Perfection in a Pennant Race

Note: This article was originally published at on April 15, 2015, and is reprinted here by permission.


Addie Joss

It’s hard for a perfect game to get overshadowed. For many years, newspaper editors have been known to rip up their front pages and make room for a no-hitter on the other side of the country. But on October 2, 1908, in the midst of a thrilling pennant race that captivated the country like never before, Addie Joss’s historic performance against the Chicago White Sox wasn’t the most important baseball story of the afternoon. You could even make a case that he wasn’t the most dominant pitcher that day at Cleveland’s League Park.

Joss was one of the greatest pitchers of his generation, but few fans today know his name. He was a four-time 20-game winner for the Cleveland Naps (now the Indians) at the turn of the twentieth century, battling for supremacy in the American League with the likes of Cy Young and Rube Waddell. He posted 45 shutouts in nine seasons, and his 1.89 career ERA ranks second all-time. Armed with a powerful fastball and a hard-breaking curve, Joss had a distinctive corkscrew delivery that baffled hitters and kept the ball hidden until it was already past them. In modern times, his motion might draw comparisons to Luis Tiant or Orlando Hernandez. However, his time in baseball was the shortest of any player inducted into the Hall of Fame; he tragically died of tubercular meningitis in 1911 at the age of 31.

If I had to choose which game in baseball history I would have most wanted to see, Addie Joss’s perfect game in 1908 would be on a very short list. His performance came under the most nerve-wracking conditions this side of Don Larsen, in the final week of the closest pennant race in Major League history. Cleveland’s 1–0 win over the White Sox put them in a temporary tie for first place. It was a thrilling contest in which the only run was scored on a wild pitch that allowed a Naps runner on third base to trot home.

When the game was over, Cleveland fans celebrated like they had won the World Series. But a week later, their season was over—with the Naps finishing just a half-game behind the Detroit Tigers, an unfortunate scenario that would change baseball’s rules forever.

This is how the standings stood on the morning of Friday, October 2, with just five games remaining for each team:

Team W-L GB
Detroit 87-61
Cleveland 87-62 0.5
Chicago 85-62 1.5
St. Louis 82-65 4.5

At Cleveland’s League Park, more than 10,000 fans began filling the grandstands long before the 2:30 p.m. start, which was pushed up by a half hour by Naps management just in case the highly anticipated matchup between Addie Joss and Chicago’s Ed Walsh went into extra innings.

Walsh and Joss were the two best pitchers in the American League. Walsh, the White Sox’s workhorse spitballer, was the AL’s top strikeout pitcher in 1908, leading with 269 Ks. Joss was the league’s best control pitcher, walking just 0.8 batters every nine innings; he went 24–11 with a league-leading 1.16 ERA and nine shutouts. Walsh and Joss are the only two pitchers in baseball history who allowed fewer than one baserunner per inning (WHIP) over their careers. They also rank 1–2 in career ERA, with Walsh’s 1.82 mark just edging out Joss’s 1.89.

Joss had just completed a remarkable September, throwing four shutouts—including a one-hitter and a two-hitter—to keep the Naps in contention. Walsh was on his way to an astounding 40–15 record with a league-leading 66 appearances and 464 innings pitched. No pitcher since Walsh has won 40 games in a season; in fact, no one has come particularly close to equaling his feat. The matchup couldn’t have been any closer. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher.


Ed Walsh

The two aces matched zeroes through the first two innings. Then, in the bottom of the third, the Naps broke through. Joe Birmingham led off with a single for the game’s first hit. Walsh then caught the Cleveland runner leaning and picked him off, but the throw down to second by first baseman Frank Isbell plunked Birmingham in the back. The ball rolled into the outfield, and the runner moved to third.

Walsh got two quick outs to bring up Wilbur Good. With two strikes, Walsh threw “a phenomenal spitball,” according to the Chicago Tribune, that crossed up backup catcher Ossee Schrecongost, playing in the final game of his 11-year career because of an injury to starter Billy Sullivan. The backstop known as “Schreck” desperately lunged out to catch the ball, but it hit the heel of his mitt and bounced away. Birmingham had no trouble scoring from third on the wild pitch to give the Naps a 1–0 lead.

The White Sox, long known as the “Hitless Wonders” because of their anemic offense, never came close to solving Joss that afternoon. Joss struck out just three batters, but he was backed up by a stout defense led by player-manager Napoleon Lajoie, the inspiration for the Naps’ nickname. Future Hall of Famer Lajoie handled 10 chances cleanly at second base, including all three outs in the fourth inning. He made the best play of the day with one out in the fourth when he ranged behind the bag on a grounder by Chicago’s player-manager Fielder Jones and threw him out by a step. Joss helped his own cause by fielding five balls hit back to the mound.

By the seventh inning, fans in Cleveland realized something special was taking place. As Scott Longert reported in his 1998 biography of Joss, “Sportswriters observed men throughout the grandstand holding unlit cigars, completely oblivious to anything except what was happening on the field. The cow bells hung silent, and the hundreds of horns and whistles were mute. . . . Telegraph operators from Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York signaled through the wires for constant updates. The same question repeated itself again and again. ‘Hasn’t anyone reached first?’”

Fielder Jones came the closest to reaching first base with one out in the seventh. He ran the count to 3–2 and then took the next pitch at his knees. Umpire Thomas Connolly raised his right arm to signal strike three. Jones pitched a fit, but the call stood. With two outs in the eighth, Freddy Parent also took Joss to a three-ball count. He watched Joss’s next fastball over the heart of the plate then swung at the 3–1 pitch and popped it up to left field.

In the meantime, Walsh dominated the Naps’ lineup, allowing just four hits and one walk, and breaking Rube Waddell’s American League record for a nine-inning game with 15 strikeouts. Walsh’s last strikeout came against Wilbur Good (who fanned four times) in an eighth-inning jam with runners on second and third. According to the Chicago Tribune, “the roar which followed was only surpassed by that which tore holes in the atmosphere when Addie retired the twenty-seventh consecutive Sox in the ninth round.”

Jones pulled out all the stops in the ninth, sending up three left-handed pinch hitters to face the right-handed Joss. Doc White, one of the league’s best-hitting pitchers, led off the inning in place of catcher Al Shaw (who had replaced Schreck after the latter broke his finger in the eighth). White’s .229 average in 1908 was better than five of the White Sox’s regular position players. They really were the Hitless Wonders! But White managed a weak groundout to Lajoie at second base. Jiggs Donahue was sent to hit for third baseman Lee Tannehill. Donahue fouled off two Joss pitches before whiffing on the third.

Finally, John Anderson, a 34-year-old switch-hitter also making his final Major League appearance, replaced Walsh with two outs in the ninth. Joss had thrown six career one-hitters but had never completed a no-hitter. Anderson decided to turn around and bat righty against Joss’s impossible-to-crack delivery. Naps third baseman Bill Bradley inched closer to the line after Anderson connected solidly on a foul ball toward left field. On the next pitch, Anderson hit a hard bouncer to Bradley, who smothered it and threw low to George Stovall. The first baseman juggled it for an instant but regained control just before Anderson reached the base. Umpire Silk O’Loughlin made the out call, and pandemonium set in at League Park.

As fans rushed onto the field, Addie Joss and his teammates, in the custom of the day, took off in a dead sprint for their clubhouse behind center field. The cheering, it was said, could be heard nearly 10 blocks away. Fans continued to sing and dance down Lexington Avenue for hours into the evening.

After his historic 74-pitch performance that put the Naps in a brief tie for first place with Detroit (until the Tigers finished beating St. Louis later in the afternoon), an unfazed Joss told reporters, “I did not try for such a record. All I was doing was trying to beat Chicago for the game meant much to us and Walsh was pitching the game of his life.”


Despite the pennant-race implications, Joss’s perfect game—just the fourth in Major League history—merited second billing in the New York Times the next day. Hours after Joss took off his uniform in Cleveland, National League President Harry Pulliam made his decision on the controversial “Merkle’s Boner” game between the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs on September 23, which ended in a riot on the field after Giants rookie Fred Merkle failed to touch second base on what would have been a game-ending base hit. Pulliam denied the Cubs’ protest that the game should be forfeited to them, and he ruled that the game would have to be made up if the Cubs and Giants ended the season in a tie for first place—which they did. (The Cubs, behind Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, won the makeup game 4–2 over Christy Mathewson and the Giants on October 8, clinching the NL pennant for Chicago.)

Lost in the drama of the famous Merkle game, the exciting American League pennant race ended in just as much controversy. Joss’s perfect game virtually knocked out the White Sox, but the Naps kept pace with Detroit until the end. Still maintaining a half-game lead, the Tigers beat Chicago in two out of three games in the season’s final series, while the Naps managed just two wins and a tie in four games with the St. Louis Browns. At the end of play on October 6, Detroit’s record was 90–63 while Cleveland’s was 90–64. A Tigers game had been rained out earlier in the season, and it had not been made up.

Unfortunately for Cleveland, no rule existed at the time to force a team to make up any unplayed games, even when the pennant was at stake. (Both leagues adopted such a rule later.) So the Tigers celebrated their second consecutive pennant and a berth in the World Series against Chicago, which the Cubs won in five games, their last championship of the twentieth century.

But no one could fault Addie Joss for the Naps’ disappointing second-place finish. He threw five shutouts, including the perfect game, down the stretch as Cleveland battled for first place. Only two pitchers in baseball history can say they’ve thrown a perfect game in the month of October. Don Larsen, you already know about. Addie Joss’s effort was perhaps even more impressive.