Soccer critics crack wise about the number of 1-0 final scores in the “beautiful game.” Baseball was a little like that in the early 1900s, during the aptly named dead-ball era. Low-scoring games were the rule. Pitchers threw mushy baseballs to keep line drives from hurtling into the stands. They also decorated balls with dirt and tobacco juice to make curveballs hop around even more than they might with a simple snap of the wrist.
Also, managers preferred small-ball tactics, like the hit-and-run and stolen base over the home run. They didn’t play for the big inning. Often, the home-run leader in each league ripped fewer than 10 round-trippers in a season. (In truth, baseball never got quite as bad as soccer. The low point was 1908 when teams scored an average of 3.4 runs per game.)
The exact period of the dead-ball era is hard to judge. Many say it goes back to the early days of the game. Certainly it had begun by 1900. The era ended following the 1920 season. Babe Ruth may be one reason. The Bambino made the home run one of baseball’s most dramatic moments. People wanted to see Ruth and others hit balls over the fence. (Ruth led the league with 11 homers in 1918, 29 in 1919, 54 in 1920 and 59 in 1921.)
On a more tragic note, the beaning and death of Ray Chapman led to several rules changes that increased offense. No longer could pitchers throw spitballs and the like, for instance.
Another theory on the increase in runs is that baseball introduced livelier balls as a way to boost attendance. Statistics show that scoring leapt 40 percent from 1918 to 1921.
“Wahoo” Sam Crawford
He hailed from little Wahoo, Neb., and enjoyed a Hall of Fame career (1899-1917), mostly with the Detroit Tigers. Crawford batted .309 lifetime and collected 2,961 hits. The outfielder’s mark of 309 lifetime triples remains a baseball record. Crawford and Detroit teammate Ty Cobb led the Tigers to American League pennants in 1907-1909. Later, Crawford served as head coach of the University of Southern California baseball team for several years and as an umpire in the Pacific Coast League.
John Owen “Chief” Wilson
Wilson ripped 36 triples for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1912. That total still stands as a single-season record in organized baseball. Interestingly, the left-handed batter from Austin, Texas, did not boast blazing speed for a triples hitter. Instead, Wilson lined balls over fielders’ heads in spacious ballparks. The outfielder hit 114 triples over a nine-year career (1908-16). Unlike most other players nicknamed “Chief” in baseball’s early days, Wilson was not Native American. Teammates thought he looked like he could be “Chief” of the Texas Rangers law enforcement unit.
Frank “Home Run” Baker
Baseball fans and writers called Baker “Home Run” even though he retired with just 96 round-trippers, 48 for the Philadelphia A’s and 48 for the New York Yankees. That was a lot in the dead-ball era. The third baseman from Trappe, Md., led the American League in homers four times. Baker finished with a career-high 12 home runs in 1913. He played 13 seasons (1908-14, 16-19, 21-22).
Clifford Carlton “Cactus” “Gavvy” Cravath
Gravath employed a perfect swing for the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. The Phillies right-fielder from the San Diego area led the National League in home runs six times, including a career-high 24 in 1915. He retired with 119 home runs and hit 93 of them at the cozy Bowl, with its left-field fence 272 feet from home plate. Following his baseball career (1908-09, 1912-20), Cravath served as a municipal judge in Laguna Beach, Calif. (Cravath had two nicknames. Some people called him “Cactus,” owing to either his southwestern heritage or to his prickly personality. Others called him “Gavvy” after he hit a ball that killed a seagull in California. The fans, many of them of Mexican heritage, thought that was pretty funny. They cried out “gaviota,” which is Spanish for seagull. Reporters shortened that to “Gavvy.”)
Born in little Humbolt, Kan., in 1887, Johnson grew up to become arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history. Scouts discovered him on the sandlots of Orange County, Calif., where Johnson’s family moved at the turn of the century. The Big Train compiled a 417-279 career won-loss record and a 2.17 ERA. Johnson led the American League in strikeouts 12 times and fanned 3,509 batters over 21 seasons (1907-27). He hurled 110 shutouts and completed 531 of 666 starts, every one of them made for the Washington Senators.
While warming up underneath a grandstand for the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association in 1908, Ford smashed a pitch into a wall of wood. The right-hander retrieved the injured ball and kept throwing. Scuffed up, the ball dipped and darted in unusual ways. Ford had invented a new pitch. In his seven-year career (1909-15) with the New York Highlanders and Buffalo Blues, he won 99 games, mostly using a scuff/emory ball and spitball to go along with a fastball and knuckleball. The Brandon, Manitoba, native is a member of the Canadian Hall of Fame.
The great Cobb debuted on the major league scene as an 18-year-old in 1905. He only batted .240 in 150 at-bats but never hit below .316 after that in a 24-year career (1905-28), most of it spent with the Detroit Tigers. Cobb played the game with a sudden fury (Spikes high?) and won 12 batting titles. He hit .420 in 1911 and .409 in 1912. The George Peach batted .366 life-time from the left side. He collected 4,189 base hits and 897 stolen bases.
Bresnahan was a fiery guy. He battled umpires and opponents. The catcher from Toledo, Ohio, also developed early shin guards and a prototype for a batting helmet. Bresnahan played for six teams in a 19-season career (1897-1915). His longest stay was in New York as a member of the Giants (1902-08). Bresnahan, who worked as a hotel detective in the offseasons, batted .279 lifetime with 26 homers and 530 RBI. He later managed the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. Bresnahan also owned the Toledo Mud Hens minor league club for a time.
“Shoeless” Joe Jackson
Supposedly, Jackson never learned how to read or write. But, boy, could he hit. The left-handed hitter grew up in rural South Carolina. By age 13, Jackson was playing for local factory and semi-pro teams. He swung the bat hard and belted line drives around the ballpark. During one game, he took off his shoes to relieve his blister-bit feet. Fans followed with cat calls. That story accounts for his nickname. Shoeless Joe hit .356 in a 13-season career (1908-1920). Implicated in the Black Sox scandal of 1919, Jackson was forced out of the major leagues at the age of 32. He hit .375 (12-for-32) for the Chicago White Sox in the 1919 Series that he was accused of helping to throw.
The sun was sinking low on Aug. 16, 1920, at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Giants pitcher Carl Mays dirtied up the ball, like most hurlers did, with some licorice or tobacco juice. He scuffed up the ball, like most pitchers did. Chapman, a 29-year-old shortstop from Beaver Dam, Ky., stepped to the plate. Mays threw the pitch, and Chapman barely moved. The ball hit Chapman in the head. Players didn’t wear helmets in those days; Chapman died Aug. 17 in New York City. He remains the only player to die from injuries suffered during a major league game. Chapman hit .278 in his career with 17 homers.