The Old Ball Game

One hundred years ago, in the quickly thickening dusk of a raw October Tuesday, pitcher Bill Dinneen of the Boston Baseball Americans gazed at catcher Lou Criger for his sign. At the old Huntington Avenue Grounds, nearly 7,500 baseball fanatics, chilled by the cold and hushed by the drama of the moment, watched in nervous anticipation, gripping bottles of ginger ale and sarsaparilla. In the front rows of the grandstand along the third-base line, a group of gamblers stood tense and wide-eyed. Some $50,000 would change hands at the game's end, a hefty bundle in the year 1903.

Dinneen rocked his arms back to begin his motion, then brought them slowly above his head. He repeated the full motion a second time with gathering force. At bat was the great shortstop Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, far and away the most feared hitter in the game. Dinneen fired the ball. The pitch came in chest high, dead over the center of the plate. It might have been a fast ball. It might have been a spitter. Whatever it was, it was too much for an overmatched Wagner. He swung and missed, and the final out in the first World Series was recorded. The Boston Americans had defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates, five games to three, to become the first World Series champions in baseball history. The streets of Boston filled with sports fans, chanting joyously for the hometown club.

Many Bostonians may not even know about this particular historical milestone in their city's history. But don't worry — they will. Celebrations are expected all this season to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of that first World Series. There are books coming out, an academic conference is planned, and as-yet-undetermined ceremonies are in the works to acknowledge the beginnings of the spirit of fandom that has managed to transcend the game. More than any other public event, the World Series brings together and transfixes Americans of all stripes. This centennial will remember the birth of it all — a birth that occurred right here.

By happy coincidence or shrewd design, much of this season's interleague play pits the American League East against the National League Central, which means that Boston and Pittsburgh will play each other for the first time since the 1903 series. The games are set for June 3, 4, and 5 in Pittsburgh, and June 3 will be a “throwback” game. Both teams will sport 1903 uniforms, and stadium ceremonies will acknowledge the centennial.

Major League Baseball, not surprisingly, considers the anniversary a “major marketing event.” Expect some sort of corporate tie-in akin to last summer's MasterCard Memorable Moments or 1999's All-Century Team. The Red Sox, too, have been brainstorming about how they'll pay homage to this history. Charles Steinberg, the team's executive vice president of public affairs, wants a celebration that goes beyond sepia-tone photos and vintage uniforms. “I want to make it an experiential journey back to 1903,” he says. “I think it's important for people to live in the year 1903 and not just look at photos and pictures from that time. How we do that, I don't know yet.” He has toyed with the idea of a parade with players riding to the park in horse-drawn carriages as they did a century ago. It might begin for the fans at Fenway as a grainy period video on the centerfield screen, then morph into an actual parade coming through the centerfield gate. However it comes together, look for 1903 to be a big part of 2003 around Fenway this summer. “It's a great point of pride for us,” says Steinberg.

The fans' embrace of the first world championship — in both Boston and Pittsburgh — was the wild card that turned the World Series from a baseball affair into something that became an integral part of America. It wasn't as if the fans had clamored for this series, or even expected it.

The 1903 World Series wasn't put together until September 16, two weeks before the first game. After two years of bitter warfare over money and prominence, the National and American leagues made peace in January of '03, but the peace accord made no provision for any postseason championship series. In August, however, as Pittsburgh was running away with the National League pennant, team owner Barney Dreyfuss issued a challenge to the American League. “The question of baseball supremacy must be settled,” he said.

Once it became apparent that Boston would clinch the American League pennant, Dreyfuss and Boston owner Henry Killilea met in September and in one day drafted and signed a one-page agreement outlining a best-of-nine series. The announcement was made quietly — no special commemorative logos or patches, no promotional tie-ins, no marketing plan. It was big news in Boston and Pittsburgh but rated scarcely more than a paragraph in newspapers elsewhere. By October 1, the series was front-page news on a daily basis in Boston and Pittsburgh. “Sleep has not been thought of,” noted an editorial in the Boston Transcript, “until an answer was obtained to this momentous daily question: What's the score?”

Should you wish to talk 100th anniversary before the big parade begins to march, Roger Abrams is happy to oblige. Abrams is a Northeastern University law professor whose new book — The First World Series and the Baseball Fanatics of 1903 — celebrates the centennial this year. (Another new book worth checking out is Autumn Glory, by New York historian Louis Masur.) Abrams works as a salary arbitrator for Major League Baseball; he's an expert on the modern business of the game and the author of two previous books on baseball. But the boyish-looking 57-year-old is mostly a guy who's never gotten over a bad case of love of the game. His baseball glove shares space with law books in his bookcase, and baseball art covers the walls of his basement office on campus, a long foul ball away from where the first series was played on the Huntington Avenue Grounds.

Northeastern has always had a proprietary interest in the 1903 World Series. The main campus quad sits in what would have been deep center field in the old ballyard, home to the Boston American League team from its inception in 1901 until Fenway was built in 1912. The university president's office in Churchill Hall sits near home plate, and the Cabot Physical Education Center and Richards and Hayden halls sit across from the old infield and outfield. A bronze statue of Cy Young, who won two games for Boston in that first series, was commissioned and erected on the 90th anniversary a decade ago. It stands on a grassy knoll in the quad in front of Churchill, right about where the pitcher's rubber was a century ago. Sixty feet, six inches from the bronze Cy, somewhere over by the site of home plate, there is a replica of the base made of granite, explaining that baseball history was made on this ground. The tingle Abrams gets from walking each day across this long-ago infield is what led him to write about the 1903 World Series.

On October 1, the date of the first 1903 game, Northeastern will invite the city back to the Huntington Avenue Grounds for a daylong conference and celebration of the 100th anniversary. “This is going to be a community event,” says Abrams, “just like the series was a community event in 1903.”

Brahmin, Yankee, Irish, Italian, Jew, Slav — they all rooted for the hardscrabble lads from distant towns and different pasts who had little in common save the name boston written across their chests.

“The 1903 series marked the coming of age of modern Boston,” says Abrams. “It proved that the Irish were at the heart of the city. It proved that there'd be interaction between the Irish and the Brahmins on all levels. It showed Boston would be a city that would continue to welcome immigrants.”

It also proved that Boston would forever be a city full of sports fanatics.

It is telling that the most enduring images from that first World Series are images not of players, but of fans. Should you care to pinpoint the moment when the first World Series transcended itself, it would be Game Three, a sunny Saturday with the series tied at one game apiece. The photographs that have survived show a modest wooden grandstand overwhelmed by fans — boys in knickers and caps, their fathers in shiny suits and bowlers — who climbed the outfield fence that bordered Huntington Avenue after ticket sales were cut off at just over 18,000. (The park seated 8,000.) One photo taken from the roof of an adjacent warehouse shows the fans roaming the outfield like free-range livestock as the players warm up on the infield. By game time, there were more than 20,000 people in the park. They crowded the infield to within 10 feet of the foul lines. “Where is the genius who can explain the wonderful hold baseball has on the American public?” asked the Globe's Tim Murnane at the beginning of his Game Three story. The Pirates won that one, 4-2.

Holding a place of honor in the stands in 1903 were the Royal Rooters. More than a hundred in number, they included a former congressman and future mayor John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. But their leader was a megaphone-toting, jig-dancing, thirtysomething baseball fanatic by the name of Michael “Nuf Ced” McGreevey, a short man who wore a thick handlebar mustache and a map of all Eire on his ruddy face. His nickname, “Nuf Ced,” came from the fact that he had to have the last word in all conversations. Enough said.

McGreevey was a saloonkeeper. For a time, his bar was at the corner of Tremont and Whittier streets, diagonally across from the site of today's Boston Police headquarters. It was called Third Base Saloon, “'cause this is the last place you stop before you go home,” as McGreevey explained it. It was the headquarters for the Rooters. They would gather there before the games and parade in formation, accompanied by a uniformed marching band, into the ballpark through the center-field fence a few minutes before the first pitch. To the cheers of the rest of the crowd, the Royal Rooters made their way to their reserved seats alongside the Boston dugout.

It all seems so innocent, and every bit of a hundred years ago. But is it really so different today? Isn't Eddie Andelman a lot like Michael McGreevey? Aren't the K-Men, the red-shirted crazies who keep track of Pedro's strikeouts from the top row of the bleachers, really descendants of the Royal Rooters?

Someday, the World Series will return to Boston. But as the centennial party unfolds this season, one thing will become clear: The spirit of that first series — a win that no other team can claim, Yankees be damned — has never left this city. And it never will.