The World Championship That Almost Wasn't

A Red Sox-Cubs World Series? Cynics might think that neither star-crossed franchise could win. In fact, when they met in 1918, the Series almost ended with no winner, as players on both clubs threatened a mid-Series strike.

The seeds of the strike were sown before the season, when baseball’s governing National Commission changed the rules governing distribution of World Series money. Before 1918, the players on the participating clubs shared 60% of the gate receipts from the first four games, split 60-40 between the winners and losers. The winner’s share often exceeded $3,500 -- a very substantial sum in those days. In both 1915 and 1916, Babe Ruth’s World Series share was more than his entire season’s salary.

But the National Commission now decreed that the World Series money would be shared among eight teams, not just the two participants. Players on the winning club would receive a flat $2,000/man, the losers, $1,400. Once the participants had been paid, the remainder of the pool would be distributed among the other first-division clubs: half to the each league’s runners-up, 30% to the third-place clubs and 20% to the fourth-place finishers. The decree effectively reduced the participants’ World Series share by more than forty percent.

The Commission’s ruling went almost unnoticed at the time, as World War I cast a long shadow over the 1918 season. Major league attendance fell 40% and only one of the 10 minor leagues completed its schedule. With over four million men serving in the armed forces, able-bodied men were taken from playing field and bleachers alike. Finally the government’s “work or fight” order brought the regular season to a sudden close on September 1.

The abrupt end to the season combined with the World War to reduce public interest in the Series to an all-time low. Even with World Series tickets sold at regular-season prices, fewer than 20,000 fans saw Babe Ruth outpitch Hippo Vaughn in the opener. After the third game, the National Commission voted to reduce the players’ share still further, to $1,200 for the winners, $800 for the losers.

The Cubs and Red Sox learned of this latest reduction shortly before they boarded trains for Boston. The long journey gave them plenty of time to confer, vent their frustrations and plan their next move. The players voted to confront the National Commission, demanding the full shares promised to them before the Series. Their representatives, Harry Hooper of the Red Sox and Leslie Mann of the Cubs, spoke to the Commission but received no promises. The players fumed. But what could they do?

On the afternoon of September 10, 1918, they did exactly nothing. As fans flocked to Fenway for the fifth game of the World Series, the players remained in the clubhouse. They took no batting or infield practice; no pitchers warmed up. Game time came and went with no sign of either team. The crowd of almost 25,000 grew restless.

Meanwhile, player representatives Hooper and Mann were meeting with the National Commission. Well, with most of the Commission. Its dominant member, AL president Ban Johnson, was celebrating the World Series at the bar of the Copley Plaza Hotel. The Commission refused to act without him.

By the time Johnson reached the park, he was in no condition to reason with the players. Once apprised of the situation, Johnson staggered up to Harry Hooper, threw an arm around his shoulder, and (according to baseball writer Fred Lieb) slurred, “Harry, do you realize you are a member of one of the greatest organizations in the world – the American League. And do you realize what you will do to its good name if you don’t play?” Hugging Hooper, he pleaded, “Harry, go out there and play. The crowd is waiting for you.”

Hooper and Mann were prepared for a debate, but not for the drunken Johnson. Throwing up their hands, they told their teammates that rational discussion was impossible under the circumstances. The Cubs and Red Sox reluctantly took the field. After an hour’s delay, Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald told the crowd that the game would go on “for the sake of the public and the wounded soldiers in the stands.”

But the public, and those wounded soldiers, resented the players’ threats. The next day only 15,238 came out to watch the Red Sox win their fifth World Series. Their winner’s share fell short of the promised $1,200. The National Commission voted not to award the traditional World Series pins: “the mutinous and mercenary action of the contesting players in the recent Series demonstrates that the members of the championship team are unworthy of a World Series emblem, and none shall be presented to them.” And the stage was set for the 1919 Series, in which many White Sox concluded that they could earn more by throwing the World Series than by winning it...

Copyright © 1998 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the September 1998 issue of Boston Baseball.

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