"THE MOST PERFECT THING IN AMERICA"
HE WANTED TO HOLD THE BALL IN HIS HAND. He walked slowly, but not just because of age. Pitchers always had a deliberate way about them. In his playing days he stole a few bases, but foot speed wasn't his gift. What he remembered well, what he could never forget, was the hard feel of the ball in his right hand and the sound it made as it sped toward the plate. How he loved to throw. Out after out, inning after inning, game after game, year after year. The pitches mounted, but his arm stayed strong through twenty-two seasons in the major leagues. He pitched into his forties. He had memories of General Grant, and now General Eisenhower was President. So much had changed, but the game had remained the same.
Cy Young came to Yankee Stadium on September 30, 1953, to throw out the ceremonial opening pitch of that year's Fall Classic, commemorating the golden anniversary of the first World Series, played in 1903. He was eighty-six years old. Bill Dinneen, who had been his teammate on the Boston Americans then, stood to his left. Seated to his right was Fred Clarke, the manager and leftfielder of the opposition Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the finest teams at the turn of the century. Tommy Leach, the third baseman on that team, was also in attendance. He recalled the first World Series as "the wildest World Series ever played." Honus Wagner, star shortstop on the Pirates, was invited, but he was too ill to travel from his home in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. Two years later, Young would make a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh to see Wagner and participate in the unveiling of a statue of him outside of Forbes Field. Within months of that visit, both men would be gone.
Seeing the immense crowd and feeling the excitement in the air, Young, Dinneen, Clarke, and Leach could have smiled knowingly, for the celebratory scene was eerily like the one fifty years earlier when it had all begun. In the fall of 1953, fans were filling Yankee Stadium to capacity; in the fall of 1903, the crowd at the Huntington Avenue Base Ball Grounds in Boston overflowed onto the field. In the fall of 1953, talented playersMantle, Berra, Reynolds, Snider, Robinson, Erskineamazed the fans with their ability; in the fall of 1903, players every bit as goodYoung, Dinneen, Collins, Wagner, Clarke, Phillippethrilled crowds of thousands. For a long week in both years, interest in world events yielded to baseball.
Baseball as a game was no different in 1953 than it had been in 1903. And it is essentially no different today. The pitcher stands 60 feet 6 inches away from home plate. Ninety feet separate one base from another. It is a perfect distance. So many times the runner is safe or out by a matter of inches. The field is green and the grounds are vast. It seems like too much space for only nine players to cover. The game comes down to the ball: throwing it, hitting it, catching it. How simple it has always seemed, but it never has been. Thousands of fans crowd the stadium. They follow the home team's every move, feeling brighter with a victory and dimmer with a loss. A journey from April through October leads either to a world's championship or to nowhere, hopes realized or expectations dashed. Winter is for dreaming.
So it has been since 1903, when the National League andAmerican League ended two years of warfare and the champions of each league faced off in October for the World Championship Series. Baseball as we know it dates from that 1903 season. To be sure, there are differences of degree in the game. The equipment is better. The players are stronger. Some rules have been varied. But Cy Young could walk to the mound tomorrow and throw blazing strikes. Honus Wagner could smash a double into the gap, or fire from deep in the hole to nab a runner by a step. And just like every other player in the last hundred years, they would play all season for the chance to compete in October. But at the start of the 1903 season they did not know what awaited at the endand now, because of that season and what their teams did, everyone knows.
The story of the first World Series is the story of the birth of baseball as a modern game, as an American ritual. The day after the Yankees lost the Series in 2001, in the last inning of the seventh game, a middle-aged man declared that the trauma he had suffered as a child, watching his Brooklyn Dodgers lose repeatedly to their rivals from the Bronx, had at last been alleviated. Such is the place of the Series in the life of every baseball fan. On October 30, 2001, in Game Three of that same Series, played at Yankee Stadium in the midst of a national crisis, the President of the United States strode to the mound and threw a strike for the ceremonial first pitch, and millions of Americans breathed more easily. Such is the place of the Series in the life of the nation.
Just a few years after the first World Series in 1903, a writer remarked that "when thirty thousand people in a single city shut up shop and forsake their work and everything else to watch the final struggle between the leaders at the season's end, it is small wonder." Rather, it would be remarkable if people acted any other way. Autumn had quickly become World Series time, and the postseason championship games had come to stand for "the very quintessence and consummation of the Most Perfect Thing in America"baseball.
Copyright © 2003 by Louis P. Masur