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A COMEBACK FOR THE AGES

1912 Chicago White Sox

After the 2004 Boston Red Sox rallied from a 3-0 deficit in games against the New York Yankees to clinch a World Series berth, Red Sox owner John Henry called it “the greatest comeback in baseball history.” Most fans believed it was the first time any major league team had won a best-of-7 postseason series that way, but there was an obscure precedent.

In October 1912, the Chicago White Sox climbed out of a similar hole to win a postseason City Series against the Chicago Cubs. Like the Red Sox, the White Sox’s triumph included dramatic victories in their last at-bat and a laughable blowout in the decisive final game.

Those City Series are forgotten now, but they were officially sanctioned by the National Commission, then the ruling body of professional baseball. Beginning in 1903, regional postseason series were scheduled between interleague rivals — Cubs-White Sox in Chicago, Cardinals-Browns in St. Louis, Phillies-Athletics in Philadelphia, Giants-Yankees in New York, Red Sox-Braves in Boston and Reds-Indians in Ohio — when neither team qualified for the World Series. 

These exhibition games, held under the same format and financial incentives as the World Series, were a way for owners and players to make a little extra money and give fans one last chance to see top-flight baseball before the long winter. Nowhere were they more popular or more fiercely contested than in Chicago, which continued holding a City Series until 1942. (No other city held one after 1917.)

Nicknamed “The Baseball Palace of the World” when it opened in 1910, Comiskey Park hosted many special baseball events including the Chicago City Series exhibition games. At times, these fiercely competitive matches between crosstown rivals drew larger crowds than World Series games.

In Chicago, the City Series sometimes drew larger crowds than the World Series. A record 36,208 fans showed up at the White Sox’s Comiskey Park on Oct. 15, 1911, for Game 3 of the series, at the time the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game in Chicago. 

To put that in perspective, when the same two teams met in a memorable crosstown World Series in 1906, the highest single-game attendance was 23,257 in Game 5 at the Cubs’ much smaller home ballpark, West Side Grounds. (The White Sox, known as the “Hitless Wonders,” stunned the baseball world by winning the World Series in six games against a Cubs club that won 116 regular-season games.) 

By 1912, the Cubs’ great dynasty was winding down. Led by Hall of Famers Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, manager Frank Chance, Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker, the Cubs from 1906 to 1910 produced the best five-year record of any team in major league history, including World Series championships in 1907 and '08. They also won the National League pennant in 1910. But for some inexplicable reason, they struggled mightily when it came to beating the White Sox. In addition to the 1906 World Series loss, the Cubs were swept by the Sox in the 1911 City Series. Still, the Cubs finished a strong 91-59 in 1912, in third place behind the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates.

In 1906, the Chicago Cubs began a dominating run in baseball. Led by Player-Manager Frank Chance, and featuring future Hall of Famers Johnny Evers, Joe Tinker, and Mordecai Brown, the team finished the season with a record 116 victories. During the five year period from 1906 through 1910, the Cubs’ dynasty won four pennants and two World Series Championships.

The White Sox in 1912 also were in transition. Their great stars of 1906 —  Ed Walsh, Doc White, Billy Sullivan and Lee Tannehill — were beginning to break down. Owner Charles Comiskey began building the core of a new dynasty that year by signing rookies Ray Schalk and Buck Weaver and acquiring the underachieving Eddie Cicotte in a midseason trade. After leading the AL standings for most of the first half, the Sox stumbled to a 78-76 fourth-place finish, 28 games behind the pennant-winning Red Sox. 

Naturally, the White Sox were heavy underdogs in the City Series. But they had a not-so-secret weapon in Walsh (27-17, 2.15 ERA), their indestructible workhorse who led the majors with 393 innings over 62 appearances. The 6-foot-1 spitball artist led all American League pitchers in games started (41) and games finished (18). Even by the standards of the Deadball Era, his workload was excessive. White Sox manager Jimmy “Nixey” Callahan planned to call on Walsh early and often against the Cubs.

As the late baseball historian Frederick Ivor-Campbell wrote, “The [Chicago] fans saw the City Series as a genuine championship event, and the clubs responded by playing all out. To have rested their ace at crucial moments of the series would have been out of the question for the Sox management, and probably also for Walsh himself.”

Over 10 days in October, Walsh turned in a legendary performance. He pitched 41 innings and allowed a run in just five of them, winning two games and saving another. He was used in six of the nine games. It was the Hall of Fame right-hander’s final hurrah — and it probably ruined his arm; he was never the same after the 1912 City Series.

Walsh’s first two appearances were wiped out by ties in games called by darkness. In Game 1 on Oct. 9 at Comiskey Park, he threw a gem. The only hit he allowed was a fourth-inning double by Tinker. But Cubs rookie Jimmy Lavender also stopped the White Sox from scoring, and the scoreless game was called after nine innings. Both pitchers went the distance.

Cubs rookie Jimmy Lavender faced off against veteran hurler Ed Walsh in both the first and last games of the 1912 Chicago City Series. Despite Walsh’s remarkable performance in the series, it was the beginning of the end for Big Ed’s career following seven amazing seasons.

Walsh took the mound again in Game 2 on Oct. 11 after the White Sox scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to extend the game to extra innings. Walsh relieved Eddie Cicotte in the 10th and tossed three scoreless innings until that game also was called in a 3-3 tie.

Lavender and the Cubs finally got a result in Game 3, beating left-hander White 5-4. Walsh allowed his first runs of the series in Game 4 and was beaten 4-2 by Ed Reulbach at West Side Grounds. The following day, Cicotte was battered in an 8-1 loss back at Comiskey Park. The Cubs’ 3-0 series lead seemed insurmountable.

Sensing another Cubs blowout, just 10,297 fans showed up at West Side Grounds on Oct. 15 for Game 6. The Sox sent — who else? — Ed Walsh out to the mound to save their season. The big ace was not at his best, squandering an early 3-0 lead and allowing the Cubs to tie the game in the eighth inning. But Walsh buckled down in extra innings, and the White Sox broke through with a run in the 11th to win 5-4.

The White Sox staged another last-at-bat rally in Game 7. This time it was the Cubs taking a 3-0 lead in the second inning behind Reulbach. But the two-time 20-game winner faltered in the eighth as the White Sox batted around and scored four runs to win 7-5. Team captain and left fielder Harry Lord — who had been involved in a nasty collision with rookie shortstop Weaver in Game 2 that sent Weaver to the hospital with what today might be diagnosed as a severe concussion — drove in the go-ahead run with an RBI single off Larry Cheney.

Weaver, the 21-year-old sparkplug, returned in Game 8 and showed no ill effect from his injury. He legged out a home run in the sixth inning and cheered his teammates on when they rallied for four runs in the top of the ninth to win 8-5. Walsh relieved Frank Lange in the ninth to nail down the final three outs. Improbably, the White Sox had tied the series at three games apiece with all of their wins coming in their final at-bat.

With one game left to decide the City Championship, there was no question who would get the ball for the White Sox: Ed Walsh. The Cubs might have called on their own veteran ace, Three Finger Brown, to set up a duel between future Hall of Famers. But the 35-year-old Brown had made just 15 ineffective appearances for the Cubs in 1912, compiling a 5-6 record. 

In an era where teams had total control over their players’ contracts, the Cubs had chosen to release their star pitcher just before the start of the City Series. So instead of Brown, the Cubs relied on Lavender in the winner-take-all Game 9.

In his 68th and final appearance of the season, Big Ed pitched a five-hit shutout. Game 9 was a laugher for jubilant White Sox fans in a crowd of 14,985 at Comiskey. Every position player scored, and the Sox erupted for eight runs in the third inning on the way to a 16-0 victory. Cubs manager Frank Chance reportedly was so disgusted that he left the ballpark around the fifth inning.

Sox players were rewarded with a winners’ share of $809.15, while each Cub took home an extra $567.72. That was good money at a time when the average player’s salary was around $2,000 a year.

For decades afterward, the White Sox continued to dominate the City Series, winning seven straight at one point and eight in a row at another. No matter how good the Cubs were in the regular season — and they won four NL pennants between 1929 and 1938 — they couldn’t seem to get the best of the White Sox. In later years, Hall of Fame pitchers Red Faber and Ted Lyons would play the same role for the White Sox as Walsh did in 1912.

Walsh won 182 games before his 32nd birthday but only 13 afterward. He went from 393 innings pitched in 1912 to 97 2/3 the following year and was released by the White Sox in 1916. But his legacy was secure. He was the last pitcher to win 40 games in a season (1908), and his 1.82 career ERA still ranks first in major league history. 

Big Ed was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946, but his finest hours might have been in single-handedly leading the White Sox to an improbable City Series championship in 1912.

Edward Augustine “Big Ed” Walsh enjoyed several dominating seasons during a remarkable, though relatively short, major league career. Recognized as one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Walsh was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946. 
Original artwork by Sanjay Verma.

 

 

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