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Books | Sports

January 4, 2010

When the World Series Went National

Veteran sportswriter Mike Vaccaro assays the 1912 World Series, a dramatic chapter that put the Boston-New York rivalry on national center stage.

Vincent Valk

In The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants and the Cast of Players, Pugs and Politicos Who Re-Invented the World Series in 1912, Mike Vaccaro explains how the world's series became the World Series. Vaccaro, a longtime columnist for the New York Post, recounts an eight-game ordeal involving a tie, two more-or-less thrown games, and JFK's grandpa. The 1912 series was an all-consuming affair in New York and Boston and, for the first time, an national event.

Mike Vaccaro. Photo by Charles Wenzelberg.
"They made no bones about playing not for the love of the game but for their paychecks, about which they grumbled incessantly."

Mike Vaccaro. Photo by Charles Wenzelberg.

Vaccaro spoke to Gelf about what made the '12 series series so special, how it played into the rivalry between New York and Boston, and why baseball has always been about the money. The following interview was conducted via email and edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: What makes the 1912 series the "first fall classic"?

Mike Vaccaro: Before 1912, the meeting of American and National League champs was referred to as the "world's series," with lowercase letters. It was a regional show, something that captured your imagination if you were in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Chicago, not something the whole nation cared about. That started to change a little in 1911, when the Giants played the A's. But in '12, the Giants and Red Sox were roundly recognized as the two best teams ever assembled; they wrapped up the pennants early, so the hype machine started a good two or three weeks before the series did. There was everything: a regional rivalry between two major cities, five Hall of Fame players, and a good dozen or so Hall of Fame personalities beyond that. And then the series itself went the distance—plus one, thanks to the tie—and then into extra innings in the last game. The country at large became totally consumed by it; there were thousands of people who'd stand outside newspaper offices to get pitch-by-pitch updates…and the result was, going forward, it would be known as the "World Series." I say this is what capitalized the World Series.

Gelf Magazine: What made you want to write about the 1912 World Series, in particular?

Mike Vaccaro: I wanted to find a great World Series that hadn't already been written to death, which pretty much ruled out any that had happened after the '27 Yankees. I boiled it down to two. The other was '26, which featured the famous Grover Cleveland Alexander-Tony Lazzeri at-bat in the seventh inning of Game 7 (and ended when Babe Ruth, as the tying run, was thrown out stealing second in the bottom of the ninth—think if A-Rod did that today). But the more I looked at '12, the more I realized just how great a series it was, and when you add in the characters involved, it made for an absolute writer's buffet.

Gelf Magazine: Was the World Series, at that time, more or less important culturally (to the fans, to baseball, and to the country) than it is now?

Mike Vaccaro: When teams made the World Series, even before 1912, it turned their cities into wild frenzies and endless parties when the games were in town. There was little doubt of its local significance. Everything revolved around the games and the players, and since baseball stood with boxing and horse racing as the most important sports in the country at that time, there really was no such thing as a "casual" fan. In Boston, especially, baseball was every bit as important to the locals as God and family, and that's no exaggeration.

Gelf Magazine: Was the Series more or less important to those involved—the players, owners, etc.?

Mike Vaccaro: I think this was the most fascinating point I learned in doing this: As much as we think players are consumed with money today, it's never as transparent as it was then. These guys were pros. They made no bones about playing not for the love of the game but for their paychecks, about which they grumbled incessantly. The good old days? Heck, almost universally, to a man, everyone who either talked about the Series as it was going on or wrote their first-person newspaper accounts, they almost never talked about winning a championship, or a ring (actually, the winners got pins in those days). It was always, "We want the winner's share." Winning was nice, insofar as it guaranteed the larger payout.

Gelf Magazine: Did a Boston-New York rivalry play a role in the intensity of the 1912 series?

Mike Vaccaro: Absolutely. Specific to baseball, Boston was still angry that the Giants had refused to play the Red Sox in 1904, and so there was all kinds of lingering resentment. The two cities had always been rivals, going back to the Revolution when Boston was a hotbed of Patriotism and New York remained largely loyal to the crown. And it wasn't long before 1912 when New York Harbor overtook Boston Harbor as the nation's primary entry port. So as civic rivals, there was no love lost at all. The fact that the mayor of Boston, Honey Fitz Fitzgerald, clearly harbored huge ambitions helped, too, because he believed that his town tweaking the big town would reap benefits.

Gelf Magazine: Gambling was, to a large extent, an accepted part of baseball in 1912. What impact did it have on the game itself?

Mike Vaccaro: I don't know that what would happen seven years later in the 1919 Series ever made as much sense to me before I did this book. Now, I feel it was almost beyond inevitable that some kind of gambling scandal had to hit the sport. Bookies were as ubiquitous at ballparks in that era as peanut vendors and program hawkers. You knew exactly where to find them, and not only could you place a bet on a game at any ballpark, but you could also play poker and craps during batting practice. Players were unabashed about the fact that they bet on themselves. Even Christy Mathewson, the paragon of baseball virtue, would write in his daily columns about who he liked in that day's game. John McGraw, who was a racetrack hound, also was unabashed about the fact that he had bet, and lost, $500 on his team in the 1911 series, and planned to do the same in 1912.

Gelf Magazine: You describe Red Sox owner James McAleer essentially forcing manager Jake Stahl to start a lesser pitcher in Game Six in hopes of extending the series. Was this sort of thing common at that time?

Mike Vaccaro: It was, in the sense that owners were just as greedy as players (a trend that has never died, by the way), even though all the restraints put in place by the National Commission were meant to safeguard the game from the players' greed. For instance, players were (and still are) only paid for the first four games of a World Series, the idea being if they were paid for all of them then they would be motivated to artificially extend the series to seven games. There were no such safeguards against the owners. McAleer saw the fiscal windfall awaiting him with a clinching game at Fenway. He acted the way many owners at the time would have.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think Smoky Joe Wood threw Game Seven?

Mike Vaccaro: If this were a court of law, he would be acquitted, because in 98 years all that's ever been compiled against him is a mound of circumstantial evidence. But it is compelling that:
• He badly wanted to pitch Game Six, and was ripping mad when he was told he wasn't.
• He and his brother wagered a lot of money backing him in Game Six, and he couldn't get word to his brother to call off the dogs, so he lost his shirt on the game.
• A simmering rift between the Catholics and non-Catholics on the team blew up on the train ride after Game Six, and Wood was out of his mind with anger at both his teammates and his owner.
• He threw exactly 13 pitches in Game Seven, none of them harder than a lob—this from a guy who was universally believed to have had the greatest season any pitcher ever had that year.
• Neither he nor any of his teammates was especially unhappy at having lost the game.
That's a long way of saying: Yes, I absolutely think Wood threw Game Seven, and so did almost everyone who played.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.







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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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