How the Best Rivalry in Baseball Began: Cubs vs Cardinals Revisited

Recently, my fellow Bat Flips & Nerds contributor Brett Walker has been publishing a series of articles on various rivalries in MLB. 

I’m sorry to spoil the party, but if you want to find the best rivalry in baseball, you will have to travel further inland. Yes, the most famous one belongs to those two teams on the east coast, but the best one lives in the heartland. The rivalry between the St Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs both is and is not really about baseball.

This is a territorial rivalry between two cities that are only separated by 300 miles. In fact, people sometimes refer to it as the Route 66 or I-55 rivalry after the two roads that connect the cities. Even though they are in two different states (the Cubs in Illinois and the Cardinals in Missouri), the competition for fans is the fiercest in Illinois. Most people in the north of Illinois are Cubs (or White Sox) fans, while southern Illinois tends to be Cardinal Country. Even though a lot of people in rural Illinois get caught inbetween, this rivalry is a symptom of a much bigger rivalry between the two cities.

The social history

In the late 1800s, as baseball was gaining popularity, St Louis was a thriving and important port city on the Mississippi River that dwarfed the backwater swamp that was Chicago. The Gateway Arch symbol of St Louis dates back to this time, where, as the hub of trade in the Midwest, everything and everyone heading west passed through St Louis.

Then came the arrival of the railroads – the city of St Louis decided (one of a long list of terrible decisions) that railroads were a bit of a fad and that the economy of the future would forever float down the Mississippi. The railroad companies built through Chicago instead and all the money went north with it. Chicago exploded and became the major city that we think of today. As if to emphasise this change, in 1901, the city of Chicago was having problems with what to do with their ever-growing amounts of sewage. The solution they came up with was to literally change the flow of the Chicago River so they could send their sewage down the Mississippi to St Louis. Now, if someone was going out of their way to send their sewage down your way, you wouldn’t like them very much either!

The baseball history

Now you may assume that the Cubs and Cardinals have been rivals because they are in the same division, but this rivalry goes back much further and even involves an early version of what would later be a World Series. In the early 1880s, the team that would become the Cardinals – the St Louis Browns – met the team that would become the Cubs – the Chicago White Stockings – in the American Association Baseball League Championship Series.

The first reference to the Chicago Cubs was in the Chicago Daily News in 1902 and the St Louis Perfectos became the St Louis Cardinals three years later. The Cubs did storm out of the gate with two World Series titles in three appearances from 1906 and 1908 and a record of 143-62 against their rival Redbirds. This was the period of the legendary Cubs player, manager and leader Frank Chance. Not only was he described by many as the best first baseman to ever play the game, but he was also a key part of the most important pieces of writing about baseball ever, the poem entitled Baseball’s Sad Lexicon by Franklin Pierce Adams: 

These are the saddest of possible words: 
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.” 
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds, 
Tinker and Evers and Chance. 
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble, 
Making a Giant hit into a double— 
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble: 
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Were the birds he was referring to Cardinals? I guess we will never know. However, what we do know is that “Tinker to Evers to Chance” refers to the prolific ability of the Cubs infield of Tinker (Joe), Evers (Johnny) and Chance to turn double plays. Chance also loved hitting against the Cardinals with a .331 batting average in the series from 1902-1911. This was a Hall of Fame trio who led the Cubs to arguably their most successful period ever. They would have to wait over a century for another championship.

Over the next twenty years or so, the Cubs still held the edge, but the Cardinals were beginning to rise to prominence. They were slowly beginning to set up their consistent success with their first World Series title in 1926 and followed that up with two more in the 1930s (‘31 and ‘34).

Also during this period, we witnessed arguably the best player to ever play on both sides of the rivalry (and arguably the best right-handed batter in baseball history) Roger Hornsby. Interestingly, Roger Hornsby’s career started in 1915 with a misunderstanding between him and Cardinals’ manager Miller Huggins. Huggins told the struggling ballplayer that he wasn’t ready for the big leagues and needed to be farmed out. Not understanding that Huggins meant the new farm system in baseball, Hornsby went to a literal farm and bulked up working in the fields.

The next year at Spring Training, he hit the first pitch he faced off of the centre field wall for a triple and the rest is history. Hornsby played for over ten years winning three triple crowns, seven batting titles, had three .400+  seasons (including his .424 batting average in 1924, which is still the highest ever recorded in the modern era), two home run titles and four RBI titles. He played for both the Cubs and the Cardinals and is not only the Cubs’ all-time leading hitter against the Cardinals (.384 in 53 games) but also the Cardinals’ all-time leading hitter against the Cubs (.364 in 226 games). Additionally, he was also the manager of the Cardinals during their first World Series win in 1926. 

Next time…

That’s the thing about this rivalry. Not only is it defined by lots of different people and places, but it never stops as we will find out in the next instalment of this series when we meet a whole lot more fiery characters along Route 66. 

Jennifer Annely is Bat Flips & Nerds’ St Louis Cardinals contributor, and can be found on Twitter @jenniferbarnes8.

Featured image – Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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