Who Would Win: The 1908 Cubs, or the 1948 Indians?

We compared the 1908 Cubs to the 1948 Indians to see who would win. It's a close call.

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Oct 25 2016, 10:20pm

Photos via Wikipedia

If you don't have it memorized by now, you will by the third inning of Game 1 of the World Series: The Chicago Cubs last won a World Series in 1908, the Cleveland Indians in 1948. You have heard this a lot. You're going to be hearing it more. Really, there are way more important things to talk about, like: which of the two cobweb-festooned prior winners had the better team? Despite the two clubs existing a couple of time-machine rides beyond our reach, this is actually not too complicated a question.

In considering this question, well, it's wise not to consider it: The game of 108 years ago is not the one we watch today. It was the Deadball Era. The ball went squish when you hit it so the players tried to keep it on the ground. There was a lot of bunting, both of the sacrifice and the for-a-base-hit variety, and, because you couldn't move runners, indiscriminate attempts at base-stealing. In between, the players spit on the ball, cut it, and stepped on it, so that by the third inning or so batters were swinging at something closer to a rotten cabbage than a baseball. The 1908 Cubs stole 212 bases and dropped 270 sacrifice bunts. The '48 Indians in those same categories: 54 and 24. The '48 Indians had a very fine bullpen. The '08 Cubs thought the bullpen was where you kept cattle before you sent it over to the stockyards for slaughter.

Also remember that players were shorter, lighter, and not as well-conditioned as later generations. Rosters were also strictly segregated. That is, African American players were barred so the big leagues of 1908 represented the best of the white ballplaying population as opposed to the best players, period. In short, this is about as close as we can come to comparing apples and pumpkins. Still, we had to try.

First Base: Frank Chance (.272/.338/.364) vs. Eddie Robinson (.254/.307/.408)
Chance, "The Peerless Leader," was also the manager. He could really hit, but by 1908 he had been beaned in the helmetless head so many times he was basically done as a regular, a process of decline accelerated by a broken shoulder in 1909. Though only 31, this was the last year he'd play even 100 games. Even in a year well below his normal standards, he was an above-average run-producer; the NL hit only .239/.299/.306. Robinson was one of about a dozen 1950s first baseman who had some great years (in three seasons with the White Sox, he hit .296/.384/.483) mixed in with weaker seasons. Call it "Dropo-itis." This was one of Robinson's off years. Chance is granted bonus points for attitude: "Play it my way or meet me after the game." EDGE: CUBS

Second Base: Johnny Evers (.300/.402/.375) vs. Joe Gordon (.280/.371/.507)
Two players, two Hall of Famers. Both were defensive standouts; Gordon earned his nickname "Flash" with glovework rather than purely in association with the classic comic strip. Both impressed contemporary observers enough to earn MVP awards, Evers with the Braves in 1912, Gordon with the Yankees in 1942. Given how hard it was to generate runs in the NL in '08, this was a huge offensive year from Evers, kind of a Dustin Pedroia year, except that even by the standards of the day it was relatively powerless. At 5'9" and 125 pounds, Evers probably would have been a singles hitter in any era. Gordon was only an inch taller but 55 pounds heavier. He hit 253 home runs in a career shortened by World War II and injuries. Imagine Jason Kipnis with a Gold Glove and 10 more home runs a year and you'll have the picture. EDGE: INDIANS

Third Base: Harry Steinfeldt (.241/.294/.306) vs. Ken Keltner (.297/.395/.522)
Both come to us as the answer to a trivia question. Trivia Answer the First: Who is the member of the Cubs infield not mentioned by Franklin Pierce Adams when he wrote the verse beginning, "These are the saddest of possible words, Tinker to Evers to Chance." Steinfeldt wasn't unjustly left out of the Hall of Fame, but he wasn't a bad player either. In 1906, his first year with the Cubs, he hit .327/.395/.430, big production for that period. Unfortunately, he was about half as good in '08. Injuries and perhaps some form of depression/anxiety kept him from consistency. Keltner was a defensive standout and, Trivia Answer the Second, was famous for making the plays that ended Joe DiMaggio's 1941 hitting streak. He was a good hitter for a third baseman of the time. This was his best offensive season. It was also more or less his last due to a leg injury; with a softer wind-down to his career he might have gone to Cooperstown. EDGE: INDIANS

Shortstop: Joe Tinker (.266/.307/.391) vs. Lou Boudreau (.355/.435/.534)
We'll make this quick: Tinker's numbers don't look great today, but he actually had good pop for a shortstop (he certainly had more power than Evers) and deserved his reputation as a defensive standout. Boudreau's '48 season is still one of the best ever by a shortstop. Despite being slow due to bad ankles, he was also a great fielder. He won a deserving MVP award and, oh yeah, he managed the team. EDGE: INDIANS

Catcher: Johnny Kling (.276/.315/.382) vs. Jim Hegan (.249/.317/.407)
Hegan was a pure catch-and-throw guy for the Indians, in the lineup for his defense and pitcher-handling, not his bat. A career .228/.295/.344 hitter, he was at his best offensively in '48, almost a league-average hitter with a career high 14 home runs. Kling was a much better hitter, though inconsistent. He had his distractions; after this season he quit to pursue a career in billiards. EDGE: CUBS

Left Field: Jimmy Sheckard (.231/.336/.305) vs. Dale Mitchell (.336/.383/.431)
On the surface it looks like Mitchell had a great season, but it's just good, with little power, a handful of walks, and bad baserunning (13 stolen bases, a league-leading 18 caught stealing). Mitchell struck out only 117 times in a 1,127-game career, or about half the number of times Chris Davis did this year alone, but in one of those little ironies that makes life so damned painful, he comes down to us as the guy who whiffed to end Don Larsen's 1956 World Series perfect game. Sheckard, who had reached the majors as an 18-year-old in 1897, was a very good player, but a weird one. He hit for high averages and low, led his leagues in home runs and also stolen bases, and late in his career spent a couple of seasons doing nothing but taking ball four. Thing is, he never did any these things at the same time. The 1908 season was one of his weaker numbers, but he gets the nod on all-around play. EDGE: CUBS

Center Field: Solly Hoffman (.243/.309/.319) vs. Larry Doby (.301/.384/.490)
Another easy pick. With the exception of a 1910 season that was way over his head (.325/.406/.461), Hoffman was just a placeholder, in this case taking over for Jimmy Slagle, a formerly productive vet who had proved by midseason he was at the end of the line. Doby was in his first full season and yet was a fully formed monster at the plate—and then there's the whole being the AL version of Jackie Robinson thing he had to contend with. EDGE: INDIANS

Right Field: Wildfire Schulte (.236/.294/.306) vs. Walt Judnich (.257/.411/.372) and Allie Clark (.310/.364/.443)
Boudreau messed around with his outfield alignment all year, giving a lot of playing time in center to Thurman Tucker, who just didn't hit. By World Series time he had settled on this platoon. Judnich had come up with the St. Louis Browns in 1940 and was on his way to being something special when the war took him away for three years. When he got back he was 30 and greatly diminished. Still, he knew how to work a count and get on base. Clark was a good complement, though he never came close to hitting this well again. Schulte was pretty bad in '08, and given how many Cubs were not at their best one begins to see how they needed umpire Hank O'Day's dubious call in the Fred Merkle "boner" game to edge the New York Giants for the pennant. Having said that, we're going to give the edge to Frank Schulte here because (a) he was a very good hitter, with real power for the day, and (b) you can't take a guy with a nickname like "Wildfire" too lightly. Although—think carefully on this—"Wildfire" was the name of his horse. Take one giant step back, Frank. EDGE: CUBS

Top Starting Pitcher: Three Finger Brown (29-9, 1.47 ERA) vs. Gene Bearden (20-7, 2.43) or Bob Lemon (20-14, 2.82)
The Cubs had one pitcher who was special, Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown, who folks called "Miner" as often as they called him "Three Finger" and some other guys who were merely good. Brown had his right index finger chawed off by a cornshredder when he was five years old, and his middle finger of the same hand looked like a winding country road. You wouldn't want to test this on anyone you cared about, but it turns out that having a stump for an index finger can help you bend your curveball like a hoop. Bearden was an oddity, a left-handed knuckleballer whose career had been saved by Casey Stengel at Oakland. Stengel passed him on to Bill Veeck, and in '48 he became the 27-year-old rookie sensation of the American League, leading the circuit in ERA and pitching 10.2 shutout innings in the World Series. The next year, Stengel was hired to manage the Yankees and pointed out to his batters that Bearden couldn't command his knuckler for strikes. Just take it and you'll either walk to first or get to pound his fastball. Bearden's ERA shot up to 5.10 and that was pretty much that. Lemon was a converted position player who was a seven-time 20-game winner, though often with ERAs that were good instead of great. That said, he posted a 1.65 ERA in 16.1 innings in the Series against the Braves. Neither Indian was as dominant relative to their league as Brown was to his, but this is where I give Cleveland credit for having sidearmer Russ Christopher and swingmen Steve Gromek and Satchel Paige in the bullpen. If the Cubs had a problem, they wheeled out a tired starter—Brown led the NL with five saves. My game, my rules. Besides, it's Satchel Paige, man. EDGE: INDIANS

FINAL SCORE: 1948 Cleveland Indians 5, 1908 Chicago Cubs 4