Way Back Base Ball: February 2009 Archives

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These are heady times for Phillies fans. For only the second time in the club's history, the Fightins are defending World Champions. Philadelphians are so excited they're not letting any questionable off-season moves or positive drug tests dissuade them from continuing to celebrate a World Series win well into 2009.

It wasn't always this way. Back in 1915, the world was a very different place. Women could only vote if they endured severe hardships, like living in Wyoming. Ford was actually profitable. The United States was involved in an occupation of a foreign nation. Okay, maybe not everything was different.

Baseball, though, was markedly different. The ball at the time was actually made of reinforced steel; as such, the NL league ERA was a paltry 2.75. What's amazing is the second fact in this paragraph is actually not made up!

Amazing, too, was Grover Cleveland Alexander, a lefthander for the Phillies from Elba, Nebraska. Old Pete (so called because that was his nickname) went 31-10 with a 1.22 ERA that season for the Phillies; he made 42 starts and completed 36 games. Yes, offenses didn't do much in 1915 -- what with the steel ball and all -- but the Phillies played in the Baker Bowl, where the right field wall was only 91 feet away. (It was awfully hard to round first, too.)

Although the Phillies dropped the World Series to the Red Sox, 4 games to 1, Alexander pitched a fine series for the Philadelphia nine. He went the distance twice, winning the first game -- the Phillies' only postseason win until 1977 -- and dropping the second on a single in the bottom of the ninth.

Despite this performance, Alexander wasn't satisfied. He was so unsatisfied he wrote an article for Baseball in January 1916 titled, "How I Lost The World's Series. In the article, he comes up with tremendous insights like, "for in baseball one team must always lose, since both cannot be alike victors."

But Old Pete also explains how he managed to lose the "World's Series." It all started in the first game of a doubleheader against Brooklyn on Labor Day; after the Phillies took the lead in the top of the eighth inning, it looked like the Phillies were on their way to a series-opening victory. But Alexander injured his shoulder earlier in the game and couldn't hold on to the 3-1 lead:

I remember that I overheard a loud voiced rooter in the stand when that inning began. The Brooklyn crowd seemed discouraged when we piled up those three runs. This particular rooter yelled out: "Never mind, boys. Go at Alexander; he's human like the rest of us."

He was certainly right. I felt human enough when they started to pound me around the lot. And I felt extremely human when at the end of that inning they had scored five runs off my delivery and snatched away a game that I had considered as good as won.

"He's human like the rest of us" was the most offensive phrase one could say to a man back in 1915, the year Birth of a Nation was released. The Phillies, though, rallied to take the pennant, clinching it on a one-hitter by Old Pete himself. Alexander had some actual interesting thoughts when reminiscing about playing in the "World's Series":

Again, the pitcher in a world's series game has none of the assurance that he may have during the season. In the short series he has to do whatever he is going to do now or not at all. If a slip occurs it is too late to change it. He has one or two, or at the most three, chances to deliver, and if he fails it is too late.

While reading the article, it's refreshing to learn baseball wasn't always a world of cliches and players who can't even remember what steroids they had mysterious cousins inject. Alexander spends a rather large portion of the article discussing why he pitched to Duffy Lewis, who had the game-winning hit in Game 3 of the World's Series. (Man, that is annoying to write and say. No wonder it got shortened.)

But since I barely know who Grover Cleveland Alexander is and I certainly don't know who Duffy Lewis is, we'll skip to the end of the article for Old Pete's closing lament:

Such is baseball, however -- a game of uncertainties. And we none of us have any license to complain. But I shall always think of the world's series of 1915 as a peculiar personal disappointment in that I was unable, through lack of condition, to live up to the expectations of my friends.

Sad, eh? It's not all bad: Grover Cleveland Alexander would eventually win a "World's Series" title with the Cardinals in 1926. And although his post-baseball career was tragic, at least he was remembered in the best way possible: By having a future U.S. president play him in a movie. Isn't that what we all want, really?