The 1918 Baseball Season: Ruth Emerges, While War and Gambling Take Its Toll!

The 1918 Baseball Season: Ruth Emerges, While War and Gambling Take Its Toll!

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The 1918 Baseball Season: Ruth Emerges, While War and Gambling Take Its Toll!

We continue our short excursion through the Dead Ball Era today with a brief stop in 1918. With World War I lurking in the background, it’s not surprising the 1918 was the most dysfunctional year in baseball history. Due to the war effort, the government ordered the 1918 season halted on Labor Day. In the shortened season, the Cubs won the National League pennant (84-45); while the Red Sox (75-51) won the American League pennant and the World Series, four games to two.

World War I had formally been declared in April of 1917, but players didn’t begin to muster out until General Crowder’s “work or fight” order in June, 1918. With war-depleted rosters, the season was anything but a competition between the best teams, and fan interest waned. The 1917 World Series champion White Sox lost Joe Jackson, Red Faber, Swede Risberg, Joe Jackson, Happy Felsch, and Lefty Williams and dropped to sixth. The defending National League champion Giants lost outfielder Benny Kauff plus pitchers Rube Benton and Jeff Tesreau, and finished 10.5 games behind the Cubs

Probably the most significant event of the season – one which would have lasting effects on the game – was the conversion of a budding star named George Herman Ruth to the outfield between pitching starts. While going 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA on the mound, he hit .300 with 11 triples, 11 home runs (tied for the league lead), and 66 RBI (third-best in the league) in only 317 at-bats. In the World Series, Ruth went 2-0 with a 1.06 ERA, while increasing his scoreless streak to a record twenty-nine consecutive innings.

Click on the link to see a photo gallery from the 1918 baseball season:

If things weren’t bad enough with the specter of war hanging in the air, baseball was also in an era in which gambling infested the game much as steroids did in a later generation. Severe war-related financial shortcomings made the situation prime for gamblers offering the allure of “payoffs” to the underpaid players for throwing games. There were rumors abounding that some players agreed to throw World Series games. Added to the mix was that the Cubs had a number of players with shady pasts: Lee Magee, Claude Hendrix, Charlie Hollocher, Max Flack, and Phil Douglass.

When the players found out they would be receiving considerably less money than promised (the winners would receive $1,200 per man and the losers $800), they threatened to strike before Game 5. Only an appeal to patriotism by Boston’s Mayor Fitzgerald ended the threat.

Gamblers and players mingled freely, and gamblers openly conducted their business in major league parks. Should a player desire to make some illicitly, there were plenty of opportunities to do so. The situation was ripe for “fixing.” Unfortunately, it came to a head the following year in the 1919 World Series, tainted by the Black Sox scandal. All in all, 1918 was a year most baseball fans would just as soon forget.

Gary Livacari

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Information: Excerpts edited from the 1918 Baseball Season Wikipedia page; and from article on the 1918 season:

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I'm a baseball historian who also loves to write. My forte is identifying ballplayers in old photos, and my specail interest is the Dead Ball Era.

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