When the `World's Series' began

SUN JOURNAL

Baseball: First staged 98 years ago, the Fall Classic grew out of a casual wager between the owners of the Boston and Pittsburgh clubs.

October 26, 2001|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Stroll the grassy campus of Northeastern University in Boston, past the president's office and the curved brick path marked "World Series Way," and you see him: a tall bronze figure with a baseball in his hand.

Meet Denton True "Cy" Young, a star of the 1903 World Series, the inaugural meeting of the champions of the American and National leagues. The likeness of Young, a pitcher of some renown, leans forward in a frozen glare, as if cowing hitters, just as he did 98 years ago on the same hallowed patch of ground.

The site was then a ballfield, one-time home of the Boston Americans (now the Red Sox), who were - thanks to Young - the best by-gosh team in the American League. Their post-season opponents: the Pittsburgh Pirates, landslide winners of the NL. So it began, in 1903 - the year that ushered in aviation, the Ford Motor Co. and the first "Fall Classic." For nearly a century, America has basked in the adulatory glow of the World Series, an event that began as a casual wager between two club owners and morphed into a prime-time extravaganza. The 97th edition, between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks, begins tomorrow.

Who got the ball rolling? Buoyed by his team's third straight pennant in '03, Pittsburgh mogul Barney Dreyfuss broached Boston about staging a "World's Series" between the clubs. The offer was an olive branch. Owners in the older National League despised the upstart AL, which had organized in 1901 by raiding players from the established circuit.

Boston's owner, a penurious fellow named Henry Killilea, liked the idea of the matchup (a playoff would add to his coffers) and plugged the idea to AL President Ban Johnson.

"Can you beat them?" Johnson asked. Killilea reckoned so. "Then, by all means, play them," Johnson said.

Each side had its superstar. Boston had Young, who would retire in 1911 as the game's all-time winningest pitcher and would lend his name to one of baseball's coveted awards. Chubby and cagey at age 36, "Uncle Cy" managed 28 of his 511 career victories that season despite rumors that his arm was plumb worn out.

Pittsburgh had John Peter "Honus" Wagner, a burly, bowlegged shortstop who played his position with the grace of a man half his girth. Eight times the league batting champion - no NL player has ever won more - Wagner was known for his temperate lifestyle and for hobnobbing with working stiffs on downtown streets and trolleys. Fans loved him.

"He was a hulk of a man, a dirt-under-the-nails type in a blue-collar town," says Wagner's biographer, Dennis DeValeria, of Pittsburgh.

But Wagner had a dismal Series, making six errors and hitting a meager .222 - more than 100 points below his lifetime average. Worse, the Pirates had lost two of their best pitchers down the stretch. Sam Leever, a 25-game winner, hurt his arm while trapshooting. And hard-drinking Ed Doheny (16-8) suffered a breakdown and was sent home, where he attacked his nurse with a stove poker and wound up in an asylum.

Boston won the best-of-nine Series, five games to three. Octobers would never be the same, though few realized it then.

"No one knew the World Series would become an institution," says Dick Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum of New England, in Boston. Which explains why mementos from the first Series are rare. A four-page program from the Series would fetch as much as $30,000, sports collectors say. Two years ago, a 50-cent ticket to one of those Boston-Pittsburgh games brought a cool $23,000 at auction at Sotheby's.

"There is more memorabilia left from the battles of Lexington and Concord than there is from the 1903 Series," says Johnson.

It was, by all accounts, a rollicking occasion, marked by pageantry, gambling and raucous antics by well-oiled groups in bowler hats and three-piece suits. Players rode from hotel to ballpark in ornate, horse-drawn carriages. Overflow crowds shinnied up telegraph poles, clamored onto rooftops and even swarmed the field to watch games. Police held the mob at bay by roping off the entire outfield with firehoses, a scant 250 feet from home plate. Any ball hit into the rabble was a ground-rule triple.

Most vocal were Boston's Royal Rooters, a throaty band of 300 Irish-Americans whose numbers included John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, grandfather of President John F. Kennedy. The Royal Rooters would gather beforehand at "Third Base," a neighborhood sports bar, then march to the stadium on Huntington Avenue and bedevil the Pittsburgh players.

"They brought rattles and drums, sometimes a whole band, and kept up a cacophony of sounds from beginning to end," says Glenn Stout, a baseball historian in Uxbridge, Mass. "They sang popular songs of the day, over and over, rewriting the lyrics to get under the Pirates' skin."

Wagner, in particular, was taunted mercilessly, to wit:

Honus, why do you hit so badly,

Take a back seat and sit down.

Honus, at bat you look so sadly,

Hey, why don't you get out of town?

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