In 1918, Different Time, Same Outcome
By Meredith Goad
Portland Press Herald
Thursday, October 28, 2004
The country was at war. People fretted about the flu. There was an election just around the corner.
Sound familiar? Actually, those headlines aren't from today's newspaper but from 1918, the last year the Boston Red Sox won a World Series.
The war was World War I, and it had a major effect on professional baseball that year. Many of the best players enlisted in the armed services, leaving their teams in the lurch. The government instituted a "work or fight" order that said men of draft age had to either join up or be working in a war-related job by Sept. 1.
Some baseball players got around the order by going to work for shipbuilding companies or munitions factories, then playing ball on the side for the companies' teams. The public looked on them as "slackers" who weren't doing their part to serve their country.
That attitude, along with the fact that games were held in the afternoon, began to affect attendance at ballparks. With everyone busy at war-related jobs, no one thought much about America's favorite pastime, and attendance - and ticket prices - plummeted.
"Some games were getting 100 people, 200 people," said Allan Wood, author of "Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox," an account of Boston's last championship. "They just decided to cut their losses and end the season early, and play the World Series in early September."
The first game of the 1918 World Series was called off because of rain, and it began instead at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 5 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The top ticket price was just $3, slashed from $5 in 1917. Bleacher seats cost 50 cents.
Even such drastic cost-cutting didn't bring out the crowds, and there was no problem getting a good seat for this face-off between the Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. A story in the Sept. 6 edition of Portland's Daily Eastern Argus noted that the crowd of 19,274 was one of the smallest ever for an opening day of the World Series. Out-of-town fans were kept away by high wartime railroad prices.
"The effect of the war was everywhere apparent, especially in the temper of the crowd which, largely local, saw the home team drop the first game without a protest," the newspaper said. "There was no cheering during the contest, nor was there anything like the usual umpire baiting."
The Red Sox won that game 1-0. The atmosphere changed at the second game, which Chicago took 3-1.
"The fighting blood of both teams was up from the beginning," the Daily Eastern Argus reported. "Umpires were growled at; the crowd grew partisan and way down in the depths of the Boston bomb-proof, Knabe, Chicago coach, and Wagner, ditto for Boston, got into a fight. The crowd learned of it when players and umpires dived into the dugout and separated them."
Boston bounced back and took Game 3, also held in Chicago, 2-1.
The shortage of players that season had been good to Babe Ruth. The slugger was eager to play more often and play other positions, Wood said, but had been limited to pitching by Sox management. During the 1918 season, Ruth started playing first base and left field in addition to his pitching duties.
"Pitchers playing the field or fielders pitching wasn't entirely uncommon then, but to do it as much as he did it and as well as he did it was something that had never happened before," Wood said.
Ruth went back to pitching for the World Series, however, and threw a shut-out in the first game. He also pitched Game 4 at Fenway Park and had a big hit to win the game 3-2.
"That titanic triple of Ruth's was the outstanding thrill of the game," the Evening Express & Advertiser reported. "... The stands burst into unrestrained applause, for all the world as they did when the big things happened in before-the-war sports."
In the fourth game, Ruth didn't allow a run until the seventh inning and set a record for consecutive scoreless World Series innings that wasn't broken until 1963.
"Ruth said a few times that that scoreless inning record was the record he was most proud of having," Wood said. "He was a big factor in the series."
Many Maine Red Sox fans made trips to Boston to see Ruth play even though travel was somewhat risky because of the danger of being exposed to the flu. The Spanish flu pandemic, which ultimately killed more than 20 million people worldwide, was raging at the time.
The Portland Sunday Telegram carried the obituary of John O'Meara, a Biddeford man who went to Boston just to see Ruth in the series: "He was accompanied by a number of Biddeford young men with whom he chummed, and they returned home on the Pullman train, and shortly after Mr. O'Meara was taken down sick and was never able to leave his bed."
The Evening Express noted that many Red Sox fans in Portland skipped voting in a state election so they could go to Boston to watch Game 4 at Fenway Park.
With no on-the-spot radio or television coverage available, newspaper stories about the 1918 series consisted mostly of play-by-plays of the games. Fans also followed the action on contraptions that looked like board games at newspapers, arenas and other establishments that had direct wires to the games. The Evening Express promised readers "an inning by inning bulletin service with the big baseball board."
The 1918 series almost ended with Game 5 on Sept. 10, when the game was delayed an hour so the players could decide whether to go on strike.
Typically both teams playing in a World Series were paid a portion of the gate receipts from the first four games. But the low ticket prices and low attendance at the 1918 games were poised to cut into their profits in a big way.
"Without consulting the players, the owners voted to lessen the players' shares and also to contribute 10 percent of the players' shares to charity," Wood said.
On game day, the players refused to come onto the field until the three baseball commissioners dealt with the issue. But the commissioners showed up at Fenway Park drunk, Wood said, and were in no shape to negotiate.
The crowd of nearly 25,000 grew restless, and there were repeated cries of "play ball," according to newspaper accounts. Police reserves were rushed to the ballpark for fear there might be a riot. The atmosphere shifted somewhat when a large detachment of wounded soldiers arrived in the grandstand.
"The entire grandstand and bleachers rose en masse while the band played 'Over There' and gave the heroes three lusty cheers, the loudest and the most heartfelt that have yet been given in the series," according to the Evening Express.
Harry Hooper, right fielder for the Sox, was the first player to emerge on the field.
"We will play," he said, speaking for both teams, "not because we think we are getting a fair deal, because we are not. But we'll play for the sake of the game, for the sake of the public which has always given us its loyal support, and for the sake of the wounded soldiers and sailors who are in the grandstand waiting for us."
When the players finally came out on the field, they were greeted with mingled boos and cheers.
Chicago kept the Sox from the championship that day by winning 3-0.
Rumors of a strike held down attendance at Game 6, but those who stayed away missed an historic moment. It was the Sox in six, with a score of 2-1. Eighty-six years later ...
This story was published on Page
of the Portland Press Herald on October 28, 2004