The 1916 World Series and Baseball, a Buoy in the Sea of Death

The 1916 World Series was a welcome distraction for these fans during because of World War I. (via Library of Congress)

If you had had a daughter in 1916, she might have been born to become a widow or an orphan. If you had a son, he too might have been born to be an orphan, or to be murdered overseas. A few lucky devils probably got to be both. Some of that fate was knowable in 1916, some of it was not; much of it was contingent on events then playing out. All baseball is played on the edge of a volcano. In some years, the volcano is more active than others and people in the moment can, at least to some extent, see the eruption coming.

This week, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox are playing a rematch of their only previous World Series meeting, in 1916, if a series that shares none of the participants, neither of the ballparks, and only one of the locations of the original can be said to be a rematch. It’s certainly not a sequel for which anyone was clamoring: The 1916 World Series was so memorable that books claiming to be complete histories of the Fall Classic whistle right past it.

A four-games-to-one victory for the Red Sox, it’s only the epic second contest of the set that is at all celebrated. A story that does exactly what people expect it to do generally fails as entertainment, and in 1916, the Red Sox were the defending world champions and heavily favored to win—so heavily favored that Dodgers starting right fielder Casey Stengel approached some of his Red Sox counterparts before the first game and asked what they thought the losers’ share of the Series receipts would be. Stengel’s congenital playfulness would have been funnier if the Dodgers had then staged an upset, but it was indeed the losers’ share that he and his teammates received.

And so the 1916 World Series rapidly receded in memory. Most baseball is disposable, just as most entertainment is disposable, and for every Citizen Kane or Chinatown on the American Film Institute’s top 100 American films of all time, we forget literally hundreds more. The same goes for most books that aren’t To Kill a Mockingbird, most musicians and bands who aren’t Bob Dylan or the Beatles or Nirvana, and practically all baseball: In 2018, 2,431 major league ball games were played during the regular season plus another handful in the postseason and no one has either the time or the mnemonic capability to remember them all. What is left to us is an impressionistic painting of a time, a place, the people who dwelt in it, and the gifts and punishments they received at the hands of life. This was particularly true in 1916, an exceptionally confusing time.

The 1916 baseball season took place in the eye of a storm that is with us still. The First World War had begun in August 1914 and was still raging around the world. In fact, it had intensified throughout the year. The Battle of Verdun, in which there were something like 700,000 to a million killed and wounded over the 300-plus days of the fight, began in February. The disastrous Battle of the Somme, in which over a million were killed and wounded, with the British suffering nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day alone (30,000 of them in the first half-hour), began on July 1. Borrowing from Black Adder Goes Forth, all that came out this extraordinary effusion of blood was that Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s drinks cabinet moved six inches closer to Berlin; it was inevitable that they’d re-stage the affair again and again. The quadrennial Summer Olympics, planned for Berlin, were understandably cancelled.

The British, with their great naval advantage over the Central Powers, were choking Germany with a blockade. That meant that American ships bound for Germany were stopped, searched, and any goods on an expansive list of contraband were confiscated. Simultaneously, Germany’s submarines were attacking merchant shipping bound for Britain. This too was initially conducted under the naval law of visit-and-search, but later secretly armed merchantmen started shooting at the U-Boats as they surfaced for the visit and the balance of terror shifted.

In response, the Germans began unrestricted warfare—torpedo first, ask questions later. This was unpopular, and the Germans backed off of it a couple of times under pressure from Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Nevertheless, American goods and citizens kept ending up at the bottom of the ocean: The RMS Falaba torpedoed on March 28, 1915 in the Irish Sea on its way from England to Africa (104 people were killed, including one American, Leon Thrasher, who was sort of a one-man Remember the Alamo until everyone forgot him amidst much greater carnage); the RMS Lusitania sunk off the coast of Ireland while outbound from New York, May 7, 1915 (1,198 human lives extinguished, including 128 Americans); the SS Persia torpedoed in the eastern Mediterranean on December 30, 1915 (343 deaths, including two Americans).

Americans’ reaction to these events, as it was to the whole war, was incoherent. They hated the war but liked the prosperity that selling materiel to the belligerents brought. They were pro-Allies except for the portion of the population that was pro-German. They wanted to be prepared to fight, which meant departing from the American tradition of a small peacetime military, but they also very much disliked the idea of actually using the military for anything that might get our boys—or anyone else’s boys—hurt or killed. They wanted to be free to trade with any country they chose, and asked who the British were to tell us who we could do business with, but also didn’t see why Americans, properly warned by the Central Powers, had to keep getting themselves killed on ships headed for the war zone. They wanted to avenge the dead, but they also didn’t know if the deaths of approximately 150 Americans was sufficient cause to enter a fight that could see hundreds of thousands of Americans maimed or killed.

In Congress, some representatives introduced legislation that would have committed the U.S. to go to war on further provocation—another Lusitania, say—but also came very close to passing a bill that would deny passports to any Americans who intended to book passage to Europe. Simultaneously, President Wilson was campaigning for reelection—the vote would take place less than a month after the final game of the World Series—on a contorted platform that featured, first and foremost, the slogan, “HE KEPT US OUT OF WAR,” but also embraced the preparedness issue.

Wilson made sure that he embraced it boldly but vaguely, so as to offend no one while trying to appeal to everyone. On February 2, 1916, Wilson told a cheering St. Louis audience that America must bolster its strength, “in order that we may be in a condition to serve the restoration of the world, the healing process.” This was, he said, “not a military policy; this is a policy of adequate preparation for national defense, and any man who represents it in any other light must either be ignorant or consciously misrepresenting the facts.”

Those who wanted to represent the facts at all said, “What?” or “Beg pardon?” Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson’s opponent in the previous presidential election, got it: “Wilson,” he grumbled, “with his lack of all convictions and willingness to follow every gust of popular opinion, will be supported by the mass of our fellow countrymen.” He was right; Wilson won a squeaker of an election that November. The proximate reason was that the Republican nominee, former Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Hughes, bollixed up his approach to California Republicans, which was enough for him to lose the state and thereby the election (Wilson took the Electoral College 277-254; shift California’s 13 electoral votes into Hughes’ column and he would have won).

The larger reason was that public incoherence led to political incoherence. The Republicans (with the exception of Roosevelt) couldn’t be more belligerent than Wilson, because it would have been unpopular, so Hughes stuck to preparedness, an issue which Wilson had already stolen from him. Perceiving little difference between the two parties except that Hughes was anti-labor, a slim majority went with Wilson.

At about the same time all of this sinking and dying and bloviating was happening, Wilson’s personal emissary, Colonel Edward House (who wasn’t a colonel) was in Europe promising that if the Entente just played things the right way the U.S. would definitely get into the war, while telling the Germans that if they just, oh, quit—even if, as measured by the fact that the war was taking place in France, they were winning—that the U.S. definitely would not get into the war, but would just mediate the peace. Wilson insisted on adding, “probably,” to both offers, so no one knew what the U.S. were promising, if anything.

Given the foregoing, everyone playing or watching or even ignoring the 1916 World Series understood that there was a major war on; that even though the United States was not a party to the conflict at the moment they likely would be eventually. After the first game, the Boston Globe’s front page was split between two headlines: “RED SOX COME THROUGH 6-5, AFTER SEEING GAME ALMOST SLIP AWAY” and “U-BOAT VISITS NEWPORT, RI.” “Visits” is a strangely neutral word choice that makes it seem as if the Germans were just there to do some sightseeing. The submarine was still lurking about after Game Five, chasing ships off of Nantucket Island. So much was closing in, and if we could look down a list of the 164,859 who attended the games at Braves Field (the Red Sox ditched Fenway for their National League rival’s larger stadium) and Ebbets Field (where Charles Ebbets drove down sales by charging an exorbitant $5 for grandstand seats), we would find many who, within a year or two, would no longer be alive.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Just before the start of the next baseball season, things would change. The United States, having watched public opinion harden towards the Germans, endured another declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, and would declare war on Germany. All the indecision of 1916 would be swept away within months of the last out. A few ballplayers, such as Hank Gowdy, would enlist right away. Others would put it off until the government insisted they “work or fight” and baseball shut down in 1918.

It is tempting to think of Harvard Eddie Grant, the recently retired New York Giants utility infielder beloved by manager John McGraw, attending a game of the ’16 Series in Boston. At the end of the 1915 season he had returned there to pursue a full-time career in law, something that heretofore had only occupied him in the offseason. A preparedness believer, he had gone to one of General Leonard Wood’s original Plattsburg training camps and joined up as soon as war was declared. He was the first former ballplayer to do so. On October 5, 1918, as he completed a momentary break from the desperate, confused fighting in France’s Argonne Forest, a shell landed nearly on top of him. A large metal fragment tore through his body, killing him instantly.

Perhaps he had been at Game Two and saw Babe Ruth, who at only 21 was one of the best pitchers in baseball that year, pitch a 14-inning complete game to beat the Dodgers 2-1. Maybe he stayed for the entire two and a half hours, and afterward stopped to chat with the Dodgers’ Rube Marquard, his old teammate. Then he vanished, back into his law books, into uniform, into history.

Because Game Two was an all left-handed affair, future platooning proponent Stengel spent the entire afternoon on the bench. “That game was so famous,” he groused in later years, “they never used me.” He would get other opportunities, of course, while others were more permanently deselected. Somewhere, perhaps midway through 1917, the virus soon to be known as the Spanish Flu underwent the mutation that would allow it to spread and kill with merciless efficiency. Perhaps 50 or 100 million died of the disease, many of them in uniform; in the trenches and the cantonments, the soldiers lived in close quarters, and breathed and coughed and sneezed on each other. The infection raged; the piles of corpses grew still higher. Had Eddie Grant been so lucky as to survive the Argonne, he might have died then.

You could argue that these two lines in 1916, the World and the World Series, have nothing to do with each other. They are parallel lines, you might say, concurrent but not connected. This is wrong; parallel lines never meet, but these were rapidly converging. For some—we cannot know exactly who they were—they would stay intertwined for some time to come. Separating them is possible only due to the privilege of our hindsight and the vanity resulting from the godlike heights from which we view them.

Hence the children who might be orphans, widows, victims: A young father could have taken a seat at Ebbets Field, gone to war and never come back. Twenty-five years later, the same thing could have happened to his son; World War II happened because World War I had been, in so many ways, left unresolved—among the many festering problems was that too many Germans had been left with the impression that they had indeed quit when they were winning, just as House had asked them to.

That much of this was visible in the moment doesn’t mean life didn’t go on much as it always does. The denizens of 1916 weren’t angry or melancholy all the time, even though they understood their position relative to history. That they still found time to laugh some of the time only makes that laughter sweeter and more poignant. The Dodgers spent spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida that year. Their manager, Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson, was the primary catcher for the National League’s great Baltimore Orioles teams of the mid-1890s, a source of tremendous pride to him.

In the 1910s there was a brief fad for catchers catching balls dropped from great heights. Most famously, on August 21, 1908, Washington Senators backstop Gabby Street caught a ball dropped from the top of the Washington Monument. This intrigued Robbie. It happened that a famous flier, Ruth Law, was doing some promotional work in Daytona Beach at that time. Robbie got a notion that if Law dropped a baseball out of her airplane, he could catch it.

No one thought this was a good idea for obvious reasons, but Robbie—52, bespectacled, and bulky with suet—was insistent. At the appointed hour, Law took her plane up to about 400 or 500 feet and moments later a spheroid came plunging back to earth. Robbie staggered around below, lined it up—and it ticked off his glove. It struck him in the chest, spraying what he assumed to be blood in his eyes, and knocked him to the ground. “Jesus!” he shouted. “Jesus! I’m killed! I’m blind! It broke open my chest! I’m covered with blood! Jesus!”

He had been hit by a grapefruit. It had exploded. Robbie had not. We will never know quite how that happened. Robbie blamed Stengel for swapping the baseball for citrus, but Stengel always denied culpability. Others said it was the trainer who went up with Law and made the switch. Law later claimed that she went up alone and had simply forgotten the baseball. Rather than abandon the attempt, she dropped her lunch on Robbie. Eventually, when he realized that his sternum hadn’t been crushed, even Robbie saw the humor in the situation. There is no feeling of relief like that of knowing you have not just witnessed your own death.

On May 15, 1894, the Baltimore Orioles were playing the Boston Beaneaters (eventually to be known as the Braves) at their home field, the South End Grounds. When Boston first baseman Tommy Tucker spiked Baltimore third baseman John McGraw, the two squared off and started fighting. As they scrapped, the building caught fire. Someone watching the fight dropped a lit cigarette. First the right field bleachers went up, and eventually the entire neighborhood; 12 acres were charred, approximately 200 buildings were destroyed, 1,900 people were left homeless. The ballpark was a complete casualty too. Initially, though, few noticed it was happening. They were watching Tucker reel away from McGraw after the latter had delivered a devastating shot to his jaw. It’s certain that Tucker and McGraw were too busy to notice either, and it’s tempting to think of them there, still slugging away at each other as the patrons fled and the flames rose around them.

That’s baseball. It’s always being played with a fire raging just behind it. It’s also everything else. All of life is played on the edge of a volcano.

References and Resources

  • Timothy M. Gay, Tris Speaker: The Rough and Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend
  • The Boston Globe, 1894 and 1916
  • Baseball-Reference
  • Frank Graham, The Brooklyn Dodgers
  • Fred Lieb, The Boston Red Sox
  • Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals
  • Walter Millis, Road to War: America 1914-1917

Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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Paul G.member
5 years ago

Nice article.

For those of you who want to know more about WWI, there is a YouTube channel doing a week-by-week history of the war exactly 100 years after the events. (It is nearing the end now.) You can find it here:

I’ll note that the Spanish Flu was called that not necessarily because the disease started there, but because the Spanish press was reporting on it. There was censorship in all the belligerents because of the war and reporting of a deadly epidemic disease was bad for morale, so the English, French, German, etc. suppressed the news. Spain was not involved so they had no such limitations. If you read the papers it seemed that Spain was suffering greatly but none of its neighbors were especially impacted.

Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago

Good piece of writing, and I learned some history too.

The grapefruit: she was up flying alone and she was going to cut, section, and eat a whole grapefruit in her lap? Yeah no.