You might have heard that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in a while. We have been hearing a lot lately about the early World Series because of this. This gives me an excuse to discuss the question, when was the first World Series?
This seems at first look a simple question, of the sort that puts the “trivial” in trivia. Go, for example, to retrosheet’s Post-Season Games Directory and you have a list of years from 1903 through 2015. So there is your answer: 1903. But go to baseball-reference’s comparable page and scroll down to the bottom and you will find some earlier series, beginning in 1884.
What gives? The answer given there is that “Post-season games prior to 1903 were considered exhibitions.”. This is, as we shall see, bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense of the word. To the extent that it is true of the 19th century series, it is also true of the 1903 series. So again: what gives? I am going to toss out four candidates for first World Series: 1884, 1886, 1903, and 1905.
The National League was founded in 1876. The “National” part was not merely a name. It was an explicit claim that its pennant winner was the national champion. This claim was entirely plausible at first. You will sometimes see the argument that the International Association of 1877 was as good as the National League. Don’t believe it. This is a gross misunderstanding of the situation. At best the top end of the IA was on a par with the bottom end of the NL. The National League champion had a legitimate claim on being the national champion.
Then came the American Association in 1882. It demanded that it be treated as the equal to the NL. A brief baseball war ensued, and the NL cried uncle. When I talk about a “baseball war” I mean a financial war. The AA’s major league status was an economic conclusion. Parity on the playing field is an effect, not a cause of this status. In 1882 the AA was inescapably weaker on the field. Exhibition games between the two leagues made this embarrassingly clear. But this was temporary. Economic parity meant recruiting parity, which gradually led to competitive parity on the playing field.
The AA wasn’t yet there in 1884, but the suggestion was no longer ridiculous. So it seemed natural for the respective pennant winners–the NL Providence and the AA Metropolitans of New York–to pair off that October and give it a go. But what to call this? Or, to put it more bluntly, how to market it? You couldn’t call the winner the national champion or the American champion, for obvious reasons. One possibility was to use “United States champion”:
As there is no longer any doubt but that the Metropolitans will carry off the American Association championship pennant of ’84, Manager Mutrie to-day [9/30] issued a challenge to the Providence Club, the champion League team of ’84, to play them a series of five games for the championship of the United Stated and $1,000 a side… Source: Cincinnati Enquirer October 1, 1884
This, however, is awkward. We being the people we are, the solution was to kick things up a notch:
“The championship games of the world” played in New York recently between the Providence and Metropolitan Clubs netted the players $87 apiece. Source: Cincinnati Enquirer November 23, 1884
The grandiosity of this claim was not entirely lost:
“Championship of the world” is good; but the championship of the United States is a proud enough record for the majority of base ball mortals. Manager Mutrie will yet be challenging the “Man in the Moon” for a series of midnight contests. Source: The Sporting Life October 15, 1884, quoting the Falls River, Massachusetts News
But again, we being the people we are, the name stuck and became standard usage.
So that is 1884: the pennant winners of the two major leagues. (Yes, there was also the Union Association. The reasons to gloss over the UA are a discussion for another day.) They were playing a post-season series, with the winner billed as being the world’s champion. That looks pretty persuasive.
Next I will jump up to 1903. The AA is gone: technically it merged into the NL, but for practical purposes simply gone. In 1900 the Western League changed its name to the American League, and in 1901 the AL declared itself a major league. What this meant was a claim to equal rights to players and territories. War was again on, which mostly meant bidding for players, with salaries escalating accordingly. Peace came in 1903, when the NL concluded it could not afford to continue fighting, and so it acceded to the AL’s claim to equal status. The post-season series between the respective pennant winners was a natural result:
Henry Killilea, owner of the Boston American League Club, will meet Barney Dreyfuss, owner of the Pittsburg Club, of the National League, in a few days and endeavor to arrange for a series of games this fall between the winning teams of the two major leagues for the championship of the United States. Source: Pittsburgh Press September 2, 1903
Notice two things. First, there is that uncertainty again what to call this. Championship of the “United States” would quickly meet the same fate as previously, with the “World” winning out. Notice second who was arranging the series: the respective owners. This was not a function of the two leagues. This is why it is bullshit to dismiss the 19th century series as mere exhibitions, while counting the 1903 series as the real thing.
This takes us to the 1905 series. There had been no 1904 series because John McGraw, the manager of the NL pennant winning Giants, had it out for the AL and refused to play the series. The two leagues knew good marketing when they saw it, so they took measures to ensure this didn’t happen again. They had, as part of the peace process, created a National Commission. (This is why the eventual office of grand pooh-bah is known as the “Commissioner,” with other sports leagues adopting the same term.) That winter the National Commission enacted rules creating and regulating the World Series.
So what about 1886? This is the most subjective of the four candidates. The idea here is that a championship is only a championship if people care about it as a championship. This is among those people who otherwise care about the sport. If you don’t care about sports, you don’t care who wins the World Series. And even if you are a sports fan, but not Canadian, you probably don’t care who wins the curling championship. But if you are a baseball fan, you probably acknowledge that yes, the World Series is a big deal, and if you are a Cubs or an Indians fan, you probably care a great deal who wins this year.
The thing is, this quality of being acknowledge a Big Deal doesn’t always come right away, and the marketers can’t fake it. In those early Modern Olympics you find gold medals awarded to some guy who happened to be in town, and wandered in. This was not a big deal. But somewhere along the line, perhaps when Hitler decided to make them a Nazi showpiece, the Olympics became a very big deal indeed. Nowadays if you know a guy who won an Olympic medal you will talk this up to random acquaintances, even if it was a bronze medal in an obscure sport you would never dream of caring about otherwise.
In a potentially similar vein, I am watching with fascination the World Baseball Classic. Right now this is an awkward appendage that meshes poorly with Spring Training. Winning it is nice, but nothing compared with having a healthy starting rotation come April. But who knows? It might grow into a big deal, and our grandchildren will read in disbelief about how at first nobody cared. I predict that in twenty years it will either be huge, or long forgotten. I don’t predict which way it will go.
So bringing this idea to the World Series, when did it become a big deal? Certainly not in 1884. At that point it was merely a hyped post-season exhibition series. Post-season exhibition games were not new. The regular season ended about the same time it does today. This left a few weeks of plausible weather for baseball, which clubs used to eke out a bit more revenue. These affairs had a depressing air to them, what with increasingly bad weather, and they seized on anything that would stimulate interest. A cross-town rivalry was always good. This gave the Phillies and Athletics something to talk about, and Washington and Baltimore could plausibly claim a regional rivalry. The 1884 series was essentially the same thing, and was so regarded: not quite nothing, but not the big deal it would grow to be.
Which takes us to 1886, between St. Louis and Chicago. They had been the pennant winners the previous year and had played the post-season series, but it had been something of a fizzle. The format was not thought out and the weather sucked and they were playing in neutral cities to small crowds. There was a disputed game, which gave St. Louis the excuse for a desultory claim on the world championship, but Chicago claimed it was a 3-3-1 tie, and modern sources (including me) agree. The whole thing was a mess and everyone was just happy to go home.
1886 was a different matter. The cities of Chicago and St. Louis have a rivalry that predates organized sports, so this was a natural from the start. Then during the season Chicago’s captain, Adrian Anson, was asked how he thought the St. Louis Browns would do in the National League. He responded they would finish fifth. He was trolling, and it worked. St. Louis was riled up. When it came time to arrange the post-season series, Albert Spalding, the owner of the Chicagos, suggested he and Chris Von der Ahe, owner of the St. Louis club, each put up $5,000. That had an air of gambling, so they agreed instead to play for the gate receipts, winner take all. (Whey the one is squalid gambling and the other is not is left as an exercise for the student. Let me know if you figure it out. I haven’t.) They worked out ahead of time where the receipts would be deposited, how the umpires would be selected, and so forth. The format was a modern-looking best of seven series, three in Chicago followed by three in St. Louis, and if necessary a tie breaker at a neutral site. Everything about this was more serious–more businesslike–than the year before.
The crowds also were more serious.
Although the sky was overcast with the threatening clouds which promised rain at any moment, the crowd began to arrive early, and continued to pour through the gates until long after the game was well under way. … [at 2:15] the Chicagos marched upon the field and were warmly received by the audience, which, by this time packed the free seats and comfortably filled the grand stand. Source: New York Sun October 24, 1886
The total gate for the series was just a bit under $14,000. By way of comparison, a club’s total salary list at this time typically ran between $20,000 and $30,000 for the entire season. $14,000 was some major scratch. Hence my conclusion that 1886 was the year that World Series became a big deal.
So what happened? Why did the 19th century series fall down the memory hole? It wasn’t because of what people thought in the early 20th century. Look here for a page from The National Game by Al Spink, published in 1911. It has a list of World Series results that jumps straight from 1889 to 1903. Spink was a veteran sportswriter who had been there. He regarded the 20th century World Series as a revival and continuation of those of the 1880s. This was not an outlier, but the consensus found whenever World Series records were discussed in that era.
This gradually changed. By the 1930s the veteran sportswriters didn’t remember the earlier series. When they considered the history of baseball they largely adopted the version they inherited from Spink and his contemporaries, but with an important amendment. They added a line at 1901, dividing modern baseball from whatever it is that existed before. The earlier stuff was lost in a sepia-tinted haze, and generally ignored. Look at the early classes of the Hall of Fame. The first class was inducted in 1936. It was 1939 before any purely 19th century players were elected, and those by the old-timers committee, not the main body of baseball writers. (In fairness, the early election process was so screwed up that this can fairly be ascribed to bureaucratic incompetence.) To further muddy the waters, the name “American Association” had been recycled as a minor league. When this later generation considered the history of the World Series, anything involving the “American Association” was vaguely suspect as to its major league status. (The Hall of Fame membership still reflects this prejudice, though somewhat alleviated by the election of Bid McPhee in 2000.)
The upshot is that those early World Series were forgotten, and 1903 was declared the first. Its unofficial status when it actually took place wasn’t an issue. That bit about discounting the earlier series as mere exhibitions is ex post facto special pleading, and not to be taken seriously.
So there you have it. four candidates: 1884, 1886, 1903, or 1905. Take your pick. Which is mine? 1884 seems the straightforward answer; one not requiring long explanations accompanied by florid gesticulations. I am fond of 1886’s candidacy, but upon sober reflect the argument for it is a bit too cute. 1903 is a non-starter: clearly bogus. If you don’t like 1884, then 1905 is an intellectually consistent choice. Pick that and I won’t point at you and laugh.