Boston is not part of this year’s Major League Baseball World Series – that honor goes to the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies. But the city will always have the honor of hosting the very first World Series in 1903, in front of a crowd of 16,000 on what is now the campus of Northeastern University. Richard A. Johnson, curator at the Sports Museum in Boston, has joined the GBH’s morning edition welcomes Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about it. This transcript has been slightly edited.
Jeremy Siegel: Let’s start our journey to 1903, 119 years ago. Boston’s subway system had just begun extending its trolley from Tremont Street. The first transatlantic broadcast was made from Cape Cod, and Boston was represented in this first world series. But they were up against another Pennsylvania team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. And Richard, the Boston team at the time wasn’t the Red Sox and we didn’t have Fenway, right?
Richard A. Johnson: No, they were known as the Boston Americans. And they played on the grounds of Huntington Avenue, which were across the width of a railroad track from their competition, the Boston Nationals. It was like a McDonald’s next to a Burger King. And of course, the Americans had stolen the Nationals’ best player, Jimmy Collins, and that made him the player-manager of the team. So that was really a statement from them two years before playing in the first World Series. The team was then only three years old.
Paris Alston: It was the first World Series. But where does it stand in place of the American sports championship series? Was this the first or had there been something like this before?
Johnson: Well, there had been an event called the Temple Cup, which was played by National League teams before as a post-season series. But it was never to be somehow placed on the same platform as the World Series once that settled down. The Boston Nationals had contested the Temple Cup five years prior. So we were used to these post-season series before the advent of the World Series.
Headquarters : Do we know at all, from photos or anything written about it, what it looked like in that first World Series? Because it’s in a northeast part – there’s no baseball diamond there anymore, is there?
Johnson: No. In fact, there’s the Cabot Cage, which is Northeastern’s indoor sports facility. And there’s actually a life-size statue of the great Cy Young roughly where the mound would have been on the Huntington Avenue lot. So there’s kind of a remnant of the baseball stadium footprint there. But probably the best pictorial record of this event is in the McGreevy collection, which is this fabulous collection of photographs at the Boston Public Library. And Nuf Ced McGreevy was a saloon keeper whose saloon, Third Base, supposedly because it was the last place you went before you went home, was a place where gamblers, politicians, just about everyone people in Boston were hanging around. And he had a virtual baseball museum in the tavern. And the framed photographs in that collection, most of them now reside at the BPL and they look fabulous. They are really great.
Alton: So Richard, unfortunately we don’t have the chance to host a World Series for our team this year. But I can only imagine if we were, all the fanfare that would be around Fenway Park and everyone crowding around and the city being really energized. But in 1903, what was the atmosphere like then? How was this received?
Johnson: Well, the vibe then, it was very interesting because heading into the first World Series, the big stories – and they started about two weeks before the event – were a work story that the players Pirates, their opponent, were under contract until October 15. The Boston Americans were under contract until the end of September. They wanted to be paid their fair share. The property stood in their way. And for about 10 days the story went from a paragraph on page three to a news on page one as players at one point threatened not to play in the World Series and go on a barnstorming tour in New England. They wanted to get paid, and at the last minute they agreed to a deal that they would split the proceeds with the property and get two weeks extra pay. But it was at the last minute and it became a very big story. And in fact, you could say that this first World Series, at least the Boston ending, was largely responsible for the back-to-front-page sports coverage.
The other storyline that was very important in this event was gambling stories. There was a lot of gambling and Boston was known as the most notorious city in the country for sports betting at the time.
Alton: It’s a bit ironic.
Johnson: In August of that year, American League President Ban Johnson banned play at American League baseball diamonds. Well, that was totally ignored in Boston. And in the days leading up to the first game played here, Boston’s Hotel Vendome was the center of the game. on this first game. It was a big deal.
Headquarters : What a fascinating story. Before I let you go, if you bet, like during this series here, would you bet on this one?
Johnson: I would bet on the Astros just because they seem like a better team. I mean, maybe there’s a little magic left in the Phillies, but when you’re untouched in a World Series, it almost feels like predetermination. But we will see. The beauty of sports is that you have to play the games.