Cubs vs Red Sox 1918 World Series: A Tradition is Born

by on May 21, 2011

Baseball Fan Robert Harris‘ submission to Baseballisms.com reprinted with permission. We sometimes take our traditions for granted and fail to recognize the originator of the idea.  We thank Robert for reminding us, especially on this special weekend of inter-league play.

Boston Red Sox 1918 World Series Champs | Baseballisms.com

This weekend, an interleague series will recall possibly the most unique World Series ever played, the 1918 meeting between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.

It’s true that these two teams played each other in Wrigley Field back in 2005. This was actually the first time the Red Sox ever visited Wrigley, since the 1918 Series was played in the old Comiskey Park on Chicago’s South side (how the times have changed!) But the backstory for this particular series is worth revisiting.

The United States had entered into the European war in 1917. The iconic Uncle Sam poster declared “I Want You,” and the patriotic call to arms was “Work, or fight!” It was determined, by the Secretary of War, that playing baseball did not fall into the “work” category. And thus, on Labor Day, 1918, the baseball season came to an end after the teams had played anywhere between 124 and 131 games. It was the shortest season on record in the majors, and would remain so until the strike-shortened 1981 season lasted just 118 games.

The early stoppage in play meant that the World Series was played entirely in September, for the first and only time. It was also a very low-scoring affair, with just 19 runs scored in the six games. The Red Sox used only 4 pitchers for the Series, and the Cubs used a two-man starting rotation. In four of the six games, both starters pitched complete games. Baseball was clearly a different game back then.

But what makes this series noteworthy began with Game 1 in Chicago. Babe Ruth was pitching for the Red Sox, facing off against Hippo Vaughn. Big league rosters had been diluted during wartime, and Ruth became a player in transition. He had seen his pitching starts drop from 38 in 1917 to 19 for the 1918 season. Conversely, his plate appearances had nearly tripled, going from 142 in 1917 to 380 in 1918. Even so, he was still enough of a pitcher to get the nod for Game 1 of the World Series.

Throughout the game, a brass band played patriotic favorites in the stands. In the middle of the seventh inning (although there is no record that it was called the “seventh inning stretch” at the time, it was still a well-established baseball tradition) the band began playing Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The crowd immediately joined in and, as it was reported the next day, Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas removed his cap and stood at attention on the field. Ruth also paused during his warm-up tosses as the impromptu show of patriotism played itself out.

Boston won the game 1-0, and for each of the next two games, the song was again played during the seventh inning. And when the series shifted back to Boston, for game 4, a tradition was born.

Harry Frazee | Baseballisms.comThe Red Sox were owned at the time by Harry Frazee, a Broadway producer with more than a dozen shows to his credit. Many of them only ran for a few performances, but he had enough success in the business to purchase a baseball team in 1916, at the age of 36.

Every Red Sox fan knows that Frazee later sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. But what Frazee lacked in baseball foresight, he made up for in show business savvy. He wanted to play the song, as had been done in Chicago, but with a new twist. Rather than burying the song within the game, Frazee decided to put it front and center by playing it before the start of the game. And so it was for each of the games played in Boston that year.

The song was officially declared the National Anthem by an act of Congress in 1931, and the tradition of playing the song before every game, whether played during the postseason or not, began decades later during World War II. Even so, as I make my first visit to Fenway Park this month, I’ll think about Harry Frazee, a brass band, and the players and fans of the Cubs and Red Sox from many Septembers ago.

Robert

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