What Makes A World Series Memorable?

This post was originally posted at Medium.com on November 10, 2015

Last week I wrote a piece on the Royal Rooters and the 1915 World Series . One of the issues I addressed, but didn’t really have space to dig into, was what factors make some World Series linger in public memory while others fade more quickly. More specifically, I was curious about why the 1915 and 1916 World Series victories of the Red Sox are pretty much forgotten while their 1903, 1912 and 1918 wins (along with the Boston Braves win in 1914) remain subjects of contemporary interest.

As I note in the piece, the 1915 World Series was wildly successful at the time; it set new attendance records and marked the first time a sitting U.S. President attended a World Series game. Much like the Royals-Mets series that just ended, it was a closely contested matchup that ended in five games. Four games were decided by one run (Games 2 through 4 with identical 2–1 scores) and the fifth by two runs.

The 1915 Series also had storylines that might interest fans of baseball history. It featured Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in his prime; he pitched well but was outdone by the dominant Red Sox trio of Ernie Shore, Rube Foster, and Dutch Leonard. These three men pitched theentire Series for Boston, relegating rookie 18-game winner Babe Ruth to one pinch-hitting appearance. Offensively, the star was supposed to be Phillies slugger Gavvy Cravath, whose 24 home runs that year set a new major league record, but the Red Sox held him homerless. Indeed, no home runs were hit in the Series until Game 5, making the games exemplary of the pitching and defense-dominated period of professional baseball between 1900 and 1920 known as the Deadball Era.

The centennial of the 1915 Series passed last month with only my piece and a blog post by MLB historian John Thorn to commemorate it. In contrast to the other Boston-related Series mentioned above, there is (as far as I can discover) no book on the contest. Part of the reason for this disinterest may be its placement in the middle of Boston’s dominant run. 1903 was the first Boston victory (indeed, the first World Series), 1912 is widely regarded as one of the greatest Series ever played, and 1918 was the last Boston win for nearly a century. The Red Sox 1916 victory over Brooklyn, in contrast, has received similarly scant attention.

Yet the disinterest in the 1915 and 1916 Series may also be part of a broader pattern. An unscientific poll of friends and family members who are diehard baseball fans seems to confirm my suspicions that the World Series we remember most easily are those with clear heroes or goats. Great teams like the 1927 Yankees or surprising ones like the 1914 Braves are remembered for entire seasons. Our lasting Series memories, though, are the dramatic home runs of Bill Mazeroski, Joe Carter, Carlton Fisk and Kirk Gibson, the dominant pitching performances of Don Larsen, Jack Morris and Curt Schilling, the catch by Willie Mays, and the miscues (fairly assessed or not) of Bill Buckner, Fred Snodgrass, and Johnny Pesky.

This pattern of remembering dramatic moments and great individual efforts adheres to the way that most Americans prefer to consume their history. It may even have something to do with our actual processes of remembering. For writers who want to dig beyond these moments to reconstruct a more complex understanding of our past, the trick for getting readers beyond the academy to come along for the ride seems to be hitching that complexity to a fascinating character or storyline (Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City is one example that comes quickly to mind). Colorful figures such as John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, “Nuf Ced” McGreevey, and (hopefully) other yet-to-be fleshed out Rooters should fulfill that requirement, which is why I am optimistic that these Boston fans can make readers remember early World Series and professional baseball in new ways.