December 14, 2007

The Third Man

Dr. X posts this from an Amtrak train speeding down the Capitol Corridor:

"In 1908 everyone knew about Honus Wagner and John McGraw. They were winners, big stars, masters of the rollerball-like game they played.

"They were also yesterday's news. Wagner's Pirates won the 1902 and 1903 pennants. McGraw's Giants won in 1904 and 1905. But in 1906 a new sheriff came to town. The Chicago Cubs, a talented but underachieving team, woke up and took the National League to the woodshed. They put up 116 wins that year - a record not equaled until your Seattle Mariners accomplished it (with ten more games on their schedule) in 2001. They lost that World Series to the White Sox, but in 1907 they won the pennant again, and went on to beat Detroit for the championship.

"The man who woke them up was Frank Chance. Chance had already been first baseman and field captain, but in mid-'05 had to pick up the manager job too, when Frank Selee went down with tuberculosis.

"How did he turn the Cubs around? Astute psychology? Advanced training methods? Brilliant tactics?

"No. He did it with fear. Fear. If John McGraw was Al Davis, Frank Chance was Joseph Stalin. Like the Red Army, the Cubs went forward because they feared what was behind them more than what was in front of them. If you played for Frank Chance, you did things his way, or it was "see me after the game." To have your ass kicked.

"In a League of thugs, goons, and intimidators, no one fucked with Frank Chance. Like Wagner, he went about 6-0, maybe 190 lbs. And he could fight. Heine Zimmerman, ten years his senior, once challenged one of Chance's decisions. They went to the clubhouse to settle it like men. Heine lost bad.

"(It's a joke today, the way these sports guys fight. Nolan Ryan with his super-noogie, the little slap fights we've seen in the NFL. Imagine a modern athlete in any sport who is recognized as one of the most talented amateur fighters in the country. Early in his career Chance made extra money in the off-season working as a prize fighter. )

"By 1908 they were calling him The Peerless Leader. He was John McGraw's worst nightmare - a big, tough, smart baseball guy who didn't scare. Was Chance afraid of the menacing New York fans? Apparently not - in mid '07 he threw a beer bottle into them, hitting a kid and almost starting a riot (the cops got him out of the park in an armored car). Around that time he assaulted Giants pitcher Iron Man Joe McGinnity right there, on the sacred turf of the Polo Grounds. Word went out around the League: you want to rumble, Frank Chance will be there for you.

"He was also a good player, but his status is a bit controversial. He was a good enough fielder that Tinker-Evers-Chance were enshrined in the Hall of Fame together, and this prompted a backlash. But most modern analysts seem to think he was, indeed, Hall of Fame-worthy, based on his outstanding offensive play.

"To understand this, you have to understand the critical skills of the dead ball era. Runs were hard to come by, so the most valuable players were the ones who could get on base and, by hook or by crook, come around to score. Speed, base-stealing, heads-up baserunning, the ability to work the hit-and-run...these were the skills that made a 1908 offense tick. Frank Chance had them all. He got on base - even led the League in on-base percentage in 1905. And he knew what to do when get got there. In 1906 he led the League in both stolen bases and runs scored.

"He once stole home in the 9th inning, giving his team a 1-0 victory...the only time that's happened in major league history. Another time he stole second base, and on the next pitch stole home. Right... stole home, from second base. After that game, he was awarded a 10% ownership stake in the Chicago Cubs.

"That turned out to be a very good decision on the part of management. From 1906-1910, the Cubs had a .693 winning percentage, the best five-year stretch of any team in the history of major league baseball. They were tough in any game, but toughest in the clutch. They had talent, they were well-coached, and the man in charge was as cool as the other side of the pillow.

"Chicago should be a little kinder to his memory. It's been a hundred years, and they've never seen his like again:

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Blogger First Sea Lord said...

The Mariners lost in 2001, in Seattle -like fashion, because it would have been impolite to win the World Series that year, so we deferentially let the Yankees win, who rudely went on to lose to the Arizona Whozits.

The Mariners never really got credit for that amazing run.

December 16, 2007 at 3:32 PM  

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