In 1918 — 100 years ago — the United States was in the midst of a bloodbath later known as World War I and the supply of professional baseball players was drying up.
An order by the Selective Service Bureau, or draft board, called “work or fight” required all able-bodied men to enlist in the military or work in a military-related industry.
The order applied to baseball players and there was public pressure for them to comply.
The Boston Red Sox, a powerhouse at the time that had won four titles, including three in the previous six years, had lost several players.
Player-manager Jack Barry, a second baseman, and some others joined the Navy after the 1917 season, said Jim Leeke, author of “From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball during the Great War.”
Still others worked at the Naval shipyards in Quincy and Charlestown, which Leeke joked had a heck of a team thanks to the ringers from the American League.
Attleboro’s own Ty Waterman, author of “The Year the Red Sox Won the Series,” said the manpower shortage forced a promising young pitcher named George Herman Ruth to play left field during the regular season when he wasn’t pitching.
He would lead the league in home runs with 11.
Ruth — the famous Babe, Bambino and Sultan of Swat — would years later switch to the outfield full time and become the greatest home run hitter in history until Hank Aaron and then Barry Bonds came along.
Of course, Ruth did most of his slugging for the New York Yankees after the Red Sox sold him in an infamous deal that would plague Boston for decades.
In fact, 1918 was the last World Series the Sox won until 2004, as the team suffered under the purported “Curse of the Bambino” for 86 years.
Waterman and Leeke said the series that year was an odd one. With the demands of the war and threats to shut the game down, baseball ended the season early.
The 1918 series played from — Sept. 5-11 — was the only one in history to be played entirely in the month of September.
Attendance was down, too, with some series games attracting only 15,000 fans as people had their minds on weightier matters.
“It was an early World Series that year, and there was less fan interest than in a normal year. The attendance wasn’t great,” Leeke said.
Waterman said attendance was also lower because so many baseball fans were fighting overseas while those at home had to work long hours pumping out weapons and materials for the war.
Instead, he said, people read about the games in the evening editions of Boston’s several newspapers. Games were played in the afternoon and a full report would be in that evening’s paper.
Sensing the public was spending its disposable cash on War Bonds, baseball lowered ticket prices for the series to $3 for a box seat, $1.50 for grandstand and 50 cents for bleachers.
The series was a low-scoring affair. Despite being the team’s top hitter during the regular season, Ruth didn’t play in the outfield in the series because the opponents, the Chicago Cubs, used mostly left-handed pitchers and Ruth was a lefty hitter.
Waterman said there was not a single home run hit in the six-game series.
The Sox took the opener in Chicago 1-0 with Ruth hurling a shutout. The Cubs evened the series by winning 3-1 in Game 2.
The Sox won Game 3, 2-1, and Ruth won for a second time 3-2 in Game 4.
After Chicago kept their hopes alive by winning Game 5, 3-0, the Sox clinched the title in Game 6, 2-1, before a hometown crowd.
They won the crown while only hitting .186 in the series, a sure sign baseball was missing a lot of its top hitters, like Sox whiz Harry Hooper.
Besides the lack of hitting, the series was marked by great nicknames.
Stuffy McInnis was the star for the Sox in Game 1, knocking in the winning run against Hippo Vaughn. Bullet Joe Bush was the hard-luck loser in Game 2.
And the aptly nicknamed Sad Sam Jones lost Game 5.
Ruth, of course, would have many nicknames over his career, most of them while playing in New York.
Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees a year after winning the title and went on to become one of the most hated men in Boston sports history.
Teaming up with the likes of Lou Gehrig, Ruth would make the Yanks a powerhouse, anchoring a lineup dubbed “Murderers Row.”
The 1927 Yankees are considered the greatest team of all time.
The Red Sox stumbled into an 86-year slump with no World Series titles.
The curse would not be broken until 2004 when the Sox made a dramatic comeback against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and then easily won the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Long suffering Sox fans said they never thought the team would win a series in their lifetime.
Families decorated the graves of parents and grandparents with Sox memorabilia after the championship.
Local fan Alfonse Falzone of Norton recalled how emotional the 2004 win was.
“I saw a grown man in a bar in Norton, trying to hold back tears. He said to me, ‘If my dad was only here to see this.’”
The Sox have been competitive almost every year since 2004 and fans no longer think of championships as an impossible dream.
“I was 52 when they did it. I was beginning to think they never would in my lifetime, and now look. Three titles in 10 years — who’da thunk it?” he said.
Jim Hand may be reached at 508-236-0399 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @TSCpolitics.