6 Great World Series Tying the Sport to the Sociology and Culture of America

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By Mark Weisenmiller / 10.24.2016

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Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball…Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city states”—Jacques M. Barzun (God’s Country and Mine, 1954)

Baseball, or some variations of the sport, has existed in the United States for almost two-thirds of the country’s 240 years of existence. For that reason alone it is the national past-time. Every October, Major League Baseball (MLB)’s annual championship matches the American and National League’s teams which win numerous post-Series playoff rounds. Known as the World Series, the 2016 World Series will begin this week between two Middle Western based teams: the Chicago Cubs (who last won the World Series in 1908, during the time that Theodore Roosevelt was President) and the Cleveland Indians. Cleveland, which has never hosted a World Series opener, will do so this year.

The sport, out of the four main games most played in North America (baseball, basketball, football, and ice hockey) consistently provides events a-plenty that have symbolized America and Americans. With that here are, in chronological order, six World Series which are notable for both providing thrilling and stimulating baseball, and also have noteworthy historical and sociological relevance.

Leading off here is the first World Series, held in 1903, between the now defunct Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although the World Series is now a best-of-seven format, originally it was a best-of-nine series. The Americans won, five games to three, against the Pirates. Star players in that initial World Series were Boston Americans pitchers Cy Young (who still holds the record for most career lifetime wins by a pitcher with 511) and Bill Dineen (who won three of his starts).

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1903 World Series

That first World Series–which was the first 20th century baseball championship–was symbolic of the country and its people in many ways. This was before the days of extensive mass communications, mass education, and mass transportation when many Americans lived and died within a radius of 30 miles from where they were born. Thus it was with the players of both of the teams; before many of them became professional ballplayers, many were naïve about the big, bad country. Some of them had never traveled west of St. Louis, Missouri during their entire lives.

There was no security to protect players from unruly fans and one of the striking things, even today, that one notices when looking at black and white, wide angle lens photographs of the exhibition parks in Boston and Pittsburgh where the World Series games were played is that several thousands of fans encircled the baseball diamonds where the players conducted their business. Umpires, justifiably, feared for their lives and author Lawrence S. Ritter wrote in his 1966 book The Glory of Their Times that umpires refereeing baseball games back then frequently carried loaded pistols for their personal protection and safety.

Baseballs were white (until, usually by the second inning of a game when, due to tobacco and black licorice eating ballplayers, the ball quickly became a disgusting and gooey black mess) and so were all of the players in the 1903 World Series. Segregation was the law of the land. Any African-American ballplayer wishing to play in the major leagues could not do so. Instead, they played for teams in the Negro Leagues. Baseball players were frequently looked down upon by much of society and so these alleged ragamuffins could not get booked into upper class hotels. Instead, they found temporary housing close to the ballparks they played in on road trips. Few stadiums actually existed–the U.S. was still a primarily rural place–and games were played in public parks, so the players would get dressed in their uniforms in the housing they were staying in and walk to and from the game. Cheap team owners were not keen on paying railroad tickets for their players.

In those pre world-war days, the U.S. was a boastful, exuberant, brash place and so were its citizens. Even the name of the annual fall baseball championship, the World Series, is ludicrous (as numerous Asian and Central American born players are quick to point out), for the two teams that play in the championship are either from Canada or the U.S. Entertainment for large sections of the populace in early 20th century Americans, in those pre-movie days, was restricted to reading, music, and/or poetry. This, too, is reflected in baseball, for the 1903 World Series came only 15 years after the publication of the classic 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat.”

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1919 World Series

Batting second is the 1919 World Series, which pitted the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. The latter won the series, five games to three. However, it was how they won that upset folks, for this was the famous so-called “Black Sox Scandal” series in which eight White Sox players were (after the World Series was over) accused of purposefully playing poorly so that their team would lose the series–which they did. Gambling in sports in general, and in baseball in particular, in the U.S. has always existed. The idea that baseball was once antiseptically morally clean and without faults is laughable. Gamblers and baseball players conspired to “throw” the 1919 World Series.

Diligent newspaper reporters, through aggressively investigating research for their stories that they write and which affect and effect American society were often considered pariahs in the times that they lived and worked. This was the case with the late sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, of the late Chicago Herald and Examiner, who is the one person most responsible for bringing to light the Black Sox scandal. Here’s what happened. He had heard rumors that a possible conspiracy to “fix” the World Series for the Reds, and which was backed by professional gamblers existed. As Fullerton was well known to many of those in the gambling world (ballplayers, gamblers, and sportswriters back then tended to be pals), he needed unremarkable people to investigate various aspects, or tips, of the plot. So he recruited said people and they helped him expose the fraud.

Charles Comiskey owned the White Sox. Being a true skinflint, he paid his players a mere pittance, which left them perpetually poor, and forever looking for more money. A better environment and situation for a gambler to fix a World Series has yet to be invented. Comiskey was so cheap that he would not pay to have the teams uniforms cleaned and pressed after ballgames (hence, due to dirt buildup, the nickname the Black Sox). He also told his manager not to give more starts to star pitcher Eddie Cicotte so that Comiskey would not have to pay him a pre-promised $10,000 bonus. The pitcher was livid.

Seven of the eight players in the conspiracy took bribes from professional gamblers; the only one who did not was third baseman Buck Weaver. In the days before Game 1, apparently there was some confusion among the eight (who had few meetings together to discuss what they were about to do) as to whether or not the “fix was in.” Yet when starting pitcher Cicotte hit the first Cincinnati batter in the back with a pitch, this was a pre-arranged signal to the other seven players that they should throw the game.

Fullerton wrote a series of articles exposing the gambling scandal and so it emerged that New York City based Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein was the moneyman behind the fix. All of this took some time to publicly come to fruition and the eight players collectively went to trial on charges of conspiracy to defraud in 1920. Before the trial started, however, key pieces of evidence for the prosecution mysteriously vanished (including signed confessions by Cicotte and another player). Because of this, all eight were found not guilty on all charges.

This story does not have a happy ending. Despite being found not guilty, all eight players were banned from playing professional baseball forever by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Perhaps Landis did so because he wanted to put the entire ugly scandal to rest. The game of baseball, for millions of Americans, was now viewed with disdain; many of them simply could not comprehend that the event had occurred. For some people, the Black Sox Scandal was proof positive that the upcoming Jazz Age produced immoral, unethical, and scandalous people. The Black Sox Scandal of the 1919 World Series so affected the American psyche that F. Scott Fitzgerald basked a key character on Rothstein in his book The Great Gatsby.

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1955 World Series

By the time the Brooklyn Dodgers met the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series, the sport was, without question, the national pastime, devoutly followed by rich and poor, black and white. An aspect of U.S. culture and literature is the Poor Soul. He or she keeps trying to better themselves in life but frequently to no avail. This exists even today, as any young lower-level worker at a computer company can attest. The Poor Soul, the schmuck, frequently is foiled by an incompetent boss who is in a position of authority solely due to nepotism (yet we should note here that in all aspects of the sport—broadcasting, managing, coaching, etc.–nepotism still exists in baseball).

We can apply this scenario to the 1955 World Series, with the Dodgers being the Poor Soul and the Yankees being the perceived (at least by Brooklyn fans) snooty boss. Five times the Brooklyn Dodgers had previously played the Yankees in past World Series and the Dodgers lost all of them. Even more frustrating for our Poor Soul Dodgers is the fact that in those five World Series, the Dodgers did not play poorly at all; it was just that the Yankees played slightly better. Every October after these games devoted Brooklyn fans would yell the same thing–“wait until next year ! ”

New York City in the 1950’s was, in the words of documentary film-maker Ken Burns (who made the early 1990’s multi-part series about the sport) “the capital of baseball.” During the eight-year period from 1949 to 1956, a New York City based team won the World Series. The Dodgers, the Giants, and the Yankees all were based in New York City. This was the only time in MLB history in which three good and talented teams were based in one city. All three of these teams had star players: Willie Mays and Whitey Lockman for the Giants; Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson (the first African-American player to play full-time in the major leagues) for the Dodgers; Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford for the Yankees.

When an aging Robinson (he would retire after the 1956 season) daringly stole home in Game 1, this seemed to energize the Dodgers. The series, tied three games apiece, went to Game 7 played in Yankee Stadium. Dodgers outfielder Sandy Amoros made a thrilling one-handed catch on a ball hit by Yankee batter Yogi Berra to preserve a Game Seven victory, and World Series victory, for the Dodgers. The Poor Soul had finally moved up in the world–but it was only temporary. By the end of the decade, the Dodgers and the Giants would be moved by their owners to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectfully. The days of New York City being “the capital of baseball” were over.

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1964 World Series

Batting fourth is the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Yankees, for the 18th time in the past 24 years, were in the World Series, but they were becoming an aging ball club. Mantle, Ford, Roger Maris (who set a single season record for home runs with 61 in 1961) were slowing down. After this World Series, the Yankees would not return to play in one until 1976. The 1964 World Series had two brothers playing against each other–Clete and Ken Boyer from Missouri. Both were starting third basemen; Ken with the Cardinals and Clete with the Yankees. Family rivalry between brothers in U.S. history yet again.

Author-historian David Halberstam, in his book October 1964 came up with a working thesis for the tome. That is, the status quo and the somewhat racist Yankee team organization (there were only three African-American players on the 25 man Yankee squad of 1964) was being passed, both in terms of open-minded equity and overall baseball talent, by the younger, more aggressive, faster, more liberal-minded (in terms of racial equality) St. Louis Cardinals. The latter team was led by such black superstars as outfielder Lou Brock, pitcher Bob Gibson, centerfielder Curt Flood, and first baseman Bill White. This St. Louis team–whose African-American and Caucasian players, wives, and families were friends socially–were, so Halberstam believed, the prototype of both a new type of baseball play and also a sort of pre-avatar to the soon-to-be burgeoning civil rights movement.

He was correct, especially regarding the baseball part of his theory. In Game 1 of the series, Brock dared to advance from first to third when a team-mate singled to Mantle in right field. Known for having a strong throwing arm, in gunning down base runners, Mantle did not even attempt a throw to take out Brock. From that point outwards, the Cardinals had won the psychological war against the Yankees. The Cardinals would not be intimidated by them, and they won the World Series in seven games.

“The most important event of the 1964 baseball season was the news on August 13 that the Columbia Broadcasting Company had bought control (80 percent) of the New York Yankees for the sum of $11,200, 000,” wrote long-time New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell in an October, 1964 story for that magazine. True, for from that moment onward, the television industry, and the tens of millions of dollars that it has, would directly affect the sport. No longer would a team’s owner feel fidelity or loyalty to keeping his team in one city (or, to use a term from the television industry, one market). Owners would now move their teams to a city whose civic leaders offered them both the best tax breaks and also the best (i.e., most fiscally lucrative) television rights contract. Television, in fact, is directly responsible for World Series games being played solely at night (the first World Series game was played in Pittsburgh in 1971). No games of the 2016 World Series will be played during daylight hours. Non-athletic factors were rapidly changing the sport.

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1985 World Series

Jacques Barzun’s quote, which appears at the top of this story, is apt for our next World Series to be profiled: the 1985 affair between the Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals. There are intense rivalries between teams and fans based on the East Coast (such as the Yankees v. the Boston Red Sox) and West Coast (example: the Dodgers and the Giants), but as far as decades-long sustained rivalries, nothing compares to teams that are based in the Middle West. From north in Minneapolis, to south in Arlington, Texas, fans and players eagerly await the start of each regular season. Due to geographical location, Middle West Baseball (or MWB, as we shall call it) also brings in millions of fans from the southern states since only three teams in major league baseball are based in that region. Parents who follow MWB–and they must number in the tens of millions–teach their children at early ages to be devoted to the major league team closest to where they live. Such devotion gets passed on to their following descendents, so the theory of Barzun is alive and well in 2016 MWB.

Elements of all of this came into play during the 1985 World Series. Dubbed the “I-70” series (after the interstate roadway which links both cities), this World Series was notable because its conclusion was, indirectly, caused by a mistake from an umpire in Game 6. First base umpire Don Denkinger muffed a call there (he called a Royals runner safe when video tapes, from multiple camera angles, showed that he was clearly out). This let the Royals eventually come back to win Game 6, leveling the Series at three wins apiece for the two teams. Thoroughly dejected, the Cardinals lost Game 7 and thus also the World Series. What makes the Royals winning of this series all the more remarkable is that they lost Games 1 and 2 at home and, previous to this series, no team that ever lost the first two games played on their home field had ever bounced back to win a World Series.

To this day, 31 years later, there are fans of the Cardinals, both in St. Louis and elsewhere, who have never forgiven Denkinger for his mistake. Immediately after the series, some crazed, irate Cardinals fans even sent him death threats. Two idiotic St. Louis radio hosts actually broadcast the umpire’s home address and telephone number. Barzun’s theory did not mention the fact that senseless violence can come from the rivalry between city-states in baseball and if he was living now, he would have to amend his statement to do so. Resentments, and holding grudges, are two of the more unpleasant aspects of the American persona.

#6

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1991 World Series

Until now, the five profiled World Series have had one or more historical or sociological aspects to them. With the final World Series to be profiled—the classic 1991 matchup between the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins—the outstanding quality of the play of baseball is the true star. ESPN has often called this the best World Series ever played and there is much evidence to support this claim.

One does not need to be a full-time, or even casual sports fan to appreciate the following aspects of the 1991 World Series: A) it lasted the slated seven games (like a three act play, World Series that do this provide organic drama, unlike the fake razzmatazz of the annual football Super Bowl), B) Games 6 and 7 went into extra innings (actually, three of the seven games did so), C) Both Games 6 and 7 were decided on the last plays of their respective games (which were won with a home run and a clinch single, respectively; four of the seven games of the series were decided at the final at-bat), D) the home teams won all seven games, E) In the decisive Game 7, neither team scored a single run in the allotted nine innings, F) five of the series seven games were decided by only one run, and G) since the World Series went to a best-of-seven format in 1905, the 1991 World Series was comprised of 69 complete innings–the most ever for a seven game World Series.

One thing that never fails to impress international folks who see events attended by thousands of Americans who gather at public events is their noisy and boisterous clamoring. Whether it be at a summertime national political convention or a religious meeting held in an arena, Americans love to make a massive noisy racket.

Such was the case for the 1991 World Series, especially at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis (home field for the Twins). This venue, which was opened in 1982 and closed in the last week of 2013, had a maximum seating capacity for baseball of 55,883. Due to its unique construction, sound created in the arena reverberated for long periods of time. When the four World Series games played there were broadcast on CBS radio and television, audio technicians constantly had to monitor their sound systems due to the sustained periods of high-decibel sound.

The audience for Game 7, primarily Twins fans, had much to shout about in Game 7 when, in the bottom of the tenth inning, Twins batter Gene Larkin hit a bloop single to left centerfield. That scored his teammate Dan Gladden from third base and even before the ball hit the ground, the Twins fans promptly went berserk. Collective euphoria creates memories for all those who find themselves in it and Americans love to look back on such moments.

This was the last World Series played before the computer replaced television as the primary source of news and information for Americans. Thus this was the last World Series which truly united Americans. CBS television had a cumulative Nielsen rating of 24.0 for the 1991 World Series; no subsequent World Series broadcast on network television has even come close to this mark. For Game 7, CBS had a ratings share of 32.2 and an incredible 50.3 share (this means that half of all television viewers at that time were watching the game). That last figure, when further computed, equates to over 50 million people. As the population of the U.S. in October of 1991 was approximately 250 million people, this means that approximately 1 out of every five people in the country watched parts of, or all of, Game 7.

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REFERENCES: Websites: 1) www.popline.org, 2) data.worldbank.org, 3) Wikipedia, 4) www.baseball-almanac.org, 5) www.baseball-reference.com, 6) www.thisgreatgame.com, 7) www.mlb.com, 8) YouTube, 9) www.thenationalpastime.com. Books: 1) The Glory Of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter (1966), 2) Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (1963) by Eliot Asinof, 3) The Boys of Summer (1998) by Roger Kahn, 4) October 1964 (1994) by David Halberstam, 5) The Summer Game (1972) by Roger Angell, 6) Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game (2006) by George Vecsey.

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