This is part one of a nine part series, detailing events in baseball history that have occurred on September 9. Consider this the first of nine innings.
It must have been strange to watch the World Series in September. It happened in 1918, what would have been the 15th year of the series. Fans, or “cranks,” had been working those turnstiles like clocks since 1903. The Series was skipped in 1904 when the teams refused to play each other and again 90 years later for the strike but, otherwise, in war and peace, sickness and health, the World Series has gone on, usually in October and sometimes into November.
September was supposed to be the month for teams to punch their tickets to get there. The leaves, in the places that had trees, were still green and only starting to turn. October is the perfect time for the World Series. The wind can bolt pennants to the wall of sky and leaves become as vibrant as the colors on tobacco baseball cards. But this world had not been normal since 1914. By 1918, America was marching its young off to Europe to die. Baseball, too, was scathed. Players were shipped off. And the season was shortened for the only non-labor related reason until 2020. Audiences were like a field of crops being mowed down and, lurking just behind the scythe, Influenza to sow salt into the dirt. But there was still a World Series. On September 9, 1918, maybe the greatest player of all time, riding one of the most incredible streaks any pitcher has ever had, took the mound at his then home field, Fenway Park, as the Boston Red Sox faced the Chicago Cubs in game four.
Games 1-3 were played at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Named for Scroogesque White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and built on a municipal dump, the stadium hosted several World Series and All Star games, Joe Louis’s defeat of the “Cinderella Man” Jim Braddock for the world heavyweight championship, and the homophobic Disco Demolition Night. The Cubs were using it for these 1918 games because it was bigger than their own home, the later-to-be renamed Wrigley Field. The Star Spangled Banner was played during the 7th inning stretch of that first game. Eventually it became tradition. The lyrics of that song were written about the Battle of Baltimore, the War of 1812, the rematch between the United States and England, in the city where the great Babe Ruth was born. Ruth won game one and started game four of the 1918 World Series for the Boston Red Sox.
After three games in Chicago and a travel day, the Series moved to Boston. It was a day game; they were all day games back then. Game 4’s pitching match-up pitted two Georges who went by nicknames against one another. George “Babe” Ruth versus George “Lefty” Tyler. Tyler was a good pitcher who had played for the Boston Braves before joining the Cubs for the abbreviated 1918 season. He was also an adequate hitting pitcher but at least one universe removed from his opponent. Tyler was throwing on very short rest, having won game two. Babe Ruth won the first game (the losing pitcher for that one, “Hippo” Vaughn, won the nickname battle, however) and got to rest, or maybe party, an extra day. By the start of game four, Ruth had not given up a run in some 21 consecutive World Series innings. Lefty and the Babe each gave up a hit but no runs were scored in the first. The game looked to settle into an attrition that sports are best to provide. An attrition paled by the bled out horrors taking place across the ocean.
There was no good reason for World War 1. Plenty of excuses and apologia that would be gobbled right back up a generation later, and regurgitated by each succeeding generation after that. A powder keg, parade ignition, and the start of a hundred years of Moloch. It was the “war to end all wars” but all it really did was end a generation and scar a century. European nation-states led by venal idiots collapsed into a war that each thought they would quickly win. Somme and Ypres and everywhere replaced groundwater with blood and everything was destroyed. And, from the other side of the Atlantic would come hundreds of thousands of fresh coffin fodder, sent by another venal idiot, Woodrow Wilson, who, after being reelected to keep his country “out of war,” did what he wanted to do anyway, to use his spoiled unsoiled ivory hands to further feed the hungry monster of death. The tragedy of World War 1 still haunts the world today. In his 2019 book, Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, W. Scott Poole makes the case that we continue to live out that war through the horror movie genre. I wonder which scars of the Great War will fully heal first: those that mark the land of Europe or those that still pink ribbon the human soul so many generations removed from Armistice.
Baseball players were not spared, nor would they be about 20 years later. Some of the greatest ballplayers of all time would suffer from and succumb to the horrors wrought by the Great War. Christy Mathewson enlisted over his wife’s objections. “Matty,” who refused to pitch on Sundays, was exposed to chemicals that rotted his chest into a welcoming host for the tuberculosis that would kill him on the eve of the 1925 World Series. At the time of this writing, the 2020 baseball season is indefinitely postponed due to the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, a deadly respiratory disease. Another casualty of the war was the Cubs’ ace Grover Cleveland Alexander. A match-up between the Great Bambino and Alexander the Great would have been a dream. Instead, Alexander was busy being mustard gassed and artillery shelled so the Cubs had to rely on Lefty Tyler every 2 or 3 days. But Tyler was at his best that September and Babe Ruth was still refusing to give up runs. After three innings, game four was still scoreless.
Babe Ruth may have been the greatest baseball player of all time. He was a fantastic pitcher and a preternaturally good batsman. Strong arguments for others can be made: Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays, maybe a few others. Ken Griffey Jr could have been in the conversation but for injuries. Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, too, if they hadn’t fallen for the spike, creams, and clears. Let’s give Mike Trout some time before burdening his shoulders; let’s see how he does in October someday. In the fourth inning of game four, still pitching a shutout, Ruth slugged a two-run triple. And if Ruth is the GOAT, this World Series was part of a story of a different kind of goat. The Red Sox and Cubs were cursed after this Series (the Cubs maybe under the pall for a decade by then already) and wouldn’t play each other again until inter-league play decades later. The sale of Babe Ruth a year later cursed Boston. Somebody’s pet goat later hexed the Cubs. A black cat even crossed their path but that’s a story of its own.
Even if one avoided war the life of a ballplayer was risky, especially then. The pay was lousy as self-enriching owners were fiercely protected by government, judges, and commissioners. As is almost always the case, the money goes not to those whose work to earn it so much as those who sit back and just watch it stream in. There were no helmets to protect against headhunting pitchers. This would result in one of baseball’s worst tragedies when a Carl Mays beanball killed Ray Chapman. Ty Cobb, whose on-and-off-field violence was almost entirely fictionalized by Al Stump, hated Mays for it. Mays was also a very good pitcher, occasionally considered Hall of Fame-worthy, and, unfortunately for the Cubs, he was Boston’s number two pitcher behind Ruth. Mays had won game three and would start game six. Lefty Tyler was trying to keep the Cubs upright against that 1-2 punch but after six innings, they were down 0-2 in game four.
Ballplayers and other stars were called to action in the Second World War as well. Hank Greenberg had to go. Ted Williams fought and went again for the grisly “police action” in Korea. Joe Louis lost prime years and at least a half dozen title defenses that could have been added to his record that still stands as of 2020. Between the lost income and a government’s disinterest in remembering the dollars he’d brought to the war effort, Louis would be a dancing bear at Caesar’s in Vegas up to the turn of the 1980s. Iowa’s Heisman winner Nile Kinnick died. But the games went on. Players who otherwise might have had to settle for watching games found themselves on rosters and some even stuck around after the war.
Kevin Cook wrote an excellent book, Electric October: Seven World Series Games, Six Lives, Five Minutes of Fame that Lasted Forever, about the thrilling 1947 Series and its significance. It was being contemporaneously called an “electric October” because it the first World Series on TV. The radio waves were still being transmitted, still are in 2020, but also already being forgotten in the amnesiac glow of the screen. Game one was September 30, 1947 but, unlike 1918, the rest of the ’47 series took place in the normal month. Eddie Stanky led off. His long baseball career included stints with the Cubs and the National League team in Boston, the Braves, before they took the scenic route through Milwaukee on the way to Georgia. Stanky would play a role in defeating the ‘color line’ in baseball by standing with Jackie Robinson during that integration season. Stanky had a September birthday, the 3rd. His Dodger manager, Burt Shotton, made his playing debut in September 1909. The Yankees were skippered by Bucky Harris who had begun his managing career decades earlier with the Washington Senators and relied on the unbelievable talent of Walter Johnson. As a player, Harris had stood up to the rough and rowdy ways of Ty Cobb. Rather than knife him while biting the head off a chicken as Al Stump might have imagined it, Cobb respected Harris for it.
Some of these wartime replacement players would have an impact on the historic World Series of 1947. Harry “Cookie” Lavagetto grew up in a family of wine bootleggers was one of those replacements. Cook notes that, “Like Harry Lavagetto, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio went by an Americanized name (37).” And that was the Series where Al Gionfriddo, another of those wartime players, stole a Joe DiMaggio home run with a spectacular catch. Joseph Paul DiMaggio, born Giuseppe Paolo after his fisherman father, or the Great DiMaggio as Hemmingway’s Old Man called him, who lost prime playing time in service but didn’t see combat, almost always unflappable, kicked the infield dirt in frustration. The horrors and the heroes of 1918 have reverberated ever since. The waves still have not fully reached the shore. If Babe Ruth is not the biggest icon of the Twentieth century than it has to be Marilyn Monroe. DiMaggio left roses at her grave every other day for two decades. And despite pitching at about the same pace as those deliveries, Lefty Tyler still had the Cubs in the game, 0-2, after the seventh inning.
The more we forget, the more it comes as shock to be forced to remember. The memory is entwined through our collective DNA; memory of loss, of loneliness, of grief and longing for times past; the little earthquake revelations of how good we had it, whose tremors only ever seem felt when we lose the normal we wore with such easy comfort not so long before. We remember it when we study wars and famines and atrocities. It is in the rings, the autobiographies inside each tree. The armaments turned ruins; the abandoned schoolhouse on a ridge surrounded by nothing at all. Stones of Hadrian’s Wall still tracing green hillsides; all the human culture of Dresden ghosted. We remember it when we read scripture, hear a song, taste a dish the way grandma made it. And the conjuring of these memories, the good and the bad, is one of the many magic qualities of baseball. We are all residents of, as Colliers magazine called the Dodgers’ stadium of that 1947 Series, “the outdoor psychopathic ward that is Ebbets Field (119).”
Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak happened during summer before Pearl Harbor. In the 8th inning of game four of the 1918 World Series, Babe Ruth’s scoreless pitching streak ended at 29 2/3 innings. He gave a leadoff walk to Bill Killefer. Claude Hendrix, pinch hitting for Lefty Tyler, singled Killefer to second base. Ruth got Max Flack to ground out but not before wild pitching both runners up a base. Bill McCabe was brought in to pinch run for Hendrix at second. The Babe got another grounder, Charlie Hollocher out at first, but Killefer scored and McCabe advanced to third. Les Mann hit a single to left scoring McCabe and tied the game. Ruth got one more ground out off Dode Paskert’s bat to end the top of the eighth with the game tied 2-2.
The error is where baseball and life most neatly meet. The error, the mistake, the screw-up, the Merkle’s Boner, named for Fred Merkle, a great ballplayer, a member of these 1918 Cubs, and who, like Bill Buckner decades later, would have a whole career overshadowed by that one bad moment. The error, whose repercussions can be as wide and as deep as the Atlantic Ocean the Doughboys crossed that year. War is almost always an unforced error and always carries the most profound, everlasting consequence. World War 1, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. The saddest “etc” of them all. By Vietnam, the elites, the ranks of which athletes had mostly by then joined, were spared from the theaters of slaughter. It was mostly for the young and poor by then, sent by the older and more comfortable. But not always. Muhammad Ali lost much by refusing to kill and/or be killed in Vietnam. And the privileged folks who did not have to go have gone on to reap so many great rewards. Some errors can bring value, like the Sherry “Magie” Magee T206 tobacco card. But the error of war only takes. It only subtracts. The error that kills more than the dreams of a season; so much worse than anything Merkle or Buckner ever did.
In the bottom of the eighth, the Cubs fell apart. Wally Schang led off with a single to centerfield. A passed ball by catcher Killefer allowed Schang to advance. Then Phil Douglas, in relief of Lefty Tyler, tried to field a sacrifice bunt from Hall of Famer Harry Hooper. It did not go well. Douglas threw the ball away at first, an error, and Schang scored from second. Douglas settled down to finish the inning with the Red Sox back up, 3-2.
Babe Ruth continued to struggle at the top of the ninth. Fred Merkle led off with a single. Merkle whose error years earlier was not nearly as tragic as presidents Johnson, Nixon, or George W Bush’s decades later. After giving up a walk, Ruth was relieved by a different Bush, Bullet Joe. Bullet Joe Bush was from Minnesota and no relation to the Connecticut silver spoon. Bullet Joe notched three quick outs and the Red Sox won the game, 3-2. Hippo Vaughn got a win for Chicago the next day, 3-0. Carl Mays defeated Lefty Tyler, 2-1, and the Red Sox won the 1918 September World Series in six games. Boston only scored nine runs. They would not win another World Series until 2004, during the Iraq War, around the time Bush was reelected. The Cubs would have to wait a dozen years longer than that.
Some, including Sean Deveney in his book The Original Curse, have speculated if the Cubs threw the 1918 World Series like their Southside neighbors did the following year. There were some suspicious characters on the Cubs’ roster that year. Of course, there were some on Boston’s and every other team’s as well. Phil Douglas, whose error gave up the losing run in game four, would be suspended for life a few years later for a different fixing incident. But he only gave up that one run and there was still an inning for Chicago to come back. In some Black Sox documents rediscovered in the 2000s, Eddie Cicotte, the great knuckleballer and one of the White Sox players that did throw that Series, alleged the Cubs had done the same the year before. But Cicotte, while he should also probably be in the Hall of Fame (along with teammates Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver), is a reliable source only when compared to Al Stump. Babe Ruth was on one of the greatest runs any pitcher has ever had (like peak Sandy Koufax and 2008 team-on-his-great-big-back Brewer CC Sabathia) and Carl Mays is HOF material; Chicago’s best pitcher, Alexander, was off getting maimed in Europe. Despite the lopsided pitching staffs, it was still a six game, back and forth World Series. The Cubs, like any team of underpaid, overused players, had a good reason to throw it but it does not appear that they did. Besides, if they had, the commissioner’s office would have banned them all until the dinosaurs regenerate and rule the earth again.
Boxing might be the only sport that lends itself to writing as well as baseball and, when the strange September World Series of 1918 was being played, the prizefighter Jack Johnson was several years and thousands of miles into his post-championship wilderness. 1909 had been Johnson’s best year. That’s the year he punched middleweight legend Stanley Ketchel’s teeth out when Ketchel tried pulling a double cross in the ring. On September 9 of that year, nine years before game four, he embarrassed Al Kaufman by newspaper decision at Coffroth’s arena in San Francisco. The “Great White Hope,” Jim Jeffries, was sent back to his farm on July 4 the following year. As champion, Johnson was accused of adhering to the same color line that he had traveled around the globe to cross. There’s not much heft to those accusations; he had already defeated the other great Black heavyweights of his time, Same McVey, Sam Langford, and, on several occasions, Joe Jeanette. But he can be credibly accused of even more horrific acts. Jack Johnson liked to beat up women. In his powerful collection of poems, The Big Smoke, Adrian Matejka gives voice not just to Johnson but to the women in his life as well. Voices given to those from whom so much was taken. Another Jack Johnson added “Topeka” to his name to differentiate himself from the heavyweight fighter. “Topeka” Jack played ball in the Negro Leagues. The Negro Leagues because, like Johnson before tracking down Tommy Burns, that color line was as important as breathing to people whose hands gnarled fast around their power and place. People like President Wilson and Commissioner Landis.
Now, the line has been replaced by code words and loaded questions. Black athletes who celebrate are “thugs.” Black athletes who protest what they disagree with, like Charles Woodson, are accused of not staying in their lane. And we listen to experts wonder aloud if a CC Sabathia can even get into Cooperstown. A century later, the US president who spent the 1980s promoting big boxing and wrestling matches in casinos he would bankrupt would pardon Jack Johnson for Mann Act violations. His behavior outside the ring is pardonable only by a much higher authority than the longtime host of the Apprentice. The names have changed, the cars move faster, but the Wilsons and Landises of this world still tend to get whatever they want. But, like the magic of baseball, sometimes, eventually, they don’t.
Kennesaw Mountain Landis is one of history’s greatest monsters. Landis, always averse to work himself, was a boisterous, cheerleading booster of the ownership class. Landis, who never served or saw combat of any kind, manned the ramparts only in defense of the wrong and the bad. Named for a mountain where his father fought and was wounded on the side of the Union, Landis was a racist. He didn’t create the color line; he entrenched it deeply for decades. None of the strength of the boys sent to the trenches of death, no empathy for those who refused to march into their doom, Landis was a judge and a man in set-piece, central casting resemblance only. He spent 1918 cruelly judging the objectors of the Great War and continuing to protect the rich and privileged.
A year after the abbreviated 1918 baseball season, and the only September World Series in history, some, but probably not all, of an eight-player group of the Chicago White Sox threw the ‘19 Series. In his perpetual effort to project strength, Landis, who became commissioner of baseball in 1920, banned all eight men, guilty or not, from baseball for life. All succeeding commissioners have chosen to extend that ban from life into eternity. Into eternity, that mystery place where the dead of the trench and the Flu went to. And the “reserve clause” that indentured all players to their precious owners, so cherished by Landis and his ilk, would outlive him by decades. It outlived Mathewson, Ruth, and Shoeless Joe Jackson.
The reserve clause was finally challenged, in 1969, by Curt Flood, a Black man. Flood appealed to the commissioner’s office to prevent a trade from St Louis to Philadelphia. Philadelphia, cradle of American independence, was home to a bad baseball team, the Phillies; an archaic stadium; the Liberty Bell; and racist fans. Flood refused to play for them and requested free agency. He lost the case and, in pursuing it to the Supreme Court, lost his playing career as well. His efforts and sacrifice, however, eventually brought an end to the awful clause. It was destroyed like the color line and the millions of lives lost from 1914-19. A generation buried and several more of opportunities’ denied.
Curt Flood, who brought freedom to the ballplayer, made his major league debut in 1956, on September 9.