Could players and owners possibly allow a fight over money to derail baseball in the middle of a national emergency? History offers an answer to that question.
In September 1918, the Cubs and Red Sox played the World Series at a time when war engulfed the world and an as-yet-unrecognized influenza pandemic was starting to tear through America. Against that backdrop, the two teams went on strike — albeit briefly — in the middle of the World Series over a dispute about a revenue-sharing plan.
“The 1918 strike was significant,” said historian Glenn Stout. “It’s the only time they ever almost stopped playing in the middle of a World Series, an act of God notwithstanding.”
World Series winners’ shares grew dramatically from the first title matchup in 1903 ($1,182) through 1917 (more than $3,500). MLB owners felt that player earnings had grown to the point of excess.
After the 1917 season, the National Commission (a three-person predecessor to the commissioner) implemented a plan to distribute a share of the revenues from the first four games of World Series ticket sales not just to the two teams playing for the title but to the top four teams in both the American and National leagues, each of which featured eight teams at that time.
Players on the winning team were to get a $2,000 share, with players on the losing team getting $1,400. The rest of the player share of the gate (dropped from 60 percent in 1917 to about 55 percent in 1918) from the first four games would be distributed among the second-, third-, and fourth-place teams — a setup meant to give all teams incentives to play hard to the end of the season, but that had an obvious ulterior motive.
“Essentially, what management was trying to do, by giving a cut to the other first-division teams, they were subsidizing salaries for those teams,” said Stout.
The change — which would cost World Series winners nearly half of their shares — was implemented by owners rather than negotiated with players at a time when there was no players’ union. Players read about the change in the papers and grudgingly accepted the new reality. But they weren’t prepared for further sacrifices to their wages.
The season was nearly canceled in the summer amid the US’s expanding involvement in World War I. The government issued a work-or-fight order, mandating that by July 1 all draft-eligible men involved in non-essential work must enlist in the armed forces.
Baseball was deemed non-essential, but the league (thanks in no small part to the intervention of Red Sox owner Harry Frazee) negotiated an extension that would allow the season to run through Sept. 1. The Red Sox and Cubs cruised to pennants in a season that was shortened from 154 games to an average of 127 in order to allow players to meet the revised reporting date. Players lost paychecks with the abbreviated season.
Then came the World Series. Attendance during the games in Chicago was poor, averaging just over 22,000 fans per game through the first three (two of which were won by the Red Sox) despite the fact that the games were moved from Wrigley Field to the larger Comiskey Park.
On the train ride from Chicago to Boston after Game 3, players from the two teams (aside from Babe Ruth, who evidently spent most of the train ride drinking and punching holes through the straw hats of passengers, somewhere along the way injuring his hand) met and took stock of their financial circumstances — and recognized that the poor gate, the revenue-sharing plan, and a commitment to donate 10 percent of salaries to the Red Cross could cut their shares in half yet again. They weren’t pleased.
“The owners had changed essentially the distribution of World Series money without telling the players,” said Stout.
The National Commission members traveled to the World Series cities in a general state of crapulence that proved an impediment to comprehensible negotiations. The Red Sox and Cubs players tried to regain a commitment of $2,000 for winners and $1,400 for losers, but the commission members dodged the matter prior to Game 4, which the Red Sox won to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
Prior to Game 5, the players again sought an audience with the inebriated triumvirate of the National Commission; this time, the members released a statement pronouncing that if the players were unsatisfied with their haul, they’d cancel the World Series and split the players’ share among the owners.
The players balked. With nearly 25,000 fans in Fenway Park on a beautiful day, the Red Sox and Cubs refused to dress for the game, the field remaining vacant past the scheduled start. The player stance was not greeted kindly at Fenway.
“They were called ‘Bolsheviki’ and ‘shameless holdups’ and a lot of other names which would not look nice in print or have been pleasant to have been heard by those to whom these terms applied,” the Globe reported.
News of a player strike was of sufficient magnitude to create a rare displacement of news about the war on the front page of the Evening Edition of the Boston Globe on Sept. 10. The commission members — Reds minority owner August “Garry” Herrmann, AL president Ban Johnson, and NL president John Heydler — stumbled into a meeting with player representatives and pleaded with them to play as an act of patriotism.
“The players in 1918 capitulated,” said Stout. “They agreed, fell for that line or realized they couldn’t go up against the line of national morale.”
After a strike of approximately one hour, the players took the field and the Cubs won Game 5. The combination of an unseasonable chill and general antipathy toward the players seemingly contributed to a dismal turnout of just over 15,000 fans for Game 6 on Sept. 11 — won by the Red Sox, 2-1, which stood as their last championship clincher until 2004 and their last title won at home until 2013.
The aftermath was joyless. There was no parade to celebrate the champions — a blessing, given that the Spanish flu was already starting to spread from military bases to the civilian population, a development that by mid-September had garnered little notice (it wasn’t a front-page issue in the Globe to that point) but would soon lead to the deaths of thousands of Bostonians.
Members of the Red Sox received a winner’s share of $1,102.51 — the smallest ever received by a World Series winner — and were denied the championship medallion (the precursor to modern rings) typically given to victors. [Stout finally helped right that injustice when descendants of the 1918 team were awarded medallions at Fenway in 1993.]
Now, some of the same forces that tainted that World Series hover over the game as it explores whether health, logistics, and finances can permit a 2020 season to occur amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The grim reality of thousands of deaths, uncertainty about the future, and an upended society serve as the context for a financial dispute between players and owners over the potential introduction of revenue-sharing rules that would alter compensation.
In 1918, that strange stew yielded capitulation rather than compromise. Whether such a scenario plays out in 2020 remains to be seen, at a time when the opportunity to salvage a season approaches an evident deadline.