Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on February 27, 2016, and is reprinted here by permission.
Few fans today remember his name, but by the end of the 1912 season, Heinie Zimmerman of the Chicago Cubs was arguably the biggest star in baseball. He was being mentioned by writers and analysts with the likes of Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie, and Honus Wagner. And why not? The 25-year-old third baseman had just won the Triple Crown in the National League, topping the senior circuit with a .372 batting average, 14 home runs, and 104 RBIs. It was an extraordinary performance by a hitter in the Deadball Era, and he deserved to be in that pantheon of superstars.
Baseball Magazine editor F. C. Lane wrote, “There is no possible doubt that [Zimmerman] is one of the greatest natural ball players who ever wore a uniform.” The brash, eccentric New Yorker—who took to calling himself “The Great Zim” after newspaper headlines popularized the nickname—was seen as a symbol of the new wave of young talent that would dominate the big leagues for years to come.
Five future Hall of Famers—Stan Coveleski, Ray Schalk, Rabbit Maranville, Eppa Rixey, and Herb Pennock—made their Major League debuts in 1912, more than any other season in history except two. Shoeless Joe Jackson and Grover Cleveland Alexander were also on the verge of stardom after their breakout rookie seasons the year before, while Eddie Collins had helped lead the Philadelphia A’s to the last two World Series championships. All three players were 24 years old. Even by modern metrics, this generation of young talent was unparalleled. Nine players under the age of 25 recorded at least five WAR in 1912—a feat that would not be seen again for more than a half-century. Every team seemed to have at least one up-and-coming star.
It was a year of new beginnings, the start of a cultural transition away from the staid Victorian Era, when professional ballplayers were viewed as merely a step above vagabonds, to the modern era of athletes as popular icons, with all the trappings of celebrity. In just a short time, a world war would break out in Europe, and then a profound cynicism would set in. Baseball would have its own moment of disillusionment at the end of the decade, and Heinie Zimmerman would play a role in those troubles. But in 1912, all of that turmoil was in the future. Baseball “bugs” (or fans, as they’re known today) could ignore global affairs and look forward to the start of a new season with unbridled enthusiasm.
And what a season it was, with the opening of three iconic new ballparks, an impromptu player strike involving a future Hall of Famer, record-setting winning streaks in both leagues, and perhaps the most exciting World Series ever played.
Fans in Boston, Detroit, and Cincinnati were most excited about their new, modern concrete-and-steel stadiums, all of which opened in the span of nine days. In the birthplace of professional baseball, the Cincinnati Reds had been playing at the intersection of Findlay Street and Western Avenue since 1884, but their previous homes—constructed with wood—had all burned to the ground. In 1912, a more permanent structure was built and christened Redland Field (later Crosley Field), where they would stay for another 58 years. The Reds played their first game there on April 11, just one day after the Titanic set sail on its tragic maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Boston Red Sox hosted their first game at Fenway Park on April 20, the same day the Detroit Tigers opened their brand new ballpark—first called Navin Field but eventually Tiger Stadium—at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Both of these beloved stadiums were part of a wave of new construction that included, just in the last three years, the building of Forbes Field (Pittsburgh), Shibe Park (Philadelphia), Comiskey Park (Chicago), League Park (Cleveland), Griffith Stadium (Washington), and the Polo Grounds (New York). Author Glenn Stout wrote, “Baseball franchises . . . had come to represent the character of their city and were now worthy of homes that reflected their place in the hearts and minds of their people. The concrete-and-steel ballpark era provided evidence that baseball was a lasting part of the culture.”
An older ballpark, Hilltop Park in New York, which was in its final season as home of the Yankees (known then as the Highlanders), was the setting for one of baseball’s most notorious incidents on May 15, 1912. A heckling fan named Claude Lueker sat near the visiting Detroit Tigers dugout and engaged in one of his favorite pastimes—loudly insulting Tigers star Ty Cobb. By all accounts, Lueker’s abusive comments on this day were particularly harsh, and in the fourth inning, Cobb snapped. He jumped into the stands and began punching and kicking Lueker, who happened to be disabled, having lost most of his fingers in a printing press accident. When an observer cried out, “That man has no hands!” Cobb reportedly replied, “I don’t care if he has no feet!”
American League president Ban Johnson suspended Cobb indefinitely for his actions. His Tigers teammates were outraged and refused to take the field for their next game, three days later in Philadelphia. It was the first player strike in modern baseball history. Facing a $5,000 fine—more than most players’ annual salaries at the time—if his team forfeited, Tigers manager Hughie Jennings rounded up a group of local sandlot players to take the field. A 20-year-old seminary student, Allan Travers, pitched all nine innings against the defending World Series champion A’s, who slaughtered the makeshift “Tigers,” 24–2. One of Detroit’s coaches, the 48-year-old former Major Leaguer Deacon McGuire, was his catcher.
It was a farce of a game, and Ban Johnson threatened to permanently ban each of the regular Tigers from organized baseball. Cobb, touched by his teammates’ support, pleaded with them to call off their strike, and they finally relented. Johnson fined them all $100; Cobb was fined $50 and given a 10-day suspension. The incident brought the Tigers together but didn’t help them much in the standings. They finished a disappointing sixth place behind the Boston Red Sox.
The Red Sox took advantage of their cozy, quirky ballpark with its large left-field wall—not yet painted green nor called a monster—to dominate the American League in 1912, winning a record 105 games and their first of four AL pennants during the decade. They relied largely on their young outfield of Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper, and Duffy Lewis, known as the “Speed Boys,” and the 22-year-old ace right-hander Smoky Joe Wood, who went 34–5 with a 1.91 ERA and a league-leading 10 shutouts.
After Wood suffered a rare loss on the Fourth of July, he began a long winning streak that lasted for two-and-a-half months. At the same time, Washington Senators great Walter Johnson was working on his own streak, having won 16 decisions in a row since July 3 to break Jack Chesbro’s eight-year-old American League record of 14. Johnson’s streak ended after a controversial August 26 relief appearance against the St. Louis Browns, in which he entered a tie game with runners on base and allowed the go-ahead run to score. Under today’s scoring rules, he would not have been charged with the loss, but AL president Ban Johnson ruled otherwise.
By then, Wood was threatening to break Walter Johnson’s new league record. The Boston ace won his 13th in a row in early September, just before the Senators were scheduled to visit Fenway Park. Fans clamored for a head-to-head duel between the two great pitchers, the champion vs. the challenger. Red Sox manager Jake Stahl agreed to move up Wood’s start by one day so he could square off against Johnson. A Boston newspaper compared their height, weight, forearm, biceps, and thigh measurements like boxers. As SABR historian Emil Rothe wrote, “No single such confrontation was ever played in a more dramatic and emotional atmosphere” as the game on September 6, 1912.
An overflow crowd of about 30,000 people jammed into Fenway Park—and onto the field, held back by ropes in the outfield and on the foul lines—for this electrifying matchup. The teams did not have enough room to use their own dugouts, instead setting up chairs in front of the standing-room-only crowd.
The game lived up to its unbelievable hype, with Wood and the Red Sox prevailing by a 1–0 score. Boston’s lone run was scored in the sixth inning on back-to-back, two-out doubles by Tris Speaker and Duffy Lewis. Wood was not at his best, but he struck out nine batters, including the final out of the game, to win his 14th straight. He tied Johnson’s record of 16 on September 15, but his streak came to an end five days later against the Detroit Tigers.
Believe it or not, one other pitcher had an even longer winning streak in 1912. Rube Marquard, a 25-year-old New York Giants lefty, won his Opening Day start and then didn’t lose until July 8—the same day Joe Wood started his own streak. Marquard’s 19–0 start set a single-season Major League record that still stands, while Wood and Johnson still share the AL record of 16 straight wins, although it was tied later by Lefty Grove (1931) and Schoolboy Rowe (1934). Only Carl Hubbell, another Giants lefty who won 24 straight games over two seasons in 1936–37, can boast of a longer winning streak.
Led by Marquard, the veteran Christy Mathewson, and manager John McGraw, the Giants coasted to the National League pennant—the second of their three consecutive titles—with a 103–48 record, topping the Pittsburgh Pirates by 10 games and the Chicago Cubs by 11½. The 1912 season was the fifth in a row where those clubs finished 1-2-3 in the league standings. No other team had won the NL pennant since the turn of the century, a run that would finally end in 1914 when the “Miracle” Boston Braves stormed back from last place in midsummer to beat out the Giants.
The 1912 World Series between the Red Sox and Giants remains one of the most memorable fall classics ever played. Four games were decided by a single run, and one game ended in a tie. The Red Sox took a 3–1 lead in the Series behind two complete-game wins by Smoky Joe Wood, but the Giants battled back to force a decisive Game 8 at Fenway Park. Boston’s owners had added hastily constructed outfield bleachers to Fenway before the Series to increase capacity, but due to a ticket snafu, only 17,034 showed up to watch the finale.
The Giants, behind their ace Christy Mathewson, took a 1–0 lead into the seventh inning, but the Red Sox tied it up. Wood entered in relief, matching up baseball’s two most famous pitchers for the first time in the Series. Wood shut down New York’s offense until the 10th inning, when Fred Merkle (yes, that one) drove in a run that gave the Giants a 2–1 lead.
That set up one of the most controversial half-innings in baseball history, highlighted by two Giants defensive miscues that would live in infamy. First, center fielder Fred Snodgrass dropped a routine fly ball that allowed the tying run to reach base, an error he never lived down. It even appeared in the headline of his New York Times obituary. Later, with the dangerous Tris Speaker at the plate, Mathewson got him to pop up in foul territory, then inexplicably called off the first baseman Merkle, forcing catcher Chief Meyers to make a futile stab for the ball as it fell to the ground. Speaker yelled out, “That play will cost you the World Series!”—and then he promptly lined a game-tying single into right field. Two batters later, Larry Gardner brought the Series to an end with a sacrifice fly to score the winning run for the Red Sox. Wood recorded his third win of the 1912 Series, while the hard-luck Mathewson, despite a brilliant 0.94 ERA in 28⅔ innings, finished 0–2.
But the Series was marred by rampant rumors of betting and corruption, with charges that both teams had been on the take from gamblers. Sports columnist Hugh Fullerton wrote afterward, “The muckerishness of the ‘fan’ is exceeding itself in muck this fall. Boston howled that it was ‘all fixed’ then raved over the team when it won. [So] New York screamed that the Giants were throwing the series. . . . Stamp out gambling and the end of talk of crookedness is at hand.”
Unfortunately for baseball, the talk of crookedness was just beginning. By the time the dust of the Black Sox Scandal finally settled at the end of the decade, Heinie Zimmerman—the National League’s Triple Crown winner in 1912—found himself banned from the game for life following his involvement in a game-fixing ring with Hal Chase, baseball’s “dark prince.” Zimmerman admitted in court that he and Chase had offered bribes to three of his teammates, effectively ending his professional career. Smoky Joe Wood, Tris Speaker, and Ty Cobb also became ensnared in a scandal in which they allegedly tried to bet on a late-season game involving their own teams, although they were officially cleared of all wrongdoing.
But all that trouble was far in the future. In 1912, Wood and Speaker were at the top of the baseball world after leading the Red Sox to victory in what the Boston Globe called “the most remarkable series of games ever played.” They rode in a World Series parade with Boston mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, grandfather to a future US president, John F. Kennedy. Wood, especially, was celebrated for a season like few pitchers have ever had before or since. At the end of the twentieth century, when another right-handed Red Sox fireballer, Pedro Martinez, electrified the Fenway Park faithful with every start, he drew comparisons to Smoky Joe, whose power and poise had struck fear throughout the American League.
After their September duel for the ages, Walter Johnson, whose legendary fastball was considered to be the best of his generation, was asked which of the two pitchers had the most speed. “Listen, mister,” he replied, “there’s no man alive can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood.”