The Team That Boycotted the World Series

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On August 12, 1994, the MLB Players Association officially went on strike, cutting short a promising season that seemed destined for greatness just a few weeks earlier. Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn was on pace to become the game’s first .400 hitter since 1941, and many believed that Montreal had laid the groundwork for an exciting new dynasty up north.  

Unfortunately, squabbles between athletes and owners over revenue pulled the plug on these developing stories. Over 900 games were canceled, including the World Series.

Whether you hold the owners, players, commissioner, or any combination thereof responsible for denying fans a championship showdown in ‘94, it's safe to say that the blame could be spread around. Ninety years earlier, however, calling off the World Series was a two-man job.

1903’s series—the first Fall Classic ever played—had been an enormous upset. In eight games, the National League’s heavily-favored Pittsburgh Pirates fell to the Boston Americans (later renamed the Red Sox), their American League opponents. National League baseball had been wowing spectators since 1876 (and the Pirates arrived six seasons later). In contrast, the up-and-coming American League was only three years old. Nevertheless, Bean Town’s superior pitching ensured a meaningful series victory on behalf of the younger coalition.

That impressive performance still couldn’t silence those who wanted to dismiss the new league as an inferior product, and no critic was louder than New York Giants manager John McGraw.

McGraw’s grievances ran deep. A.L. clubs could steal away key players from National League squads (like his) with the siren’s lure of fatter paychecks—an arrangement made possible by their elevated salary ceiling. Furthermore, in 1903, the organization hit McGraw’s bottom line even harder by giving Big Apple fans another team to watch: the fledgling New York Highlanders, whom we now call the Yankees.

Before debuting in New York City, those Highlanders had already ticked McGraw off during their 1901 and 1902 campaigns, when fans knew them as the Baltimore Orioles (not to be confused with today's version of the O’s). McGraw was brought in to manage the Baltimore franchise by none other than A.L. president Ban Johnson, who quickly regretted the appointment. Umpires grew fearful of McGraw’s explosive tirades and Johnson retaliated by slapping him with suspension after suspension. Finally, McGraw gave up. Upon bidding Baltimore adieu, he switched leagues to oversee the lowly Giants.

By 1904, McGraw’s new gang had become the most dominant team in baseball. Led by future hall of famers Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity, they’d go on to amass a 106-47 record. That the Giants would win the coveted National League pennant soon became a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, the A.L. race ran right down to the wire, as Boston found itself in a tight, season-long duel with the big-spending Highlanders. For the very first time, there was talk of a New York vs. New York series.

Giants owner John T. Brush made sure that never happened. As early as July 5, while the Boston Americans and Highlanders were still trading blows, sources close to him told reporters that, regardless of who won the American League, his team would most likely sit out the ensuing World Series. On October 6, he confirmed these rumors.

To the surprise of no one, McGraw backed his boss one hundred percent. As he’d smugly reminded everybody a few months prior, the manager felt nothing but contempt for either club. “Why should we play [Boston],” McGraw wondered aloud, “or any other American League team, for any postseason championship? When we clinch the National League pennant, we’ll be champions of the only real Major League.”

Their egos bruised, both rosters now desperately wanted to take a crack at his Giants. On October 9, the last day of the season, Boston nabbed its second consecutive A.L. pennant. With the taste of victory fresh on his tongue, John I. Tyler, the Americans’ president, dared McGraw to step up to the plate. “Dear Sir,” he wrote, “As the Boston club today won the championship of the American League, I challenge your club to play for the championship of the world. Of course, if you refuse to play, we get the title by default, but I shall prefer to win it on the diamond in a series of five games or more.”

Alas, his taunts fell on deaf ears, and McGraw never responded. Meanwhile, when the second-place Highlanders invited the Giants to compete in an unofficial playoff series, Brush gave them an answer—and a pretty brutal one at that. Patronizingly, he asked “Who are these people? We do not know them at all. The Giants do not care to play minor leaguers, so this absurd challenge from a lot of nobodies will be ignored.”

Because World Series attendance wasn’t yet mandatory for pennant-winners, McGraw and Brush comfortably sat on their laurels. That year, a disappointed baseball-crazed nation was denied the pleasure of watching New York’s N.L. club try and back up its trash talk.

History wouldn't repeat itself in 1905. Following 1904's debacle, both leagues formally agreed to make championship participation non-negotiable. The Giants again won the pennant and, this time, took home a World Series title by beating the Philadelphia Athletics four games to one.

However, as if by karmic retribution, McGraw’s team lost their next four appearances, including a date with the then recently-renamed Red Sox in 1912. Today, over 110 years after the Giants refused to face Tyler’s men, Boston fans are greeted by a red, white, and blue “1904” banner near the entrance of Fenway Park—a tribute to the greatest matchup that never was.