Why I Wrote This Book: 1918
By Allan Wood
"Nine -- teen -- eight -- teen!"
"Nine -- teen -- eight -- teen!"
The score was irrelevant. The fans at Yankee Stadium were taunting the Boston Red Sox players and their fans by reminding them of the last year their team had won a World Series.
It was the summer of 1994, and I'd been hearing the chant for more than seven years, since moving to New York from northern Vermont. I muttered something to my wife about the fans needing some new material.
"What do you know about that 1918 team?" Laura asked. She was, of course, aware of my interest in baseball history and my ever-growing collection of baseball books.
"Not much. Babe Ruth was on the team and World War I was going on. That's about it. The team is hardly mentioned in most books on the Sox."
She thought that was odd, since the year was so famous. "Maybe you can write about them. You can be the one to write the book."
The chant died down and we went back to watching the game. But the seeds had been planted. That winter, my curiosity about the 1918 Red Sox grew. I started spending Saturdays at the New York Public Library, looking at the Boston Herald and Journal on microfilm, making copies of box scores and taking notes. Reading about the events of that summer, learning who the players were and what they had done both in 1918 and in their careers, I soon wanted to know everything. And so began the six-year journey that has led to the publication of 1918: Babe Ruth and the World Champion Boston Red Sox.
At first, my usual pessimism told me there wouldn't be much to find: if there was, someone else would have already written about it. Much to my surprise, by the time the 1995 season arrived, I had discovered a wealth of information in newspapers, magazines and out-of-print books. I began thinking that I could write about the team.
At the time, I worked as a freelance music critic (while holding a full-time job as a legal word processor), and had been a sportswriter as a teenager in Vermont. But I knew those meager credentials wouldn't be enough to interest a publisher in my idea without a completed manuscript. I began my research with no contract, no deadline and only the distant hope of publication.
I immediately loved the research, but a book-length project was completely foreign to me. It was easy to get sidetracked reading old copies of The Sporting News and Boston Post, finding little gems of information now lost to time. I tried -- and often failed -- to organize my material methodically. I would spend weeks heading in directions that turned out to be useless. There was no pressure to finish, because I knew my self-imposed deadlines carried no penalties. Adopting and maintaining a rigorous discipline was the most challenging part of the experience.
The old newspapers I delved into showed me how some aspects of baseball haven't changed in 80 years. Back then, most club owners complained about losing money and about paying huge salaries to their stars. The sportswriters backed them up, penning vicious editorials about how players cared only for the almighty dollar. But the style of reporting bore little resemblance to the sports pages we read today. Articles reported only the events of the game -- personal features were strictly biographical, and any unsavory news was either ignored or couched in the most euphemistic language.
My research led me to Boston, the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York, and Babe Ruth's hometown of Baltimore. I spoke with the descendants of more than a dozen 1918 players. A newspaper clipping at the Hall of Fame led me to a man who had grown up near Ruth's winter home in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and had spent many weekends with Ruth during the winter of 1917-18, sledding and playing hockey on a nearby pond. I also interviewed Tom Foley, who had worked as a vendor at Fenway Park during 1918, when he was 14 years old. Foley told me about shortchanging his customers -- that was the way to make the job pay -- and about the large contingent of gamblers that conducted business in the first base grandstand. Foley's biggest thrill was when Babe Ruth, then 23 years old, would drop in on Saturday mornings and help the boys with their work before the game, telling stories and giving them some extra cash.
I have been a Red Sox fan since overhearing one of the 1975 playoff games on the radio in a shoe store with my mother. My 12th birthday was about two weeks away. I can recall some of that World Series -- Luis Tiant starting Boston's six-run rally and pitching a shutout in game one, Fred Lynn smashing into the center field wall early in the sixth game. But I must have been in bed by the time Carlton Fisk hit his famous 12th inning home run. My mothered ironed a "Wait ‘Til Next Year" decal from the Boston Globe onto a favorite blue sweatshirt and by the following spring, I was hooked.
In the years that followed, I spent hundreds of evenings listening to Ned Martin and Jim Woods on the radio, often keeping an elaborate scorecard in a notebook. My first game at Fenway Park was August 22, 1976 -- Carl Yastrzemski's 37th birthday. I was awed by the vivid greens and reds of the sun-drenched park, and to this day a certain smell of cigar smoke reminds me of walking up that runway for the first time.
Although writing 1918 now feels like a natural progression of my long relationship with the Red Sox, early on, my rooting took a very strange and unexpected turn. Once I had committed myself to the project, I was tortured by horrible visions of Boston winning the World Series. The team's mythical curse would be lifted, fans could finally forget the past and celebrate the present -- and every Sox fan would be thrilled never to hear "1918" again. My book, and the years of research, writing and rewriting, would mean nothing. I know it sounds selfish, but I wanted the team to do poorly. After such a long championship drought, what was a few more years?
My friend Ray, with whom I watched most of the 1986 World Series back in Vermont, didn't understand when I described this impenetrable wall that had sprung up between me and the team. (Perhaps only another writer -- someone who knows how much sweat and toil goes into a book -- could understand my feelings.) And my nightmares had another dimension. Even if a World Series title didn't sink the book, I had been unable to be a real fan for five years. If they won, I'd be on the outside, unable to experience the joy of a championship. After years of disappointment and crushing losses, I was afraid my team would break my heart by winning.
The most surprising bit of research I uncovered was the possibility that the 1918 World Series may have been fixed. My curiosity was sparked by a small notation made in the private notebook of a Chicago White Sox executive around the time the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal erupted. Gambling on baseball was big business in those days and the unstable financial condition of the game during the war offered plenty of motive. Reading numerous accounts of each World Series game -- sometimes as many as 20 reports of a single game -- gave me a chance to see the action through the collective eyes of the sportswriters who were there. I found many suspicious on-field actions, almost all of them by the Chicago Cubs, who lost the Series in six games. While I couldn't prove definitively whether there actually was a fix, I'm continuing to explore the possibility.
Another joy of the project was learning more about the young Babe Ruth. His affection and concern for children during his time in New York is well known, but even as a teenager and a young man, Ruth had a unique connection with kids. Ruth was friends with the boys who worked at Fenway as vendors, and he arranged for children from Boston orphanages to visit his farm. Before I started the book, I knew Ruth was a fascinating person, but my respect and love for him -- and my appreciation of his talents -- have only deepened. He now seems even more improbable and larger than life.
It amazes and humbles me to think I have contributed in some way to the rich history of my team. In a way, telling the story of Boston's last champions has returned some of the pleasure the Red Sox -- and baseball -- have given me over the past 25 years. Being a Red Sox fan has its downside -- at times it's felt like all downside. But even if I never get the chance to see my team win a championship, I can state unequivocally that following them, learning about them, and rooting for them has been one of the singular joys of my life.
First published at Sportsjones.com