This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don’t know, oh no oh no oh no
Rolling Stones 1965
“The last time” … that phrase should serve as the official slogan of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians.
The last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series was 1908, just weeks before William Howard Taft triumphed over William Jennings Bryan in the presidential election. The last time the Cubbies appeared in a World Series was 1945, less than two months after Japan surrendered to end World War II.
The last time the Cleveland Indians won a World Series was 1948, twenty-six days before incumbent Harry S Truman came back to upset heavily favored New Yorker Thomas Dewey for the presidency. The lowly Tribe returned to the Fall Classic twice more before this year, losing to the Braves in 1995 and the Marlins in 1997.
We know both franchises mainly for mediocrity, but a century ago baseball fans would not have been shocked to find either team in the World Series in a given year. The Cubs and Indians were also involved in some of sport’s more unusual incidents in those Series years.
Baseball’s Sad Lexicon
The Cubs actually played in ten (10!) World Series in the forty seasons from 1906 to 1945. The teams from 1906-1908 are considered among the best in baseball history. The 1906 team finished the regular season with an astonishing 116-36 record, but lost in a huge upset to the crosstown rival “Hitless Wonder” White Sox in the Series. The Cubs came back to beat the Detroit Tigers and young superstar Ty Cobb to win championships in 1907 and 1908, losing only one game while winning eight in the process. Those Cubs teams featured four Hall-of-Fame players … the great right-handed pitcher Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, and the famous “Sad Lexicon” infield trio of Tinker to Evers to Chance. That’s shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers (pronounce it with a long E), and first baseman/manager Frank Chance.
Evers was the hero (or villain for New York Giant fans) of the infamous “Bonehead” Merkle play near the end of the 1908 season that allowed the Cubs to reach the World Series. With about two weeks left in the regular season, the Giants beat the Cubs with a 9th inning rally … only to have the decision nullified on the heads up play of Evers and a baserunning snafu that earned Merkle of the Giants his nickname. Fred Merkle, only 19 at the time and the youngest player in the majors, came to bat in the bottom of the 9th with Moose McCormick on first and one out. Merkle singled and McCormick advanced to third. The next batter stroked a base hit scoring McCormick, but instead of running to touch second base Merkle turned and hustled toward home to celebrate the win. In the chaos of the Polo Grounds crowd streaming onto the field, Evers retrieved the ball (or a ball) and touched second. The umpire called Merkle out. It was a dubious decision because Merkle’s play was not unusual in baseball at that time, but it cost the Giants. Since the score was tied, darkness was falling, and the crowd was getting unruly, the game was declared a tie. When the teams ended the season with the same record, a one-game playoff ensued. The Cubs won and went on to win the World Series … for the last time.
The Cubs played in – and lost – the World Series seven times between 1910 and 1945.
Chicago lost the 1910 World Series to Connie Mack and the “Million Dollar Infield” of the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1918, Babe Ruth (a pitcher at the time) and the Boston Red Sox whipped the Cubs 4 games to 1. The Cubs would feel the wrath of Ruth again fourteen years later. In 1929, Mack’s Athletics were too much for a powerful Cubs offense that included Rogers Hornsby and Hack Wilson.
In 1932, the Cubs returned to the World Series to face Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the last hurrah of the Murderer’s Row New York Yankees. The Yankees won the first two games in New York before the Series moved to Wrigley Field. Ruth and Gehrig both homered early, and when the Babe came to the plate in the fifth bench jockeying was pretty severe from the home dugout. Ruth responded to the taunts by pointing … either toward the bleachers (according to Ruth) or signifying he had two strikes and one to go (according to Cubs pitcher Charlie Root). Regardless of his intent, Ruth smacked what has been called the longest home run in the history of Wrigley Field on the next pitch and cemented his already legendary status with his “called shot.” The Cubs got swept.
Curse of the Billy Goat
Chicago closed out this half-century of regular World Series appearances by losing three more, sandwiching another sweep to the Yankees in 1938 between losses to the Tigers in 1935 and 1945. That 1945 Series, which the Cubs lost 4 games to 3, included the eviction from Wrigley Field of one Billy Sianis and his pet billy goat. Legend tells us Sianis, owner of the local Billy Goat Tavern, cursed the Cubs – literally and figuratively we must suppose – and his hex lasted until 2016.
The Indians … Chapman-Satchel-Say Hey
The Indians boast the same number of championships (2) as the Cubs coming into the 2016 World Series, but only appeared in the Fall Classic three times before the 1990s and five times total. All three of the early appearances held historical significance. The 1920 team overcame the late-season death of shortstop Ray Chapman to beat Brooklyn 5 games to 2 (the Series was best of 9 games that season). In mid-August Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch from Carl Mays of the Yankees and died overnight. He remains the only player to die from injuries suffered in a Major League Baseball game. On the field, the ’20 Series featured an unassisted triple play by Indians second baseman Bill Wambsganns, the last time such a play occurred in the World Series.
In 1948, Cleveland won a second Series championship by dispatching the Boston Braves four games to two. The Indians featured a superb pitching staff that included Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Gene Bearden. Aging Negro League superstar Satchel Paige, finally getting his shot in the majors, helped the team down the stretch by going 6-1 in 21 games with a 2.48 ERA. When Paige entered Game 5 in the seventh inning of an 11-5 Indians loss, he became the first African American pitcher to take the mound in a World Series.
In 1954, the Indians won 111 regular season games, an American League record that stood for 50 years, and entered the Series as solid favorites over the New York Giants. However, in Game 1, Giants center fielder Willie Mays made a sensational catch off a drive by Vic Wertz, the Giants won in extra innings and never looked back in a four-game sweep. The Tribe lost in six games against the Braves in 1995 and in seven games against the Marlins in 1997. That was the last time the Indians made it to the Series before 2016.
The Last Time
Fans of these two franchises have waited 108 years (Cubs) and 68 years (Indians) to win a World Series. This will be the last time we see two franchises with so many years between championships.