What was the first World Series really like?

Fans in Boston flood the field prior to the first game of the 1903 World Series.

How long ago was the first World Series? Well, when it was played, Pittsburgh didn’t have an “H.”

The modern World Series debuted in 1903, the result of a shaky truce between the established National League and the upstart whippersnappers known as the “American League.” The fact that the two leagues agreed to face off with each other was a miracle.

How we got two leagues to play in a World Series

Ever since Bancroft Johnson gained control of the Western League in the 1890s, he was scheming to build it into a rival to the National League. The NL had been pretty damn stable since the 1880s, and was unquestionably the top professional baseball league in the United States. At first the National League looked down their noses at the Western League, and they regularly signed and stole players from that circuit.

But Johnson wasn’t the type to be pushed around, and in 1900, he renamed the Western League to the American League. He moved the team he owned to Chicago, to directly compete for fans with the NL’s Chicago franchise.

After the 1900 season, Johnson announced that the American League was leaving the “National Agreement,” which set the organization of professional leagues and classified the Western/American League as a “minor league.” Johnson boldly declared his league was a major league and promised to sign players away from the National League.

Predictably, the leaders of the National League hated this idea, and fought it tooth and nail, as well as in the courts. But Johnson prevailed and moved teams into Washington D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. The latter two of which invaded a city where the NL had a franchise.

For a few years, the AL teams raided NL rosters and signed stars. They recruited longtime National League figures, and slowly gained market share in cities they shared with the rival league.

A tenuous peace between two rival baseball leagues

It was probably the possibility that the American League was close to signing superstar pitcher Christy Mathewson that forced the National League to seek a truce. The prospect of Matty pitching for an AL team in New York, just a few blocks from his old team the Giants, was too much. In January of 1903, officials from both leagues met in Cincinnati to hammer out a peace.

The Cincinnati talks produced the “National Agreement,” which would lay down how the two leagues would be run under similar rules and schedules; and the “National Commission,” a three-man committee that would rule over major league baseball. The three were Johnson and two NL executives: NL president Harry Pulliam, and Cincinnati Reds owner Garry Herrmann. In some ways, the balance was unfair, because Herrmann was a long-time pal of Johnson, even though he was supposed to provide an impartial point of view.

The 1903 season was the first year that the A: and NL played on a level footing and recognized the other contracts of other teams. But while the two circuits were happy to stop the practice of raiding each other’s teams rosters and competing and scheming to destroy each other’s teams, the AL and NL had not agreed to play each other on the field.

Pittsburg* and Industrial America in 1903

It was the fall of 1903, the second full year of the Roosevelt administration in Washington D.C. That’s TEDDY Roosevelt, the Rough Rider, the high-pitched squeaky-voiced indomitable figure who ascended to the office of the President after a crazy anarchist shot and killed William McKinley.

The country was emerging from the Gilded Age, the difficult growth period after the Civil War and leading into the Industrial Revolution. The winners of that revolution? Several northern cities, including Pittsburg (without an “H”, thank you very much).*

By 1903, Pittsburg(h) was The Steel City, spitting out enough of the material to remake America, which was stretching its legs to expand rail and roads across the continent, simultaneously building factories and mills to dot the Midwest and Southeast.

It was a man named Andrew Carnegie who witnessed the steel smelting process in England in the 1870s and brought the practice back to Pittsburgh with him. So much steel production took place in the city and the steel mills were running so often and so hot that it was said that Pittsburgh was “Hell with the lid taken off.”

The 1903 Pirates weren’t expected to be a good baseball team. More than any other National League club, they had lost a lot of talent to the American League. Prior to the peace agreement, two of their star pitchers (Happy Jack Chesbro and Jesse Tannehill) had jumped to the AL. Just like that, 48 wins were lost.

But the Pirates had the best player in baseball, even if he looked like a bumpkin. John Peter Wagner was from Chartiers, a coal-mining community just south of Pittsburgh. Wagner was 29 years old in 1903, and he had already won a batting title. He was baseball’s most gifted player, but with his huge ears, unbelievably large hands and feet, and his freakishly long arms, Wagner looked like a sideshow rather than a superstar. He was also modest, quiet, and a gentleman. Baseball had modest men in the early 1900s, but most of them were still drinkers and hard-nosed bastards who liked to fight and hang out in pool halls. “Honus” Wagner was a simple baseball player who happened to be better than anyone else at the game.

Wagner’s play at shortstop and his second batting title spearheaded the Pirates’ offense. Sam Leever and Deacon Phillippe replaced the departed Chesbro and Tannehill very well, combining for 50 wins. The Pirates took over first place in mid-June and cruised to the pennant.

The Boston Americans

Cy Young exemplified the power shift between the old National League and the new American League. In the 1890s, the barrel-chested right-handed pitcher starred for the Cleveland Spiders in the NL. He used a remarkably speedy fastball to mow down enemy batters, and he averaged 28 wins per season between 1891 and 1900 in the National League.

But a lucrative contract ($10,000 over three years) lured Young to the Boston team in the AL. He proved to be worthy of the money: in 1903 the 36-year old won 28 games and tossed seven shutouts. The Americans (“Red Sox” would not come along for a few years) took control of the pennant race in mid-summer, and after a July 4th doubleheader sweep, they were never seriously challenged for supremacy. The Americans finished 14 games ahead of the next closest team in the league.

How the Modern World Series Started

As the season wound down, Pittsburg(h) team owner Barney Dreyfus sent a wire message to the owner of the Boston team, a man named Henry Killilea, whom Sporting Life once called “the godfather of the American League.”

It was Dreyfus who made the “godfather” an offer he couldn’t refuse: he proposed that the two teams meet for a series after the conclusion of the regular season. Dreyfus reportedly called it “the championship of the United States.” But since there was very little professional baseball elsewhere at the time, it became known as the “World’s Series.” (Note the apostrophe, which was used to describe the series for several years until it was abandoned.)

What did Ban Johnson think of the idea? He relished the opportunity for his league to show the older National League who had the better product.

“Play them, and beat them,” Johnson told Killilea. “You must beat them.”

The series was schedule to begin on October 1, three days after the finish of the AL schedule. The parties agreed to a best-of-nine format, and a split of gate receipts to the teams, with the home teams getting a little more of the money.

The 1903 World Series

Just as the first Super Bowl was much different than the spectacle we see today that crowns an NFL champion, the first modern World Series would not be recognizable to us. There was very little media coverage of the event outside of the local papers in Pittsburgh and Boston. Even at that, most headlines were afterthoughts on the sports page, sharing space below the results of college football games.

The Pirates pounced on a tired Young and won Game One easily, 7-3. The first batter was Ginger Beaumont, and the first home run in the World Series was hit by Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Sebring. Young pitched the entire game but he allowed 12 hits and seven runs (four unearned). The game was played at Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds in Boston, and the crowd swelled to more than 16,000 (the park only held about 11,000). Standing-room sections were added to the bleacher areas, and fans were allowed to line the field in foul territory. While the media may not have taken the first World Series seriously, baseball fans did.

Boston was supported by a group of raucous fans called “The Royal Rooters.” As many as 800 of these fans, many of whom carried bullhorns or played musical instruments, traveled from Boston to Pittsburgh for the games. Their loud (and some would say obnoxious) proved that American League baseball was more popular than the NL game. The Boston players loved the support, many of them greeting and thanking the Rooters for traveling with them to the road games.

After the Pittsburgh victory in Game One, Boston’s superior pitching staff tossed two shutouts (both by Bill Dinneen), and the Americans emerged victorious in eight games. Johnson was delighted, and seized the opportunity to place proud advertisements in each of the cities where an AL team was located. The National League seethed with embarrassment. The following year, when the Giants won the NL pennant, their manager John McGraw (remembering Johnson’s gloating) would refuse to play the AL. Which is why there was no 1904 World Series.

The Boston victory in the first modern World Series went a long way to cementing the relationship between the two leagues. It showed that a younger league could compete on the field with an older circuit. Every year but two (1904 and 1994) the tradition has continued.

*In 1891 the United States Board on Geographic Names adopted thirteen general principles to be used in standardizing place names, one of which was that place names ending in -burgh should drop the final -h. At this time the city’s name was rendered “Pittsburg.”

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