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Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: The Red Sox World Series That Almost Wasn't

The roots of the 1919 Black Sox scandal can be found in the 1918 World Series, which saw the Boston Red Sox attempt to strike after baseball owners cut their pay.

by Jack Moore
Sep 10 2015, 6:44pm

Courtesy WikiMedia Commons

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

What if the so-called "curse" the Boston Red Sox endured from 1918 to 2004 wasn't the result of selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees? Decades into Boston's World Series drought, New England Sport offered another explanation: in 1993, the magazine campaigned for organized baseball to end its 75-year snub of the 1918 Red Sox. "The sin perpetrated by the lords of baseball against members of the 1918 Red Sox," Boston historian and Red Sox expert Glenn Stout wrote, "provides more than enough fodder to fuel any notion of a curse."

The 1918 season had already been difficult for baseball thanks to the United States' entry into World War I the prior year; it was further jeopardized midway through the season when the Secretary of War ruled professional baseball a nonessential occupation. Owners convinced the War Department to give players an extension to comply with its "work or fight" decree, but this agreement still cut the regular season short and moved the World Series to early September, when the Boston Red Sox would face the Chicago Cubs. As if things couldn't get any worse for organized baseball, in Game Five of the series, 97 years ago today, fans in Boston's Fenway Park were greeted with a field empty but for the batboy. The players had gone on strike.

Read More: Throwback Thursday: The Assassination of Fay Vincent by the Coward American Baseball Owners

While more than 24,000 restless baseball fans waited in the stands, representatives for Cubs and Sox players were in a standoff with the three men who made up baseball's National Commission, which then oversaw the major leagues: chairman August Herrmann, American League president Ban Johnson, and National League president John Heydler. At issue, of course, was money.

For years, players for the two World Series teams were paid from a pool that included 60 percent of gate receipts from the first four games of the series (minus 10 percent that went to the commission). The payouts had become increasingly lucrative: in 1917, a winning share was worth more than $3,500, a losing one more than $2,400. The following winter, the National Commission announced a change in how it would distribute postseason revenue. The two teams in the series would receive a fixed amount—based on 1917 receipts, the commission set these at $2,000 for the winners and $1,400 for the losers—and whatever was left in the players' pool would be divided among the second, third, and fourth place teams in each league

While the change was reported in the papers that winter, the news was never directly relayed to the players—not that they had any formal recourse if they disagreed with the new policy. As described in Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson's Red Sox Century: The Definitive History of Baseball's Most Storied Franchise, the players largely forgot about the issue until their train ride from Chicago, where the first three games of the Series had been played, to Boston. Attendance had been historically low all year, and owners decided not to raise ticket prices for the postseason, compounding the problem. On the train, the players calculated that the World Series winners would be lucky to make $1,000 a share.

Once in Boston, Red Sox players Harry Hooper and Dave Shean along with Leslie Mann and Bill Killefer of the Chicago Cubs confronted Johnson, Heydler, and Herrmann about the issue, demanding concessions in light of the decreased revenues. The commission responded that their hands were tied, and that they would be risking litigation from other clubs if they altered the deal.

The players delayed taking action as long as they could, but on the eve of Game Five, with Boston leading 3-1, a victory would end the Series—as well as any leverage the players might have at winning back their fair share from the owners. On the morning of September 10, after the commissioners dismissed a final plea for a meeting before the game, the players felt they had no other option but to strike.

Pay the man, already. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The game was scheduled to start at 2:30 PM. At 2:45, the commissioners and the four players' representatives, accompanied by some sportswriters, met in the umpires' room. Perhaps the players would have had a chance if the country hadn't been at war. The fans in Boston, including some wounded soldiers, had understandably little patience for the delay. The players weren't unsympathetic. Hooper even told the commission that the entire players' share could go to the war charities if they would just restore the previous revenue sharing deal, between two teams instead of eight. The commissioners, their confidence boosted by some pre-gaming at the hotel bar, refused to budge. An "absolutely smashed" Johnson (according to Stout) told the players that they owed it "to the soldiers in the stands."

Finally, roughly an hour after the first pitch was supposed to have been thrown, the players agreed to take the field in exchange for a promise that no disciplinary action would be taken. Imagine their surprise when a few weeks later, a letter from President Heydler arrived announcing the Red Sox would not be receiving the customary championship emblem due to their participation in the strike.

A number of team members repeatedly wrote to the National Commission requesting a change of heart, but none was coming. Hooper continued to petition baseball's leadership until his death in 1974. Finally, after Stout's article in New England Sport and his revival of the history of the strike, the Red Sox finally honored the 1918 team and present descendants of the championship squad with the emblems won by their ancestors.

Maybe that's not as compelling a tale as the Curse of the Bambino. Letting go of Ruth was a decision that not only sunk the Sox for years but also elevated the hated Yankees to the top of baseball. Still, the fact that neither baseball nor the Red Sox made any effort to reconcile with the 1918 champions says something. Something malicious. The owners were simply hoarding money for themselves: rather than pay the players on the leagues' runner-up squads with their own money, they elected to reach into the champions' pockets instead. The commission effectively admitted as much the next year when it restored the original receipts distribution; the winner's share even reached a record $5,207, more than $1,000 above the previous high in 1912.

In a way, baseball got its just desserts that World Series, which the White Sox players were willing to dump—jeopardizing their livelihoods, their legacies, and even their freedom for a mere $20,000, simply because the owners refused to share the pie. Baseball was left with a permanent blemish in the form of the Black Sox, now and forever a part of the game's and the nation's history. Consider it the lasting curse Harry Hooper and the 1918 Red Sox left on baseball's more than deserving owners.