The First Great Yankees-Red Sox Pennant Race
Ask any Yankees fan about the best pennant races of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry and they can tell you about Aaron Boone’s pennant winning home run in the 2003 ALCS, the great Yankees comeback culminating in Bucky Dent’s home run in the one game playoff in 1978, Joe DiMaggio managing to get healthy enough to knock the Red Sox out of the pennant race in 1949 or some other memory. If you ask those same fans about the worst of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, many will point to the 2004 ALCS when the Yankees won the first three games and lost the last four. Others might point to 1986 or 1975 when good Yankees teams lost the AL East title to better Red Sox teams. However, before the Curse of the Bambino, before DiMaggio and Williams, Bucky and Yaz, or Aaron Boone and Big Papi, one of the best pennant races in the history of the rivalry, albeit one that ended with the wrong team winning, occurred.
“For example, in the recently completed 2019 season the two winningest Yankees pitchers, Domingo German and James Paxton, combined for 33 victories. That was reasonably impressive by today’s standards. However, in 1904, Jack Chesbro and Jack Powell combined to win 64 games. ”
Baseball was a very different game in 1904. For example, in the recently completed 2019 season the two winningest Yankees pitchers, Domingo German and James Paxton, combined for 33 victories. That was reasonably impressive by today’s standards. However, in 1904, Jack Chesbro and Jack Powell combined to win 64 games. Chesbro’s season was extraordinary. He won 41 games, still the most of any pitcher since the turn of the 20th century. Chesbro threw 48 complete games and pitched 454.1 innings. Both numbers were good enough to lead the league. Nonetheless, his 1.82 ERA was only fourth in the league. Chesbro didn’t win the Cy Young Award that year, largely because it wouldn’t exist for another half century or so. Chesbro also didn’t take home the Cy Young Award because Cy Young himself was still pitching, and in fact was the ace of the Red Sox staff in 1904. Young had a very good year going 26-16 with a 1.92 ERA, but was outpitched by Chesbro.
A century before anybody in baseball used terms like “launch angle” the prevailing wisdom about hitting was to “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” That approach was more relevant in those days when the ball and bats were not as lively and pitchers didn’t throw nearly as hard as they do today. The source of that bit of early baseball wisdom was a 5’4” left-handed outfielder named Willie Keeler, but known to many as Wee Willie Keeler. Keeler followed his own advice to the tune of a .341 batting average over a career that spanned from 1892-1910. Nineteenth century baseball statistics are sometimes misleading, but Keeler led the league in hitting twice and hits three times in the 1890s, while hitting .386 between 1895-1900. By 1904, Keeler was 32 and slowing down, but he managed one last great year slashing .343/.390/.409 for a 147 OPS+. Keeler was the best hitter on an otherwise unremarkable offense.
The top sluggers on that 1904 team were John Ganzell and Patsy Dougherty who hit six home runs each. The whole team hit only 27 home runs, almost as many as Brett Gardner hit last season. In addition to Keeler, Chesbro and Powell, Yankees shortstop Kid Elberfeld hit a solid .263/.327/.338 while playing very solid defense. Overall, 1904 was in the middle of an extreme pitcher’s era . The Indians led the AL with 647 runs while the Browns and Senators scored fewer than 500 runs in the season where most teams played between 155 and 160 games.
The Red Sox had a strong team in 1904. In addition to Young, Bill Dinneen (23-14, 2.20) and Jesse Tannehill (21-11, 2.04) had excellent years on the mound. Boston’s offense was led by outfielder Chick Stahl (.290/.366/.416), shortstop Freddy Parent (.291/.330/.389) and solid years from Buck Freeman and future Hall of Famer Jimmy Collins who was 34 years old and winding down one of the great careers of baseball’s early years.
“The Yankees, known then as the Highlanders, and Red Sox, known as the Americans, were very evenly matched in 2004; and over the last seventy games of the season were never separated by more than two games.”
The Yankees, known then as the Highlanders, and Red Sox, known as the Americans, were very evenly matched in 2004; and over the last seventy games of the season were never separated by more than two games. For much of that time the Chicago White Sox were also in the mix, but they faded late in the season, finishing in third place and six games out. The close race came down to the final weekend. Going into the weekend, the Red Sox led the Yankees by half a game, but the two teams had five games against each other coming up. Whoever won that series would win the AL pennant. On Friday night, Chesbro pitched the Yankees to a big 3-2 win in New York, putting the Yankees up by half a game. All the Yankees needed was a split of the final two games, but the next two games were to be played in Boston so Columbia University could use the field for a football game that Saturday. Saturday did not go well for the Highlanders and they got swept by the Americans by scores of 13-2 and 1-0.
The two teams took Sunday off to travel back to New York. Now the Yankees/Highlanders were in a rough spot as they needed to sweep the Monday doubleheader. Chesbro started the first game on that Monday with a shot at his 42nd win of the season. The doubleheader the day before had exhausted the Yankees pitching staff and Chesbro had three full days of rest, so it was not a tough decision for player-manager Clark Griffith.
“Then, in the first great-and terrible-moment of the rivalry that is still going strong today, Chesbro through a spitball, which was legal at the time. ”
The game was an intense and close one as the two teams were tied up at two after eight full innings. With two outs and a runner on third in the top of the 8th, Chesbro got ahead 0-2 on Freddy Parent. Then, in the first great-and terrible-moment of the rivalry that is still going strong today, Chesbro through a spitball, which was legal at the time. The pitch was not near the plate. Backup catcher Red Kleinow couldn’t get it and the go ahead run scored. The Highlanders did not score in the bottom of the 9th and the Americans had clinched the pennant, their second in a row.
Chesbro was an excellent pitcher who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1946. He and Keeler were the first great Yankees players, but today when Chesbro is remembered or even discussed at all, it is for that wild pitch, not the 41 games he won in 1904 or the 153 he won between 1901 and 1906. If you’re wondering how the Americans fared in that 1904 World Series that year-they didn’t. New York Giants manager John McGraw, who had skippered his team to the NL peannant, refused to play the champions of what he viewed as an upstart league and there was no World Series in 1904.