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Friday, December 06, 2002

Three Finger Brown and the 1905-1910 Chicago Cubs

Stephen turns back the clock to visit the glory days of the Cubbies.

Whenever discussions revolve around what was the greatest moment in baseball history, or who was the greatest pitcher, second baseman, team, etc., baseball fans seem paralyzed with a myopic view of contemporary players and teams. Last October, with much publicity, Major League Baseball announced the "30 Greatest Moments" in baseball history. Thirty percent (9 out of 30) of these "greatest moments" occurred since 1991! More than half (17) of the greatest moments announced occurred since 1970 (over a 32-year period, 1970-2001). Only 2 moments from 1900 to 1929 (a 30-year period) made the list. Evidently, there were no great moments occurring in baseball’s first 24 years, prior to 1900, worthy of making the list.

Yesterday’s players and teams that graced grassy diamonds long ago richly deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments and contributions to the history of the game. One such player deserving greater illumination upon his Hall of Fame plaque is Mordecai Peter Centennial "Three Finger" Brown, and his team, the Chicago Cubs, which own an important chapter in baseball history.

Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown was given an extra middle name by his parents because he was born in 1876. Brown is best known, however, for his colorful nickname, "Three Finger." Brown earned his distinctive nickname in the most painful way imaginable. At the tender age of 7, little Mordecai was playing on his uncle’s farm when he got his right hand caught in a corn shredder. His index finger was amputated just above the knuckle, and another finger was rendered useless. This horrible accident was but two weeks fresh when active little Mordecai was scooting around the farm chasing a hog. Reaching for the squealing bacon, the kid fell hard to the ground, braking his third and fourth fingers on the same damaged hand. These two fingers eventually healed, but they did so in an unnatural shape.

As a young man Brown worked hard in the coal mines during the day, and after work and on weekends he played baseball. Despite his handicap, Brown was good enough to become a semi-professional infielder. In 1898, in an emergency situation, Brown was asked to pitch for his team when the regular pitcher broke his arm. Brown came in and smoked the opposition, facing 15 batters, and whiffing 14 of them. Everyone was amazed at how well Three Finger Brown could curve the ball with that strangely-shaped right hand of his. Looking back on his baseball career, Brown once said, "That old paw served me pretty well in its time. It gave me a firmer grip on the ball, so I could spin it over the hump. It gave me a greater dip." Ty Cobb said of Brown’s breaking ball, "Christy Mathewson’s fadeaway was good, but it was nothing like that curve Three Finger Brown threw at you."

Brown pitched at the professional level from 1903 through 1916. After leaving the Cubs, he pitched four more seasons in the minor leagues. (Do we see even a hint of this passion for the game in contemporary players? ) During his pro career, Three Finger put together some very impressive numbers, winning 239 games (with six consecutive 20-plus win seasons), posting an impressive .648 W-L percentage, and tossing 272 complete games with 57 career shutouts, while still finishing with a microscopic 2.06 career ERA. Also, he won 5 World Series games, three of which were shutouts.

Three Finger was considered one of baseball’s first "swing-men," a pitcher who could start and relieve when called upon. Although he was primarily a starter, he lead the league in saves four times.

The Cubs may not have accumulated many championships over the years, and its been a thousand blue moons since their last one (1908), but the Cubs can claim that they possessed the most dominating pitching staff in the history of the game. Oh, I know some readers are thinking, "but that was during the deadball era," and some readers will want to compare the Cubs’ statistics against league averages, among making other comparisons to discount their sparkling statistics. (A contemporary analogy is what the homerun means today, versus what it meant, say, in the 1920s or even in the 1970s or 1980s. In future years, will Barry Bonds’ homeruns be considered less meaningful because they occurred during the "longball era"? I don’t think so.)

But, in any event, no matter how numbers are compared, the truth is that the Cubs’ staff of the Three Finger Brown-era (1905-1910) shut down opposing teams like no other staff in the history of the game.


Since 1900, the three best team ERAs ever posted in a season are owned by this one amazing Cubs’ pitching staff. In 1907, the team ERA was 1.73, in 1909 it was 1.75, and in 1906 the club registered in at 1.76. Oh, and this same staff is also placed at 9th (2.04 ERA in 1905) and 18th (2.14 ERA in 1908) on the best since-1900 list. They dominated, pure and simple. No other staff comes close to this level of dominance. This staff, along with other talented players, went to the World Series four times during the stretch from 1905-1910, winning back-to-back championships in 1907 and 1908. The 1906 Cubs still hold the record for the best winning percentage by any club in history, winning 116 games and losing only 36 (.763 W-L percentage).

Three Finger Brown was the ace of the Cubs staff during this dynamic era. His numbers from 1905-1910 are as follows:

Year   W-L    ERA

1905  18-12  2.17

1906  26-6   1.04

1907  20-6   1.39

1908  29-9   1.47

1909  27-9   1.31

1910  25-14  1.86

Look at those ERAs! Brown’s 1.04 ERA in 1906 is the best in NL history since 1900, and the second best in the majors (Dutch Leonard notched a pretty 0.96 ERA for the Red Sox in 1914). Many of Brown’s teammates also show up on the list of the best ERAs in a season. Here is a list of the early-1900s Cubs that appear on the list of the best thirty-one ERAs since 1900:

Rank  Player                 ERA    Year

2     Mordecai Brown        1.06    1906

6     Jack Pfiester         1.15    1907

8     Carl Lundgren         1.17    1907

15    Mordecai Brown        1.31    1909

19    Mordecai Brown        1.39    1907

23    Ed Ruelbach           1.41    1905

24    Orval Overall         1.42    1909

27    Mordecai Brown        1.47    1908

31    Jack Pfiester         1.51    1906

No other pitching staff comes even close to having 9 posts within the top thirty-one.

Similarly, the early-1900s Cubs dominate the list of the best ERAs of all-time (with pitchers throwing a minimum of 1000 innings and having 100 decisions since 1900):

Rank     Player               Career ERA    Cubs 1905-10 Years
3        Jack Pfiester         2.02              06-10

5        Mordecai Brown        2.06              05-10

10       Orvall Overall        2.23              06-10

12       Ed Ruelbach           2.28              05-10

22       Carl Lundgren         2.42              05-09

54       Jack Taylor           2.66              06-07

Three Brown-era Cubs within the all-time top ten career ERAs? Six pitchers on the same staff all placing within the all-time top fifty-four? Again, no other pitching staff comes close to such dominance.

The 1908 Cubs figured prominently in one of the most controversial plays, and one of the most exciting pennant races, in baseball history. That year, the Cubs fought for the National League pennant right down to the last day of the season with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Giants. The entire country was caught up in the frenzy with even the presidential campaigns being over-shadowed by the excitement brought by the day-to-day events of the pennant race.

It was Brown who was called upon by the Cubs in the crucial head-to-head games with the Giants and the Pirates. On September 22, the Cubs played a crucial double-header against the first place Giants. The Cubs swept the Giants, with Brown saving the first game and winning the second game. The New York World explained why their beloved Giants lost both games: "It was not their fault the Giants lost. The team was overcome by ‘Three Fingered’ Brown, who finished the first game for Overall and pitched the whole second game. The only thing for [Giants’ coach] McGraw to do to beat Chicago is to dig up a pitcher with only two fingers."

The following day, the "Merkle Boner" play occurred. With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, and runners on first (Fred Merkle) and third with two outs, batter Al Bridwell singled sharply to center. The winning run crossed the plate for the Giants, but Merkle failed to touch second base. He started for second, but stopped and darted towards the Giants’ dugout as the hysterical Polo Grounds fans poured onto the field in celebration. The alert Cubs scrambled for the loose ball, fighting off the fans. Second baseman Johnny Evers eventually jumped on second base with the ball in hand. The umpire, in a daze, quickly scurried off the diamond, and eventually ruled that Merkle was out and that the game was a tie, 1-1.

On October 2nd, with Pittsburgh and Chicago separated by only a half game, the two clubs put forth their aces in a do-or-die match-up. In Chicago, before the largest crowd ever at the Cubs’ West Side Park (30,427), Brown shut down Honus Wagner and the Pirates, winning 5-2.

On October 7th the Giants beat Boston 7-2, to tie the Cubs for first place, with no remaining games on the schedule, except for a League-ordered rematch of the "Merkle game" that ended in a tie. The great Christy Mathewson was to pitch against the Cubs’ talented Jack "The Giant Killer" Pfiester.

The City of New York and the Polo Grounds were blanketed with excitement and littered with pockets of chaos. The largest crowd ever gathered in the world for a sporting event-a quarter million-surged in and around the Polo Grounds. People were on rooftops, subway cars, pillars, and perched on top of fences. Every possible vantage point, however precarious, came to have a human cluster. Several people were injured, and one man died, from falling from such lofty precipices. The excited fans overtook the pressbox. The police used fire hoses to control the crowd. Before the game even started an argument broke out between the Giants’ Joe McGinnity and the Cubs’ player/Manager Frank Chance. McGinnity struck Chance on the chin, and luckily, things were broken up before a riot ensued.

Things started well for the Giants when they touched Pfiester for a run in the first inning. Swiftly, the "Peerless Leader" (Frank Chance), called Three Finger Brown into the game after only two outs. Brown immediately quieted the Giants’ bats. The Cubs managed one big inning which proved to be enough for Brown, who allowed but one run the rest of the way. Cubs win 4-2. After the final out is made, shocked and angry Giants fans ran onto the field. One fan struck Chance on the back of the neck causing serious injury. It damaged cartilage in his throat and brought him considerable pain. At the same time Cubs’ thirdbaseman Harry Steinfeldt was struck in the face by a hostile fan and outfielder Solly Hofman was drilled on the nose by a pop bottle thrown at him.

The Cubs squared off against Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Unfortunately, it was an anticlimax. The Cubs won the Series four games to one. Brown won Game One in relief, and came back to throw a 4-hit shutout in Game Four. In all, Brown pitched 11 innings in the Series, giving up only six hits, one walk, and no earned runs.

Undeniably, the Brown-era Cubs were the best unit the Cubs ever assembled. Those Cubs also have a reasonable claim of being the best team in the history of the game. Their claim is especially strong if we accept the oft-repeated maxim, that pitching is 90% of the game. For, the Cubs of 1905-10 can confidently boast that they had the most dominating pitching staff in the history of baseball. In any event, this was a colorful and exciting team that played a significant role in helping establish baseball as the country’s national pastime.

Stephen Jordan is a lawyer, writer, and artist and has published many articles for various publications and websites, including the Sporting News. In addition, Jordan has created artwork for many periodicals, newspapers, websites, and for sports organizations, including the Boston Red Sox. Signed prints of his artwork are currently offered on eBay. To view Jordan’s art, search "Fenway Art Print" at www.eBay.com, then click on "seller’s other auctions" for all auctions offered by "Catfish326". For any information concerning Jordan’s art feel free to e-mail him at scj@verdan.com or cascobay@lawyer.com.

 

Stephen Jordan Posted: December 06, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 14 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. eric Posted: December 06, 2002 at 02:08 AM (#607509)
Excellent article, Stephen. I might also add that the Cubs having all of those pitchers with ERAs that impressive seems to be evidence that the Tinker to Evers to Chance infield may really have been as good as advertised, even though it's fashionable now to say it was overrated.
   2. Ned Garvin: Male Prostitute Posted: December 07, 2002 at 02:08 AM (#607510)
Great article. Even though you should take era into account when thinking about these guys, it doesn't change how dominant they were. If you take ERA+ from baseball-reference, you still get these single season marks from the top 50:

8. Brown 253 1906
16. Pfeister 216 1907
24. Lundgren 212 1907
26. Reulbach 209 1905
30. Taylor 202 1902
43. Brown 193 1909

and the following career marks for those 6:

Brown 138
Reulbach 123
Lundgren 112
Taylor 115
Overall 123
Pfeister 127

That is pretty awesome stuff. Having all these guys on one staff is just amazing. No matter how you look at it. Great article.
   3. Ned Garvin: Male Prostitute Posted: December 07, 2002 at 02:08 AM (#607511)
Sorry about the formatting, I don't know why that didn't work.
   4. User unknown in local recipient table (Craig B) Posted: December 08, 2002 at 02:08 AM (#607525)
One thing about those Cubs. They may have been the greatest defensive team of all time. If you calculate Bill James' defensive efficiency for all major league teams in history, the '06 Cubs are first among teams that played after 1900, the '07 Cubs are second, the '08 Cubs are fourth, and the '09 Cubs are 7th. This list is dominated by teams from that decade (only the '68 Orioles crack the top 10), so perhaps Bill's stat is flawed, but he makes the comment in Win Shares that no team in history won more games with infield defense than the Cubs of that era.
   5. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: December 08, 2002 at 02:08 AM (#607526)
Their claim is especially strong if we accept the oft-repeated maxim, that pitching is 90% of the game.

Which I don't accept because, mathematically, it doesn't make sense.

Other than that, nice tribute to a great pitcher, team and era!
   6. Mike Emeigh Posted: December 09, 2002 at 02:08 AM (#607530)
One thing about those Cubs. They may have been the greatest defensive team of all time.

Very likely - and I think it colors the impression that we have of their pitching staff.

In 1903, Three Finger Brown pitched for St. Louis, going 9-13 with a 2.60 ERA and allowing 231 hits in 201 innings pitched. Had he remained with St. Louis, there's a good chance that he would have had similar numbers to those, with records around .500 - for example, Chappie McFarland, in 1903 for the same team, was 9-19 with a 3.07 ERA, and over the next two seasons with the Cardinals, he was 14-18, 3.21 and 8-18, 3.81. Coming to the Cubs, his H/9 dropped from 10.34 to 6.57, and he remained below 7 (except for 1905) every year thereafter until 1910.

Orval Overall was 18-23, 2.86 as a rookie with Cincinnati in 1905, allowing 290 hits in 318 innings. He started off 1906 4-5, 4.26 with the Reds, then when he moved to the Cubs he was 12-3, 1.88. His H/9 dropped from 8.42 with Cincy to 7.25 with Chicago, and he was never above 7 thereafter (except for his brief 1913 comeback).

An aging Chick Fraser spent 1907 and 1908 with the Cubs, and posted the best ERAs and H/9 of his career. With bad teams in Philadelphia and Boston, he was always over 8 hits allowed per nine innings, usually over 9; with the Cubs, he allowed 7.29 and 7.80 H/9.

In 1906, Jack Taylor moved from the Cardinals to the Cubs. With the Cardinals that season, he allowed 7.72 H/9; with the Cubs, 7.09.

I don't think those numbers are coincidental. I think that the Cubs had an outstanding defense, which made great pitchers out of very good ones and good pitchers out of average ones.

-- MWE
   7. Stephen Jordan Posted: December 09, 2002 at 02:09 AM (#607534)
Nappy: "I believe I read somehwere that the Cubs were notorious scoundrels and cheaters, Peerless Frank's rep notwithstanding. They routinely doctored the balls their pitchers used, deadening them."

I read several books on the 1908 season, one interesting book was simply a collection of newspaper accounts of the season, day by day, but most of the commentary included was from the New York papers. It is clear that the Giants and their fans of the day absolutely despised the Cubs. The sports writers that covered the Giants during 1908 held nothing back. Not one account I read, however, accused any Cubs' pitchers of doctoring the baseball. One account of a 1908 Giants game indicated that they used the same ball the entire game. The editor's comments suggested that it was perhaps the last time only one ball was used for an entire game. Obviously, back then, balls in play for so long could get pretty banged up. What was clear from the newspaper stories covering the 1908 season was that players and many commentators were getting quite fed-up with the messy "spitball."

Nappy: "Browns ERA+ for St. Louis was 126 or so, in his first year in the majors at age 26. His improvement after his rookie year is not all that unusual. His performance for St. Louis does not in my view lead to any real insight into the Cubs defense."

At the time, the Cubs' defense drove Giants' fans nuts. But, I query if it seemed that the Cubs infield was so fleet-a-foot because of Coach John McGraw's mangerial style, at least in part. Most Managers during the era would regularly employ the sacrifice bunt (anything to get a run across--even slower runners through out the league tried to steal bases more often than you would expect), but Giants' coach McGraw was different. His style was much more aggressive. McGraw hated bunting. This style was second guessed repeatedly by the writers covering the Giants. Instead, McGraw would have his players hit away, and it resulted in more double plays than what was typical. Interestingly, it was a Giants' writer that coined the famous Cubs trio poem.


   8. Mike Emeigh Posted: December 09, 2002 at 02:09 AM (#607537)
Browns ERA+ for St. Louis was 126 or so, in his first year in the majors at age 26. His improvement after his rookie year is not all that unusual. His performance for St. Louis does not in my view lead to any real insight into the Cubs defense.

I'm not suggesting that Brown wasn't a *good* pitcher, but that he became an *outstanding* pitcher because of the great defense behind him. Defense pre-Babe Ruth was much more important than it is today, because (a) a higher percentage of outs came on balls in play than in today's strikeout-heavy game, and (b) there were many more errors then than there are now.

Brown's ERA+ doesn't tell enough of the story for that era. He allowed a high percentage of unearned runs - so that he wound up with 105 total runs allowed in 201 innings in 1903, or 4.70 runs/9 innings (the league average was 4.89 R/9). Granted, that's still better than average, but only by about 4%. I think that's still consistent with the theory that Brown was a good pitcher who was made great by the outstanding defenders behind him.

-- MWE
   9. Stephen Jordan Posted: December 10, 2002 at 02:09 AM (#607542)
Silas: "No passion for the game in today's players? What about Barry Bonds keeping himself in amazing shape and winning a batting title at 37? That didn't just happen. Bonds puts an enormous amount of work into it, and he's been financially secure for quite a long time."

Jose Canseco claimed that 85% of ballplayers use steroids. I know Bonds has denied ever using steroids, and I'm not here to say he was lying. But, his surge in performance in the past several years is almost superhuman. And, the change in his physique over the years is just freaky. As to his motivation to keep playing, the $15 million he raked in during the 2002 season was a nice little carrot.

Silas: "Alternatively, how about Rickey Henderson?"

Hats off to Rickey. I know that Rickey isn't a fan favorite, but I am amazed at what he has accomplished, and for how long. This past season, Rickey chose to keep playing even though he knew he wouldn't start every day. And, he wanted to keep playing even though he went unsigned each of the past two seasons until right before opening day each year.

Rickey is underappreciated, in my view. Despite his numerous, amazing accomplishments, Henderson is treated merely as a footnote by the media. When he broke Lou Brock's record for career steals, Nolan Ryan just happened to pitch another no-hitter that day, at the age of 59 or something like that. When Hendo tied Cobb's record for the most runs in history, the Sporting News Thursday morning headlines read ?Bonds Walks Three Times?. It took some effort and time to locate the story that informed us that on Wednesday night Henderson tied a record that has stood for over 70 years. And, it?s not like it is an insignificant record either. The baseball team that scores the most runs wins the ballgame. Henderson has now has scored more runs than any other player in the history of the game.

Cal Ripkin received a heck of lot more media attention than Henderson during the season Hendo outscored Cobb. Just because the Great Ripkin was in his last season, and he has the longest streak of consecutive games played.

That record doesn?t impress me like the runs scored record. How many sports fans can name the NFL, NHL, and NBA players who hold the record for playing in the most consecutive games? Very few, I?m sure. Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings played in a record 282 consecutive NFL games, and he isn?t even in the Hall of Fame, despite having an excellent career (including more fumble recoveries than any player in NFL history). As a Vikings fan, I recall very little attention being paid to Marshall when he broke the record during his last season in 1979.

Any way, that's all for my tangent.



   10. eric Posted: December 11, 2002 at 02:09 AM (#607546)
Just to underscore the greatness of the 1905-1910 Cubs, can anybody come up with better 2nd and 3rd place teams than the Christy Mathewson-John McGraw Giants and the Honus Wagner-Fred Clarke Pirates of that era?
   11. Carl Goetz Posted: December 11, 2002 at 02:09 AM (#607548)
Does anyone know where I could find lineups and/or boxscores for the National League 1908? I'm putting together the NL for Diamondmind(for my own amusement, I don't work for Diamondmind) and I want to make accurate Manager profiles. Retrosheet.org doesn't have boxscores back that far.
   12. True Blue n/k/a "DeJesusFreak" Posted: December 11, 2002 at 02:09 AM (#607551)
Nice article, but as was pointed out, the question of how much "passion for the game" Brown had versus contemporary players is really an "apples and oranges" question because of era -- Brown probably didn't earn enough in the National and Federal Leagues so that he could retire at the age of 39 (or 40). Most likely, he had to work somewhere.

If anything, that shows how much "passion" that today's good players must have for the game -- most have probably long since made enough to retire from and live comfortably, if not better, after 8-9 years (their first few years of free agency) -- why do they continue to play if not for their passion of the game?

Also, keep in mind that even as a "minor leaguer", Brown may have been paid as much (if not more) than what he may have made in the outside world. I know that Cap Anson and a few others did Vaudeville-type shows at that time, but IIRC Brown was a pretty soft-spoken guy and I don't know if he was inclined to make a lot of public appearances (or if there was a market for him to do so). Pitching, even in the minors, may have been his best way to make a living.
   13. Paul Wendt Posted: April 07, 2006 at 07:21 PM (#1946092)
.
The new [url="
http://unp.unl.edu/bookinfo/5096.html"]Mordecai Brown biography[/url] Three Finger is now listed forthcoming at U Nebraska Press. Anyone who bothers to read this should visit that page for the cover illustration of, what else, Brown's fingers holding a baseball.
   14. Paul Wendt Posted: April 07, 2006 at 07:23 PM (#1946113)

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