Series "Centennial" Is Really MLB Hype

Conventional wisdom holds that the first World Series was played in 1903, when the Red Sox defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates, 5-3, in a best-of-nine series. As a result, a half-dozen books published this year have proclaimed 2003 the centennial of the World Series.

All of these authors, and the conventional wisdom, are wrong. Depending on one's definition, the first World Series was played in 1882, 1884 or 1905 -- but definitely not 1903.

At minimum, the forerunner of what we now know as the World Series must have involved a postseason series between the champions of two competing leagues. The first games to meet this definition were played in 1882, when the pennant-winning Cincinnati Reds of the American Association and Chicago White Stockings of the National League split a two-game series. But these games don't really qualify as a World Series: while Cincinnati played the NL champions, it also played two other NL clubs as part of a postseason barnstorming tour, and the clubs made no effort to schedule a third game to resolve the tied series.

The strongest candidate for "first World Series" is the 1884 postseason clash between the NL's Providence Grays and the New York Mets of the American Association. This was a three-game series, arranged directly between the competing clubs and won by the Grays. The champions of the AA and NL met every year through 1890, experimenting with different postseason formats. The height of ridiculousness was reached in 1887, when Detroit and St. Louis scheduled a fifteen-game series with games in ten different cities, playing the final four games even after Detroit had clinched the championship.

Several early 20th-century sources, including Alfred H. Spink's The National Game (1911) and the 1904 Reach Baseball Guide not only identify the 1884 games as the first World's Championship Series, but report the results of the 1903 Red Sox-Pirates series as a natural continuation of the earlier Series. These contemporary authors made no effort to distinguish the 1903 Series as something new or different.

With good reason. The 1903 World Series was arranged directly between the owners of the Pirates and Red Sox. An agreement between the two clubs set the terms: they would play a best-of-nine series, hire their own umpires, and give 25 cents from each paid admission to the visitors. Organized Baseball's governing body, the National Commission, played no role in scheduling the Series.

The 1903 World Series wasn't even the year's only postseason battle between AL and NL clubs. In Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia, the local AL and NL clubs played city championship series, while Cleveland and Cincinnati squared off for the championship of Ohio. All told, ten of the 16 major league clubs played postseason interleague series, all of which were structured along the same lines as the World Series.

No World Series was played in 1904 because the NL champion New York Giants refused to meet their AL counterparts. Giants owner John T. Brush was still steaming over the AL's 1903 invasion of Manhattan. With the crosstown Highlanders battling Boston for the AL pennant, he served notice that the Giants had no intention of playing representatives of the upstart league.

Public outcry and ridicule forced Brush to back down during the 1904-05 offseason. He led efforts to codify the postseason World Series under the auspices of the National Commission. On February 16, 1905, the Commission announced the rules that, as amended, govern the World Series to this day.

The AL and NL agreed that after the season, their first-place clubs would play a best-of-seven series for the "Professional Base Ball Championship of the World." The National Commission would establish the schedule for this World's Championship Series (a name gradually shortened to "World's Series" and finally "World Series"), set the ticket prices, decree the division of proceeds between the winners and losers, and award a pennant to the winning club and mementos to the winning players.

If you date the World Series to the adoption of rules placing the AL-NL championship series under central control, 2003 is the 98th anniversary of the Series. If you count earlier postseason contests between first-place clubs, 2003 is the 119th, or even the 121st, anniversary of the first World Series. Either way, it's not the 100th anniversary, Major League Baseball hype notwithstanding.

Copyright © 2003 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the October 2003 issue of Boston Baseball.

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