In the 130 season history of Pittsburgh Pirates franchise, they have finished in first place a total of 16 times and as many of you know it hasn’t happened in the last 19 years and it also didn’t happen once during their first 19 years either. The team has won their division or just the NL in general, with as many as 110 wins like they did in 1909 or as few as 88 wins like they did in 1974. Never have they done as well as they did in 1908 and still walked away with nothing more than second place. The Pirates that year won 98 games, a win total only surpassed by the 1909 club and the 1902 club that won 103 games. They had a .636 winning percentage that 1908 season, the fifth highest total behind the 1901-03 and 1909 clubs.
The 1908 season had an amazing amount of up and downs all season in the standings. The Pirates were never more than 4 games back the first two months of the season and by June 27 they were tied for first place with the Cubs with the Giants just two games back. They swept a doubleheader the next day over the Cardinals yet they still remained tied. After three off days due to weather/travel they split a doubleheader with the Cubs, who they now led by a half game, with the Giants still three games back. After they shutout the Cubs on July 3 behind the pitching of Vic Willis that put them up 1.5 games, they got swept by the Cubs in a doubleheader that left the Pirates again trailing in the standings. The two teams traveled to Chicago to play a Sunday game because the Pirates never played home games in Pittsburgh on Sundays during that era. The Pirates won 10-5 and again took the lead in the NL.
After splitting a six game series with the Cubs, the Pirates came back home to face the Philadelphia Phillies and lost three of four games, a crucial series when you look back on this season. The Phillies were just 28-34 coming into this series, yet they were able to take three games going against the Pittsburgh pitching staff which would end up with five starters with 15 or more wins and two 23 game winners, both of whom lost in this series, Willis and Nick Maddox. They also defeated Lefty Leifield, who posted a 2.10 ERA on the season. You would think with a 98 win season during the days of a 154 game schedule, the Pirates were probably great at home but they were actually much better on the road. They went just 42-35 at home, well behind the 56-21 pace they set on the road.
The back and forth in the standing continued as the Giants came into town for four games and lost the first two, leaving Pittsburgh and Chicago tied again. After the off-day on Sunday July 12, they played a Monday doubleheader and the Giants unleashed their big guns in the rotation as future Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity helped lead New York to a sweep that day. After another off-day, which saw the Cubs lose to again even up the NL, the Pirates took three of four from Boston. That put them ahead of the league on July 18 by one game over the Cubs and 1.5 over the Giants.
Pittsburgh would hold that lead until August 19 when they again had a string of crucial losses at home. They lost the last game of a series against a Boston team that was just 47-60, then opened up a series against a Brooklyn team that was even worse, winners of only 38 games up to that point. On August 20 after a second straight loss at home to Brooklyn, the Pirates were now tied again up top in the NL but this time it was the Giants that they shared the lead with at 64-42 apiece. The Cubs had fell 3.5 games back at this point and the Phillies were making an unexpected run, closing within 5.5 games. The Pirates closed out the Brooklyn series strong, winning the last two but the offense at this point was very lackluster, scoring 12 total runs in their last nine games. That wasn’t a good sign with the Giants coming back into town for four games in three days.
The Giants would end up sweeping the Pirates but it was not a one-sided affair, all fairly close games. New York scored 18 runs in the series, a decent four game total but they scored four or five games in each game while the Pirates could only muster up eight runs all series continuing their dismal string of 20 runs in their last 13 games. It didn’t get much better, at least offensively, in the four game series that followed against the Phillies. The Pirates scored just seven runs against them, actually getting outscored in the series 8-7 but the shutout pitching of Maddox and Sam Leever allowed them to win three out of four and pull back with 1.5 games of the lead. They were in a tie for second at that point with the Cubs, with the only thing separating the three teams is the fact the Giants had played(and lost) three less games than the other two clubs.
On August 30 the Pirates trailed the first place Giants by one game and the second place Cubs by a half game. They were on their way to Cincinnati for five games to play a Reds team that had beat them six out of 12 times already. It was also a team that they had not played in over two months and last time they met, the Reds had a winning record. Since then they had gone 27-33 and dropped below the .500 mark. The Pirates would end up winning all five games against the Reds thanks in part to the offense breaking out with 35 runs scored. They also got great pitching, allowing seven total runs in the five games and the final game was a pleasant surprise for them. A 21 year old rookie named Chick Brandom in his major league debut threw a 3-1 complete game victory. Despite the five game sweep Pittsburgh picked up just a half game in the standings.
The Cubs then came back into town for the last time and the last two games of the four game series would be played in Chicago due to the fact they fell on a Sunday. The two teams split the series, one win/loss for the Pirates in each town and their second experiment with a rookie starter went much worse than the first time with Brandom. Bob Vail made his debut in late August as a reliever and on September 5 he got his first major league start. He wasn’t around to see the end of the 11-0 blowout loss and he never made another major league start again.
Following the Cubs series, the Pirates cruised through a three game sweep of the Cardinals, then beat up on the Reds in the first of five games. Four wins in a row and at the end of the day they trailed the Giants still by half a game. The Cubs were two games back of first at the time. Pittsburgh split the other four games with the Reds, then took three of four in Philadelphia on their way to a big series in New York. Both the Pirates and Cubs had dropped three games back to the Giants and there was just 17 days left in the season. New York knew this was a big series and they proved it by going to Christy Mathewson twice in the four game set. He won the opener in what turned out to be a doubleheader sweep but the Pirates took the last two games, leaving them no worse off in the overall standings but closer to the end of the season.
The Pirates schedule got very easy after playing the Giants and they needed every win they could get at that point. They had three games in Brooklyn versus the 7th place Superbas, three in Boston against the 6th place Doves, then six games against the last place St Louis Cardinals. While that was going on the Giants and Cubs had a four game series against each other in New York, then the Cubs had eight more road games while the Giants played the Phillies eight straight times. At this point the schedule, while nearing a close, definitely favored the Pirates.
Pittsburgh swept through Brooklyn putting them one game back on September 24, then lost the opener in Boston but took the series by winning the last two leaving them still one game back. A doubleheader sweep to start the Cardinals series left them a half game back, tied with the Giants for second place. The amazing thing about this back and forth race is the fact the same thing was happening in the American League. On the close of play on September 29, the Tigers led the Indians by a half game and the White Sox by one game, meaning six teams were within a game, or in first place, with a week to go in the season.
The end of the season was a nail biter for all three teams involved.
On September 30 the Pirates won 7-5 putting them even with the Giants and a half game ahead of the Cubs.
October 1 saw the Giants split a doubleheader, the Cubs win and the Pirates off due to travel to St Louis. This left all three teams tied with just a handful of games left.
On October 2 the Pirates won a doubleheader, Cubs and Giants both won giving the Pirates a half game lead.
October 3 was another win for the Pirates and Cubs but the Giants lost, meaning the Pirates and Cubs would now play a makeup game the next day, while the Giants still had four games left.
The two teams met in Chicago for the possible final game of the season. If the Pirates won they would wait to see if the Giants could win their last four and create a tie which would be decided by a one game playoff. If the Cubs won they would do the same except their one game playoff would actually just be a makeup game of an earlier tie. The Pirates went with 23 game winner Vic Willis while the Cubs countered with Mordecai Brown and his 28 wins. The Cubs controlled the game going into the 9th leading 5-2. Honus Wagner led off the 9th win a single and was followed by Ed Abbaticchio, who appeared to hit a ground rule double but the base umpire ruled it foul and set off a long dispute from the Pirates. The call stood and the Pirates went down in order, ending their season. The Cubs would go on to win on the last day over the Giants to take the NL crown and eventually win the World Series, their last title to this day.
Next week we will recap the players for the 1908 Pirates season, see what went right, what went wrong, who was new and what players left and give a sneak peek about a player they purchased in June who didn’t play in 1908 in the majors but would be a major part for the 1909 team.
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.
Yep, the 1908 pennant race was a great one. It stuck in Barney Dreyfuss’s craw, he hated losing that one. That season prepped them to win it all the next year, the same way 1978 did for 1979.