When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
When the World Series brought America to a Standstill

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill

Larry Holzwarth - February 15, 2022

Until the 1950s, Major League Baseball was confined to the Northeast quadrant of the United States. MLB went no further west than the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Its southern boundary was at Cincinnati, on the Ohio River. Boston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Chicago had two major league teams, one playing in each league. New York had three, with the Brooklyn Dodgers (National League) joining the Giants and the Yankees. West of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio countless leagues, both professional and amateur, offered baseball to fans in small towns and larger cities. But the heroes of baseball, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, and countless other icons, played in a geographically limited area. Only during the late winter and early spring did they appear in games in the South and West, exhibitions played during spring training.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
The onfield exploits of Ty Cobb thrilled even those who never had a chance to see him play. Wikimedia

Yet Major League Baseball dominated the sports pages of the spring, summer, and especially in the fall. During early autumn baseball crowned its champion, after a contest which is called the World Series. A best of nine, later reduced to seven, game series played in the daytime over nearly two weeks held the nation’s attention. Professional football was an afterthought, college football would peak later in the calendar. When baseball played its World Series fans across the country, even those far removed from the cities forming the two Major Leagues, followed it with rapt attention. Absenteeism at work and schools soared as fans absorbed the games. Before radio, they gathered near the offices of their local newspapers to follow the games via telegraph reports. Later they listened on radio, and still later watched on television. Here’s the story of a time when the World Series brought America to a standstill.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
The 1901 Boston Americans, a precursor of the modern day Boston Red Sox. Wikimedia

1. The World Series began just as the United States stepped on the global stage

Depending on the source used, the annual event known as the World Series began in either 1903, 1904, or 1905. At the time, there were two major leagues, with their own offices and administration. The idea of the champion from each league playing each other to determine which was best had been considered earlier. The leagues were enemies until 1903. There was no office of the Commissioner of Baseball. Nonetheless, the leagues, American and National, played under the same rules, using the same equipment, for the most part. In 1903, the two league champions agreed to play a best of nine games series to determine which would bear the title of World Champion. Such title seems presumptuous since major league plays limited itself to just a portion of the United States. Yet it was in keeping with the times. America had just come to consider itself a world power.

Only a few years earlier the United States had successfully fought a war with Spain. The US Navy had won major victories against the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines. Since that war, the fleet participated in naval reviews around the world. America held overseas possessions, creating an empire in all but name. Arizona was not yet a state of the Union (statehood came in 1912) yet the United States was a global player, standing with the British Empire, the German Reich of the Kaiser, and the other world powers to influence events. So, the champion of its national game of baseball was clearly (to Americans) also the champion of the world. In 1903, the Boston Americans (forerunner of the Red Sox) and the Pittsburgh Pirates played, at the latter’s invitation, to determine who could claim the title of World Champion. It was the first World Series of the modern era.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
Sportswriters and historians have long debated whether Rube Waddell, here in a St. Louis Browns uniform, accepted a bribe to sit out the 1905 World Series. Wikimedia

2. The leagues adopted the World Series in 1905

The 1903 World Series, won by Boston five games to three, was a voluntary affair. Boston played at Pittsburgh’s invitation, without the formal sanction of either the National or American league. But both league offices saw the advantages of having a representative of their organization claiming the title of World Champion. In 1905 the league’s made participation in the post-season event compulsory. There was no Series in 1904. Since 1905 the event has taken place every year except 1994, when an unfortunate work stoppage canceled the season and the post-season. For 1905 the series was set as a best of seven matchup. The two teams which appeared exist in the 21st century, albeit in different cities than they did at the time, the Philadelphia Athletics (Oakland) and the New York Giants (San Francisco). The Giants won the series in five games.

It was the first officially sanctioned World Series. It was also the first to be suspected of the results being manipulated by gambling interests. The leagues established a disbursal of the player’s portion of the gate receipts with 75% going to the winners, 25% to the losers. Before the series began, Giants and Athletics players agreed to split the receipts 50-50. Then Philadelphia’s star pitcher, arguably the best in baseball that year, Rube Waddell, announced he was injured and could not play. The Cleveland Plain Dealer speculated over the truth about Waddell’s injury. So did the nationally distributed newspaper The Sporting News. Whether Waddell was bribed to sit out the series and give an advantage to the Giants is still debated. Across the United States, betting on baseball was as much of a pastime as watching baseball. The World Series was already a major gambling event.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
Ty Cobb appearing in The Sporting News in 1909. Wikimedia

3. The Sporting News became America’s first national newspaper

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1886, The Sporting News first appeared on American newsstands, selling for a nickel. Published in St. Louis, Missouri, by an executive of the St. Louis Browns Baseball Club, the weekly newspaper primarily focused on three American sports, horse racing, professional wrestling, and baseball. By 1901, the year the modern American League came into being, The Sporting News was considered the “Bible of Baseball” among its fans. The newspaper played a major role in the development of the American League, touting its teams and players in its columns. By the time the World Series began in 1903, The Sporting News was a major influence on both Major Leagues. The newspaper advocated cleaning up the sport, including banning alcohol sales during games and restricting fan access to the playing field.

Baseball writers and fans from coast to coast came to rely on The Sporting News for statistics, box scores, inside information, trade rumors, and all things baseball by the time of the First World War. During the first three decades of the 20th century, the newspaper could be found at newsstands, railroad stations, drug stores, ball parks, and race tracks. Not until 1942 did the paper begin coverage of football. Instead, it remained focused on baseball, and its World Series coverage featured reports by writers which included Grantland Rice, Dick Young and Damon Runyon. It was The Sporting News which howled the loudest over the suspicious 1919 World Series, and it was The Sporting News which brought the Fall Classic to America outside of Major League Baseball, where local newspapers had no team to support with their own writers.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
Secretary of War Newton Diehl Baker granted baseball an extension to allow it to complete the 1918 World Series. Library of Congress

4. World War I affected baseball and the World Series in 1918

The United States government issued a war-related mandate in 1918 which affected that year’s season and World Series. Men of draft age were compelled to either obtain a job in a war-related industry or be subject to selective service. In a gracious gesture to his fellow millionaires who owned Major League Baseball clubs, Secretary of War Newton Baker granted an extension of the deadline for compliance to baseball. Baseball players had until September 2, Labor Day. Accordingly, both leagues shortened their seasons, which ended on that date. The ensuing World Series remains the only series to be played entirely in the month of September. It was also the World Series which introduced the world to a young Red Sox pitcher by the name of George Herman Ruth. Red Sox fans called George the Babe. It was a name which soon gained global fame.

The Red Sox faced the Chicago Cubs, who borrowed their American League counterpart’s Comiskey Park for the games played in Chicago. During the first game in Chicago, a US Navy band played the Star-Spangled Banner during the seventh inning stretch, as a salute to the nation at war (the song would not become the national anthem for another 13 years). Ruth spent much of the World Series in games in which he did not pitch lying down in the clubhouse tunnel, either hungover as some attest, or suffering from Spanish Flu, according to others. The 1918 World Series demonstrated the effect baseball had on national morale and patriotism, as reports of the games appeared on front pages across the country, supplanting the news from the trenches in France. Boston won, four games to two.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
The Chicago “Black Sox” appear unconcerned during their 1921 trial for throwing the 1919 World Series. Wikimedia

5. The Black Sox scandal didn’t really shock anyone involved in baseball

Several preceding World Series were tarnished with suspicions of fixed games prior to the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919. Waddell’s “injury” in 1905 and questionable plays in 1917 and 1918 World Series games are still regarded as evidence of the influence of gamblers regarding play. The 1919 World Series pitted two Western teams, as they were then regarded, against each other. The Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds were both from the more moralistic states, far from the evil influence of the corrupt Eastern cities, where moral decline and corruption were viewed as prominent. It should be noted the bribing of Chicago players to throw the World Series has never been definitively proved in a court of law (though two admitted it). All of the players were acquitted by a jury. Yet they stand as the cause celebre of corruption in professional sports, the notorious Black Sox.

In modern perspectives of the incident, the Black Sox scandal shocked baseball, as well as the rest of the country. In reality, for the jaded sportswriters of the time, it was not all that shocking. The eight men who comprised the Black Sox played all but the last three games of the 1920 season together except for Chick Gandil, who retired. Not until 1921 were they tried and acquitted. Despite that acquittal, the newly formed office of the Commissioner of Baseball, in the person of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned them for life. The 1919 World Series became known as the thrown World Series, somewhat unfairly to Cincinnati, which won nearly 70% of its games that year. The 1919 Series also increased national attention to the event, just as the Roaring Twenties were about to begin. The decade of conspicuous consumption boosted the World Series to new heights.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
Fans “watching” the World Series in Times Square clogged New York streets in all directions. Wikimedia

6. New Yorkers “watched” the 1919 World Series from Times Square

All of the 1919 series’ games were played in the afternoons in Chicago and Cincinnati. Though none of the three New York area teams were in the series, interest in the event was huge. In New York, fans exited offices and shops, warehouses and factories, construction sites and shipyards, and gathered in Times Square. There a giant green board was erected with a baseball diamond painted on it. The board’s manipulators went so far as to use markers simulating a runner’s lead off a base, or a runner tagging up prior to advancing on a fly ball. Despite a steady drizzle in New York as the game progressed, the crowd grew larger. New York was (and is) both a National and American League town, so which team was favored by the crowd is unknown. But Times Square remained filled throughout the games, and the series was won by Cincinnati.

Similar events took place in other cities, where the place to gather was the building occupied by the local newspaper, or the Western Union offices. Fans gathered during the work day afternoons to follow the action. They impeded traffic, downtown commerce, and local deliveries. In some cities, the sounds of baseball were simulated during the game, including the crack of bat on ball and the calls of the umpires. New York’s simulation board even included the pitch progressing to the plate, curving on its path if the telegraph reported a curveball. Similar events occurred in subsequent World Series, an indication that despite the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, fan interest in the Fall Classic did not wane. Babe Ruth didn’t save baseball from the Black Sox, as so many have asserted over the years. But he did reinvent how it is played.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
Babe Ruth set World Series records as a pitcher for the Red Sox, and as a hitter for the Yankees. Wikimedia

7. The 1920s brought in the first Golden Age of Major League Baseball

Baseball considers its modern era to have begun at the turn of the 20th century. But it really began in the 1920s. Prior to that decade, home runs were a rarity. In 1918, Boston’s Babe Ruth and Philadelphia’s Tilly Walker led the American League in home runs with 11. For the National League that year, 8 home runs sufficed to lead the league. In 1919 Ruth, still with Boston led all of baseball with a record-setting 29 homers. The following year, then with the New York Yankees, he hit 54. The National League leader for 1920, Cy Williams of the Philadelphia Phillies, hit a meager 15. The rest of baseball took some time to catch up with Ruth and the Yankees, but the age of the long ball had arrived. So had the age of the New York Yankees, who came to dominate the World Series.

Through the medium of the World Series, the Yankees became America’s team to either love or hate. Ruth’s exploits were followed in newspapers, on radio broadcasts, and in newsreels of the day. The Yankees’ first World Series appearance took place in 1921. It was the first World Series to be broadcast over radio, with sportswriter Grantland Rice covering the game for listeners on Pittsburgh’s KDKA. Rice was not at the ballpark, he read his broadcast off ticker-tape provided by Western Union. That practice continued for decades. Among its later practitioners was a future American president, Ronald Reagan, who broadcast Chicago Cubs games in Des Moines, Iowa on WHO radio. Others included Ernie Harwell, Mel Allen, and Red Barber. They received a cryptic message such as GB 5. From that, they described a ground ball to shortstop, and a hard throw to first for the out.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
The entire 1922 series was played in New York’s Polo Grounds, home field for both teams. Wikimedia

8. The 1922 World Series was all New York

In 1922 the New York Yankees, with national superstar Babe Ruth, met the New York Giants in the World Series. Both teams shared the Polo Grounds as their home, which meant the entire series was played on the same field. One of the most controversial games in the history of the World Series, Game 2, ended in a tie, due to gathering darkness. Thus, although the record books show the Giants winning the series 4-0, five games were actually played. Commissioner Landis ordered the teams to donate the gate receipts for the tie to a charity, rather than profit from the additional game. It was not the first such tie game in the World Series, two preceded it. But to date, it was the last, and likely will ever remain so. As with most tie games, it left nobody happy with the result, including Commissioner Landis.

Outside the environs of New York City, the World Series was followed with the same fervor as its predecessors. Then, however, a new aspect of the game had appeared. The burning question, for both Giants and Yankees fans, focused on what the Babe did. Westinghouse Broadcasting carried the game on radio and made the broadcasts available to any commercial radio station which wanted to carry it, making it heard across the country. Since like all baseball games of the 1920s the games were played during normal business hours, commerce suffered. Fans gathered around radios to hear the broadcast, waiting for Ruth’s appearances at the plate. They were largely disappointed. Ruth had just two hits in his 17 at bats over the series, with just one run batted in. To that point, the Yankees had yet to win a World Series. They were not yet America’s team.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
William Wrigley Jr was an early supporter of broadcasting games in radio. Wikimedia

9. The major league owners attempted to curtail radio broadcasts of games

Westinghouse continued to broadcast World Series games until 1927, when CBS and NBC took over. Though the broadcasts were popular with baseball fans across the country, they were not popular with club owners. Nor did businesses support them entirely. They provided advertising revenues for radio stations and outlets for businesses. But the afternoon broadcasts also distracted workers from their jobs. During the 1920s and well into the 1930s baseball club owners had differing views regarding radio. Some, including all three of the New York teams, took the position that fans would listen to the games offered for free on the radio rather than purchase tickets to watch them in ballparks. Others, such as William Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, believed the power of radio would expand his fanbase beyond Chicago. Radio stations in Chicago could broadcast Cubs games for free, without paying the club for the privilege.

In 1932 the New York Yankees joined with the Giants and Dodgers and banned radio broadcasting from their respective ballparks. After the ban, when visiting teams came to town the game could not be broadcast to their home city. In 1936 Commissioner Landis landed the first contract to broadcast the World Series nationally, with the three major networks (CBS, NBC, and Blue) all participating. As radios decreased in size and cost their popularity exploded, and by the late 1930s they were ubiquitous, found in car dashboards and barber shops, bars and restaurants, in private homes and in businesses. During the World Series, which could last from a week to a fortnight, all three networks broadcast the games. The game could be heard nearly everywhere, indeed it was difficult to avoid.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
World Series checks offered significant incentives to players, including Red Schoendienst (center) during baseball’s Golden Age. Wikimedia

10. The World Series offered considerable financial rewards for players

When Major League Baseball entered the 1930s, it comprised 16 teams in two leagues, spread across just ten cities. Some teams developed large regional fan bases. In Cincinnati, Reds owner Powel Crosley also owned WLW Radio, one of the most powerful radio stations in the United States. Broadcasting Reds games created fans throughout the Midwest and upper South. The St. Louis Cardinals drew fans far to the west, as did the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals’ fiercest on and off-field rival. By the 1930s the Major League Baseball season consisted of 154 games. Each league crowned the team in first place at the season’s end as their champion, winner of the pennant. The pennant winners met in the World Series just days after the season ended. There were no other playoffs unless a tie for the pennant dictated one.

The leagues did not play each other during the regular season. The only interleague competition occurred in the All-Star Game (first played in 1933) and in the World Series. Any other games between the leagues were exhibitions. In addition, the World Series games carried a significant winner’s share of the receipts, giving the players a bonus check just as the season ended and their paychecks stopped until Spring. Most of the players of the day held off-season jobs. A World Series winner’s share provided a nice boost to their income. The Series loser also got a check, though it was considerably less. In 1934, the winning St. Louis Cardinals each took home a winner’s share of just over $5,300 (about $110,000 today). The losing Detroit Tigers pocketed about $2,000 (over $41,000 per man less). World Series games were hard-fought, and the popularity of the event grew throughout the 1930s.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
Ruth congratulated by Lou Gehrig as he crosses the plate following his legendary “called shot”. National Baseball Hall of Fame

11. Babe Ruth’s called shot became a baseball legend.

The 1932 World Series featured the Chicago Cubs and the New York Yankees. In game three, held on the afternoon of October 1 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Babe Ruth hit a towering home run over 440 feet. Prior to the hit, Ruth had been responding to heckling from the Cub’s dugout, raising his fingers to correspond with the strike count after the first two pitches. After the second strike and Ruth’s two raised fingers, he pointed toward the area where he hit the home run on the next pitch. Despite being witnessed by 50,000 in attendance (the Cubs installed temporary seating for overflow crowds), and captured on film, whether Ruth “called the shot” is still debated. Among the witnesses were then Presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (who was 12 years old), and Commissioner Landis.

FDR and Commissioner Landis never commented publicly on whether Ruth had or had not called his shot. John Paul Stevens claimed he did. So did multiple newspaper reporters, and the story made headlines around the country. Ruth responded to questions of whether the gesture had been indicating he would hit a home run to that spot by saying, “It’s in the papers, isn’t it?” The pitcher victimized by the home run, Charlie Root, always argued the called shot was fiction. But most of the country believed it. Ruth lapped up the publicity and embellished the story several times in later years. The Curtiss Candy Company took advantage of the story by installing a Baby Ruth Candy Bar sign near the spot where the ball landed. The sign remained part of the Wrigley Field landscape for several decades.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
The first Major League Baseball game played under the lights in Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. Cincinnati Enquirer

12. The World Series was America’s premier sporting event in the 1930s and 1940s

For the decades of the 1920s – 1940s, no other sporting event on the American calendar approached the World Series in popularity. Baseball stood unchallenged as America’s game, and the annual Fall Classic crowned its undisputed champion. Baseball fans both rabid and casual followed the games as they were played on weekday afternoons, at work and in schools. Wherever the games were played fans packed the ballparks. Many of the parks of the day installed extra seating for World Series games. During the 1930s World Series games were broadcast on all three national radio networks, each with its own broadcasting team after 1935. In a time when most American cities had afternoon newspapers, regular editions published the status of that day’s game at deadline. The games were closely followed on the air, box scores were parsed by fans. Interest in other sports waned. Professional football remained relatively unknown.

In 1935 the Cincinnati Reds, anxious to increase ticket sales during a period of fielding woebegone teams, installed lights at their home park, Crosley Field. In 1939 the Reds hosted the New York Yankees for two games of that year’s World Series. The light towers looming above Crosley Field were a curiosity to the Yankees, though all of the World Series games continued to be played in the afternoon. The Yankees did not install lights at Yankee Stadium until 1946. Baseball made it clear that although night games were alright for the regular season, their show piece, the World Series, would continue to be played in the daytime. That remained the case until 1971 when the Pirates hosted the Orioles in game 4 of the World Series. By then the handwriting was on the wall. In 1973, all weekday World Series games were played at night.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
George Herbert Walker Bush with two veterans of Major League Baseball and military service, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Wikimedia

13. The World Series continued play during World War II, despite the absence of many stars

The popularity of Major League Baseball and its showcase fall event continued to be strong during and immediately following World War II. During World War II night games gained in popularity, at the urging of the Roosevelt Administration. FDR wanted baseball to continue during the war, despite rationing and travel limitations. He reasoned workers taking time off to attend day games hurt war productivity, yet the same workers needed opportunities for rest and recreation. FDR considered baseball essential to wartime morale, despite many of its greatest stars serving in the military during the war years. Despite these considerations, baseball continued to play the World Series in its entirety during the day. The first wartime World Series played from September 30 – October 5, saw the St. Louis Cardinals beat the New York Yankees 4 – 1. Each of the three games played in Yankee Stadium contained crowds exceeding 69,000 fans.

The following year saw a rematch, though the two teams had considerably different rosters. Yankees stars such as Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto were serving in the military. So were several Cardinals. Despite the absences of so many stars, the Yankees still packed over 68,000 into the stadium for the three games they hosted. In 1944’s World Series, player ranks were so depleted the St. Louis Browns, which played their rival Cardinals, featured a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray. The two teams shared Sportsman’s Park, which drew capacity crowds for each of the games. The Cardinals won the series. By 1945 some of the players had returned from war service, but the teams were still filled with decidedly non-major league talent. Nonetheless, the seven games of the series between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs packed the stadiums for each game. The Tigers prevailed, 4-3.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
The Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, giving their new home city a World Series four years later. Wikimedia

14. Baseball began to move its teams following World War II

The popularity of Major League Baseball, and the huge radio audience for its annual World Series, led to changes post-World War II. One of the reasons Major League Baseball had never expanded beyond the Northeast and Upper Midwest was the time required to travel by train. During World War II baseball changed the format of the series in order to allow a seven-game series to be completed with just one train trip. The series was played in a 3-4 format, rather than the traditional 2-3-2. The war had allowed traveling military troops to pass through some of the cities featuring Major League Baseball. Some had the opportunity to see World Series games, as well as observe the impact the event had on the cities which participated in them. Some baseball owners, starting with the less successful teams, looked to new locations outside of baseball’s core region.

Movement began with the Boston Braves when the team relocated to Milwaukee in 1953. The St. Louis Browns relocated to Baltimore, becoming the Orioles. Philadelphia’s Athletics moved to Kansas City, displacing St. Louis as the westernmost Major League team. During the 1956 World Series (Yankees-Dodgers, won by the Yankees) officials representing Los Angeles met with owners of the Washington Senators and Brooklyn Dodgers to discuss moving their teams to the West Coast. Dodger’s owner Walter O’Malley was intrigued with the potential of a team in Los Angeles and a brand-new stadium. When New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham began negotiating a move for his team O’Malley made his decision. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Braves, longtime failures in Boston, won the National League Pennant in 1957. Then they beat the Yankees in the World Series. Obviously, relocation could lead to on-field success and financial growth.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
The cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum was packed with over 92,000 fans for three games of the 1959 World Series. Wikimedia

15. The 1959 World Series saw the first games played on the West Coast

After the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, they played their first few seasons in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Until 1959, the largest crowds to attend World Series games were all in Yankee Stadium. For the 1959 World Series, all three of the crowds drawn by the Dodgers shattered the Yankees’ records. Each exceeded 92,000 fans. The Dodgers won the series 4-2. Over 400,000 fans in total attended games, making it the largest World Series draw in history to that point, despite being only six games. The Dodgers continued to play in the Coliseum until 1962 when they began to play at the newly-completed Dodger Stadium. By 1959 commercial air travel allowed the teams to take just one day for travel between games in the contending cities. The six-game series was completed in just eight days.

Four of the games were played on weekday afternoons. Yet the interest which guaranteed the record attendance was matched by those not able to go to the games. All of the games were televised and broadcast on the radio nationally. Since the Dodgers finished the season tied with the Braves, a best of three playoff series was used to determine the National League Champion. The success of relocated teams, and the fan support they generated, was not lost on other owners. Today, only three cities host more than one team, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Only Chicago retains both teams from baseball’s Golden Era, the Cubs and White Sox. Beginning with the following season, the World Series’ grip as America’s premier sporting event began to slip. Televised sports began to offer alternatives, particularly in the fall.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
A program for the 1965 World Series, which faced competition from two professional football leagues and college football for fans. Wikimedia

16. The rise of the NFL and AFL began to eat into World Series audiences

In 1960 the American Football League (today’s American Football Conference) began play in eight cities, competing for fans and players with the National Football League. The AFL suffered from poor attendance for some franchises and low television ratings, but it was bolstered by a large television rights package with ABC Sports. Starting in 1965, an even more lucrative television contract with NBC allowed AFL teams to compete on a level field with NFL in pursuing players. Both leagues played their games on Sunday afternoons. Saturday afternoons were dominated by college football, which also developed several television contracts with both national and regional coverage. The World Series found tough competition for viewers during weekend games of the World Series. Yet baseball refused to change its policies and allow night games for the fall classic. By then, the majority of regular-season games were played at night.

In 1966 the NFL and AFL agreed to a merger, to take place in 1970. They also agreed to a championship game, following the end of the 1966 season. The Championship game became known as the Super Bowl for its third rendition in January 1969. By then, the slate of football games offered during the same period when World Series games were played presented stiff competition. Television ratings for the weekend games suffered, though weekday games still performed well. American television was still dominated by just three national networks, NBC, ABC, and CBS. All broadcast football, either college, professional, or both. Just one, NBC, offered national baseball coverage, and that for just one game per week. By 1970, the World Series was losing its place as America’s top sports draw. Baseball relented the following year and created night World Series games.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, site of the first World Series night game in 1971. National Baseball Hall of Fame

17, Baseball moved the World Series deeper into October in 1969

The summer’s of 1967 and 1968 were marked with urban unrest and rioting in cities across the country. In ballparks across the nation, attendance dropped dramatically. The Los Angeles Dodgers drew almost one million fewer fans in 1967 than they had the preceding year. But in riot torn Detroit, the Tigers attendance went up by over half a million in 1968, despite armed troops stationed in the shadows of Tiger Stadium. Hitting in both leagues was feeble. 1968 became known as the Year of the Pitcher. The following year, due to expansion, the American and National leagues split themselves into divisions. The regular season division leaders held playoffs to determine which team would represent their league in the World Series. As a result, the World Series took place later in October than it traditionally had.

Baseball, the game of summer, lost fans to football, and even basketball, as the World Series was played at night, often in frigid weather. The Fall Classic no longer held the nation in thrall. Television ratings dwindled. Attendance during the regular season fell, as fewer fans entered their region’s urban core to watch games, especially at night. While the World Series had once drawn the attention of even the most casual of fans, by the early 1970s even some baseball fans had lost interest, unless their team of choice was playing. Beginning in 1970 the National Football League expanded its scheduling to present games on Saturday and on Monday nights. In 1973, in an attempt to increase offensive production and generate greater fan interest, the American League adopted the designated hitter rule. Interest in baseball, and the World Series, continued to drop, especially in the fall.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
The 1975 World Series brought back the Fall Classic through seven classic games. New York Daily News

18. The 1975 World Series restored fan interest across the country

In 1975 the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox faced off in the World Series. During the series, which went the full seven games, fan interest increased with each. An average of 36 million viewers per game watched the series on television, broadcast by NBC. For the climactic game seven, over 51 million watched, ensnared by the drama of the preceding six games. Game six, a twelve-inning affair won by the Red Sox with a walk-off home run has often been called the greatest game of all time. Not even three consecutive days of rainouts, which postponed the Saturday and Sunday games scheduled for Fenway Park, could curtail fan interest. The last five games of the series were played at night, with most ending shortly before midnight. The series captured fan attention which baseball hadn’t seen since the golden days of the 1950s.

It wasn’t decided until the ninth inning of the seventh game when the Reds scored the winning run in the top of the inning and retired the Red Sox in the bottom. After years of decline, interest in the World Series surged. Jim Murray, the preeminent sportswriter of the day, wrote that all baseball had needed was “54 young men in red stockings” to restore its claim to America’s top sporting event. The two weeks of the 1975 World Series did indeed draw national attention, though with five of the seven games played at night it did not have the impact on daily life as did those of earlier eras. Skipping work, or surreptitiously listening via a transistor radio while in class were no longer necessary. Still, the 1975 World Series temporarily restored the Fall Classic to its past glory and is still considered by many the greatest World Series in history.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
Players and their families leaving Candlestick Park after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 struck just before game time. San Francisco Chronicle

19, Fans tuning in to the 1989 World Series were delivered a shock

The 1989 World Series, called the Bay Area Series by some, featured the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants. Oakland won the first two games at their home field. Game’s three through five (if needed) were scheduled to be played beginning on October 17 at San Francisco’ Candlestick Park. Fans tuning in for the pregame broadcast on ABC were watching highlights of earlier games when announcer Al Michaels interrupted with the words, “I’ll tell you what, we’re having an earth-“before the screen went blank. ABC returned to the air from Candlestick Park to briefly describe what had happened before signing off for other programming. No other earthquake in American history had been seen on live television. Later that evening ABC returned to the air from San Francisco, using Al Michaels as their local reporter, and Goodyear blimp images to display the extent of the damage.

Among the images shown was the collapsed Bay Bridge, which many Athletics players usually used to get home. That day they were forced to find alternative routes to check on their homes and families. Loss of power to the stadium, as well as structural safety concerns, led to the game’s postponement, and the series did not resume for ten days. When it did Oakland swept the remaining two games. Though the games were well-attended by fans, in the aftermath of the earthquake comparatively few returned to the series following the ten-day delay. The final game, played on October 28, was at the time the latest date on which a World Series game had ever been played.

When the World Series brought America to a Standstill
President George W. Bush delivers the ceremonial first pitch for Game 3 of the 2001 Wworld Series in New York. New York Daily News

20. The 2001 World Series was credited with boosting national morale

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Major League Baseball suspended play until September 17, though the postponed games were rescheduled. The adjustment pushed the World Series back until late October, ending in November. The seven-game 2001 series began in the home of the National League Champion, the Arizona Diamondbacks. Some call it the greatest World Series of all time. Arizona won the first two games, defeating the New York Yankees. Game three brought the series to Yankee Stadium, on Tuesday, October 30, just seven weeks after the World Center’s collapsing towers shocked the city and the world. It was not the first game to be played by the Yankees at home since the tragedy. But it was the first World Series game. The pregame ceremonies and the fans during the game made it one of the most memorable of all World Series games.

President George W. Bush was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, the first President to do so in a World Series game since 1979 and Jimmy Carter. The President threw the pitch from the mound, rather than the stands, and wore a New York Fire Department jacket to honor the heroes of that organization. Due to Secret Service concerns, the jacket covered a bulletproof vest. The Yankees won that night, as well as the next two games in Yankee Stadium, before ultimately losing the series in Arizona. The return of the World Series to New York is credited with giving a boost in morale to the city, as well as to the rest of the nation. Game 3 of the 2001 World Series truly brought the rest of the country to a standstill as it demonstrated its resilience in the face of a national tragedy.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“1903: The First World Series”. Article, The Online Book of Baseball. Online

“The Strike: Who was right, who was wrong and how it helped baseball”. Cliff Corcoran, Sports Illustrated. Aug 12, 2014

“The Sporting News Brought Baseball To The World”. John Rosengren, National Baseball Hall of Fame. Online

“Baseball and World War 1”. Wendi Maloney, Library of Congress Blog. September 17, 2018.

“Kenesaw Landis”. Biography, National Baseball Hall of Fame. Online

“How New Yorkers “watched” the 1919 World Series at Times Square”. Harold Friend, Bleacher Report. October 4, 2011

“The 1920s…And Along Came Babe”. The Online Book of Baseball.

“The History of Baseball Broadcasting: Early Radio”. Stevie Larson, Baseball Essential. December 11, 2015. Online

“Powel Crosley Jr”. Article, Ohio History Central. Online

“1939 World Series”. Article, Baseball Almanac. Online

“The Golden Age of Baseball: The 1930s”. Todd Johnson, The History Rat. January 2, 2010

“Should Sports be Stopped During the War?” Article, The National World War II Museum. October 1, 2018

“Advent of Regional Rail Service Made Baseball Possible”. Steve Buckley, National Baseball Hall of Fame

“1959 World Series”. Article, Baseball Almanac. Online

“A Classic Under the Lights”. Bill Francis, National Baseball Hall of Fame

“1968: Year of the Pitcher”. The Online Book of Baseball

“Forgotten Game 7 of Reds – Red Sox ’75 World Series Still Haunts Players, Coaches”. Scott Miller, Bleacher Report. October 29, 2015

“When the earth moved the series”. Tim Keown, ESPN. October 17, 2014

“7 of the Most Memorable World Series in Baseball History”. Chris Miller, History.com. October 19, 2021

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