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Cubs' return to Fenway offers window to past

Cubs' return to Fenway offers window to past

Cubs' return to Fenway offers window to past
To us today, it is an old-timey accoutrement to the Fenway Park experience. A reminder of the way things used to be.

We speak here of the scoreboard at the base of the Green Monster, still hand-operated after all these years and still serving to represent baseball's quaint olden days. A welcomed antique in a world of advancements.

And to think, that scoreboard was still 16 years in the making in 1918.

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If you want some handle on how long it truly has been since the Chicago Cubs last set foot on Fenway soil, well, there you have it. Back in 1918, the thought of turning to an inning-by-inning tally of the runs accrued or lights illustrating the number of balls and strikes on the batter would have been a novel one.

The Cubs' return to Fenway to face the Red Sox in Interleague Play this weekend has us thinking very much in this vein of then vs. now. For it's not every day that a team visits a ballpark it last inhabited 93 years ago. Indeed, this is Interleague intrigue at its historical height.

Imagine, if you will, a Fenway setting without upper-deck seats, without lights and certainly without luxury boxes or seating atop the 37-foot Green Monster in left. Imagine the Red Sox decked out in wool threads of all white, with no logo on their caps, no word on their chests and no number on their backs. Imagine the Cubs in a grayish uniform featuring navy blue pinstripes and an obscure logo in which the "C" wraps around the letters "UBS," topped off with a pinstriped gray cap with a blue brim. And, yes, imagine two starting lineups without a single black player or anybody born outside the United States.

That's the Fenway of 1918, the Fenway where Red Sox right-hander Carl Mays would twirl nine brilliant innings and Cubs right fielder Max Flack would make a costly, two-run error to give Boston a 2-1 win in the decisive Game 6 of the World Series.

On that day -- Sept. 11, 1918 -- baseball was an afterthought, at best. The United States had been embroiled in what was called the Great War for almost a year and a half. It was a conflict president Woodrow Wilson had wanted no part of, but the Germans' sinking of U.S. ships and the leaked Zimmerman telegram changed his and the country's tune.

The war effort waged so long that the U.S. began to endure both economic and emotional stagnation. It changed the way Americans viewed the world, inspiring, for many, a push for peace. And the fight for democracy abroad led to increased attention on democracy at home, as the women's suffrage movement finally and rightfully gained momentum.

No one knew how long the war would linger. Rations were applied and money was spent carefully.

When it comes to spending, consider this: The average American household earned $1,518 in 1918. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that would be the equivalent of $21,644 exactly 80 years later, and yet the average American household hauled in $52,029 in 2008. So Americans, by and large, had to make do with less. Gas might have only been 25 cents a gallon, but, adjusted for inflation, that equates to nearly $4 a gallon in today's money.

Oh yes, the more things change...

Of course, not nearly as many Americans were driving back then. Less than five percent of the population owned a car. Those who did certainly didn't have the option of listening to games on the radio. The first radio news broadcast was still two years away, and the first baseball broadcast was three years away.

As for motion pictures? Sure, they existed. In fact, Warner Bros. Pictures was established in 1918. But the first "talkie" feature, "The Jazz Singer" was still nearly a decade away.

So when it came to avenues for escape, baseball, which had been referred to as the "national pastime" for quite some time, was among the best options. Major League Baseball had 16 teams, eight in each league. The furthest west the league stretched was St. Louis, where the Browns played in the American League and the Cardinals were, of course, in the National League.

This was the time when the Bambino, Babe Ruth, was still a pitcher, not a slugger redefining the way the game is played. A total of 235 home runs were hit in 1918, an average of 0.231 per game, whereas today's average is 1.743 per game. The league ERA was 2.77, a number that would earn an individual All-Star status even in today's era of newfound pitching prominence. The best hitter in the game that year was the Tigers' Ty Cobb, who hit .382. The best pitcher was Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators, who went 23-13 with a 1.27 ERA.

But baseball's popularity was severely undercut by the war effort. The necessary penny pinching of the era affected the economics of the sport.

Attendance dwindled in 1918. More than 5.2 million people had passed through the turnstiles at Major League ballparks the year before, but that number fell to 3.08 million. With the war being waged, the Major League season was cut short at 140 games on Labor Day weekend. The Cubs and Red Sox were atop their respective leagues and, therefore, achieved admission into the World Series. Every player on every other team had his contract ceased for September, and each one was technically a free agent. But in an arrangement that can best be described as collusion, owners agreed not to sign anybody else's players.

The sport was expected to go on hiatus after the Series. The Dodgers, in fact, had already agreed to lease Ebbets Field to the government as a storage facility. Baseball was about to take a backseat in a big way.

But that was before the world-changing events of November 1918. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the German throne on Nov. 9. Two days later, an armistice was signed. More than 117,000 Americans had died in the effort, but the Great War was mercifully over.

Baseball would be back open for business the following year. Attendance would more than double. The sport, like the country, would move on from the war. The Red Sox would wait 86 years for another championship, the Cubs would wait (and are waiting) even longer.

And as these two clubs meet again on the grounds of baseball's oldest park this weekend, we are reminded, however briefly, of the way things used to be. Back in the days before those fancy, hand-operated scoreboards.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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