A version of this story appears in the 2020 World Series program.
The ghosts of baseball past have been paved over. League Park is now a community park, covered in artificial turf. The Ebbets Field grounds hold an apartment complex. The sites that housed the 1920 World Series illustrate the intangibility of a century-old event.
And yet, while we can’t physically touch 1920, we can, weirdly, relate to it. Then, as now, Major League Baseball was wrapping up a year that had been steeped in scandal. Then, as now, the United States had been ravaged by a global health crisis.
The uniforms and style of play were different, and the Series itself was a best-of-nine. But because triumph over adversity remains a celebrated motif in sports and in life itself -- and because of the strange parallels connecting 1920 and 2020 -- a long-ago Fall Classic offers a story worth retelling.
A seismic shift was taking place in the world and in baseball in 1920.
Babe Ruth’s arrival to New York prior to that season in the most significant swap in MLB history instantly elevated the ceiling of the Yankees and was part of a larger change in the league at large. Ruth’s prodigious power and a livelier baseball contributed to a significant rise in runs per game league-wide.
Furthermore, the 1920 season saw the whispers about the Chicago White Sox fixing the previous year’s World Series grow into shouts. Evidence surfaced that gamblers had rigged an Aug. 31, 1920, game between the Cubs and Phillies, and a subsequent grand jury investigation quickly turned to the topic of the '19 Series, in which outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Sox had lost to the Cincinnati Reds in suspicious fashion.
Soon, the public accounts and admissions mounted, and the Black Sox Scandal, as it is now known, enveloped the game and threatened its future.
As baseball’s public perception problem was rising, the threat posed by the so-called “Spanish Flu” was at long last diminished. The strain of H1N1 virus had spread uncontrolled through 1918 and '19 -- killing, by some estimates, more than 50 million people worldwide and about 675,000 in the U.S. and overwhelming health systems.
The pandemic had its last gasp with a relatively minor fourth wave in isolated areas -- including New York City -- in the spring of 1920. And by this point, the American economy was reeling from the effects of the pandemic, with high unemployment rates and deflation and low industrial production. But while a rally in business production would not arrive until the second half of '21, the collective immunity to the influenza strain and the calming of fears for those who had survived both the pandemic and the Great War led a societal euphoria to begin to emerge in '20.
Baseball, in a way, represented the times. The Babe’s first big blasts for the Yankees can, in retrospect, be seen as a signal of the start of the Roaring Twenties. And just as the world was trying to put so much death and devastation behind it, the first World Series of the 1920s would be won by a team full of men trying to mend their broken hearts.
To get to the World Series, the Brooklyn Robins had to win 17 of their final 21 games to pull away in what had previously been a tight National League pennant race. Yet as impressive as that pennant push might have been, it was nothing compared to the September sprint of a Cleveland Indians club battling the White Sox and the Yankees while mourning the loss of a beloved teammate.
The AL standings were in a virtual three-way tie on what would become the fateful date of Aug. 16. On the mound that day at the Polo Grounds was Yankees right-hander Carl Mays, who had a deceptive submarine delivery and a reputation for a dour disposition and beanballs. His level of popularity stood in direct contrast to that of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, affectionately known as “Chappie” and viewed as one of the Tribe’s most vital cogs.
While Mays tended to throw inside, Chapman tended to crowd the plate. It was a recipe for danger. And with the first pitch of the fifth inning of that pivotal game, it was a recipe for tragedy. Mays, allegedly anticipating a bunt from the speedy Chapman, threw the fastball that smacked Chapman’s left temple.
This was 21 years before protective plate inserts in hats, 36 years before the NL’s first rule requiring head protection went into effect (the AL followed suit two years later) and 51 years before plastic protective helmets became mandatory across MLB. The face-protecting flaps with which we are so familiar today weren’t instituted until 1983. Umpires were not yet urged to replace the dirtied, darkened ball with a pristine new white pill at every turn. And the batter’s eye that now helps hitters pick up the pitch as it is delivered from the hurler’s hands did not yet exist.
So Chapman was on his own. And then, suddenly, he was on the ground. Chapman was rushed to the hospital, where surgery could not save him. He was the first and only on-field casualty in Major League history.
“Chappie had his heart and soul in the fight for the pennant,” catcher Pinch Thomas told the Plain Dealer. “And we shall fight as we would were he here with us with this difference. We shall fight just enough harder to make up for his absence.”
Amazingly, they did just that. Though the Indians fell into third place briefly after Chapman’s death, they, too, saved their best for the home stretch, winning 16 of their final 21 games behind the great play and leadership of their center fielder/skipper Tris Speaker. They also got a big break on the eve of the final weekend of the season, when White Sox owner Charles Comiskey suspended the seven remaining players from the 1919 World Series fix after the grand jury indictments were handed down. Chicago had made a late run at the pennant, but the fallout from the fix shattered the short-handed Sox in their final series.
And so it was Indians vs. Robins -- two teams that had never previously won it all. Somebody was going to come out with its first World Series title. And the Series itself would feature several other firsts.
The 1920 Series was one of three immediately following the conclusion of the First World War that was extended to a best-of-nine, for no reason other than the league was trying to maximize attendance revenue. As would again be the case in 2020 -- when MLB temporarily expanded its playoffs to 16 teams to offset some of the randomness of the 60-game season -- the times dictated the terms.
In 1920, the hunt for revenue affected the World Series schedule in other ways. Though the Series was slated to begin at League Park, the home-field setup was switched to give Indians owner James Dunn time to add seats at his home park to cash in on the craze his club had become.
So Game 1 at Ebbets Field it was. And interestingly, the ticket stubs and programs would bear not the home club’s official nickname but its longstanding informal one -- the Dodgers (which became sanctioned in the 1930s).
Though the Indians got their road swing started off right with a 3-1 victory behind a Stan Coveleski gem, the Robins rebounded to take Games 2 and 3 before the Series shifted to Cleveland. In Game 4, at a jam-packed League Park, where fans had lined up overnight to purchase $1.10 bleacher tickets, Coveleski delivered another masterful performance in a 5-1 victory that evened things up.
Game 5 was significant as a swing game and for its place in the record books. By the fifth inning, attendees already had witnessed the first grand slam in World Series history (off the bat of Indians right fielder Elmer Smith) and the first home run by a pitcher in Series history (from the Indians’ Jim Bagby). But no Series before or since has seen what happened in the fifth. The Robins had Otto Miller at first and Pete Kilduff at second with none out when Clarence Mitchell hit a line drive toward right-center field. The runners took off. Bill Wambsganss leaped high in the air to snare what seemed a sure hit, then ran to tag second. He turned to throw to first, but Miller had stopped dead in his tracks. Wambsganss tagged him out for the ultra-rare unassisted triple play. It has happened just 14 other times in MLB history (making it less common than the perfect game).
The Indians won that game, 8-1. And with Duster Mails tossing a shutout in a 1-0 win in Game 6, they were on the cusp of a crown going into Game 7 at home. Coveleski started on just two days’ rest, and, rather than countering with their Game 1 starter, Cleveland native Rube Marquard, who had been caught reselling Series tickets in front of the team hotel, the Robins went with Burleigh Grimes.
Once again, Coveleski dominated the Brooklyn bats, allowing just five hits in his third straight complete game, and the Indians were victorious, 3-0.
“It has been a long time Cleveland has been waiting for its first pennant winner,” Speaker said, “and I am happy that the honor was reserved for me and that my boys and I were also able to bring a world’s championship here.”
It has been wondered aloud whether the defending AL champion White Sox were still throwing games in 1920. And it is understood now that Ruth and the Yankees would dominate the remainder of the decade … and many decades to come.
But at a time when the league became swallowed by scandal, at a moment when a big man posting even bigger numbers was rewriting the record books, and in a year in which a teammate’s death could have unraveled them, the Cleveland Indians overcame tragedy to achieve baseball immortality.
We’ll see which team rises to the occasion in what has been a strange and difficult 2020. Much like the Black Sox scandal enveloped baseball discourse in 1920, the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal colored all conversation going into what had seemed like the otherwise standard Spring Training of 2020. Then, that discussion -- like so much else in our world -- was upended when the stark, harsh realities of the coronavirus spread became apparent in early March. As the deadliest pandemic on U.S. soil since the Spanish Flu raged, baseball was put on pause, then recalibrated completely, with a reduced schedule, empty parks and more than 100 pages of health and safety protocols.
The story of the American recovery from this pandemic has not yet been written. But as usual, baseball has a place within that story. The World Series arrives in a changed world. So much of what we’re witnessing feels unfamiliar, even as so much of the past is repeated.