National League teams set new records by averaging 5.36 runs and 10.28 hits per game in 1929, but on June 9 of that season the Boston Braves and the Chicago Cubs played what Chicago Daily Tribune reporter Edward Burns called “one of those old fashioned pitching duels, so rare in these days of the rubber baseball.”1
With the offseason acquisition of second baseman Rogers Hornsby, the game’s best hitter and arguably its most divisive player, the Cubs were considered preseason favorites to capture their first pennant since 1918. But the season had thus far not gone according to the script manager Joe McCarthy had written. With a record of 26-18, the Cubs were in third place, 2½ games behind the league-leading Pittsburgh Pirates and a game behind the reigning NL pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals. However, the club was playing inconsistent, all-or-nothing team ball. Prior to their disappointing 5-4 loss to the Braves in the opening game of a three-game series the day before, the North Siders had scored just six runs combined in four consecutive losses followed by 33 runs in four straight victories. Unlike the Cubs, the Braves had no pennant aspirations. After three consecutive seventh-place finishes, the Braves owner, Judge Emil Fuchs, installed himself as manager in 1929, but the results were familiar. In sixth place with a record of 17-27, Boston was in a free-fall, having won just three of its last 19 games.
On the mound for the Cubs was 36-year-old southpaw Art Nehf, who had anchored the New York Giants staffs during their four-year hold on the NL crown (1921-1924). The college-educated, slightly built hurler (5-feet-9, 175 pounds) was in the last season of his 15-year career, during which he went 184-120. Often overlooked as one of the best pitchers of his era, Nehf revived his career with the Cubs in 1928, overcoming what appeared to be a career-ending arm injury in 1926, and served as a swingman in 1929. Boston’s Ben Cantwell, who as of 2014 held the dubious extinction of being the last big-league hurler to lose at least 25 games in a season (which he did for the Braves in 1935), was a 27-year-old right-hander in the third season of an 11-year career during which he went 76-108.
An estimated 35,000 spectators packed Wrigley Field on a Sunday afternoon as the Cubs prepared for the ninth game in a 23-game, season-longest homestand. Through the first six innings, Nehf permitted only two hits (singles by the leadoff hitter, Lance Richbourg, in the first and by Zack Taylor in the third) while an error by shortstop Woody English put Earl Clark on base. All three baserunners were erased by double plays, two of which were started by Nehf, considered one of the most agile and best-fielding pitchers of the period.
Cantwell matched Nehf’s shutout, also allowing just three baserunners (only one hit) through six innings. Cantwell faced his first trouble when he issued leadoff walks to Rogers Hornsby and center fielder Hack Wilson in the fourth inning, but alert defense quickly quashed the rally. After catcher Taylor fielded first baseman Charlie Grimm’s bouncer in front of the plate to force Hornsby at third base, Cubs third baseman Norm McMillan grounded back to Cantwell, who started an inning-ending double play.
In the tension-packed game, the seventh inning provided all of the scoring, though far from all of the excitement. The Braves struck first when Freddie Maguire launched a double to left center and then scored on George Harper’s two-out single. Clark flied out to end the inning. With one out and Kiki Cuyler on first, courtesy of Cantwell’s third and final walk, Hornsby smashed a “hot grounder to deep short” which shortstop Rabbit Maranville, Hall of Famer, fielded. Described as “his second of two great stops,” Maranville, on his knees, threw to second base to force Cuyler.2 With Hornsby on first, reigning three-time NL home-run champion Wilson clouted his 11th round-tripper to give the Cubs a 2-1 lead.
Nehf and Cantwell shrugged off the seventh inning and resumed their dominance of the opposition in the last two frames. In the eighth inning, Earl Grace collected his second single (and Chicago’s fourth hit). The conclusion of the game brought the Cubs faithful to their feet in a mixture of anticipation and confusion. With two outs, Maguire hit a slow roller near the first-base foul line. Nehf and Grimm went after the ball and collided viciously. While Nehf fell to the ground, knocked out cold, Grimm retrieved the ball and apparently tagged the runner. According to Edward Burns, players, under the impression that the game was over, gathered around Nehf. When the pitcher was revived, umpire Cy Rigler ruled the ball foul.3 Determined to finish what he had started, Nehf limped back to the mound and induced Maguire to foul out to Grace.
The victory moved the Cubs to 1½ games behind the Pirates. Described as “the classiest show of the year,” both pitchers tossed four-hitters. 4 Nehf won his third consecutive decision, improving his record to 4-1, en route to an 8-5 record that year. Cantwell dropped his fourth straight and won only four of 17 decisions in 1929.
This essay appears in “Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs” (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.
Chicago Daily Tribune
The Sporting News
1 Edward Burns, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 10, 1929, 25.
3 According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, Rigler made the call; however, he is listed as the third-base umpire in box scores available on Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org. The home-plate umpire, who would have most likely made the call in the situation, was Edward McLaughlin