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A National Pastime Celebrates a Century

The game today has similarities from when Boston faced Pittsburgh in the first World Series in 1903.

October 18, 2003|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

In the beginning, there were the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates, playing in the first championship series between the American and National leagues. The best-of-nine series began Oct. 1, 1903, playing in front of crowds of varying size and voice at the Huntington Avenue Grounds at Boston and Pittsburgh's Exposition Park.

There was no television coverage and certainly no pitch-by-pitch update on the Internet, but 10 Boston newspapers offered extensive daily reports.

The Boston team, later known as the Pilgrims or Puritans and soon to be called the Red Sox, defeated the Pirates, five games to three, in the first World Series.

One hundred years later, the New York Yankees and Florida Marlins play today in Game 1 of a vastly different -- yet remarkably familiar -- World Series.

From Cy Young to Christy Mathewson to Bob Gibson to Randy Johnson and from Shoeless Joe Jackson to Babe Ruth to Kirk Gibson to Scott Spiezio, the more the game has changed, the more it has stayed the same.

In a way, the game is a bit like the statue of Young, posed as if awaiting a sign from a long-forgotten catcher, that commemorates the site of the 1903 World Series, on what is now the Northeastern University campus.

We acknowledge the subtle -- and not so subtle -- changes over the decades, but the game is comforting because it is so recognizable. Young's cap and glove are different from the ones the Yankees and Marlins will wear. There's no number on his uniform, as there are on the Yankee and Marlin jerseys.

But the ball is the same, the game is the same. What has changed through the years is baseball's popularity, growing from the passionate followings in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest in the early 1900s to a worldwide audience today.

New York, as it is in so many other things, has been acknowledged to be the center of the baseball universe in the early days.

"A big early factor is the power and the dynasty of the New York Giants," said Roger Kahn, baseball author and historian. "Boston-Pittsburgh was the first World Series in '03. There was no series in '04, then you have the Giants and Philadelphia Athletics in '05 and Christy Mathewson has three shutouts in six days."

Mathewson was transformed into a national hero, except perhaps in Philadelphia, and the Giants were cast as a team as great as their nickname.

"They were the dynasty of the day until the Yankees of Ruth," Kahn said. "When the game really began to take off was after the fixed World Series [when the 1919 Chicago White Sox threw the series].

"The Giants and Yankees met in the World Series in 1921, '22 and '23. The Giants were a very technical team, getting on base, stealing second base, hitting and running. They won the first two Series, but in the third Series between the teams, Ruth devastated the Giants with his power."

Despite the fact that, as Kahn said, "There were no blacks in baseball at the time and it was played only in the eastern third to one-half of the country," the game was firmly established as the national pastime.

The first seeds of the country's baseball love affair were sown in the late 1880s, when the first championship series between top baseball leagues were played. The National League's Providence Grays defeated the American Assn.'s New York Metropolitans in 1884.

The rise of Ban Johnson's American League at the turn of the century created a new challenge for the more established National League, however. Competition for players was fierce between the leagues and there was no championship series in 1901 or 1902 because the leagues were at war with each other.

Finally, a peace of sorts was established when the AL's Boston Americans (not to be confused with the NL's Boston Beaneaters) accepted a best-of-nine challenge from Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss to play what is considered to be the first World Series.

"There had been earlier postseason tournaments sometimes referred to as world championships, but there was no continuity," said Roger Abrams, a Northeastern University law professor and the author of a new book, "The First World Series and the Baseball Fanatics of 1903."

There was no World Series in 1904 because John McGraw refused to let his Giants play against American League teams. But the World Series resumed the next year and, except for the players' strike in 1994, it has been played every year since.

"My God, 100 years, so few things have lasted that long," Abrams said.

It wasn't until 1922 that the World Series permanently became a best-of-seven contest.

The game's changes are "not as much as you'd think if you had been fortunate enough to have been at those ballgames at the Huntington Grounds or at Exposition Park," according to Abrams.

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