This week, the RedState Department of History makes its first foray into the world of sports. With the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers advancing to the 2017 World Series this week, I thought it would be fun to discuss the start of the very first World Series on this date in 1884.
The reason this is unusual is that Major League Baseball will tell you that the first World Series was played in 1903.
That’s because it was the first championship series which featured the new American League – but some years before, three Fall Classics were played between the National League champion and their rival league, the American Association.
In the fall of 1884, the Providence Grays won the National League pennant. The NL had only been in existence for eight years at that time, and the new sport of baseball was taking the nation by storm. They went 84-28 during the season, sparked by their ace pitcher, “Hoss” Radbourne.
Meanwhile the New York Metropolitans took the AA by storm, winning the pennant with a record of 75-32, good for the flag by 6 1/2 games over the Columbus Buckeyes. Oddly, that league featured 13 teams, but perhaps not oddly, the Washington Nationals finished last. The American League version of the Nats would eventually come to coin the phrase “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”
However, manager Jim Mutrie of the Metropolitans hadn’t had quite enough baseball, and challenged Grays manager Frank Bancroft to a best-of-three series between the teams with the winner to receive the title “World’s Champion”. As such, the series came to be called the World Series, nineteen years before it was contested by the champions of the American and National Leagues.
It was quite a different game back then. Radbourne went 59-12 that season with a 1.38 earned-run average in a rather amazing 678 innings of work. That’s over three seasons’ worth of work for a modern starting pitcher. He struck out 441 opposing batters that summer.
Mutrie thought his men could handle the Grays, but the series itself turned out differently than he had expected. The Grays won all three games, including a third game that didn’t have to be played since the Grays had already clinched the series after winning the first two.
Then, as now, the two leagues played by different rules. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has a great writeup of the series and notes that even in that day, the rules differences had to do with pitching:
“It was decided that the American Association’s rules would be used. Bancroft had sought an exception permitting use of the NL pitching rule—which allowed the ball to be thrown overhand. That would have been an advantage to Radbourn. Instead the AA rule, which prohibited the pitcher from raising his arm above the belt, was used.”
Radbourn won the first game 6-0, but that was the only game that actually went nine innings. The second game, a 3-1 win also pitched by Radbourn, was called after seven innings due to darkness. The third game, which was played in the hopes of boosting revenue, was called after six innings due to extreme cold – but Radbourn won that game too.
The Grays, having won the first two games, had to be persuaded to play the third game and finally were coerced to play on the condition they could choose the umpire. They chose Keefe, who they thought was the Metropolitans’ best pitcher, and then beat Buck Becannon 12-2 in the aforementioned six innings.
Thus ended the first-ever World Series – played in front of a total of 3,800 fans for all three games. The series was played for seven years until the American Association folded in 1891. Ten years later, Ban Johnson formed the American League, and as they say, the rest is history.
Enjoy today’s open thread!