Baseball's battered beginnings

The crowds at the 1912 World Series were unprecedented both in their enthusiasm and their sheer numbers.
The crowds at the 1912 World Series were unprecedented both in their enthusiasm and their sheer numbers. (Library Of Congress - Library Of Congress)

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 25, 2009

THE FIRST FALL CLASSIC

The Red Sox, the Giants, and the Cast of Players, Pugs, and Politicos Who Reinvented the World Series in 1912

By Mike Vaccaro

Doubleday. 290 pp. $26.95

The 1912 World Series was not the last won by the Boston Red Sox before they entered their 86-year slough of despondency -- they won again in 1915, 1916 and 1918 -- but it was the most dramatic and the most important. Mike Vaccaro, a sports columnist for the New York Post, does not exaggerate when he says that "the World Series was really born in 1912." What up to then had been a rather casual October encounter between the champions of the established National League and the young American League was transformed, by the 1912 series, into a great American institution, a seven-game competition that commanded the rapt attention of the entire nation.

My own attention was first focused on the 1912 series 3 1/2 decades ago, while I was doing research for a biography of Ring Lardner, the sportswriter who within a few years of that series became one of the most popular and influential American writers of fiction. Lardner, who was 27 years old in 1912, covered the series for the Chicago Examiner, and covered it well. More on that later. For now the focus belongs on Vaccaro, who has written a smart, lively account of the series that goes beyond the games themselves -- though his accounts of all of them are vivid -- to show how what happened during that series reflected what was happening in the nation.

The series was played between the New York Giants of the National League and the Red Sox of the American. By any measure they were exceptional teams, winning their leagues handily (the Red Sox finished a full 14 games ahead of the second-place Washington Senators) and having on their rosters five future members of the Hall of Fame: Rube Marquard, Christy Mathewson and John McGraw of the Giants, and Harry Hooper and Tris Speaker of the Red Sox. They played in spanking-new ballparks -- the Polo Grounds in New York, Fenway Park in Boston -- and they had passionate fans, none more so than Boston's Royal Rooters, one of whom was John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston and future grandfather of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The October showdown was still a lowercase affair: the "world's series," though Lardner, who poked fun whenever he could, called it the "world's serious." He was only half-kidding. Though in 1912 it had yet to achieve mythical dimensions, the series was indeed taken very seriously by fans all over the country: "No matter where you traveled in the nation -- the only 'world' that mattered to most Americans in 1912, five years before the killing fields of France would permanently expand those boundaries -- you found thousands of people hungry for scores, thirsty for baseball information."

The American sporting scene was far different then from what it is now. Even though professional baseball was still in its adolescence, it utterly dominated all other sports; college football was popular but distinctly second-string, pro football barely existed, basketball was only two decades old. Baseball ruled absolutely, and the country followed it with an avidity that didn't really begin to diminish until the rise of pro football in the 1960s.

So though plenty of people are excited about the World Series that gets underway this week, the excitement pales beside that which swept through Boston, New York and all points beyond as the world's series opened on Oct. 8, 1912. Newspapers around the country posted huge outdoor scoreboards on which every play -- in the most sophisticated displays -- was posted the instant word was wired in. Thousands gathered in Times and Herald Squares in New York and Scollay Square in Boston and roared their approval or dismay as each new development appeared.

There was plenty to roar about. The first game, which the Red Sox won 4-3 behind the gutsy pitching of Smoky Joe Wood, set the pattern: With the exception of Game 7, which the Giants won going away, 11-4, the games were tight and tense, and on-field tensions grew higher day after day.

But wait, you're saying: If the Red Sox won the series, how could the Giants have won Game 7? Simple: because Game 2 ended in a 6-6 tie, having been called because of darkness after 11 innings. The 32-year-old Mathewson pitched heroically, but three unearned runs did him in. "Hardest game I've ever played," the great Matty said afterward, while McGraw, his manager, said, "Damnedest one I've ever seen." Newspapers the next day were ecstatic: " 'A CLASSIC!' roared the Los Angeles Times. 'Greatest Ball Game in History!' screamed the Washington Post."

The game didn't count, but the three-man National Commission, which then ruled baseball, decided that it most certainly counted toward the four games from which the players would receive their share of the proceeds from ticket sales. This meant that, should the series go the full number of official, complete games, there would be an extra, incomplete game to fatten the pockets of the owners. To help ensure that, the Boston owner, Jimmy McAleer, ordered his manager to hold Smoky Joe back from Game 6 and pitch the journeyman Buck O'Brien, who arrived at Fenway royally hung over and was routed in a 5-2 loss. Students of baseball history will not be surprised that this transparent (and successful) attempt to fix a World Series went essentially unpunished, while the Chicago White Sox players who threw the series seven years later were kicked out of the game and made pariahs for life.

McAleer got his way: The series went the full length. But Bostonians had figured out what was going on, and the Fenway that had filled to overflowing was only half-full for the final (and in effect eighth) game on Oct. 16. Too bad for them, for it was a magnificent contest that went right down to the final out, with Matty once again foiled by his teammates' errors, in this case one physical and one mental, enough to bring in two runs in the bottom of the 10th and give the Red Sox a 3-2 victory.

Vaccaro has dug up many terrific quotes from the sporting press of the day, but he somehow missed Lardner's dispatch to the Chicago Examiner. I'm going to quote in full its first paragraph, because it captures perfectly the glory and the pathos of that day:

"Just after Steve Yerkes had crossed the plate with the run that gave Boston's Red Sox the world's championship in the tenth inning of the deciding game of the greatest series ever played for the big title, while the thousands, made temporarily crazy by a triumph entirely unexpected, yelled, screamed, stamped their feet, smashed hats and hugged one another, there was seen one of the saddest sights in the history of a sport that is a strange and wonderful mixture of joy and gloom. It was the spectacle of a man, old as baseball players are reckoned, walking from the middle of the field to the New York players' bench with bowed head and drooping shoulders, with tears streaming from his eyes, a man on whom his team's fortune had been staked and lost, and a man who would have proved his clear title to the trust reposed in him if his mates had stood by him in the supreme test. The man was Christy Mathewson."

yardleyj@washpost.com


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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