The 1916 New York Giants, managed by the great John McGraw and carried by two-time Federal League batting champion Benny Kauff, five-time runs leader George Burns and Hall of Famer High Pockets Kelly, won 26 games in a row.
You should know up front: All 26 games were played at home in the Polo Grounds.
One gorgeous thing about baseball is the way that we fans will contort ourselves to maintain the illusion that baseball, alone, has remained constant. Football and basketball fans do not do this. You will never hear a basketball fan wondering aloud how Jumpin’ Joe Fulks (The Kuttawa Clipper!) would match up against LeBron James. No football fan thinks, “Sure, Aaron Rodgers is fine, but give me Arnie Herber every day of the week.”
Well, it’s a mindset. Football fans often look at baseball fans and mock us for staying stuck in the past. In baseball, the guiding opinion is that the greatest pitcher of all time was a hard-throwing Kansas kid named Walter Johnson who had his best years before and during World War I, and the greatest player of all time, Babe Ruth, was a 215-pound former juvenile delinquent who, powered by hot dogs and alcohol, hit home runs in the Jazz Age.
Well, I love this about baseball. It is the American sport that bends to time; everything you see on a baseball diamond connects to a rich past. When Adrian Beltre cracks his 3,000th hit, he connects to the distant echoes Paul Waner and Honus Wagner. When Albert Pujols hits his 587th home run, it is not like any other one because it is the homer that passes Frank Robinson, and our minds fill with Robby’s beautiful passion and wrath. When Chris Sale strikes out his 300th batter this year, as he surely will, we can think of Ryan and Koufax and Feller and, yes, the Big Train too, each of them so different and yet each of them throwing lightning past hitters.
So, yes, I love this. I love that the remarkable 21-game winning streak of the Cleveland Indians gets us to talk about the all-time record 26-game streak of the 1916 Giants. That the Giants record is on the books exactly as it should be — just like Cy Young’s 511 wins and Ed Walsh’s 1.82 career ERA and Ty Cobb’s .367 batting average
But let’s not kid anybody. They are not at all the same thing.
The Giants came into their streak with a 59-62 record; John McGraw was of the belief that if his team could win out; he had made some bold moves to improve his team. He traded his greatest ever player, an aging Christy Mathewson, for the speedy and versatile Buck Herzog. He traded for power hitter Heine Zimmerman (who had led the league with 14 home runs in 1912). He called up a promising first baseman named Walter Holke. He revamped his whole team, and when asked what it would have meant if he could have done that a month earlier, he moaned: “There wouldn’t be much else to the race right now than to figure out what we’d do with our share of the World Series money.”
Well, McGraw was famously combative and competitive — in 1921, during that pennant race, he rather famously said, “I think we can win it — if my brains hold out.” McGraw as a player used to grab runners as they were running by. When he played in Baltimore, he would tell the grounds crew not to water the spot right in front of home plate, and then McGraw and teammates would purposely chop the ball into the hard dirt so that it bounced up high. That’s still called a Baltimore Chop.
So McGraw absolutely was not giving up on the 1916 pennant even though his team seemed hopelessly behind — 15 games back in September. All they had to do, he figured, was win the rest of their games. It helped that 31 of their final 35 games — all but the last four games — were played in their home park. It was a different era, obviously, long before night games and airplane travel, so schedules were crazy. The Giants went on a 21-game road trip in May (and won 19 of those games including 17 in a row). They had just returned from a 22-game road trip.
Still, a THIRTY-FIVE game home stand.
The Giants beat the Brooklyn Robins on Thursday Sept. 7 to start the thing off, beat Philadelphia then next day, and then swept a doubleheader with the Phillies on Sept. 9. Their star pitcher Pol Perritt pitched complete games in both ends of the doubleheader. A sportswriter once described Pol Perritt this way: “He is provoking and troublesome. Sometimes he’s mean and cantankerous to the Giants; at other times even more so to the enemy. For let it be known Poll Perritt is a temperamental cuss. Just what he is going to do nobody ever knows. Least of all himself.”
By the way, people spelled it “Pol” Perritt and “Poll” Perritt and sometimes even “Polly” Perritt.
After beating the Yankees (pre-Babe Ruth) in an exhibition game, the Giants picked up with a 9-4 stomping of the Phillies. They swept their second doubleheader, this one against Cincinnati, and then beat the Reds again the next day behind the pitching of spitballer Jeff Tesreau. In those days, the spitter was a perfectly viable pitch, like a fastball and curve. “That big fellow has the best spitball in the league,” Hall of Famer Johnny Evers once said adminringly of Tesreau.
The Giants had won nine in a row and after a rainout, they swept Pittsburgh in a doubleheader to make the streak 11. In the second game, they trailed 3-0 going into the eighth inning but came back thanks to an error, a passed ball and general self-destruction by a not-so-good Pirates team (it was the last full season for the great Honus Wagner).
Then came what the moment that some consider controversial: The Giants were to play another doubleheader against Pittsburgh on September 18, and they won the first game behind the unhittable pitching of lefty Ferdie Schupp. You may or may not have heard of Ferdie Schupp — mostly “you may not” — but he set a record in 1916 that (sort of) still stands today. In that year, 1916, Schupp had an 0.90 ERA. That’s the lowest ERA for a season in baseball history. Now, why haven’t you heard of this? It’s because Schupp pitched 140 innings that year, which does not quite qualify for the ERA title (162 innings is the standard). So if you do a lowest ERA search for qualified pitchers now, he does not show up — Dutch Leonard’s 0.96 ERA is considered the standard.
Anyway, after Schupp shut out the Pirates, New York and Pittsburgh played a second game. It was 1-1 after 8 1/2 innings — and the umpires called the game because of darkness and rain. McGraw just about lost his mind. His team did not get to bat in the ninth inning. He ranted and raved and got nowhere. The statistics were counted — and if you look on Baseball Reference, the game is listed as a tie. But it wasn’t a tie; the game was made up in a doubleheader the next day — the third consecutive doubleheader between the Pirates and Giants. The Giants won both game easily, and the winning streak was up to 14 games.
They made it 15 the next day against Chicago — Ferdie Schupp again was the domininant starting pitcher. “After four long years of patient waiting,” one reporter wrote, “manager John McGaraw of the New York Giants has at last made a winning pitcher of Ferd Maurice Schupp.”
The streak went on; the Giants won a doubleheader against the Cardinals on Saturday of that week to make it 19 wins in a row. The 19th win was shortened by rain; the Giants led 3-0 after seven when the umpires called it.
The Giants and Cardinals played another doubleheader on Monday (these were the days when you couldn’t play baseball in New York on Sundays). Ferdie Schupp threw another shutout in the first game; Pol Perritt was good in the second, and the streak was up to 21.
They beat the Cardinals again the next da 61 for win No. 22 in a row, and that set what was considered the modern record for consecutive wins. The previous record of 21 was set in 1880 by the White Sox of Cap Anson. I have no doubt in my mind that there were some Giants fans who thought it ridiculous to compare 1916 baseball to 1880 baseball — when it took eight balls for a walk and pitchers had to throw underhand.
The next day, the Giants trailed by two with two outs in the ninth when Buck Herzog hit a two-run triple to tie the game. The Giants won on an error in the 10th — lots and lots and lots of games were won on errors then — to take their winning streak to 23.
The Giants swept another doubleheader the next day, with Ferdie Schupp and Jeff Tesreau throwing shutouts. And then the rain played one more part in this crazy streak. On Friday, the Giants led 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth when the skies opened up. McGraw tried desperately to keep the game going for just a few more minutes to get through the top of the fifth inning, but the umpires called the game over his screaming objections.
The Giants won their 26th in a row against Boston, 4-0, Rube Benton throwing the shutout. The Giants had made up all sorts of ground in the pennant race, but even so still trailed by five games with five games remaining. They needed to win out and pray. But in the second game of the doubleheader, Boston’s Red Smith and Sherry Magee each homered off of curveballing artist Slim Salee, and the streak was over.
The Giants then went on the road, all the way to Brooklyn, for the last four games of the season. They lost three of them. And that was that.
And that 1916 Giants 26-game streak is the longest winning streak in baseball history. It absolutely should be in the record books. The tie doesn’t nullify it. The fact that they were all home games doesn’t nullify it. The fact that they were playing in a segregated time, and every game was a day game, and the slider had not been invented yet, and spitballs were legal, and the ball was mushy, and the gloves were pillows, and everybody made a billion errors, and 12 home runs led the National League and hitters averaged a .632 OPS and so on — none of that nullifies this streak.
Why don’t those things nullify the streak? Because we’re baseball fans, and we don’t want that streak nullified. We prefer to believe. The wish many of us have as baseball fans is to keep the game ageless, eternal, to celebrate yesterday and today as if they are the same thing. And so we will keep saying that Cleveland is chasing the Giants winning streak of 26 games … even though we all know in our hearts that they are nothing alike.