Bob Bates —
Two months after the first “World’s Series,” Wilbur and Orville Wright made their first flight at Kitty Hawk. Baseball’s only rivals for popularity among Americans were horse racing and boxing. Teddy Roosevelt was president. Silent films were all the rage. In nine years the unsinkable Titanic would plunge to the depths of the Atlantic. U.S. entry into The “War to End All Wars” was nearly 14 years into the future. Women would not gain the right to vote for another 17 years. The first coverage of the Series by radio would not occur until 1921. In two dozen years “talkie” movies would debut. The tragic fiery crash of the airship Hindenburg would be a third of a century away.
It was October of 1903 when the immortal Cy Young threw the first ever pitch of what would become The Fall Classic, which was won by Young’s Boston Americans. (Young won 511 games over a 22 year career.) Teams would travel to road trip games by train for over a half-century. Television coverage of a Series games would debut in 44 years (black and white, of course; the NBC peacock color cast would air eight years later). All these World Series games were daytime affairs; the first night game broadening the public’s viewing opportunity would not take place for a full two-thirds of a century.
Consider further some history prior to the initial World Series. Abraham Lincoln was still an Illinois lawyer and congressman when “base-ball” playing caught the popular imagination of mid-19th century America. Shortly after the Civil War, communities across the land took great pride in their local teams, and competitive leagues mushroomed. Gambling on games added excitement and became commonplace, boosting competitive rivalries.
By 1871 the professionalization of base-ball further garnered national attention, and anchored itself in America’s growing capitalistic system. Players, now recognizing their revenue value to team owners and a team’s fan base, began to hire out their services to the highest bidder. This quickly led to “player raids” by well-heeled club owners and promoters, which in turn resulted in owners creating the infamous Reserve Clause in 1879, prohibiting players from “team jumping.” (Such dictatorial powers would remain dominant for nearly a century, until 1976’s arbitration ruling declaring “free agency,” which permitted players to negotiate with any team for more lucrative contracts.)
Additionally, some chintzy owners, seeking to pad their coffers, egregiously charged players for uniforms, laundering, and boarding fees on the road, and further reduced their operating expenses through a no play-no pay clause. Such penurious practices would, over the next four decades, result in widespread players’ disgruntlement and festering rebellious countering tactics, culminating in the 1919 World Series “Black Sox scandal,” when seven Chicago White Sox conspired with big-time gamblers to intentionally lose the Series. The premier base-ball league from 1876 to 1900 was the National League (NL). But when the NL cut back from twelve to eight teams to reduce operating costs and increase profits by dropping financially struggling clubs in 1899, this opened the door for an enterprising rival league. Byron “Ban” Johnson organized the new eight-team American League (AL), snatching up players from disbanded teams and luring away prominent NL players who were more than willing to defy the Reserve Clause and sign on for more money in the AL.
Who Played, Who Didn’t
Following the Civil War, there were some notable professional “colored” players by the 1870s. However, during the mid-1880s, overtly racist whites—in particular Adrian “Cap” Anson, who played and managed over three decades—effectively established an unspoken (wink wink, nod nod), unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” that no black players would be allowed in organized baseball. This exclusion would hold until the signing of Jackie Robinson by Brooklyn Dodger general manager Branch Rickey six decades later.
American Indians were allowed into the major league level, including two future Hall of Famers: Charles Albert “Chief” Bender (played from 1903-17 and in five World Series) and Zack Wheat (1909-27 and two World Series). The era’s greatest all-around athlete and famous Olympian, Jim Thorpe (1913-19 and in one World Series), plus many other Native Americans of lesser notability also earned their way onto major league rosters.
Prior to 1947’s breaking of the “color barrier,” about 20 light-skinned Cubans played, the most prominent being Adolfo “The Pride of Havana” Luque (1914-35 and two World Series). Dark-skinned Cubans were banned—as both they and U.S. blacks carried the stigma of descending from the African slave trade. During World War II, with rosters depleted by players in the service, an influx of about 50 Latin Americans brought further minority presence to the majors.
As a largely overlooked historical footnote, “renegade” baseball man Bill Veeck made a behind-the-scenes bid in 1943 to purchase the bankrupt Philadelphia NL franchise, surreptitiously preparing to sign accomplished Negro League players to stock the Phillies. As soon as the NL owners figured out what was up, they precipitously rejected Veeck’s bid. In 1947, however, Veeck purchased the AL Cleveland franchise and began signing black players, most notably future Hall of Famers Larry Doby and the legendary Satchel Paige. In 1948 the Indians became World Champions, getting vital contributions from both Doby and Paige.
In 1920 Rube Foster had successfully launched the Negro National League, providing opportunities for black ballplayers to participate at a high level and excel. Other major black leagues would follow over the next four decades. These leagues were widely covered by numerous black newspapers, and would play alternative Championship Series themselves, through 1949.
Baseball Rituals and Innovations
The first president to throw out the ceremonial pitch to open a World Series was Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Five years previously, corpulent president William Howard Taft—all very visible 340 pounds of him—arose from his cramped stadium seat in the middle of the 7th inning to stretch his massive frame. The attentive crowd, showing deference to the nation’s lofty dignitary, also rose from their seats. Thus the tradition of the “7th inning stretch” was popularized.
Another baseball tradition made its first appearance in a World Series in 1934 when the St. Louis Cardinals band played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Iconic broadcaster Harry Caray later popularized it as a sacramental part of the 7th inning stretch in 1971 when he enthusiastically belted it out from the booth over the public address system at Chicago’s southside Comiskey Park.
A new tradition was born in 1932 when the World Series-winning New York Yankees were presented with commemorative championship rings. The 1977 Yankees enhanced this now long-established custom by adorning their rings with a dozen diamonds. The finally-over-the-top Chicago Cubs last year—after a 107-year World Championship drought—extravagantly designed their rings with 214 diamonds.
As to the baseball diamond itself, a series of modifications gradually altered the game. Initially, in 1876, the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate was 45 feet. In 1882 the distance was extended to 50 feet, and in 1893 it was standardized permanently at 60 feet 6 inches. Until 1884, all pitches were required by rule to be thrown underhand or sidearm. Also standardized in 1888 and ’89 were balls and strikes, at four and three (previously as high as nine and four). During this era, catchers wore torso padding and crude masks, but did not wear shin guards until 1907.
In 1900 home plate was changed from a 12″ square to a 17″-wide five-sided design. The height of the pitcher’s mound was regulated at “no more than 15 inches” in 1903. After pitching overwhelmingly dominated hitting during the 1968 season, it was reduced to its current 10 inches. In 1920, after Cleveland’s Ray Chapman died from being hit in the head by a smudged and darkened baseball thrown by a spitball pitcher, clean baseballs were mandated and the spitball was by rule prohibited. Numbers on the backs of uniform jerseys were introduced in 1929. As of 1949, to protect outfielders from injuries sustained from crashing into walls (then unpadded), dirt warning tracks were made mandatory. More recent safety rules were imposed in 2014 and 2016, designed to eliminate baserunner-fielder collisions at home plate and second base.
In 1934 the official ball was standardized, uniformly constructed with a cushion cork center, two wrappings of yarn, a rubber cement coating, two more yarn wrappings, and a horsehide cover tightly wrapped with 108 paired stitchings. As of 1974, batters could no longer “hit the ol’ horsehide,” as the covering changed to cowhide. Currently, 60-80 fresh baseballs are typically put into play during the course of a game; the Rawlings facility in Costa Rica supplies Major League Baseball with about two million baseballs per season.
World Series Teams, Players, and Highlights across the Decades
The initial three decades of professional baseball often featured on-the-field aggression, clever tactics, and when circumstances called for it, outright cheating. Fittingly, in 1905 two legendary managers notorious for trying every conceivable cerebral or devious stratagem necessary to win a game met in the first seven-game Series. Cornelius Alexander McGilicuddy, aka Connie Mack (“The Tall Tactician”), led his gritty Philadelphia Athletics against John Joseph McGraw (“The Little Napoleon”) and his brash New York Giants. Imposing a contrasting tone, however, was Giants phenomenal pitcher Christy (“Big Six”) Mathewson, whose sterling character and gentlemanly demeanor made him the All-American hero across the land. Matty dominated the A’s, twirling three shutouts, allowing just 14 hits and a walk while striking out 18 in 27 superlative innings.
From 1907-09, barely 20 years of age, Tyrus Raymond Cobb (“The Georgia Peach”) led his Detroit Tigers into consecutive World Series—all three of which they lost. Over 17 games Cobb hit just .262 and his flashing spikes went dull, as the all-time stolen base leader for three-quarters of a century was held to only four swiped bags. In his 24-year career, from April through September, Cobb compiled the all-time best batting average (BA) of .367, including a phenomenal dozen batting crowns, but October proved his downfall.
At age 20 in 1916, then again in 1918, a Boston lefty pitcher by the name of George Herman Ruth helped his Red Sox team to two World Championships by chalking up three wins, compiling an 0.87 earned run average (ERA) and hurling a World Series streak of 29-2/3 scoreless innings, a record that would stand for 44 years.
Baseball’s darkest atmosphere surrounded the infamous 1919 World Series “Black Sox scandal.” The combination of unsavory widespread gambling on games plus owners’ demeaningly low salaries was a recipe-in-waiting for major corruption to occur. Seething at Chicago penurious owner Charles (“Cheap Charlie”) Comiskey, seven White Sox players accepted bribes to throw the Series. It would take a couple years for public trust and interest in baseball to resume, but thanks to the exploits of now-Yankee Babe Ruth in 1920 and ’21, fans everywhere were re-attracted to the game, re-confirming it as the unchallenged American Pastime.
In every Series it seems something freaky is bound to occur. In 1920, two one-time-only World Series aberrations happened within three innings. In the fifth, Brooklyn’s Clarence Mitchell smoked a line drive up the middle with two baserunners on the move at the crack of the bat. Cleveland second-baseman Bill Wambsganss made a leaping backhand snare of the shot, niftily stepped on the bag at second, and reached out to tag the runner coming in from first base—completing an unassisted triple play! Some 20 minutes later, the luckless Mitchell grounded into a double play; on just two swings of the bat, he had accounted for five outs!
The 1923 World Series opened with a celebratory crowd of 60,000 in newly constructed Yankee Stadium, with the cross-town Giants providing the competition. The Bronx Bombers would prevail in six games, with Babe Ruth clouting three homers, but the most exciting drama transpired in game one with the first home run ever hit in Yankee Stadium. And “in” is the key word! Thirty-four year-old Casey Stengel, considered to be a grizzled, aging veteran by then, wildly galloped around the bases—losing a shoe in the process—on his drive to deep left center field (known as “death valley”) for an inside-the-park home run, giving the Giants the win. Legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon described the electrifying scene thusly: “Mouth wide open, breath whistling, arms flying, warped legs barely holding out as Stengel circumnavigated the bags and fell sprawling all spread out over the plate, gasping furiously!” Yankee Stadium would become known as “The House that Ruth built,” but on this World Series-christening day, it was Ol’ Case who brought down the house with his heroic dash!
Of the five World Series in 1923, ’26-28, and ’32, the powerful Yankees would win it all four times. Ruth (“The Bambino,” “The Sultan of Swat”) would smash 14 home runs in 21 games, putting a national exclamation point to his revolutionizing baseball with the long ball. Always loving the spotlight, The Babe in ’32 at Wrigley Field with Chicago fans and players hurling abusive language and gestures his way would—as legend has it— famously “call his shot” by pointing toward the center field wall and then on the next pitch pulverizing the horsehide spheroid far beyond it!
In 1931 the Series was a hard-fought affair between St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia, with the Athletics boasting five players who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Yet, the scrappy Cardinals would prevail four games to three. Dubbed the “Gashouse Gang” because of their always potentially-explosive playing style, leading the charge was 5′ 8″ John Leonard Roosevelt (“Pepper,” “The Wild Hoss of the Osage”) Martin. Pepper rapped out a dozen hits, with five runs batted in (RBI), and his daring base running produced 5 stolen bases and 5 runs scored. The 1934 edition of the Gas House Gang would also triumph behind the pitching tandem of the Dean brothers, Jay Hanna (“Dizzy”) and Paul Dee (“Daffy”), each with two complete game wins. These colorful Cardinals featured an additional array of nicknames, including “Ducky,” “Dazzy,” “Chick,” “Spud,” “Tex,” “Wild Bill,” “Ripper,” “The Fordham Flash,” “Leo the Lip,” and the aforementioned “Pepper.”
The 1936 through ’39 Yankees were just too skilled and deep to match up with, copping four consecutive World Championships with a combined 16 wins against only 3 losses. Future Hall of Famers were Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, and a youthful Joe DiMaggio.
By 1942, World War II had depleted major league player talent through enlistments and the draft. By war’s end, in 1946, the nation was hungry for peacetime diversions from four long years of sacrifices in the European and Pacific theaters and on the home front.
The post-war era Fall Classics presented America with what is termed the Golden Age of baseball. Fans jammed stadiums and folks at home tuned in by the millions to radio and TV baseball coverage. From 1946-59, each World Series featured magnificent action. The Yankees dynasty appeared in 10 Series, winning eight. Bill Veeck’s Indians, debuting Larry Doby and the ageless Satchel Paige, won in ’48. The ’54 Giants swept the AL-record winning Indians (111-43) and showcased perhaps the all-time clutch over-the-shoulder catch 450-feet in deepest center field by Willie Mays, and an equally crucial game-winning pop just clearing the short 260-foot right field wall down the line by James Lamar (“Dusty”) Rhodes. In 1955, at long last “wait til next year” arrived, as the Brooklyn Dodgers captured a tension-filled battle with the Yanks. In decisive game seven, Cuban Edmundo (“Sandy”) Amoros made a breathtaking running catch deep in the left field corner, then whirled and threw to second base for a double play, killing a budding Yankee rally; and young lefty Johnny Podres’s artfully threw two complete game wins, including a shutout to clinch it.
The very next year, in game five at Yankee Stadium, a feat perhaps never to be duplicated blazed across the headlines: Larsen Throws Perfect Game!—as the Yankees’ Don Larsen pitched the only no hit, no run, no baserunners game ever in World Series history.
And, who then alive-and-breathing in 1957 Wisconsin does not still hold dear to heart their beloved Milwaukee Braves beating the hated Yankees on crafty Lew Burdette’s three complete game wins, including two shutouts, and Henry Aaron’s 3 home runs, 7 RBI, and .393 Series BA! But the Bronx Bombers would gain revenge over the Braves in ’58, rebounding from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to win thanks to the dominant pitching of Big Bob Turley
The Dodgers had rudely packed up and deserted Brooklyn after the 1957 season for greener (read cash, and lots of it!) pastures in Los Angeles. The West Coast Dodgers filled the LA Coliseum in game five of the ’59 Series with an all-time record crowd of 92,706, and brought the World Championship to the Pacific time zone for the first time. LA’s star was relief pitcher Larry Sherry, who racked up 2 wins, 2 saves, and a superlative 0.71 ERA.
Transitions Into and Changes Beyond the 1960s
For just shy of the entire first half of the 20th century, the only times fans could actually watch games in action was when they occupied seats in stadiums. Theater Movietone film clips offered brief visual snippets, but otherwise fans were reliant on newspaper coverage for game descriptions, details, and photos. In the 1920s radio broadcasts supplemented this, permitting fans to intently follow the action on the field play-by-play, drawing on fans’ imaginations to create mental pictures. Finally, with post-war TV coverage, game action reached into living rooms across the nation.
In the 1960s, memorable moments were plentiful. Though the mighty Yankees in ’60 had outscored Pittsburgh 46-17 through six games, Pirate Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic bottom of the ninth walk-off homer made champions of the Pirates. In ’63 Johnny Podres, Don Drysdale, and Sandy Koufax totally shut down the ’61 and ’62 Series-winning Yankees, holding the powerful New Yorkers to a paltry .167 BA and only four total runs in four consecutive losses. Superlative pitching continued to dominate in ’64 (Cardinals’ Bob Gibson), ’65 (Koufax), ’66 (the entire Orioles staff handcuffing the Dodgers, allowing LA only two runs and a miniscule .142 BA in a four-game sweep). Bob Gibson dominated again in ’67 with three wins over the Red Sox; Detroit turned the tables on the Cards in ’68, as Mickey Lolich notched three wins for the Tigers. The Miracle Mets in ’69 surprised the baseball world with a four-game upset of a talent-loaded Orioles team.
The 1970s featured the powerhouse Oakland A’s (three Championships) and Cincinnati Big Red Machine (four Series appearances and two Championships). But the most amazing-ever feat was Reggie Jackson’s four home runs on four consecutive swings in ’77!
Free Agency in 1976 forever altered baseball. Clubs could remedy particular weaknesses by tapping available free agents, and talent became more equally distributed among more teams. Between ’76 and ’95, no fewer than 15 different teams would win World Championships. Revenue sharing in 1996 also contributed to more competitive parity among clubs, denting the previous big-spending dominance of the richer franchises. From ’96 to 2016, 12 different teams have won it all.
In view of this, since the 1980s there has generally been more balance across baseball. Individual heroics have tended to grab the spotlight, rather than great teams. Names that are etched in the memories of most baseball fans in this period include Tug McGraw, Brooks Robinson, Kirk Gibson (full-throttle with the Tigers and hurting and hobbling with the Dodgers), Jack Morris (with the Tigers and Twins), Bret Saberhagen, Bill Buckner, Kirby Puckett, Orel Hershiser, Dave Stewart, Joe Carter, Paul Molitor, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Randy Johnson, Pablo (“The Panda”) Sandoval, David (“Big Papi”) Ortiz , and Madison Bumgarner.
So much history! So many memorable moments! Here in 2017’s version of the Fall Classic, as you perhaps kick back with a cold brewski and munchies at hand, keep in the forefront of your mind some baseball wisdom passed along from wily old veterans of the game: Ignore the hype; the game happens on the field. Every pitch must have a purpose; each at bat must have an objective. Every routine play must be made. Expect the unexpected. There are no guarantees. And an obvious-but-too-often-missed tip: Right before the pitch, watch the catcher set-up!
So, enjoy the action, wonder at the skills, appreciate the efforts, and celebrate greatness. The World Series is among the most exciting entertainment events you can behold. After all, as Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”
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Baseball Extra: A Newspaper History of the Glorious Game from Its Beginnings to the Present, Eric C. Caren Collection/Castle Books (2000).
Donald Honig, The World Series: An Illustrated History from 1903 to the Present, Random House Value (1986).
Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World Series Finest Private Collections, Stephen Wong/Smithsonian Books (2005).
The World Series: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Fall Classic, Black Dog & Leventhal (2001).