The 1911 Season: The Cream Rises to the Top
An oasis of offense in an era of great pitching, the 1911 season stands out as one of the most dramatic of the Deadball Era. Great players performed at their peak, and two powerhouse teams, stuck in second place at the end of July, pushed forward to claim league pennants. A classic World Series matching the two premier managers of the era capped a year in which only five of the sixteen Major League teams finished under .500.
This was a time before runs batted in counted as an official statistic, when the Sunday newspaper listing of Major Leaguers’ stats included not home runs but sacrifice bunts and stolen bases. The bold experiment with a cork-center baseball in 1911 provided a major boost to hitters that lasted two seasons, after which pitchers’ unfettered doctoring of the ball stymied offense until the Ruthian slugging of the 1920s transformed the game.
The explosion of offense was greater in the American League, where scoring went from 7.3 runs per game in 1910 to 9.2 in 1911, and the league batting average soared from .243 to .273. Scoring rose a less startling 10 percent in the National League, where Frank “Wildfire” Schulte of the Cubs became the league’s first 20-home-run slugger of the century and home runs league-wide rose by 50 percent.
The Detroit Tigers, featuring the Majors’ most formidable one-two punch in Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford (who combined for 265 hits, including 83 doubles and 38 triples) got off to a torrid start. By May 9 they had an eight-game lead thanks to a 21–2 record. A nine-game winning streak in July featured a four-game sweep in which they battered the defending champion, the Philadelphia Athletics, for 37 runs.
Connie Mack’s Athletics were anchored by the legendary “$100,000 infield” of Stuffy McInnis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, and Frank Baker. The pitching staff was headed by future Hall of Famers Eddie Plank and “Chief” Bender, plus Jack Coombs, who was coming off a 31–9 season. Following the sweep by Detroit, they reeled off an 18–6 stretch, seized first place on August 7, and never looked back. With Coombs leading the league again with 28 wins while Plank and Bender combined for a 40–13 record, the Athletics won 101 games, subduing the Tigers by 13½ games.
The National League was more hotly contested, and at the end of June the Giants, Cubs, Phillies, Pirates, and Cardinals were separated by just five games. But beginning on June 28, four things happened over the next month that propelled the Giants to the title. On that day, they moved back into the rebuilt Polo Grounds, which had been nearly gutted by a fire two days into the season.
The second key factor was the sudden emergence of Rube Marquard as a southpaw complement to Christy Mathewson. Marquard, signed for $100,000 in 1908, had been a flop, posting a 9–18 record before 1911 and sitting at a lackluster 5–3 when the Giants returned to Coogan’s Bluff. Not only did he win seven of his eight July starts, but over the next calendar year he went an astonishing 37–4, stamping his ticket to the Hall of Fame.
A sluggish offense and the July illness of shortstop Al Bridwell forced John McGraw to make the biggest trade of the season. On July 22, he dealt Bridwell and Hank Gowdy to the Boston Rustlers for Buck Herzog, who took over at third base for aging Art Devlin, while Art Fletcher replaced Bridwell. The infusion of youth and speed energized the Giants’ offense, which set a twentieth-century record with 347 stolen bases. Outfielders Josh Devore, Fred Snodgrass, and Red Murray, along with first baseman Fred Merkle, all stole between 48 and 61 bases. McGraw’s team put constant pressure on the defense and averaged five runs a game for the rest of the season.
What put the Giants over the top, however, was the arrival—on July 27, in St. Louis—of Charley Faust, a Kansas hayseed who believed a fortune-teller’s declaration that he would pitch the Giants to the title. McGraw quickly determined that Faust had no talent, but the real-life Forrest Gump instead became the most proficient “jinx-killer” of his time. He joined the Giants full-time in mid-August when they were in third place, became the star of the pregame show, and sat on the bench while ensuring victory. When Faust was in uniform and working his magic, the Giants won 36 of 39 games and won the pennant going away.
In the World Series, however, “Victory” Faust was outmascoted by Louis van Zelst, a hunchback dwarf and Mack mainstay. The Giants were mainly vanquished by Baker, who earned his nickname “Home Run” with a pair of crucial blasts off the New York aces. In Game 2, the score was 1–1 in the sixth inning when Marquard served up a home run ball to Baker, whose two-run wallop won the game. In a (ghostwritten) syndicated column, Mathewson chided his teammate for making a bad pitch.
The next day, Matty took a 1–0 lead to the ninth inning and—uh-oh—got burned by a Baker blast that tied the game, won by the Athletics in extra innings. Voila—“Home Run” Baker! The Giants never recovered, dropping the Series in six games. It marked the second of three titles Mack won in a four-year period and the start of a three-Series losing streak for McGraw. The cream had risen to the top.
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In 1940, The Sporting News conducted a survey of more than 100 former Major League players and officials, asking them to name the “best player ever.” More than 60 percent voted for Ty Cobb, who far outdistanced runner-up Babe Ruth. They had seen Cobb at his best—in 1911, a “career year” by any definition. He not only led the league in eight departments, he also established career highs in seven of them, with 248 hits, 47 doubles, 24 triples, 147 runs scored, 127 runs batted in, a .420 batting average, and a .621 slugging percentage. His 83 stolen bases that year were topped only by his 96 in 1915. Joe Jackson, in his first full season with the Cleveland Naps, batted a whopping .408—and didn’t challenge for the batting title. Cobb missed the Triple Crown only because he was second in home runs to “Home Run” Baker, who won the first of four straight crowns with a whopping 11. Cobb was a shoo-in as the winner of the Chalmers Award as the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
In the National League, Wildfire Schulte also won a Chalmers automobile for his career year, but by the end of the decade his car had burned and his career had also gone up in flames. You can win a lot of bar bets by knowing he was the first Major Leaguer to accumulate at least 20 doubles, triples, and home runs in a season (30–21–21), adding 23 stolen bases and a league-leading 107 runs batted in while batting second in the Cubs’ lineup. The National League batting title went to 37-year-old Honus Wagner, his last crown.
Despite these assaults, there was still plenty of strong pitching in 1911, featuring the four winningest pitchers ever. Two were in their prime; Christy Mathewson went 26–13 for the Series-bound Giants, while Walter Johnson went 25–13 for seventh-place Washington. The other two were at opposite extremes, and 44-year-old Cy Young didn’t last the season—released in August after managing the last seven of his 511 career victories.
Philadelphia pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1911.
Filling the void in amazing fashion was rookie Grover Cleveland Alexander of the Philadelphia Phillies, the best pitcher in the Majors in 1911. The 24-year-old workhorse:
· Completed 31 of his 37 starts;
· Led the league with 367 innings and seven shutouts;
· Relieved 11 times, winning four games and saving three others;
· Pitched 10+ innings in a game seven times, including a 15-inning, 2–1 victory at Brooklyn;
· Struck out 227 batters, a National League rookie record eventually topped by Dwight Gooden in 1984;
· Was a 21-game winner by the end of July;
· Went 28–13, tying Jack Coombs for most wins in the Majors; and
· Tossed four straight shutouts in September, including a one-hitter at Boston, tallying 41⅓ consecutive shutout innings.
The next longest scoreless streak was achieved by a total unknown, Orville “Orlie” Weaver, whose roller-coaster season began with the Cubs. In his first four appearances in 1911, he racked up 30⅓ consecutive shutout innings. Two losing starts later, he was traded to Boston and his career quickly disintegrated. He reached his nadir at Forbes Field in July when the Pirates pummeled him for 16 runs and 16 hits in seven innings. After going 3–12 with a 6.47 ERA for Boston, Weaver never pitched in the Majors again.
Other outstanding achievements included:
· Ed Walsh of the White Sox no-hit Boston, a game witnessed and later recounted by novelist James T. Farrell;
· Rube Marquard and King Cole both pitched a pair of one-hitters, with Cole’s gem against Brooklyn lasting ten innings;
· Marquard struck out 14 men in a game twice, while no other pitcher topped 12;
· The Giants scored 13 runs in the first inning in a game against St. Louis, during which Fred Merkle drove in six runs and stole home;
· “Chief” Wilson of the Pirates stroked three triples in one game, getting warmed up to set the one-season record with 36 triples in 1912; and
· “Smoky Joe” Wood no-hit the Browns, also a sign of things to come for the man who would win 34 games in 1912.
Any season has its share of transitions, and the 1911 parade wasn’t all Young and Alexander. Other notable 1911 rookies included Ping Bodie, Fred Toney, the Cuban duo of Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, and Jack Quinn. That year also marked the final Major League campaigns of Bill Dahlen, Harry Steinfeldt, Jack Pfiester, Deacon Phillippe, and Fred Tenney, among many others.
Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg was born on New Year’s Day, getting the 1911 birth-year class off to a great start, later joined by Joe Medwick, Buck O’Neil, and Johnny Keane. Two great nineteenth-century stars died in 1911—“Parisian Bob” Caruthers and Will White.
But the most significant baseball death in 1911 was Addie Joss, who died of meningitis on April 14, two days after his 31st birthday. In July, a benefit game staged for Joss’s family was essentially the first All-Star Game. Joss’s Cleveland team took on a marquee squad of American League stars. Six were in the starting lineup: Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Eddie Collins, Frank Baker, and Bobby Wallace. Walter Johnson pitched for the victorious All-Stars, with Cy Young taking the loss.
The game was witnessed by over 15,000 fans, raising nearly $13,000 for the survivors of one of the Deadball Era’s most popular players. That was the best instance in 1911 of the cream rising to the top.
On July 24, 1911, American League stars played the Cleveland Naps in a benefit game for the family of Addie Joss.
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