Recalling Cubs vs. Red Sox in 1918: a Series fiasco

Baseball’s September promise, which had been notably dim at best, proved worse than expected. The faint hope of at least one genuine race to the wire got smashed when the Red Sox mounted a magnificently mindless surge (11 straight and counting) that compares favorably with the greatest stretch drives any team has ever staged.

Leaving us in the final week with no more than breathtaking battles for wild cards, which this arch-traditionalist chooses politely to ignore, thanks anyway.  So let’s dispense with the be-numbing preliminaries and jump straight to the denouement, the Fall Classic itself, which is only what counts.

As was discussed here lately, the Indians and Nationals have intense lobbies. But the Chicago Cubs are the historical loser that everyone most wants to see in the grand finale, and as they finish off the demolition of their NL Central Division, they’re almost a no-brainer to reach the final round.

As for the AL team that would make the worthiest foil, most charm the Republic, and maybe light some fire in the culture that stretches beyond the game in a rating’s battle with pro-football and a national election, it’s again no contest.  It’s your Red Sox, obviously.

Everyone wants Cubs-Red Sox, two timeless baseball names, even if their reasons remain downright silly. Observers otherwise indifferent to the subject are easily turned on. So get ready, fans: It’s going to get lyrical.

Poets will warm to it, and essayists will wax over it lengthily. There’ll be much tiresome re-telling of jinxes and curses long past and never valid. Sentimental hogwash will be spilled in praise of tired old towns that, for all their woes, remain rock-ribbed pillars of Americana, rich in myth and memory. And above all, we’ll be reminded again and again that these two have been here before, perched at baseball’s precipice with turmoil everywhere awash in that magical year 1918.

Fair enough! But what will not be quite so heavily and ardently noted is the fact that when last they did meet so quaintly, in 1918, it was a fiasco bordering on disgrace. Indeed, for a proper reading of 1919 – when baseball melted down in scandal and crisis – you must factor in what happened in 1918.  The issues that resulted in the “Black Sox” scandal were hardly confined to the Chicago White Sox.  

It had much to do with the final horrific throes of World War I, with the US, now fully into it, however belatedly, seized by mobilization fervor. A  “work or fight edict” was issued by the government, an act essentially decreeing those involved in frivolous pursuits like professional baseball had better sign up to fight or get a job in a defense plant, terminating the season. Baseball officials fiercely resisted, arguing, as they would more successfully in WW II, that America needed its beloved pastime to sustain morale in extremely urgent times. So late in August, the World Series remained in doubt.

Finally, the government acquiesced, but only if Baseball would shorten its season and finish the World Series by early September. Baseball’s moguls, then ruling tyrannically under a three-man National Commission, were pleased to oblige and even more pleased to pass most of the compromise’s costs onto the players, which is how the players saw it and who could blame them.

Player-contracts were negated, salaries terminated, assessments levied for government-mandated charities, and post-season bonuses heavily slashed to record lows. As World Series combatants, the Cubs and Red Sox bristled.  

They were excellent teams. Boston had Harry Hooper, Wally Schang, superb pitching from Carl Mays, Joe Bush, and Sam Jones and, above all, the emerging 23- year-old paragon Babe Ruth, starring in the outfield when not  starring on the mound. Almost as good, the Cubs featured Freddie Merkle, Max Flack, Les Mann, and an equally good staff led by lefty Hippo Vaughn.

But with crowds way down and controversy stirring, the mood of the thing was awful as the Red Sox took a 3-1 series lead. Increasingly disturbing was the shoddy play, especially of the Cubs, with many of their defensive and base-running blunders suspect. There were rumors. Whereupon the owners announced further cuts in player-shares.  

It was on the long train ride back to Boston with the players mingling and growing angrier by the mile that things turned ugly. They demanded negotiations, and when the owners ignored them, they showed up for Game Five and announced they were “on strike.” So, with the bands playing and Royal Rooters marching and ex-Boston Mayor Honey Fitz himself stoking the frenzied full house as police roamed the outfield, the Cubs and Red Sox sat locked in the umpires’ room in the bowels of old Fenway as game time arrived.  

A classic moment ensued, and the shame is we have so few details. It’s known that Ban Johnson, the Commission chairman, finally confronted the players. According to Harry Hooper, leader of the Sox strikers, Johnson was quite drunk, having spent the morning working the Copley Hotel mahogany bar, but apparently still nimble enough to convince the players that they’d be regarded as treasonous ingrates guilty of dishonoring America’s fighting men should they not play ball.

Knowing they were whipped, the players relented in exchange for a promise there’d be no recriminations. It only took a couple weeks for the owners to renege.  

But in the end, the moguls paid a bitter price. Player resentment of the owners’ tyranny would pervade the entire 1919 season with controversy and suspicion creating the mood from which the Black Sox scandal inevitably sprung.  Not all the crooks played for the White Sox.

If we get a Cubs-Red Sox reprise in 2016, it’s likely to be rather less melodramatic. One would hope!