Rewinding back to 1903 and the first World Series

Published 8:21 am Thursday, October 25, 2018

World Series managers Dave Roberts and Alex Cora have novel pre-game calculations to ponder. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox pilots have been in consultation with their pitching coaches, in-house sabermetric gurus and other baseball experts to determine if they should go with new-fangled openers or traditional starters.

If the former, how long should he go – one or two batters or one or two innings? If the latter, dare the manager hope for four innings, maybe five?

Back in 1903, when the first-ever World Series was played between the h-less Pittsburg Pirates and the Boston Americans, no such deliberations were necessary. Managers Fred Clarke, Pirates, and Jimmy Collins, Red Sox, simply gave the bulb, as baseballs were called in the early 1900s, to their starters, and then took a seat at the end of the bench.

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The best of nine series that stretched from Oct. 1 and Oct. 13 — because of rain outs and travel days — and which Boston won, 5-3, included 13 complete games. More remarkably, the Pirates’ Deacon Phillippe fired five of them. To put the magnitude of Phillippe’s five complete games in a nine-game series in perspective, consider that the 2018 complete game leaders during a 162-game season were tied with two.

Baseball bugs wildly anticipated the initial World Series showdown between the traditional National League Pirates and the nascent Red Sox, playing in only their third season. Overflow crowds packed Boston’s Huntington Grounds and Pittsburg’s Exposition Park.

Because the Pirates had the lumber and were led by Hall of Fame greats shortstop Honus Wager, 16 seasons of .300 or better batting averages, and player-manager Clarke, a career .312 hitter, the Bucs were heavy favorites. In pre-World Series 1902, the Pirates lost a mere 23 games.

But the Red Sox had weapons, too. On the mound would be three 20-game winners. Cy Young, Bill Dineen and Tom Hughes who racked up 1903 records of, respectively, 28-9, 21-13 and 20-7.

Although Young and Dineen dazzled and were credited with all five Red Sox wins, the big story now lost in time was the Pirates’ Phillippe. Pittsburg’s pitching staff, thinned out by the losses of starters Sam Leever, a 25-game winner, to a trapshooting accident and Ed Doheny to a mental collapse that led to his lifetime institutionalization forced the Pirates to turn to workhorse Phillippe.

In the opener, Phillippe outdueled his more famous foe Young, 7-3. Then, in games two and three, Phillippe prevailed 4-2 and 5-4. In games seven and eight, however, Phillippe took 7-3 and 3-0 losses. During his 44-innings pitched, Phillippe walked only three batters.

Phillippe was the greatest control pitcher ever – his 1.25 walks per nine innings is the lowest ratio of anyone who hurled after the modern pitching distance was increased from 50 feet to 60 feet, six inches.

Although Phillippe was a six-time 20-game winner, never had a losing season, and won 189 games in a 13-year major league career that didn’t begin until he was nearly 27 years old, the Hall of Fame passed him by. Instead, Phillippe settled for Pittsburgh fans electing him the team’s best-ever right-handed pitcher.

During the 1903 series, the shortest game was 1:30; the longest, 2:00. The games’ briefness is attributable to few walks and only three pitching changes. Compare that to the just concluded National League Championship Series that included a staggering 72 pitching changes and games that exceeded four hours.

The relief pitcher parade isn’t always successful. But for viewers, it’s a sure-fire snore. When the regular season rolls around in 2019, expect fewer fans at the park and in front of their televisions. Excessively long games are, by definition, boring.


Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member.