The Pittsburgh Pirates started the 1903 season off as one of the favorites to win the National League pennant, which would be their third straight NL title if they could win it. They ran into a little trouble early in the year and dropped back to 3rd place in the standings behind the Cubs and Giants. That all changed with a run of six straight shutouts in early June which helped put them four games ahead of the Giants for 1st place by July 14th. The two teams met in Pittsburgh for a four game series that could go a long way to help decide which team would win the pennant and the Giants had their two top guns on the mound, future Hall of Famers, Christy Mathewson and Iron Joe McGinnity.
The Pirates were coming off a loss to Boston on July 13th and had a day to plan for the Giants arrival. The Giants had possibly the two best pitchers between the two teams but the Pirates had a deeper pitching staff and they went with their three aces, Sam Leever, Ed Doheny and Deacon Phillippe for this series plus the veteran pitcher, 35-year-old Brickyard Kennedy. In game one Christy Mathewson continued to give the Pirates trouble as he won 6-3, it was his fifth win over the Pirates in that season alone. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the Giants only went to him once because the Pirates had little trouble the rest of the series, winning all three remaining games including a 16-4 win the following day.
The team now looked to be in pretty good shape, they were now six games up in the standings over the Giants and the Cubs had fallen back 8.5 games now as the Pirates made their way to Chicago for a three game series. It’s likely they were riding high on three straight wins against the 2nd best team so the Pirates probably weren’t expecting what happened next, they got swept in Chicago with Ed Doheny now taking his 3rd loss in a row. Thanks to a little help from the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Pirates only lost one game in the standings to the Giants but they now let the Cubs back in the race.
Things didn’t get much better with the lowly Cardinals(31-50) in town as they put a beating on Sam Leever, winning 14-6. Luckily a 4 game series in Cincinnati against the 4th place Reds proved to be a pick me up for the Pirates as they took 3 of 4 and more importantly, the Giants lost ground during this series, now dropping back to 3rd place and 7.5 games back. It now seemed that the Cubs were the biggest obstacle between a 3rd straight title and Pittsburgh still had 9 more games left against them, including a big 4 game series in early August.
On August 1st the Pirates had a 59-28 record with just under two months left in the season but numerous doubleheaders ahead of them, including three in a row in late August and late September. Doubleheaders meant they would usually have to go to inexperienced pitchers more than they would like. The flipside is that the other teams would usually have to do the same thing. August started off with a 13-4 win against the Cardinals but the Pirates would then drop three straight including two against the Cubs in Chicago with Phillippe and Leever on the mound.
Due to poor weather Sam Leever was able to pull off a rare feat and that was he was able to avenge his 9-2 loss against the Cubs on August 5th in the next game of the year on August 8th when he downed Chicago 2-1. Thanks to two off days and a scheduled 5 game series with a day off afterwards, he started two straight games and kept the Pirates lead in the division from shrinking. The next day however, Brickyard Kennedy took a 4-3 loss and despite the close, low score, he didn’t make another start until the very last day of the season. The Pirates went 4-3 the next seven against the bottom half of the league wasting a chance to not only pull away but letting the Giants back into it and on August 20th Pittsburgh went to NY for two doubleheaders in two days and the Giants were pulling out all the stops.
Day one of that series saw Mathewson take the mound again against Doheny and for the six time he beat the Pirates, this time in a 13-7 slugfest. Phillippe pitched brilliantly in game two allowing just one run and the teams split for the day. Day two started off where day one left off as Leever shutout the Giants. So what happened next shouldn’t have been a surprise. With their season now on the line, the Giants went back to Mathewson for game two, this time against reserve pitcher Bucky Veil, who had not started since June 25th and to the surprise of no one, Mathewson beat the Pirates for a 7th time. Four games in two days and no change in the standings, a victory for the Pirates who were now closer to their title and no further back in the standings.
At the end of play on August 21st the Pirates stood 5 games ahead of the Giants and 5.5 ahead of the Cubs with 5 weeks to go in the season. What at the time looked like it could go down to the wire, quickly turned into a laugher for Pittsburgh. Five games against the last place Phillies followed by five against the 7th place Cardinals followed by four against the Reds in Pittsburgh resulted in a 13 game win streak with one game declared a tie in the middle of it. September 6th rolled around with the Cubs coming in for what looked like two weeks earlier to be a big series but the Pirates now held a 9.5 game lead in the division with just 3 weeks to go.
The win streak actually stopped at 14 on September 7th when the Pirates lost to the Cubs in the first game of a doubleheader. Former Pirates pitcher Jock Menefee did something even more impressive than the previously mentioned accomplishments of Mathewson and Leever and that was pitching both games of the doubleheader that day for the Cubs. The 35 year old pitcher probably didn’t know it at the time but his win in game one was his last major league win and his start in game two was the last one of his career.
Despite losing the next two games of the series to the Cubs, there was little time left in the year and manager Fred Clarke saved his big arms for the more important games after the season. They used nine different starters for the final 17 games of the year and still they were able to win the NL by 6.5 games over the Giants and 8 games over the Cubs. In the American League awaited an opponent that clinched their division two weeks prior and finished slightly ahead of the Pirates in winning percentage. The Boston Americans were 91-47, the Pirates were 91-49 on the year and they were about the meet in the first postseason between the National League, which had been around since 1876 and the American League, which was just in it’s third year and was still considered to be the inferior league by many. The tables were now set for an October matchup between the two powerhouses. Next week, we will look at the player by player comparisons for these two teams as they got ready for what is now known as the first modern day World Series.