Just a year after the Civil War, an observer noted that the typical American town had "one church, one schoolhouse, and eight base ball clubs." The late 19th century brought a craze for this new game. The sport, added another writer of the era, "holds a nation spellbound from snow to snow ... and calls for the combined exercise of muscle, brain, skill, and manly daring." Baseball, it was felt, shaped character. It expressed the nation's democratic spirit: Any of the nine players on the field might have to act alone to make a winning play, but each also must perform his role as part of a team.
Though a group of top professional teams formed the National League in 1876, it was an event just after the turn of the new century that enshrined baseball as the national pastime, argues Louis Masur in "Autumn Glory." In 1903, the upstart two-year-old American League sent its champion, the Boston Americans, into a series of October games against the National League's finest team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The high drama of this best-of-nine series, won 5 games to 3 by Boston, captured America's imagination and put baseball on Page 1 of newspapers for the first time. The fall classic became the premier fixture on the American sports calendar.
To our eyes, baseball in 1903 is a curious mixture of the familiar and exotic. The rules were nearly identical to today's, though the American League tried to boost excitement and scoring by not counting foul balls as strikes. (It agreed to drop this provision for the Series, but would assert its independence again in 1972 by adopting the designated-hitter rule.) The dimensions of the diamond were the same as today, though gigantic outfields could extend 500 feet or more from home plate. Incredibly, during that first Series, the farthest reaches of the outfields in both Boston and Pittsburgh were roped off to accommodate thousands of extra fans. Balls hit into these areas, the teams agreed, would count as triples.
Masur alternates eight chapters on each game of the Series with eight others that put the season into fascinating context. It's tempting to skip the game chapters, full of eye-glazing texts like "Sebring flied out to Dougherty in left, and Ritchey tried to advance to third after the catch. But Collins made a one-handed scoop of Dougherty's throw and simultaneously tagged Ritchey to end the inning." But even these chapters grow in interest as a reader learns more about the teams and players.
Pittsburgh's star shortstop, Honus Wagner, who nobly spurned all offers to jump to the American League, had a terrible Series, but would make amends in later years and become a Hall of Famer. Boston pitcher Denton "Cy" Young ("Cy" was short for "cyclone," which described his wicked fastball) today has pitching's highest award named after him. He won two games in the series, but was overshadowed by now-forgotten teammate Bill Dinneen, who won three, including the decisive eighth game.
The issues surrounding baseball in 1903 often sound contemporary. The Americans (the team later changed its name to the Red Sox) had a "foreign owner" from the Midwest, and fans worried that he was unwilling to pay what it would take to field a champion. But the Sporting News complained of overpaid players who "showed a spirit of greed which will go a long way toward disillusioning the public."
Tidbits about what else was happening during that remarkable 1903 season tantalize. Foreshadowing baseball's modern-day woes, a strike by the Philadelphia Athletics was condemned in the press as "foolhardy" and "ill-timed." In a mystery fit for today's tabloids, Big Ed Delahanty, star of the Washington Senators, became mentally unstable and disappeared in mid-season, only to be found dead in the river below Niagara Falls.
The Chicago Cubs put together a talented new infield trio: Tinkers to Evers to Chance would make the double play into an artform. The wooden stands at the Philadelphia Phillies' ballpark collapsed, killing and injuring scores of fans. The tragedy led in 1909 to the building of Shibe Park, the nation's first modern concrete-and-steel baseball stadium.
And the New York Highlanders played their first season in a hastily built wooden park in upper Manhattan's Washington Heights. The team later would move to the Bronx and rename itself the Yankees. (It had a big payroll even then, $50,000, which included $10,000 to the highest-paid player in the game, outfielder Wee Willie Keeler.)
Two decades before Babe Ruth's towering home runs gave baseball Jazz Age sizzle, and long before radio and then television brought it into living rooms, baseball had already captured the American imagination.
• Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff and still keeps his Frank Malzone model third-basemen's glove well-oiled.