What is generally conceded to be the first World Series almost never got played. It was saved by a last-minute phone call involving Lou Criger and Cy Young, the most famous battery of their day—and one of the greatest of all time—and Jimmy Collins, the third-baseman-manager of the Boston Americans (also known as the Puritans and as the Pilgrims). That call is vividly remembered today by Fred Parent, one of their teammates and, at 92, the last surviving Boston player in that first Series.
The call came through as Criger and Young were waiting at a railroad station near the Americans' Huntington Avenue diamond for a train to take them home to the Midwest. As far as both were concerned, the season of 1903 was all finished and done with. They were packed and ready to go, convinced, like many of their teammates, that their contracts had run out. All they knew about a possible World Series between their team and the Pittsburgh Nationals was what they had read in the Boston papers of September 25, i.e., that it had been called off.
"We didn't have much communication with the management in those days," says Fred Parent.
A lot of things were different in baseball in 1903. Parent remembers that there were no clubhouses for visiting teams, and the players drove from hotels to the fields wearing their uniforms. But when they got there they played real ball. Parent loves to talk about those Boston Americans. There was Pat Dougherty, who hit a couple of home runs in one of the games. "He could hit, run and throw," says Fred. "I faced him first when he was pitching for Bridgeport in the Eastern League. He could do everything well." And then there was Candy LaChance, who played first and went to church with Parent. "He was a really nice fellow."
Buck Freeman, who had hit 25 home runs in 1899, was the cleanup batter and played right field. "Buck's legs weren't too good. We'd tried him at first base one year, but he was no good on ground balls. He couldn't cover much territory in right." Then there was Lou Criger, the catcher. "He wasn't a great hitter by any means. He'd hit to right field even though he was right-handed. He had a low batting average, but Lou would drive in a lot of runs. And what a catcher. In eight years I never saw him drop a foul ball. Even Ty Cobb had all kinds of trouble running the bases on Lou."
Certainly it was a well-rounded team, this 1903 Boston American aggregation, what with its hitting, fielding, pitching and catching.
Its series with the Nationals, the Boston counterpart in the other league, had been arranged after a long period of interleague warfare, which ended—more or less—when both leagues signed an agreement permitting the owner of the Nationals to bar the American League from Pittsburgh forever. Sometime during the season when it looked as if Pittsburgh would be an easy winner in its league, that same owner, Barney Dreyfuss, approached Milwaukee Lawyer Henry J. Killilea, who owned the American League-leading Bostonians, with the idea of staging a best-out-of-nine-games playoff in September. The deal was made; the dates were set. Then the Boston players revolted, and Killilea announced to the press that the Series was off. The cause of the revolt was a disagreement over the players' split of the gate. Killilea wanted half Boston's share of the receipts; the players wanted more. They read the statement from Jimmy Collins in the September 25 papers that there would be no Series, that Killilea was adamant, and they got ready to leave—and were on the way. But Killilea recanted, and Collins had to round up the Americans. He got in touch with most of them at home and, as Parent says, put in the crucial call to the railroad station after he found out where Criger and Young were. A clubhouse meeting was called for September 26. Killilea finally said he'd take only 25% of the proceeds coming to him (half of the total proceeds) and let the team have 75%. Thus the stage was set for a unique event—a World Series in which the winning-team ( Boston) members got less money than members of the losing team. The Boston Americans each received $1,182.17 plus $98 apiece that they raised at a banquet in Boston. But Barney Dreyfuss turned over all his proceeds to his Nationals, and their final shares totaled $1,316.25 each. 'Things just weren't worked out very well for the Series," Freddy Parent asserts.
It wasn't just the arrangements for paying the players. The fields they played on were far too small for the crowds they drew. The October 3 game in Boston sold 18,801 admission tickets, and another 20,000 crowded in free. The October 10 game in Pittsburgh drew 17,038 paid. Exposition Park in Pittsburgh normally held about 8,000 maximum. Pictures in the Boston papers show police using rubber hoses and nightsticks to move the fans back. Ropes went up to keep them back, and it was a triple if you hit it into the crowd behind those ropes. In the four games in Pittsburgh 18 triples boomed into the crowds, 13 of them hit by the Bostons. "Sure, if we got the ball we wanted we'd deliberately try to hit it into the crowd behind the ropes," Parent admits. "In Boston the fans broke down the fence. And before it broke down some fans were pulling up others with ropes over that fence for $1 or $2 a head. What a way to run a World Series!"
There were other mixed-up aspects to the contest. The great Honus Wagner, for example, never looked worse. He batted .222, made many errors and got only one hit in his last 14 times at bat. Near the end of the games in Pittsburgh, this famed shortstop was being showered with confetti—and not as a tribute. Parent himself hit 59 points higher, made some great plays and was being cheered in Pittsburgh by the time the Series neared its end there. " Wagner was hurt and wouldn't speak to me on the field or right after the Series," Parent says. "I'm afraid he choked." At the end of it all Boston won five games to three, after trailing three games to one.
How does Parent explain the shift? "We just couldn't get started," he says. "We didn't get the breaks in these first four games. We were hitting the ball hard—and we were a hitting team—but it would go straight to someone, or one of the Pittsburgh players would come up with a sensational catch. Kitty Bransfield caught one I hit, and as I ran past he himself said he was a lucky s.o.b. [Bransfield was the Pittsburgh first baseman.] After we started getting the breaks we could have beaten them 50 games easy."