(Editor's Note: Twenty-fourth in a series recalling the 30 greatest moments in Cubs history.)
It can be argued that from 1906-10 the Cubs were the greatest team in baseball history.
Detroit's Ty Cobb digs for first after laying down a bunt against the Cubs in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the 1908 World Series at West Side Grounds. Cubs catcher Johnny Kling and umpire Hank O'Day stand behind the plate. SDN-007034, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.
They won a five-year record 529 games (including a single-season record 116 in 1906), appeared in four World Series, and captured two world championships. The only time the Cubs did not participate in the World Series over that stretch came in 1909 when they finished second despite winning 104 games.
The Cubs then made their home on the West Side in a wooden, bathtub-shaped ballpark that was bounded by Taylor, Wood, Polk, and Lincoln (now Wolcott). It had a cozy seating capacity of about 16,000. Like at present-day Wrigley Field, bleachers were constructed atop the roofs of then apartment buildings behind the left-field bleachers on Wood and the right-field bleachers on Taylor.
The great team was anchored by a marvelous pitching staff that included Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, Ed Reulbach, Jack Pfiester, and Orval Overall. From 1906-08, the Big Four won 232 games and lost just 85.
Overall, a native Californian, was a big man for his time standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 214 pounds. The Cubs acquired the 25-year-old right-hander in exchange for veteran pitcher Bob Wicker in a midseason 1906 trade with the Cincinnati Reds.
Overall was 22-28 in a year-and-a-half with Cincinnati but took his game to another level. Bill James in his New Historical Baseball Abstract (Free Press, 2003), theorized that all pitchers the Cubs acquired from other teams during that era improved because of the team's superior defense. Whatever the case, Overall used a devastating curveball to win 86 games with a phenomenal 1.91 ERA in six years with the Cubs.
With the Cubs leading the Detroit Tigers three games to one in the 1908 World Series, player-manager Frank Chance gave Overall the starting assignment in Game 5 at Detroit's Bennett Park on Wednesday, Oct. 14. The Tigers' inability to hit Cubs pitching - they had been shut out on four hits the previous day by Brown - and cool fall weather dispirited the baseball fans in the Motor City. The smallest crowd in World Series history - just 6,210 - turned out to watch the Cubs become the first team to win back-to-back Fall Classics.
Overall was brilliant and in a game that took just 1 hour, 25 minutes to complete, the Cubs clinched their last world championship with a 2-0 victory.
The Cubs scored their runs on an RBI single by Chance in the first inning and a run-scoring double by Johnny Evers in the fifth.
The Tigers squandered two golden scoring opportunities.
In the first inning, Overall escaped a bases-loaded jam by becoming the only pitcher in World Series history to strike out four batters in a single inning.
Overall had already struck out Charley O'Leary and Ty Cobb but a walk to Matty McIntyre and a single by Sam Crawford put Detroit runners at first and second when Claude Rossman stepped to the plate. Rossman struck out when he chased one of Overall's big, breaking curves. But it bounced in the dirt, eluded catcher Johnny Kling, and bounced all the way back to the screen, allowing Rossman to reach first and the other runners to advance one base. Overall then struck out Germany Schaefer to escape the mess.
The Tigers managed just two more hits - both in the fifth - when with one out Bill Coughlin singled and reached third on a double by McIntyre. O'Leary weakly flied out to shallow center and the dangerous Crawford went down swinging.
"In that game, (Overall) had one of the most remarkable curves ever pitched," Evers recalled in his autobiography (with Hugh Fullerton), Touching Second (The Reilly & Britton Company, 1910). "At times, the ball darted down two feet and struck the ground while the batters struck more than a foot over it.
"Overall pitches his curve with a wide, sweeping overhand swing, releasing the ball over the side of the index finger as his hand turns downward."
Overall, who walked four and struck out 10, retired the final 12 batters he faced. In the ninth, Rossman grounded out to second baseman Evers and Schaefer rolled out to third baseman Harry Steinfeldt. The final batter, Boss Schmidt, hit a weak tapper in front of the plate. It was fielded by Kling who fired to first baseman Chance for the historic final out.
Chance hit .421 in the Series and was supported by the bats of Frank "Wildfire" Schulte (.389) and Evers (.350).
The Tigers hit just .209 over the five games and stole five bases in seven attempts. The Cubs, meanwhile, took advantage of Detroit's hapless catcher Schmidt by swiping 15 bases.
"Much of the brilliant work of the Cubs against the Tigers was owing to John Kling, one of the greatest catchers who ever wore a mask," Reulbach was quoted in Baseball magazine.
"(Kling) introduced brains to the art of catching," Fullerton wrote.
"Don't feel too bad about it," Detroit manager Hughie Jennings told his team after the game. "We were beaten again by a great team. A great team!"
When news of the Cubs' victory reached Chicago, the team's supporters were ecstatic. The Cubs received a hero's welcome when their train arrived at Union Station that night.
"Could a soothsayer have told the happy Chicago fans that World Series cards fate would deal them in the next four (now 10) decades, they would have been more tempered in their gloating," Frederick G. Lieb wrote in The Story of the World Series (Putnam, 1965).
Because of the poor crowds throughout the Series, Cubs players pocketed a measly winning share of $1,317 each and they grumbled that the poor crowds at the West Side Grounds were caused by team owner Charles Murphy whom they accused of selling tickets to speculators before putting them on sale to the general public.
"The World Series," a reporter wrote in Sporting Life, "has caused another crisis in baseball."