Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The WORST World Series: 1918


Before the start of the 1918 "Worlds Series" there was joy in Boston and Chicago, but little interest elsewhere.  Due to the war in Europe many baseball fans viewed each team with cynicism, ballclubs that crassly tried to buy pennants with cash with players who dodged military service while their countrymen gave their lives on the battlefield.    

Still, the Cubs were a powerhouse.  Anchored by Jim “Hippo” Vaughn, the Cubs had the best pitching in the National League and were no less successful in the batter’s box, featuring a lineup that feasted in war-depleted pitching staffs.  Despite the presence of players like Babe Ruth on the Boston roster, most observers, like Red Sox partisan Paul Shannon of the Boston Post, gave the edge to the Cubs. 

Shannon was right.  The Cubs should have won the 1918 World Series.  But as modern observers know, in regard to the Cubs, “should win” and “won” are not part of the same language.  Although virtually everything tilted the Cubs way, it would not be enough.  They would squander every advantage, beginning with their home field edge.  With the series scheduled to begin with three games in Chicago, Cubs ownership got greedy and asked the White Sox for permission to use Comiskey Park rather than Weeghman Park due to its larger seating capacity.  Both the home field advantage and the offensive advantage they gained from their home park were gone. 

Both clubs had plenty of time to prepare and set their pitching rotation for the series did not begin until September 4, almost a week after the end of the war-shortened regular season. 

The big surprise in game one was that the Sox chose to start Babe Ruth on the mound.  He’d won only 13 games in 1918 and the smart money believed the Cubs were much better against left-handed pitching.  But Ruth had been Boston’s best pitcher down the stretch and due to Ruth’s recent trouble hitting left-handers, Sox manager Ed Barrow didn’t intend to use him in the Series in the outfield.  Instead he decided to go with minor league journeyman – and right-handed hitter – George Whiteman.

Neither Hippo Vaughn nor Ruth was sharp at the start of game one, but neither team scored until   the fourth inning, when Boston finally broke through.  Dave Shean walked, and after a botched sacrifice attempt, George Whiteman and first baseman Stuffy McInnis both singled, scoring Sheen and giving Boston a 1-0 lead. 

In a contest the Tribune termed “monotonous,” that was it.  The Cubs mounted a mild threat in the sixth, only to have Whiteman end the rally with a running catch to secure Boston’s 1-0 victory. 

Game two was far more engaging as Cubs coach Otto Knabe provided the entertainment, taunting Red Sox coach Heinie Wagner.  After Boston went down in the second inning, instead of returning to the Boston bench, Wagner came looking for Knabe. 

Before anyone realized what was happening, Wagner was in the Cub dugout throwing haymakers.  The Cubs folded in over the two men before Boston‘s reinforcements could cut across the diamond and come to Wagner’s rescue.  After some delay, Wagner emerged muddied but not bloodied from the confrontation.  Baseball Magazine later reported that “fans who could see it [the fight] declared that when they heard two Germans were fighting, they merely encouraged them to beat each other up.”

The battle did ratchet up the intensity of the Series, and the rest of game two was played as if baseball were a contact sport.  In the Chicago third, the Cubs broke through against Sox pitcher Joe Bush.  With one out, Freed Merkle walked, and then Charlie Pick laid down a bunt and beat the throw to first.  Third baseman Charlie Deal popped up a failed bunt attempt, but Bill Killefer proceeded to double to score one run and then Tyler helped himself, driving a single to center that scored Pick and Killefer.  Boston threatened in the ninth when Strunk and Whiteman hit back-to-back triples, but Tyler held on for the 3-1 win as Ruth stayed on the Boston bench and the Cubs knotted the Series.

A victory in game three was critical for Chicago.  Manager Fred Mitchell brought back Vaughn on one day’s rest, while Boston countered with submariner Carl Mays.

Vaughn pitched well, but Mays was even better.  In the fourth Boston scratched across two runs after Vaughn hit Whiteman and the Red Sox added four singles, not one of which was hit hard.  Chicago’s best chance came in the bottom of the inning when Dode Paskert nearly hit a home run only to have George Whiteman, Boston’s best player in the Series, grab the ball out of the front row.  The Cubs scored one run in the fifth on a couple of hits, but May stopped them after that.  The Red Sox won, 2-1.

A few hours later, at eight o’clock, both teams boarded the same train for the twenty-seven hour trip to Boston.  Normally, the two clubs would have had little to do with one another, particularly after the bad blood in game two, but the long journey caused tempers to cool and players from both clubs finally had a chance to look over some documents distributed by the National Commission.  By the time they reached Boston they were spitting blood.  Baseball’s ruling National Commission had changed the distribution of World Series money.  Each team was playing for a whole lot less than they thought they were. 

Before 1918 the players had shared 60% of Series receipts but in 1918, the Commission, acting on behalf of the owners, changed the distribution to only 55.75% of the receipts, and then only from the first four games.  That amount would also be shared with the players on the teams that finished second, third and fourth and players would be forced to “donate” another ten percent to war charities.  By the time the two team reached Boston the player of both teams were united and talking about going on strike.  The next morning player representatives told the commission that they had no intention of playing and requested a formal meeting to air their grievances.  They were put off and reluctantly decided to play game four.

The Cubs, in particular, had reason to play.  The night before, as the train chugged its way into Boston, schedule game four starter Babe Ruth had decided to have a little fun punching out straw hats on the train. 

Ruth either miscalculated or punched through a hat and straight into the steel wall of the train, or else someone resisted and Ruth responded with a real swing that missed its target and lost a battle with that same wall. The result was that the middle finger of Ruth’s pitching hand was swollen to twice its normal size.  If he was hampered by the finger, or couldn’t pitch at all, the advantage tilted toward the Cubs.

Ruth had the finger drained but convinced Barrow he could pitch.  He started the game with the finger stained with iodine. 

He could pitch, but just barely.  Unfortunately for the Cubs, Boston’s defense kept bailing him out.  Then in the fourth, after Cubs pitcher Lefty Tyler walked Shean and Whiteman, Ruth came up with two outs.

He fell behind 3-0 then watched two strikes pass by as if he realized he had only one good swing left and was determined to wait for the perfect pitch. 

He got it.   As Boston Post reporter Paul Shannon wrote, “A report like a rifle shot rang through the park.  Twenty-five thousands rose as one man, and while the bleachers shrieked in ecstasy, the Cubs right fielder [Flack] taken unawares dashed madly for the center field stands.”  Shean and Whiteman scored easily and Ruth slid into third for a triple.  Boston led, 2-0.

But Ruth still wasn’t right and in the top of the eighth, the Cubs finally got to him, tying the game and ending Ruth’s scoreless inning streak in Series at 29 2/3 innings.

Cubs’ pitcher Phil Douglas took over for Tyler in the eighth.  Boston catcher Wally Schang led off with a single and advanced to second when a Douglas pitch got away from catcher Bill Killefer.  Harry Hooper then laid down a bunt, which Douglas fielded and promptly threw away, and Schang came around with the winning run.  The Sox hung on and now the Cubs trailed in the Series three games to one.

As soon as the game ended, however, the players again took up their grievance with the National Commission.  Harry Hooper, Heinie Wagner, Leslie Mann and Bill Killefer, went together to the Copley Plaza. Once again the Commission brushed them off like piece of lint.    Later that evening, however, they decided to try to meet once more with the commission the next morning.  Unless the issue was resolved, they were determined not to play game five.

By this time word of the snafu was becoming public knowledge.  The press was four-square on the side of management – the Chicago Daily Journal referred to the players as the “bolsheveki of baseball.”

The next morning the team of revolutionaries went to the Copley Plaza once again.  The Commission again sent them away, saying they could all meet again after game five.

The players knew better.  If Boston won game five, the point was moot - the Series would be over and there would be no meeting.  The representatives went to the ballpark and explained the situation to players of both teams.  They were all in agreement. As far as they were concerned, there would be no game five.

Meanwhile, the commission celebrated their victory over the players in the bar of the Copley Plaza.  But as game time approached and some twenty thousand fans began to pour into Fenway Park, the players remained in the clubhouse, on strike.  When the Commission found out they gulped down one last drink and hustled over to the ballpark.  At 2:45 the commissioners met Hooper, Dave Shean, Mann and Killefer in the umpire’s room as a handful of sportswriters squeezed in behind them.  The players were ready for a sober discussion of the issues.   The commission was incapable of having a sober discussion about anything.

American League president Ban Johnson, drunk and in tears, was in no condition to negotiate anything.  He played the patriotic card, imploring the players to take the field for “the soldiers in the stands,” some of whom were, in fact, now on the field, pressed into service to try to prevent the crowd from rioting.

Reporter Nick Flately of the Boston American captured the tone perfectly in his story about the meeting.  According to his description, Commissioner Gerry Hermann piped in, saying, “’Let’s arbitrary this matter Mister Johnson,’ then he launched forth into a brilliant exposition of the history of baseball’s governing board.  Expert reporters took notes for a while, then quit, befuddled.”

So did the players.  There was no sense arguing with three men who were seeing double and slurring every word.  Boston Mayor John Fitzgerald, president Kennedy’s grandfather, took the field and announced to the crowd that the players “have agreed to play for the sake of the public and the wounded players in the stands.”

The crowd booed lustily, and when the players took the field they fielded insults from every direction. Some fans just left, disgusted.

Then came the game.  Boston fans took their anger over the strike out on the Red Sox, cheering Cub pitcher Hippo Vaughn the whole game, and the Red Sox responded by making outs early and often.  The Cubs scored a run in the second and two in the eighth, and just over one hour and forty minutes after it started, game five was history.  The Cubs won, 3-0 and trailed the Red Sox three games to two.  The Chicago press thought it was a great game while Boston sports writers were less impressed and all but wrote that the Red Sox had played to lose.

The end result was that no one cared anymore who won Series anyway.  The strike, which the public didn’t understand, soured the public on the Series.     Fenway Park was only half full on the afternoon of September 11 when Tyler, on one days’ rest, squared off opposite Carl Mays.

There was little glory for the Cubs or anyone else not named George Whiteman.  The journeyman hit a line drive in the second that scored two runs and in the eighth inning made a tumbling catch to save the game.  He left the field to a rousing ovation with a wrenched neck as Ruth trotted out as a meaningless defensive replacement.  One inning later the Boston Red Sox were champions of the world and the Cubs looked to next year.  Most fans yawned at the result. There was only a small subdued on field celebration by the Red Sox as a few hundred die-hard cheered them on. By the end of the series only a few dozen fans were showing up on the streets outside the Chicago newspaper office to watch the game being replayed on the big board.  The Daily Journal reported glumly that “interest was plainly at zero…baseball is not an essential during a time of war.” 

George Whiteman, not Ruth, was heralded as the hero of the Series.  The right-handed hitter had feasted on Tyler and Vaughn while catching everything hit in his direction. 

Depending on which newspaper one believed, the Cubs earned either $574.62 or $671.09 each, while the champion Red Sox took in $1001.52, and each still had to donate a portion to the war charities.  Both figures were the lowest in Series history, as was the total of nineteen runs scored in the Series, ten by the Cubs and only nine for Boston.

Perhaps the worst World Series in history was over.  Baseball took punitive action against the players over the strike and withheld their World Series medallions, the equivalent of today's rings, until 1993. At the time no one could envision that decades later Boston fans would look back on it with nostalgia, for the Red Sox would go 86 years before winning another championship and that Cubs fans, who are still waiting, would one day look back at 1918 as one of the first of many lost opportunities. 

Within days after ended it ended it was almost as if the Series had not been played at all.  Soldiers returning from Europe carried with them Spanish influenza and a few days after the Series scores of people began dying in Boston as the pandemic took hold.   Among its victims would be Series umpire Silk O’Loughlin, and several Boston sports writers who covered the Series.

The disease spread rapidly to Chicago, probably due to the return of soldiers to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, or, perhaps, by fans, sportswriters and players returning to Chicago from Boston.  In October alone more than ten thousand Chicagoans would die of the disease, and by the time the pandemic finally ended in the spring of 1919, more than a half million Americans were dead, 20,000 in Chicago and another 6,000 in Boston.

There was some good news, however.  On November 11, the Great War came to an end. In 1919 baseball would soon return to normal.  Unfortunately for the Red Sox and Cubs, “normal” no longer meant what it once did.  Another World Series victory would prove elusive for both teams. 
Adapted from Red Sox Century and The Cubs, copyright Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson. @GlennStout,



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