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How the 1917 Season Unfolded

In part 2 of Nowlin’s series on the 1917 season, he recaps the regular season. John McGraw’s Giants dominated the senior circuit while the White Sox redeemed their 1916 season in the American League by overcoming the Boston Red Sox.

By Bill Nowlin , September 12, 2017
1917 Chicago White Sox

In 1916, John McGraw’s New York Giants had finished in fourth place, but they dominated in 1917. Only the Cincinnati Reds gave them trouble in head-to-head matchups, both teams winning 11 games. All the way through June, however, the Giants had to fight to maintain first place. Only once (on May 17) did they have a lead as large as three games. On 10 days they were tied for first, but most of the time they were in second place—though very close (some 14 days saw them in second by only half a game). There were days they took the lead, but from their April 12 Opening Day through June 30, there were only eight days that saw them as more than one full game out of first, one way or the other.

The Red Sox had won both the AL pennant and the World Series in 1915 and 1916, but even though they won 90 games in 1917, the Chicago White Sox won 10 more, for an even 100 wins. Boston finished second, nine games behind Chicago. Tied or in the lead, the White Sox were only out of first place for one day in April but spent 15 days in May trailing, by as many as 3½ games on May 11 and 12. A week later, on May 18, they took the lead and only one day (June 7) saw them dip out of first.

The White Sox led during most of July, but not by much. As late as July 31, they were tied for the lead with the Red Sox (and slightly behind by percentage points).

The Giants began to separate from the NL field in July. On July 3, they took a three-game lead, extended it to four on July 4 and to five on July 6. Three days later, they held a seven-game lead over the second-place Phillies, thanks to a run of 11 wins against two losses. On July 17, they reached an eight-game cushion and never dipped below this lead the rest of the season. They held a double-digit lead for most of the month of September, dipping to eight on the 30th when Cincinnati swept a doubleheader. But the Giants ended their season taking three of four from the Phils in back-to-back twin bills on October 2 and 3. That restored them to the 10-game lead at season’s end.

The AL race saw Manager “Pants” Rowland’s White Sox kick off August with five consecutive road wins, two in Boston and three in Philadelphia. They never lost the league lead again, though as late as August 18 they were only up by one game over the Red Sox. The Cleveland Indians were in third place, 10½ games behind. The only real challenger was Jack Barry’s Boston Red Sox. Barry had been hired in January, taking over for the departed Bill Carrigan. It’s not that Boston played poorly; they were 16–12 in August—but the White Sox were 22–9.

The Red Sox were only 14–12 in September, while the White Sox were 17–7. Both teams played winning ball, but the White Sox won a whole lot more.

In head-to-head matchups for the 1917 season as a whole, Chicago won 12 and Boston won 10. The Red Sox slaughtered two other teams, with an 18–3 record over the Philadelphia Athletics and a 17–5 record against the St. Louis Browns, but they lost an even dozen games to both Cleveland and Detroit. The White Sox, by contrast, had a winning record against every other club and were 16–6 against both the Tigers and the Browns.

In his third year as White Sox manager, Clarence Henry “Pants” Rowland piloted the team to a 100-win club record.

League Leaders

This was the Deadball Era, when pitching ruled. In the National League, for the third year in succession, Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander won 30 games (30–13, with a 1.83 earned run average that was officially recognized as leading the league).[1] He threw 34 complete games, eight of them shutouts, and—winning more than a third of his team’s 87 victories—had a lot to do with the Phillies placing second. But no one pitcher can win a pennant by himself. Cincinnati’s Fred Toney was second with 24 wins, and Hippo Vaughn of the Cubs was third, with 23. Vaughn’s 195 strikeouts ranked him second behind Alexander’s 200.

The Giants only had one 20-game winner, Ferdie Schupp (21–7, 1.95). But they had a more balanced staff, with three others winning 15 or more: Slim Sallee (18–7, 2.17, and a league-leading four saves), Pol Perritt (17–7, 1.88), and Rube Benton (15–9, 2.72). Jeff Tesreau was 13–8. Indeed, the top three pitchers in the National League by win percentage were Schupp (.750), Sallee (.720), and Perritt (.708), every one of them a Giant. Not surprisingly, three of the top four in earned run average were Giants as well—Fred Anderson, Perritt, and Schupp.

In the American League, Eddie Cicotte of the White Sox won the most games (he was 28–12, with a league-leading 1.53 ERA), seconded by Babe Ruth of the Red Sox (24–13, 2.01). Ruth, incidentally, only hit two home runs in 1917, down from the three he’d hit in 1916 and the four he’d hit back in 1915. Ruth threw 35 complete games, however, most in the AL. Jim Bagby (Indians) and Walter Johnson (Senators) each won 23 games.

Boston’s Carl Mays was second in the league in ERA (1.74) followed by Cleveland’s Stan Coveleski (1.81) and then another White Sox, Red Faber (1.92). Faber’s record was 16–13. Chicago also had Lefty Williams (17–8, 2.97), Reb Russell (15–5, 1.95), and Dave Danforth (11–6, 2.65). The White Sox team ERA was 2.16; their opponents averaged nearly a full run higher, 3.13. The second-place Red Sox were very close, with a 2.20 team ERA.

The White Sox made more use of relievers than had the Red Sox—the Boston staff threw 115 complete games while Chicago only threw 78. Both teams allowed about the same number of runs—Boston 457 and Chicago 462. Both were more than 100 runs below the league average in runs allowed—564.5.

Offense was lacking in those days. Boston’s team batting average was .246, and Chicago’s was .253. Statistically, the top two teams matched up well, but the White Sox had more of what it took to win games—winning, as we have seen, 100 games to Boston’s 90. Both the Tigers (.259) and Athletics (.254) hit for higher team averages, but the Athletics’ 3.27 was the worst in the AL for ERA and the Tigers’ 2.56 was middle of the pack.

Scoring runs is what counts on offense, and the White Sox scored 656 runs, exactly 100 more than the second-place Red Sox. Detroit was second in the league in scoring runs with 639. Just comparing the top two teams, the White Sox excelled in earning bases on balls (522 to 466) and stolen bases (219–105), both of which obviously helped put runners on base and advance them into scoring position.

Returning to the National League, looking mainly at the top two teams, the Phillies actually walked more than the Giants (435–373), but the Giants stole more bases (162–109). The Giants got on base more by the base hit than the Phillies, .261 to .248 in team batting averages, but the Phillies had more extra-base hits (323–280), the margin of difference mainly coming in doubles. But when it came to scoring runs, the Giants led the Phils, 635–578.

The Giants had one six-game winning streak in June, but they had six five-game winning streaks. The Phils had three six-game winning streaks, but only two that were five games long. They had one six-game losing streak in late July, when the Giants built their big lead. The Giants had two three-game losing streaks but otherwise never lost more than two games in a row.

On defense, there was not much variation statistically among the teams.

In the end, the Giants and the White Sox squared off in the World Series.

White Sox players take the field to face the New York Giants in the 1917 World Series.

Some Individual Performances in the Regular Season

Perhaps the standout performance during the season was the “perfect game” thrown by Ernie Shore of the Red Sox on June 23. Earlier in the year, lefty George Mogridge threw the first no-hitter in Yankees history on April 24, beating Dutch Leonard and the Red Sox, 2–1, at Fenway Park. Mogridge was 9–11 in 1917 and had never had a winning season in his five years of big league pitching. In 1918, he turned the corner. Shore’s game has become a famous one. Babe Ruth was the starting pitcher, but he was so upset with umpire Brick Owens’s calls on the very first batter that he got into a physical altercation with Owens and was ejected. Shore came on. The base runner was erased on a pickoff for the first out, and Shore retired the next 26 batters he faced. One could hardly ask for a more perfect game, though the current “powers that be” don’t recognize it officially as such.

We’ve seen who led the leagues in pitching. The league leaders in batting average were Edd Roush of Cincinnati (.341) for the National League and Detroit’s Ty Cobb led the Majors with a .383 average.

In runs batted in, Heinie Zimmerman of the Giants led the NL with 102 RBIs while Bobby Veach of the Tigers hit one more, leading the AL and the Majors.

There were never very many homers in the era. Twelve was what it took to win the NL home run crown; Gavvy Cravath (Phillies) and Dave Robertson (Giants) each had an even dozen. Wally Pipp of the Yankees homered nine times to lead the AL.

Detroit’s Bobby Veach and Ty Cobb both produced at the plate during the 1917 season. Veach’s 103 RBIs and Cobb’s .383 batting average were top in the major leagues.

Leading into the 1917 World Series

Heading into the World Series, both teams had some history they wanted to overcome. The White Sox had won the first American League pennant back in 1901, but there was no World Series at the time. In 1906, they took the flag again and squared off against the North Siders, the Chicago Cubs, winning the World Series, four games to two. But it had been 11 years.

They had winning records from 1901 through 1916, save for two sixth-place finishes in 1910 and 1914, but through 1915 they had never again placed higher than third. With Pants Rowland taking over in 1915, they finished third—and in 1916 they finished second, only two games behind the Red Sox in the final standings. They were an improving team, and they reaped the fruits in 1917.

The Giants had won five pennants in their history, the first in 1904 when they famously declined to play a World Series against the Boston American League squad. They repeated as pennant winners in 1905, with 105 wins, and beat the Philadelphia Athletics in the then-resumed World Series. After a five-year hiatus, they won pennants three years running—1911, 1912, and 1913—but they lost the World Series each time, in six games to the Athletics, in seven to the Red Sox, and in five to the Athletics again.

In 1914, the Boston Braves beat the second-place Giants with ease (by 10½ games), and in 1915, the Giants plunged to last place. They worked their way to fourth place in 1916, only seven games behind Brooklyn. In 1917 they were on the top of the heap once more, with—as we have seen—a comfortable 10-game lead over the second-place Phillies.

Baseball Magazine, November 1917

[1] Fred Anderson of the Giants had a much better 1.44 ERA, and by today’s standards he clearly would have won the title.




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