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Blind Ignorance: The Cubs and Their Fight for the 1908 Pennant

By Mike Lynch, May 30, 2013
The October 24, 1908 issue of Sporting Life featured the World Series winner Chicago Cubs. Here guest historian Mike Lynch tells us of the bizarre and dangerous brawl that erupted in the Cubs dugout several months before the teams championship run.

On June 3, 1908, the Chicago Daily Tribune included a blurb about veteran Cubs outfielder Jimmy Sheckard that seemed innocuous enough: He was laid up with a swollen ankle suffered during a slide in an 8-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 1, and was expected to be out of the lineup for about a week. At the time, the Cubs were locked in a battle with the Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Giants and Boston Braves, with all four teams at .500 or better and within four games of one another.

Only the Pirates and Giants would hang with the Cubs until the season’s final day, a campaign punctuated by a crucial base-running error by a 19-year-old Giants first baseman named Fred Merkle, who failed to touch second base following what should have been a game-winning hit by Al Bridwell against the Cubs on Sept. 23. 

When New York Giant Fred Merkle made a crucial running error that cost his team dearly against the Cubs, it paved the way for the Chicago to capture the pennant and then the Worlds Championship in 1908.The “MerkleBoner” was just one of the unusual occurances that happened to the Cubs that season.

The teams were deadlocked atop the standings with almost identical records —New York held a slim lead of .006 — and a win for either would have swung the pendulum its way. Alas, the Giants lost the pennant by one game and Merkle has taken the brunt of the blame ever since, going down in history as “Bonehead” Merkle.

Thanks in part to Merkle’s mistake, the Cubs captured their third consecutive pennant and went on to win their second straight Fall Classic by beating the Detroit Tigers in five games — the last time the Cubs have won a World Series. But what few realize is that the Cubs almost imploded when a clubhouse fight in early June jeopardized the career of one player, landed another in the hospital, left skipper Frank Chance battered and bruised and divided the team.  

The same day the Tribune reported about Sheckard’s wrenched ankle, the Boston Globe detailed a far more serious incident, claiming that while Sheckard was treating his ankle, a bottle of ammonia exploded near his face when he pulled out the cork. Sheckard was blinded, his eyes were badly swollen, and the physician who treated him said there was a possibility he would lose the use of his left eye. “In any event, he will be out of the game for some time,” reported the Globe.

Jimmy Sheckard only batted .231 for the Cubs in 1908 but it was the brawl that he was involved in on June 3rd that not only sparked dissension on the team but resulted in serious injury.

Sheckard became a star early in his career, pacing the National League in stolen bases as a 20-year-old with 77 in 1899, then leading the league in triples and slugging in 1901, home runs, steals and outfield assists in 1903 and sacrifice hits in 1906. He was once described as “a marvelous workman in his pasture and one of the surest, most deadly outfielders on fly balls that ever choked a near-triple to death by fleetness of foot and steadiness of eye and grip.”   

By 1908, however, his career had begun to flag and he no longer possessed the power/speed combination he once had, but he would continue to be productive until his penultimate season in 1912. On June 2, 1908, Sheckard was hitting only .237 with three doubles, a homer and six steals in 36 games. But two of his doubles and his home run had come in his last seven at-bats before the injury.

Another seemingly innocuous report came out June 4 when the Tribune reported that 21-year-old Cubs rookie infielder Heinie Zimmerman was rumored to be going to the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade that would net Chicago southpaw Ed Karger. On the surface, the deal made sense. The unproven Zimmerman had no place to play on an infield that included the Cubs’ best player and future Hall of Famer, Johnny Evers at second, veteran Harry Steinfeldt at third and future Hall of Famer Joe Tinker, who had been the starting shortstop since 1902. Meanwhile the 24-year-old Karger was coming off a 1907 season in which he posted a 2.04 ERA in 39 games, the 10th best mark in the NL. And behind the scenes, things were going on in the clubhouse that had Chance wanting to rid himself of the volatile Zimmerman. The Tribune reported that the two men had been involved in a “quarrel” two days before.

Heine Zimmerman, called dim witted by some who knew him, was a character if the first order. He was to play a central role in a bizarre brawl that occurred in the Cubs dugout in early summer. By August the papers reported that Zimmerman and Sheckard had broken into a “fierce fight” that caused considerable injury but could have ended tragically. Even manager Frank Chance got into the action. Years later, in 1916, Zimmerman was drummed out of professional baseball for fixing games.

Sportswriter Warren Brown called Zimmerman “no mental giant,” and biographer David Jones wrote that “over time he developed a reputation for dimwittedness that was unsurpassed, even among ballplayers.” Apparently, the Cubs infielder had an “awkward, loping gait and a perpetual sneer plastered across his face,” which had Brown opining, “Even Franklin P. Adams would have had trouble reducing him to poetry in motion.”

On Sunday, June 7, with the Cubs sporting a two-game lead over the Reds, the Tribune reported that Chance had wired owner Charles Murphy from Boston asking Zimmerman to join the team “if he is in shape to play.”  The Trib mentioned an injury but failed to go into detail.

Two days later, the newspaper wrote, “Chance wired that the team was in such shape that he wanted every man who could limp through a game to be in uniform to be ready for emergencies.” But Murphy responded in the negative about Zimmerman, saying he was in a Chicago hospital and “unable to report for duty for some time.” Murphy also replied that Sheckard’s eyes were fine but his ankle was going to keep him off the field for the immediate future.

A little more than a week later, the Cubs were sequestered in a Philadelphia hotel, trying to stay dry during a thunderstorm that drenched the Atlantic Coast and wiped out most of that day’s games. Irving Sanborn wrote in the Tribune, “The only incident to enliven the day was the receipt of a telegram from Bill Bernhard, manager of the Nashville Southern league club, asking Chance to lend him Heinie Zimmerman for the rest of the season.” Sanborn and the Cubs treated the request like a joke that “created some merriment — Zimmerman had “made himself popular with every Cub from President Murphy and Cap Chance to the bat and water boys.”  Not to mention he was still in the hospital and his stay had “no definite termination in sight as yet.”

Sheckard returned to the Cubs’ lineup June 26 and had a single and a sacrifice hit in three plate appearances. His season continued more or less on the same path as it had before the bottle of ammonia exploded in his face, and he finished the year with a .231 average, two homers and 18 steals. Zimmerman finished at .292 in 46 games with no patience at the plate, little power and a fielding average of .914 at four positions.

Neither had a major impact on the pennant race. Sheckard was the team’s best offensive outfielder but was barely above average and was the worst with a glove on his hand. Zim was the team’s second-best bench player on offense but had only 118 plate appearances, and his .923 fielding percentage as a second baseman was better than only four other NL men who had played at least 10 games.

Finally the truth came out as the Sporting Life of Aug. 1 described a “fierce free fight” that took place in the Cubs’ clubhouse June 2 and explained Sheckard’s temporary blindness and Zimmerman’s trip to the hospital. “According to information which has been verified through several sources, Zimmerman and Sheckard had an altercation in the dressing-room after a game,” Sporting Life reported.

Zimmerman went after Sheckard after a heated exchange following the Cubs’ loss to the Pirates. Sheckard threw something at Zimmerman, and the latter retaliated by throwing a bottle of ammonia at the former. “The bottle struck Sheckard low in the forehead and between the eyes,” wrote Sporting Life. “The force of the throw broke the bottle and the fluid streamed down Sheckard’s face. Manager Chance, thoroughly enraged, buckled into Zimmerman.”

The smaller Zim was getting the best of his manager until Chance called for help. “Then, it is alleged, Zimmerman was borne to the floor by force of superior numbers,” reported Sporting Life. “Zimmerman received such a beating from his teammates that he had to be hospitalized.”

The row divided the club — Evers was “particularly bitter toward Chance for the way Zimmerman had been handled,” and “sides to the controversy” were “on edge and only await word to jump at each other and renew the fight.”

But they overcame their differences, won at a greater clip after the fight (.650) than before (.622) and finished a game ahead of the Giants and Pirates. Despite the altercation, Zimmerman remained with the Cubs until Aug. 28, 1916, when he was dealt to the Giants. He was later banned for life for fixing games. Sheckard recovered nicely from his temporary blindness, leading the NL in runs, walks and on-base percentage in 1911 and walks again in 1912.

At the tail end of his career, Jimmy Sheckard took center stage within this lyrical piece written longing for the Chicago Cubs of the bygone years.



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