By winning percentage, the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates were the best team in Pirates franchise history. They won the National League pennant by a 27.5 games. Unfortunately for them, there was no World Series that year, so with such a big lead, there wasn’t much to play for as the season wound down. There was, however, the possibility that the team could set a Major League record for most wins in a season. The record was 102, which the Pirates tied on the second-to-last game of the season, leaving them one game to get that last win they needed to make history. Their opponent in that last game was the Cincinnati Reds.
The 1902 Reds were in fourth place, over 30 games behind the Pirates. They had finished last in the National League in 1901, and had naturally hoped to improve on that. They got off to a rough start in 1902, and manager Bid McPhee was fired after 65 games. He was briefly replaced by interim manager Frank Bancroft, who at the time was working in the Reds front office as the team’s business manager and who many remember as the manager of the Providence Grays in 1884, when Old Hoss Radbourn racked up 59 wins. Eventually, the Reds settled on Joe Kelley as their permanent manager going forward.
The Reds did manage to finish strong in 1902, climbing back up to .500 on the season. They were 34-26 from the point where Kelley took over. There were some good individual performances by Reds players. At 22 years of age, Wahoo Sam Crawford was just starting to show what he was capable of, and either he or Jake Beckley lead the team in pretty much every offensive category (Beckley led the team in home runs with five), although the famous and insensitively nicknamed deaf player William "Dummy" Hoy led the team in OBP.
On the mound, Noodles Hahn had the best season of his career by ERA+ (not that he knew it at the time, although I’m sure he was very happy with his 23 wins, which tied his career best). Hahn amassed a 1.77 ERA over 321 innings pitched, which was only good for second in the National League behind Jack Taylor of the Chicago Orphans (now known as the Cubs).
Despite these performances, in an era before divisions and wild cards, the Reds headed into that final game in Pittsburgh with nothing to play for. Adding to their disinterest was the fact that it had rained in Pittsburgh the night before the game, leaving the field at Exposition Park in poor condition. The Reds players reportedly were hoping the game would be cancelled so they could spend the afternoon at the racetrack instead. But Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss was determined to get a chance to set that National League wins record, so he ordered the game to be played anyway.
The Reds were not pleased with the development, and it became clear how they intended to express their displeasure when manager Kelley tapped Jake Beckley, a first baseman, to be the starting pitcher. Kelley also named Rube Vickers, who normally pitched, as the starting catcher. As poor of a pitcher as Beckley was, Vickers was evidently a worse catcher, with the Cincinnati Enquirer reporting that "Vickers couldn’t catch cold in a linen duster in Manitoba on Christmas Day." Strained metaphors aside, Vickers did set a record by allowing six passed balls in just four innings of catching, allegedly pausing to blow his nose as he slowly chased one of them down. In fact, nobody played his regular position to start the game, with infielders playing the outfield and vice versa.
If any of the approximately 1200 fans who braved the chilly and damp weather to watch the hometown Pirates’ attempt to make history had any doubts about the degree to which the Reds were refusing to take the game seriously, those doubts must have been put to rest when Kelley came to the plate to bat with a lit cigarette in his mouth. Umpire Hank O’Day ordered Kelley to put it out, but Kelley wasn’t done. He and fellow Reds Mike Donlin and Cy Seymour (lots of Reds Hall of Famers in this game) smoked while playing defense, and despite O’Day’s threats, none were ejected from the game.
In the end, the Pirates won 11-2 and set their National League record for wins in the season at 103 (a record that only stood for four years until it was broken by the 1906 Chicago Cubs with 116 wins, which is still best in National League history and tied for best in all of baseball with the 2001 Seattle Mariners). The Reds record on the season fell to an even 70-70 with the loss. Despite getting what he wanted, Dreyfuss was angry with the Reds for their behavior, and even gave all the fans their money back after the game, saying that to do otherwise would be to accept money under false pretense. Dreyfuss took the further step of lodging an official complaint with National League executive chairman John T. Brush. There is no evidence of what punishment, if any, was handed down.
Kelley, for his part, correctly pointed out that "We put a team on the field, and there is no rule compelling us to allow them to name the position they play." By all accounts, the Reds pitchers were trying to get outs, they just weren’t very good at it. The same holds true for the players in the field. So would it be fair to say that the Reds threw this game? I would argue that is an overstatement, but where is the line between trying to lose and not really trying that hard to win? Should this game be viewed with the same shame and disgust as the 1919 World Series? Or was it just some ballplayers having some harmless fun in a game that meant nothing in any real sense at the end of a long season?
Other Resources: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Cincinnati Reds by Mike Shanon