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A warm-up pitch for the World Series

Boston Red Sox pitcher Smoky Joe Wood warmed up in 1912. Wood pitched relief in the eighth game of the Series that year.
Boston Red Sox pitcher Smoky Joe Wood warmed up in 1912. Wood pitched relief in the eighth game of the Series that year.
By Bill Nowlin
October 25, 2009

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The World Series is set to begin this week. And while Red Sox fans may be less enthused about this year’s fall classic than in 2004 and 2007, many will still be interested. For those members of Red Sox Nation looking to whet their appetites a bit more, here are a couple of books that involve not just the Series but the hometown team.

In “The Original Curse,’’ Sean Deveney examines the possibility that the Cubs threw the 1918 World Series to the Red Sox. Deveney provides a great deal of circumstantial evidence that suggests, as he puts it, that “something was not right’’ about that year’s championship. Looking ahead to the Black Sox Scandal of the very next year, he observes: “To believe that the 1919 World Series was the first and only one to be fixed by gamblers is to believe the official history. It would almost be like believing that the 89 players named in the Mitchell Report are the only ones to have used PEDs,’’ or performance-enhancing drugs.

Deveney begins by listing numerous other instances in which attempts at fixing games had been reported. Anyone who has looked over newspapers of the early 20th century would be struck by the reporting of the odds, naming the gamblers present at key games, and citing the sums of money they were prepared to wager. Where there’s smoke, there is likely fire, goes Deveney’s argument.

Consider, too, there were numerous factors coalescing to produce adequate temptation: a season unpredictably cut short by World War I, player contracts terminated early, the draft looming for men not performing essential work, inflation running more than 17 percent in both 1917 and 1918, and Series shares forecast to be half what was anticipated.

Match temptation with the prevalence of gambling, and then consider Game Four. Chicago’s Max Flack was picked off twice and played very shallow right field against Babe Ruth, the game’s greatest left-handed hitter who tripled over his head, giving Boston a fourth-inning 2-0 lead. There was indeed suspiciously poor play, making Deveney’s speculation not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, Deveney strains to posit a consequential “curse’’ suffered by both teams, one that haunted them for nearly a century. The introduction of this notion seems a device aimed at bigger book sales, but weakens the work by trivializing it.

Both Deveney’s book and Mike Vaccaro’s “The First Fall Classic’’ are troubling for their use of invented dialogue. Both journalist-authors are frank about their method. One can grant that the authors strove to fashion these conversations in line with reality, but it is discomfiting to be reading works of history that rely so heavily on such inventions. How does one know where verifiable fact fades out, and fictionalization begins?

Vaccaro’s volume is a straightforward look at the 1912 World Series, unburdened by curses or irrelevancies. The 1912 Series was arguably the first to truly become fixed as an important annual event in the American consciousness. He considers this “the greatest World Series ever played - so great, in fact, that in all future years, both words would be permanently capitalized.’’

In Boston and New York, in the days before radio and television, there were huge crowds that assembled outside newspaper offices or elsewhere to hear news of the games. It’s hard to imagine today, but as many as 55,000 people gathered in New York’s Herald Square to take in developments relayed by telegraph.

The tightly fought series went to an eighth game, featuring rookie Hugh Bedient as the Boston starter - and Smoky Joe Wood (34-5 in the regular season) in relief. The Sox faced off against the great Christy Mathewson, one of the initial class of five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The game was 1-1 after nine innings, and went into extra innings. Played in Boston, the Giants scored a run in the top of the 10th, but the Red Sox came back and won it with two runs in the bottom of the inning. Those are the stark facts, but there were dramatic twists and turns in each game as the series played out - with barehanded catches, heroic performances, fistfights among teammates, and horrible muffs scattered throughout.

It even happened that - in two separate games - a batted ball entered the same hole in a far corner of the bleachers. As Vaccaro noted in another regard, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. It was that kind of World Series, and its story is very well told.

Bill Nowlin is coauthor of “The Red Sox World Series Encyclopedia’’ and some two dozen other books on Boston baseball.

THE ORIGINAL CURSE: Did the Cubs Throw the 1918 World Series to Babe Ruth’s Red Sox and Incite the Black Sox Scandal?
By Sean Deveney
McGraw-Hill, 256 pp., $24.95

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
By Mike Vaccaro
Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.95

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