Take Me Back to the Ball Game
It’s like déjà vu all over again.
One hundred years ago this October, the Boston Americans faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in Baseball’s first World Series. It would be natural to assume that much has changed in the tumultuous century since the National Pastime played its first true championship. But, as Louis P. Masur’s enjoyable new book Autumn Glory reminds us, baseball a century ago was actually much like baseball now, with a few notable exceptions. Chief among them: 100 years ago, teams from Boston actually played in the postseason.
Masur’s book is a hybrid of historical scholarship and popular storytelling; he has combed the colorful newspapers of the period for a mind-boggling array of details, which give Autumn Glory a particularly vivid account of the baseball world in 1903 and the first World Series in particular. Chapters with nearly pitch-by-pitch accounting of each of the Boston-Pittsburgh games alternate with descriptions of the competing National and American leagues, summaries of the 1903 season as a whole, and brief excursions into the personalities, and antics, on display during the first World Series.
A few players will be familiar to contemporary fans: Hall-of-Famers Honus Wagner and Cy Young make frequent appearances, Wagner at shortstop for the Pirates and Young on the mound for Boston. But even Baseball aficionados will raise an eyebrow at the rest, a rogues gallery of names that would be at home in an Atlantic City chorus line: Claude Ritchey, Ginger Beaumont, Deacon Phillippe, Chick Stahl, Candy LaChance, Patsy Dougherty. Off the field, Mike McGreevey is, you guessed it, an Irish barkeep, whose raucous Royal Rooters followed the Boston team to Pittsburgh, hiring local orchestras to accompany their cheers while in the stands and carousing with the players after the games.’
In Masur’s account, the most remarkable feature of the 1903 series is that it happened at all. As 1903 dawned, the American League and the National League were two separate, warring baseball entities. While the National League dated back to 1876, and enjoyed a near-monopoly on talent from 1891 onward, the American League sprang up in 1900 and immediately began raiding National League teams for players. The new league was so successful in getting players to switch—45 of the 46 players sought made the change—in large part because American League owners were shrewd enough to recognize baseball’s first labor union. Higher salaries in the American League drew the stars of the era, which, in turn, lured fans to rapidly constructed ballparks. In the first three years of its existence, the American League launched teams in National League cities—including Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston and New York—and drew more fans in each place. Masur’s description of American League officials arriving at cities under the cover of darkness to recruit players, and leaving before dawn to avoid National League enforcers, is a representative delight.
The conflict ended in January 1903, when owners from both organizations agreed to honor existing player contracts and settled the awkward situation of some fifteen entrepreneurial players who had agreed to play for teams in both leagues. Masur delves into considerable detail here, eventually unearthing magnanimous quotations from baseball owners like Cincinnati’s Gary Hermann, who hosted the reconciliation: “I am here for peace, not because it is to the advantage of the Cincinnati Club from a financial standpoint, but because the people’s pastime should be placed on a higher plane.” Both leagues would adopt the same National Commission in August of that year.
The chapters on the World Series games are at once informative, poignant, exciting and, alas, repetitive. A distinct feature of sports writing is its inability to capture the grace and spontaneity of the athletic contests it records. Add one hundred years to the mix, and things can get stale:
Jimmy Sebring led off the bottom of the seventh with a single to right, and Ed Phelps followed with a poke past second. The fans awakened and hoped that, at last, the lethargic Pirate bats had done the same. Leever was due up, and Clarke must have thought about pinch-hitting for him, but he had no reliable reliever to bring into the game. Leever did his job by grounding to first and advancing the runners into scoring position.
Joyce, or even Jack Buck, it’s not. Still, Masur’s efforts to render the series tangible are valiant. He is good at finding the right source:
The fans could not contain themselves. They prayed. They pleaded. They screamed. Frank M’Quiston observed that “men who could write their checks in six figures stood on chairs along side of the day laborer and yelled until black in the face.” People “were slapping one another on the backs, jumping up and down, and carrying on like a lot of maniacs, and such yelling was enough to put any twirler up in the air.”
The amount of research necessary to offer descriptions of each game of the 1903 World Series should not be underestimated. Still, it is curious why Masur offers so much about these games themselves, and comparatively less about the broader context in which they took part. Time and time again, we get tantalizing details that would have made good chapters unto themselves. Women appear in the stands on occasion, and Boston socialite Marian Lawrence Peabody gushes to her diary that Honus Wagner resembles a “plain Greek god,” but, other than that, we have little idea how many women attended games regularly. The struggle of African-American baseball players against the color barrier doesn’t even get mentioned in Masur’s book. While the fist Negro League was not established until 1920, Black ballplayers had been active in the game’s minor leagues since the 19th century. It’s an especially problematic omission given the fact that Masur is eager to wax philosophic about the civic spirit of the game: “Baseball was democracy at work, a game open to anyone.” In the words of Yogi Berra, take this whitewashing with “a grin of salt.”
Still, you can’t strike out on a foul ball. Though we may hope for even-handedness in baseball writing, there is only so much room for logic in baseball. Thus the game’s mystic qualities have been mined endlessly for metaphors of America as a place where, as on the baseball diamond, one man can change the fate of many. William Randolph Hearst even went so far as to suggest that the superiority of the American fighting man was the result of his having played baseball in his youth. Masur doesn’t go far as to link the course of empire with the baseball diamond, but he does find something else in the game: redemption. After revealing that baseball originally conflicted with establishments of religion, particularly in regard to the necessity of playing games on Sunday, the author concludes that the end result was the engulfing of one by the other. He cites an unnamed source, who boasted: “There are three subjects which are not reducible to reason: politics, religion and baseball; and the greatest of these is baseball.”