90 YEARS of the WORLD SERIES
Each generation writes its own baseball history in personal memories
BOSTON — IT has been exactly 90 years since America first began giving its heart to a series of games that determines the champion of the baseball world and provides a benchmark for many.
It was the autumn of 1903, the first year of peace between the established National League and the three-year-old upstart American League, when the modern World Series debuted with a best-of-nine-games series between the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Nationals.
From the series' earliest moments it was apparent that this was going to be more than the simple athletic challenge the team owners expected when they met to arrange it in September. It was apparent from the crowds that overran Boston's Huntington Avenue Grounds, where the top hats of the politicians shared space with the derbies of the gamblers, and the showgirls rooted alongside Beacon Hill matrons. It was apparent in the hometown and the out-of-town newspapers, where coverage swelled as the series passed. This was an event that transcended itself from its first moments.
Perhaps it was the newspapers' continual emphasis on the uniquely and intensely American nature of the game, the belief in an immigrant land that the way to establish an identity as an American was to embrace the game of baseball. Or perhaps the fans recognized in the World Series a spectacle that did justice to the grandeur that people had always found in the game. Or perhaps it was the trace of a chill in the October air, reminding people that another summer had fled, another harvest was nigh; these would be the final games for a while, and would be savored for that reason alone.
In the nine decades since those first games between Boston and Pittsburgh, Boston won, 5 games to 3. It has become ever more clear that the World Series is the cherished emotional property of the fans. Whether the games on the field are memorable or not, the experience of bearing witness to them is common to all of America, and the memories - unlike the memories from a Super Bowl, or a basketball final, or even from an Olympic Games - are indelible. They do not fade as the years pass.
Have those who were alive and children in 1919 ever fully healed the heartbreak they knew when they learned that the Chicago White Sox were crooked?
Did Babe Ruth point before hitting that home run or didn't he? And how much sweeter a moment it is for its mystery - for not having been caught by a dozen different television cameras from a dozen different angles.
And yet - hasn't Carlton Fisk's home run been enhanced by the timeless image of his standing next to home plate and waving the ball fair on a warm Fenway midnight?
If the memories come from the years prior to, say, 1970, they are framed in the long shadows of late afternoon - Yogi Berra leaping into Don Larsen's arms following Larsen's perfect game; Bill Mazeroski loping around the bases while all of Pittsburgh trailed jubilantly in his wake.
If the memories come subsequent to 1970, they are illuminated by stadium lights and, as likely as not, cast in the chromatic hue of a television image - Reggie Jackson standing magisterially at home plate, watching a third home run disappear into the delirious throngs at Yankee Stadium; Kirk Gibson limping around the bases while the camera cuts to a stunned and disgusted Dennis Eckersley.
And then there are the voices that fade in and out in the mind, accompanying the thoughts of October. Broadcasters Graham McNammee, Bill Stern, Red Barber and Mel Allen. Curt Gowdy, Vin Scully, Joe Garagiola, and Tim McCarver.
Fans remember the games from a certain time in their lives - from childhood, certainly, which is why we grown-ups fret so about Series games that now end after midnight. Will our children ever know such memories? But so, too, can many of us mark other points in our lives by what was happening in the Series. Perhaps we started high school the year that third strike squirted past Mickey Owens and gave the Yankees another life; or maybe we fell in love in the year of Willie Mays's catch.
We remember especially the Octobers in which our team played. In Cincinnati the mid-'70s will never be long ago; as long as there is a Baltimore, Oriole fans there will talk of what Brooks Robinson did in 1970.
In Brooklyn, the memories are many and mostly triumphant; but so too are they bittersweet, for they shall never be joined nor supplanted by new ones.
If you rooted for the Yankees in the 1920s, '30s, '40s, and '50s, it is probably difficult to shake the feeling that the world has been out of kilter since about 1965. Even all the Yankee-haters in the world, if pressed, will admit that a regular Yankee series is something that is missed - it gave a neutral fan a rooting interest.
Sixteen thousand fans saw that first World Series game in 1903; the grandstand had seats for half that number. The overflow ringed the outfield grass and sat on the outfield fence.
Whether it be passion or curiosity or merely a wish to be seen with the right people, America has pressed against the fence ever since, straining for a peek at the show. We come not quite knowing what to expect.
In that first series Cy Young of Boston and Honus Wagner of Pittsburgh were the marquee attractions. To some they were the show, to others their presence was ancillary to the experience. And so it shall be this year, and next, and for 90 years to come. For though we will share the experience with millions of others, the World Series will always be intensely personal.
* Charles Fountain is the author of a biography of sportswriter Grantland Rice published last month.