubles (152), triples (52), and home runs (7). They did excel at getting free trips to first base, with 492 base-on-balls (second to the Giants’ 563) and being fourth with 50 hit-by-pitches. Despite those freebies, they were second to last with 1410 total bases.

They put the ball in play, striking out only 492 times during the season when the league average was 569 whiffs.

They made the best of their time on base, coming in sixth with 567 runs scored. Collecting 226 sacrifice hits (league average was 169) and swiping 216 bases (187 was the theft average).

Offensively they were terrible yet efficient.

Knowing they would generate outs, the outs were used to move runners. On a team that hit a lot of singles, the baserunners used their legs to move on the base paths. Doubles and triples had to be generated with singles, base-on-balls, or HBP and a stolen base or two.

The starting 8 for Manager Fielder Jones, who also wrote himself into the lineup 144 times at Centerfield, consisted of:

White Sox Main Starter’s Batting

Jones tied with catcher Billy Sullivan with the team lead with TWO home runs. Frank Isbell was the leader with a .279 batting average. Fielder Jones, Frank Isbell, George Davis, and Jiggs Donahue put up good numbers, where a lead average slash line was .247/.306/.314 but the remaining lineup was anemic. The bench players were league average or worse and despite many lackluster starters, Skipper Jones was putting the best players out there. To be fair, there were a fair amount of injuries at the beginning of the season also. The White Sox didn’t field the main core players until about July. The White Sox had a top three fielding team and then bench players, even with the lack of real fielding numbers, were a drop off defensively.

 

1906 White Sox Hurlers

 

On the OTHER end of the spectrum, the White Sox pitching was impressive. The rotation was anchored by 22 game-winner Frank Owen, followed by 20 game-winners Nick Altrock, Ed Walsh, and Doc White. These four soaked up 998 innings while Roy Patterson, Frank Smith, and 21-year-old Lou Fiene combined to pitched 277 innings. Second baseman Frank Isbell also worked 2 innings in one relief appearance. The highest ERA was Frank Smith’s 3.39. Doc White and Ed Walsh had sub-2.00 ERAs. Altrock, Patterson, and Owen had ERAs under 2.50. Youngster Fiene ERA was 2.90. The staff top the league with 32 shutouts.

White Sox Pitching

Collectively the team had a 2.13 ERA, giving up 460 runs, but only 326 earned. Their team batting average was third in the league, with their crosstown rivals leading the league with a 1.75 ERA! Cleveland held the second-best ERA with 2.09, while the league average was 2.66. While the White Sox only game up 460 runs, the Cubs bested them by only giving up 381, of which, only 270 were earned. What helped the White Sox was giving up a league-low 255 base on balls when the average was 391 and second with only hitting 32 batters. They were middle of the road giving up 1212 hits, so not giving runners a free pass helped. They didn’t strike many batters out, 543 compared to the Cubs and Athletics 700+ strikeouts. The pitchers needed their fielders which forced some of the slightly, more abled-hitters, in backup roles as starters shook off injuries.

In the field, the White Sox were in the top three for runs per game, 2.99, 4134 putouts, and 2255 assists. There were fifth with only 243 errors, and a .963 field percentage.

They hit badly and scored efficiently, pitched very well, and had a top defense. But how did they managed to win the AL pennant? Both Cleveland and New York much better offensive teams and could at least compete with the White Sox with their pitching.

 

Getting to the Post Season

 

Well, to start the season, the White Sox had injuries. Enough injuries that team owner, Charles Comiskey hired a trainer. By the end of July, the White Sox had healed up but were riding in fourth place, 7.5 games out. The defending AL champs, the Philadelphia Athletics, were in first. The New York Highlanders were in second, and third place was owned by the Cleveland Naps. Sprinkle fresh retuning starting players, with good pitching with a little baseball magic.

Over three weeks, the A’s went 7-14. New York went 5-12 and Cleveland did a respectable 8-10. The White Sox ended up leading the AL by 5.5 games.

They went 19-0. How? Eight shutouts, including five in 15 days from Ed Walsh.

The lead held on until September when New York decided to go on a 15-game winning streak. How hot were the Highlanders during this streak? They played five consecutive doubleheaders. Sweeping all of them. The White Sox used another winning streak, this time numbering just five games. The White Sox won 93 games while losing 58. They finished three games in front of the Highlanders, five in front of Cleveland, and 12 in front of the A’s. The win was their second AL pennant. Four years earlier, in 1901, they won the first AL pennant. The World Series would not require much travel, they were going to have a Chicago pre-subway* World Series and take on the Cubs. Chicago didn’t have a subway in 1906, but it was in the planning stage.

 

Your 1906 Chicago Cubs

 

This wasn’t going to be an easy feat. The Cubs, led by the first baseman and Manager Frank Chance won 116 games, losing only 36. It took until 2001 until a team matched that win total, the Seattle Mariners, but they needed extra games to do it.

And yes, the Chance in “Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance” yet to be made famous by the poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”. Evers and Tinker were also on this team.

The Cubs were just as good as their record indicated.

The Cubs’ pitching staff was a tick better than the White Sox. Ed Reualbach finished with a 1.65 ERA and 19 wins. Another lefty, Jimmy Pfiester, finished with 20 wins and a 1.51 ERA. They were both bested by Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. Alright, truth be told the grain cutter accident when he was seven completely removed his ring finger but did leave some of his pinky. Technically 3 1/2 fingers. At 30-years-old, he won 26 games, finishing with a 1.04 ERA. The highest ERA on the team was owned by Bob Wicker, just a bit under 3.00 at 2.99. The Cubs also finished second in the league with 702 strikeouts and set the standard for runs per game in 1906, with 2.46. This had 30 complete games, gave out the least about of hits with 1018 but did give up 451 walks. Runs were hard to come by against this staff.

The offense for the Cubs? One of the top three offenses in baseball. They hit .262/.328/.339 while hitting 20 home runs. Third baseman Harry Steinfeldt slashed .327/.395/.420. Frank Chance had a .419 on-base percentage. Shortstop Joe Tinker had the lowest batting average at .233, which would have made him as one of the better hitters on the White Sox. In almost every statistical batting category, the Cubs were in the top 5 and typically second only to Cleveland. The offensive powers rivaled their pitching.

As good as the White Sox were at fielding, the Cubs were better. They had a higher fielding percentage, fewer errors, and more putouts.

You don’t win 116 out of 155 games without clicking on all cylinders. The Cubs were on a different planet in 1906. The second-place Giants won 96 games and were 20 games behind the Cubs. The White Sox were been 23 1/2 games behind them.

 

The 1906 World Series

 

On paper, the White Sox were a speed bump in the Cubs’ way to World Series Championships. There were reports that bookies were not even taking bets for the White Sox. Hugh Fullerton of the Chicago Tribune predicted that the White Sox would win and the editor removed it. Fullerton had to convince his newspaper to print it!

The World Series turned interesting real quick.

Game one featured Brown against Altrock. Both pitched a complete game and scattered 4 hits each. The Cubs had two errors to the White Sox one, leading to an unearned run. White Sox win the first game 2-1.

Game two featured the Cubs’ Ed Reulbach taking on Doc White. The Cubs could only manage 1 hit, but got six walks against Reulbach, scoring just once. Doc White didn’t make it to the fourth inning. In three innings he gave up 4 unearned runs on four hits. Frank Owen game in to finish the game, giving up 3 earned runs. Cubs’ 7-1 victory ties the series 1-1.

Game Three had Jack Pfiester taking on Ed Walsh. Walsh shut down the Cubs with a two-hitter that includes one walk and 12 strikeouts for a complete game shutdown. Pfiester gave up three runs on four hits while striking out 9. The White Sox go up 2-1 with a 3-0 victory.

Game four featured Game One starters Brown and Altrock. Once again the both go the distance. The Cubs manage 1 run, the White Sox only manage two hits and no runs. A Cubs 1-0 victory ties the series 2-2.

So, after four games, the White Sox are only hitting .097, getting 11 hits to the Cubs 23. They were out-scored 9-6 in those four games. The series is tied 2-2. Over the next two games, the Cubs scored 9 runs and get 13 hits in the next two games. The White Sox, on the other hand, started to hit. They scored 16 runs on 26 hits for the next two games. Hitless wonders or not always hitless?

For game five, Ed Walsh gave up six runs, but only one earned because the White Sox had six errors during the game. Walsh was out after six innings, with Doc White pitching the last three innings of the game. White got the save and Walsh the win. On the Cubs side, Ed Reulbach gave up three runs in two innings. Jack Pfiester gave up four runs in 1 1/3 innings. Orval Overall only gave up one run in 5 2/3 innings. White Sox score more runs than the previous four games combined. The Cubs, who did not capitalize on a bad outing from Ed Walsh, are one game from elimination, with an 8-6 loss.

But the Cubs had Mordecai Brown and his microscopic ERA. White Sox starter Doc White pitched the day before.

White wasn’t as sharp as he was the day before. Mixing in four walks with seven base hits, he gave up three earned runs in a complete-game effort. Brown? He gave up eight hits and one walk. Wait for it. He also gave up seven earned runs in 1 2/3 innings. Orval Overall allows one more run in his 6 1/3 innings.

Times for the game, 1:45, 1:58, 2:10, 1:36, 2:40, 1:55. Yes, the longest game was the 8-6 “hitter’s duel” of game five.

White Sox win, despite only hitting .198/.279/.562. Cubs lost because they hit .196/.275/.245. The White Sox committed 16 errors, resulting in 10 of the 18 runs being unearned. One of the weakest hit teams in the league out hit one of the top offensive in the league.

Comiskey was so swept up in the moment that he gave the players a $15,000 bonus to be shared among the team. He later collected himself and informed the players that the bonus was an advance on their 1907 salary.

The batting numbers should improve this year but is there year a chance of going to a hitless wonder? I hope so.

Given the separation of pitching and hitting this year, a relative weak-hitting team could pull off a season to mirror the 1906 Chicago White Sox. I wonder, given the offensive shrinkage this year if we’ll see teams mirror the Sox a bit? If the offensive numbers stay low, it very well could change offensive philosophy in a year primed for another hitless wonder.

Photo by George Lawrence/Wikimedia Commons | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

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