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On Second Thought

Cubs at Fenway: Classic stuff

By Kevin Paul Dupont
May 15, 2011

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The Cubs will be in town Friday night, back in Fenway Park for their first visit since Sept. 11, 1918, an afternoon when most Bostonians were focused on the next day’s national registration drive that aimed to sign some 13 million US volunteers into the Armed Forces.

Back then, World War I was a much bigger deal than Fenway, the Sox, or the Cubs, much bigger than all of baseball, all of everything. Would it be that way today, a world war ahead of a World Series? Debatable.

The Cubs lost, 2-1, that day, handing the Red Sox another World Series title. By 1918, Red Sox supremacy was edging toward what the baseball world eventually would consider to be Yankee-like. Consider the lead paragraph in the Sept. 12 Daily Globe report by Edward P. Martin:

“Boston is again the capital of the baseball world, history repeating itself yesterday when the Red Sox, who have never failed in this great classic, defeated the Cubs, 2 to 1.’’

Of the 15 World Series titles to that point, the Red Sox owned five. It was also Boston’s last Series title until 2004, in case anyone has “misremembered’’ that piece of forgettable history.

The Cubs almost didn’t make it to Boston in 1918. Because of the war, the government imposed an order forcing the major leagues to close out their schedules on Labor Day. The Sox and Cubs were atop their respective leagues, and under the country’s work-or-fight order, there was a chance the record book would carry an asterisk for the 1918 World Series: “*Not held because of war effort.’’

But they played, abiding by a travel restriction and scheduling the first three games in Chicago and Games 4 through 7 in Boston. Because of a general apathy toward baseball at the time, the Cubs opted to play at Wrigley Field rather than the bigger Comiskey Park, and the Red Sox used Fenway, abandoning an earlier practice that had them stage some Series games at the more expansive Braves Field just up Commonwealth Avenue.

“Truth is,’’ said Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum of New England, “the entire 1918 season was nearly lost because of the war, and it was only saved because of Harry Frazee. That’s right, Harry, the demonized and villainized Frazee — the guy who became the Cuisinart of hatred in Boston.’’

It was Frazee who on Jan. 3, 1920, sold young Sox pitcher Babe Ruth to the Yankees to help fund the failed stage play, “No No Nanette.’’

“Because of the war, baseball was going to go away after the 1917 season,’’ said Johnson. “Instead, Frazee saved it by going to his buddy, Newton Baker, the Secretary of War, making a convincing argument to let it keep going.

“He never gets much credit for that, especially in this town. Basically, Harry Frazee interceded on behalf of baseball, saved the day, preserved the industry.’’

In that 1918 Series, Ruth hurled impressive wins in the Game 1 opener in Chicago and then in Game 4, the first at Fenway. He didn’t give up a run until the eighth inning of his second start, running his streak of scoreless innings pitched in Series play to 29 2/3, surpassing the standing mark (28 innings) of the great Christy Mathewson. In later years, Ruth’s wife was quoted as saying that record was “the exploit he cherished most.’’

Ruth used the 1918 season to launch his transition from pitcher to outfielder, decreasing his workload on the mound (going 13-7) and playing 95 games in the field. He hit .300 for the season and tied for the game’s home run title (11). It was sort of his JV season at the plate, prep work for the Bronx.

The start of Game 5 on Sept. 10 was delayed an hour because of a wildcat strike by Cubs and Sox players, who were dissatisfied with attempts earlier in the day to broker a better deal for Series wages. In they end, the hour delay netted them only grief, not to mention a broken promise from the game’s hierarchy.

Upon realizing they wouldn’t get more money, they asked for assurance that they would suffer no consequences. Told all would be fine, they agreed to play, with Boston Mayor John “Honey’’ Fitzgerald telling the angry Fenway crowd of 24,694 that the boys would play for the fans, especially “the wounded soldiers in the stands.’’

The Cubs won Game 5, 3-0, with Hippo Vaughn’s five-hitter proving better than Sad Sam Jones’s seven-hitter. The next day, with all the fuss about the money factoring in a lean Fenway crowd of only 15,238, the Sox finished off the Cubs behind a Carl Mays three-hitter. The Sox won the Series. The Cubs haven’t been seen near Kenmore Square ever since.

The Series shares to each player proved paltry, a net $890 to each of the champs and $535 to each Cub.

Making it worse for the triumphant Sox, the National Commission, the game’s governing body, reneged on its promise not to punish the players, calling out the “disgraceful actions’’ of their wildcat strike. Author George Sullivan’s splendid “Picture History of the Boston Red Sox,’’ published in 1979, notes that the Sox were denied their coveted World Champions emblem — a diamond lapel pin.

None of the six Series games lasted as long as two hours. Game 5 went a mere 1:42. Game 2 was the longest at 1:58. During Games 4, 5, and 6, soldiers at Fort Devens, some 40 miles to the west, received inning-by-inning updates via carrier pigeons launched from the Fenway press box.

One of the central characters for the Sox in the Game 6 clincher — termed the “farewell battle’’ by the Globe’s Martin — was left fielder/cleanup hitter George Whiteman. A longtime minor leaguer, he spent all of 1918 with the Sox, who saw some of their top players head off to the war.

Whiteman hit only .250 for the Series but made some great catches in the outfield, including one in the eighth inning of Game 6. Then 35 years old, he never played another game in the bigs.

“Whiteman was a real hardscrabble kind of guy,’’ said Johnson. “He set the minor league record for games played, and in the offseason, he traveled the carnival circuit and made a living as a high diver, jumping into barrels of water. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.’’

Cubs-Sox, together again Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Fenway, many wars gone by, and too long to wait.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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