A league divided: Part 1 (1901-1925)by Brandon Isleib
November 06, 2008
In a previous article, I balanced MLB schedules since 2001 and used divisional winning percentages to readjust records to see how much was different and what pennant races would change. This series of articles is the historical flipside: creating divisions and unbalancing schedules to see what teams turn up and who deserves some extra respect or a better memory. To do this, I created two divisions for both leagues until divisional play, at which point I made three divisions. From 1901-1968, I did my best to give teams 55 percent of their games against divisional rivals and 45 percent outside the division, in about the same split that divisional play had originally in 1969 (90 intradivision, 72 interdivision).
Here's the structure until the Braves moved in 1953:
AL East AL West NL East NL West Boston Chicago Boston Chicago Bal./New York Cleveland Brooklyn Cincinnati Philadelphia Detroit New York Pittsburgh Washington Mil./St. Louis Philadelphia St. Louis
From 1901-1903 and in 1919, on a 140-game schedule, the intra-/interdivisional split of games is 76/64. From 1904-1917 and 1920-1925, on a 154-game schedule, the split is 84/70. In the war-shortened 1918, on a 125-game schedule, the split is 69/56. I calculated winning percentage against teams in the division and shrunk or blew up that winning percentage based on amount of games that should have been collected against the group, e.g. if the Red Sox had a .545 winning percentage against the three teams in its division, it would be multiplied by 84 in a 154-game schedule rather than the 66 it would normally be (since each team was to play each other 22 times) to determine wins against the division. This only affects the standings slightly in most cases—two to four wins seems to be typical
I'll list all the winners from 1901-25 this time (hence the article title—crafty, crafty) and then discuss any quirky outcomes or anything else of interest. I chose 1925 as the cutoff date because you have to cut the Yankees' dynasties somewhere, and covering the pre-Lou Gehrig era makes some sense.
AL East AL West NL East NL West 1901 Red Sox White Sox Phillies Pirates 1902 Athletics Browns Dodgers Pirates 1903 Red Sox Indians Giants Pirates 1904 Red Sox White Sox Giants Cubs 1905 Athletics White Sox Giants Pirates 1906 Yankees White Sox Giants Cubs 1907 Athletics Tigers Phillies Cubs 1908 Red Sox Indians Giants Cubs/Pirates 1909 Athletics Tigers Giants Pirates 1910 Athletics Tigers Giants Cubs 1911 Athletics Tigers Giants Cubs 1912 Red Sox White Sox Giants Pirates 1913 Athletics Indians Giants Cubs 1914 Athletics Tigers Braves Cubs 1915 Red Sox Tigers Phillies Cubs 1916 Red Sox White Sox Dodgers Cubs 1917 Red Sox White Sox Giants Cardinals 1918 Red Sox Indians Giants Cubs 1919 Yankees White Sox Giants Reds 1920 Yankees Indians Dodgers Reds 1921 Yankees Indians Giants Pirates 1922 Yankees Browns Giants Reds/Pirates 1923 Yankees Tigers Giants Reds/Pirates 1924 Senators Tigers Giants Pirates 1925 Senators Browns Giants Pirates
Most of these follow a clean sorting of standings, and almost always there's a good team in every division. The quirks in the standings are below.
The Highlanders/Yankees take the best record in the AL, 95 wins to the White Sox's 93. Almost all of this stems from the White Sox and Yankees having almost identical records against the hapless Pilgrims/Red Sox and Senators, but the former playing less against them and the Yankees playing more. New York gains five wins, the White Sox zero. As far as players, it's a fairly bland team, with an attack led by Hal Chase, slugging second baseman Jimmy Williams and Willie Keeler, and a pitching staff resting on veterans Jack Chesbro and Al Orth and youngster Bill Hogg. (How awesome would it have been for a guy named Bill Hogg to pitch in the World Series? Such a classic baseball name gone to waste...) The team would fall apart pretty quickly after this year, but they had a legitimate shot at the Series, even though the Cubs would have torn them to shreds (though you'd think they would have done that with the Sox as well).
The A's take the best record from the Tigers. The three-peat Tigers pennants of this year are some of the weakest pennants ever, as the pitching was rarely more than serviceable. The Indians had a much better team through this era, and the A's were always solid, but neither break through. They were also lucky to get middle-of-the-pack attendance figures; they were second-worst in the league in 1907, just in front of the Senators. It tells you how good Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford were that they pretty much carried a mediocre team to three pennants.
This is one of the few times that a division consists of the league's second division, as the entire AL East was putrid, which pretty much never happened. The Red Sox get in from a 75-79 record, their ace a resurgent Cy Young, with Cy Morgan and Eddie Cicotte behind him, and their star hitters youngsters Doc Gessler (!) and Amby McConnell (!!). Meanwhile, the Indians go 90-64 to beat the Tigers by two games, rather than the stupid half-game back they finished in real life from not making up a game. The Indians were 13-9 against the Tigers in real life, and that pretty much seals the deal once schedules are unbalanced. Every Cleveland regular with the exception of center fielder Joe Birmingham was at least league-average at the plate, while the highest ERA in the five-man rotation was 2.20, highlighted by Addie Joss's 1.16 (I trust you don't need deadball offensive translations to know that 1.16 is rather amazing).
Over in the NL, the Giants win the division by 18 games, rather than getting entangled in the Cubs/Pirates race, which ends in a tie at 100-54. Perhaps Evers wouldn't have become rules lawyer at just the right time in this setup; Merkle losing a game in the noncompetitive NL East wouldn't have mattered much.
The teens in the NL West
The Cubs didn't make the series but once from 1911 to 1928, as they floundered for a long time after the decay of the Frank Selee built, Frank Chance managed teams. They changed managers yearly in the mid-teens (Johnny Evers, former pitcher and umpire Hank O'Day, Roger Bresnahan and Joe Tinker in four straight years), they stayed at .500 often, and even getting some of the best of the Federal League shakeup, they usually weren't that good. Here, though, they win the West every year from 1910 to 1918 save for two, and look like a dynasty. They weren't at all; their records from 1914-16 in this setup are 81-73 (edging the Cardinals, who with a balanced schedule would have won the West, by a game), 77-77, and 70-84. But with the Pirates at one of their early runs at futility, the Cardinals just learning how to win under Miller Huggins, and the Reds staying mediocre as always, there was always enough front-line talent in Chicago to keep winning divisions.
The old guard held up well through 1912, after which the team was spearheaded by Hippo Vaughn on the mound and Vic Saier and Heinie Zimmerman in the infield (plus Cy Williams in the outfield before he got old and popped short flies in the Baker Bowl for homers in the 1920s); all of them were very good in their primes and made an incredibly solid core that broke apart fairly quickly (Saier by I don't know what, Zimmerman by gambling suspicion, Vaughn by aging, and Cy Williams by a lopsided trade that sent him to the Phils straight-up for the immortal Dode Paskert, a worse hitter and several years his senior). Foibles aside, the team would have done nicely in a weak era for Western teams.
Though they'd win the West under the system, they'd also beat out the Red Sox for best league record. This version of the Indians is no different from the pennant-winning version of 1920; all the same pieces are there. The only historical significance is that 1918 was a big deal for Sox fans for awhile, and that the Indians almost upset it in real life, as they might in this divisional hypothetical, would almost put the curse on Tris Speaker and Smokey Joe Wood, and not on the Babe.
I only bring this one up to note that the gap between them and the White Sox wasn't large, and an extra round of playoffs might have changed the entire landscape of the Black Sox gambling problem. Would this be just the year that Miller Huggins won his first of many pennants, and the only one without Mr. Ruth? Would the bets have been on the ALCS instead of the Series? Most importantly, to continue the Bill Hogg series, would we have seen a World Series with Hank Thormahlen pitching for the Yanks? We can't always get what we want, sadly.
The only team the Brownies had trouble beating that year was the Yankees; put them in separate divisions, and it doesn't look so bad. Vive la Urban Shocker.
Two straight ties would have been a pretty interesting setup, really. The two teams in this era were somewhat passing each other. The Reds were strong contenders after their 1919 world championship, but the Giants were always a game or two ahead; by the end of the decade they were awful. On the other hand, the Pirates were on their way up and would make two World Series trips in three years, one in 1925 and one in 1927. The Giants spent the first half of the decade lucking out in every pennant race and the last half just missing every year; it's rather odd. In any event, that makes the Pirates of this era a bit easier to identify than the Reds. Bill McKechnie's first major managing job was this Pittsburgh outfit; a young Pie Traynor and veteran Rabbit Maranville made for a solid left side of the infield, Max Carey was a star in the outfield, and the pitching was anchored by longtime standbys Babe Adams and Wilbur Cooper, who would be washed-up and on the Cubs respectively by the time the Pittsburghs ascended to pennants.
The Reds were a different team than their 1919 one; these two Reds teams were the last ones with Pat Moran on the job. The only holdovers with any prominence were Jake Daubert, Edd Roush, and Dolf Luque; trades had reshaped the other lynchpins of the club, with third baseman Heinie Groh traded to the Giants for similarly situated veteran George Burns; the Reds got good work out of him both of these years. Jimmy Ring and Greasy Neale were sold high for seemingly fading veteran lefty Eppa Rixey at the end of 1920; Rixey would stick around until 1933 and be solid-to-great every year, with these two years being some of the great ones. There was no amazing team in the NL of that time, but the Reds showed up with a rotation that was high on quality and quantity and a few good bats, and that was enough.
We'll cover 1926 to 1952, before teams started moving around helter-skelter.
References and Resources
B-ref, and the wonders of Microsoft Excel.
Brandon Isleib is a lawyer and writes about stuff sometimes. He can be reached via the electronic mails.