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admin 11.02.2014

The 1908 National League season featured a three-way pennant race between the Chicago Cubs, the New York Giants, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. After the extremely tight and unusual pennant races in both leagues {American League, 1908 season map, with 1908 attendances of all MLB teams, here}, the 1908 World Series was destined to be anti-climactic.
People love to talk about curses in baseball, but it is strange that the curse of unsporting behavior has never been popularly ascribed to the 1908 Chicago Cubs.
On that day at the old Polo Grounds, the Cubs got a baseball from the crowd (it was probably not even the game ball, {see this}), and completed a play for an out when the field was already overrun by boisterous fans. The Dead-ball era in Major League Baseball is usually defined as the time period from 1900 to 1920, although some baseball people place the starting date of the Dead-ball era all the way back to the beginning of organized baseball, which is circa 1845 [the National League was founded in 1876; and the American League was established as the second major league in 1901].
The list of all-time triples leaders is skewed heavily towards the early days of baseball and particularly the Dead-ball era of 1900-1920. The name dead-ball is pretty straightforward, because back in the early days of professional baseball, the ball was not at all lively when struck by the batter, and the ball usually did not travel too far. The spitball was another major reason offensive production was so low in the Dead-ball era.
Another reason for low scoring and meager offensive numbers in the very early years of organized baseball was that, prior to 1911, the baseball had no cork center.
The proliferation of asymmetrical ballparks with smaller outfield dimensions wasn’t really planned, but it sure made baseball more interesting.
Perhaps the best example of the marvelous effect that an asymmetrical ballpark can have on the game of baseball can be seen in Fenway Park in Boston, which opened in 1912, and operates to this day. Thanks to the brilliant baseball ballpark historian and illustrator Jeff Suntala, who made those mesmerizing watercolors of the old ballparks I used in some of the images sequences on this post.
New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on October 8, 1908; and an illustrated article on the Dead-ball Era in Major League Baseball (1900-1920). Because of an unusual sequence of events, the 1908 National League season required an unprecedented post-season replay of a game to decide the pennant winner.


The Cubs got their way that day, overstepping three decades worth of established procedure in baseball games. For the purposes of this article, the Dead-ball era will be framed as the 21 National League seasons and the 20 American League seasons from 1900 to 1920. Furthermore, as a cost-cutting measure (since balls were expensive back then), balls were very rarely replaced during the game, like in modern baseball games. So if the baseballs started out soft and not very visble, you can imagine what they were like 3 or 4 innings into the game, after being tossed around, whacked by baseball bats, rolled in the dirt, grass, and mud, and spat upon and scuffed up by the pitchers. Of course, circa 1960 to 1988 or so, the people running ball clubs and the smug urban planners running metropolitan areas totally ignored this fact, and forced ugly, astro-turf laden cookie-cutter, multi-purpose concrete stadiums on the public. Fenway is simply baseball heaven, and it is all because of the fact that the Boston Red Sox were forced to build a ball park on a plot of land that looks like a rectangle drawn by a blind man with a shaky hand {see this, Fenway Park schematic at Clem’s Baseball Blog}.
Major League ballparks would no longer be built of wood, and thus no longer were the fire hazards of previous structures. So the Cubs got their National League pennant in a sneaky way, then the Cubs won their second (and second-consecutive) World Series title…but the Cubs have never won another World Series title since. In other words, 100 years ago in Major League Baseball, baseballs were not very lively by design, and literally dead by overuse. This did not happen over night, and some of the new ballparks still had vast outfield dimensions (like Shibe Park in Philadelphia, and the original Comiskey Park in Chicago, and especially Braves Field in Boston), but the trend was towards smaller outfields, or in the case of ballparks like two famous New York City ballparks, the Polo Grounds and the original Yankee Stadium (1923-2008), a mix of short outfield fences on either side of a vast centerfield area. 9 of the 16 MLB ball clubs built new ballparks between 1909 to 1923 {list of MLB stadiums [current and former] here}. Major League Baseball denied that the ball was any more lively than the previous balls, but many in the game felt the balls from 1919 on were way more lively, and that MLB did this on purpose to spur more offense and thus more fan interest.
A new rule for replacing baseballs once they got dirty was enacted following the fatal beaning of Cleveland’s Ray Chapman at the Polo Grounds on August 16, 1920. In the modern Major League Baseball game, a ball lasts, on average, 6 pitches, and 5 or 6 dozen balls are used in the average 9 inning game.


After the 1911 renovation and expansion, the Polo Grounds was basically a very long U-shaped structure with an outfield that resembled half of a rectangle with rounded corners {see this, Polo Grounds [1911-1957] schematic at Clem’s Baseball Blog }. The multi-purpose stadium era pretty much set baseball back a quarter-century, but I digress. But it stands to reason, once ballparks were being built with smaller dimensions in some parts of the outfield, that more homers would be hit, like at Yankee Stadium or at Sportsman’s Park in St. Also, one year later in 1921, a rule was put in place which demanded that baseballs be replaced when dirty. It goes without saying that all baseball fans view these two parks as priceless, and the two pretty much give their respective ball clubs, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs their identities. This, in retrospect, has made baseball such a fascinating and appealing spectator sport…because most every ballpark that was built in the 1909 to 1923 time period was built on an asymmetrical plot of land. So between the still-legal spitball, and the illegal but soon prevalent scuff-ball, offensive production in baseball significantly dropped circa 1913 to 1919.
Many, like Yankee Stadium, had smaller dimensions at the foul poles, and vast outfield areas and deep fences around center field. But the original Yankee Stadium had a maximum outfield distance of 500 feet in left-centerfield.
Weegham Park was built for the Federal League team the Chicago Whales [the Federal League lasted only one season], and the Cubs took over the ballpark in 1916.
In most cases, and particularly in the case of Griffith Stadium, Fenway Park, Crosley Field, Tiger Stadium, Ebbets Field, and Yankee Stadium, this was because the ball clubs were forced to build ballparks in dense urban areas.
But when it comes to baseball, and specifically hitting a baseball, well, Ty Cobb’s views must be taken very seriously (he is , after all, the all-time leader in batting average).



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