The 1915 World Series and the Rise of the Modern American Sports Fan

Boston Royal Rooters return to Boston, 1903 World SeriesBoston Royal Rooters return to Boston, 1903 World Series. (Photo: Boston Public Library)

One hundred years ago, the Boston Red Sox beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1915 World Series. The victory occurred in the midst of a dominant run for Boston’s baseball teams, which won five championships between 1912 and 1918. This success even brought national recognition to the city’s most vociferous baseball fans, a group that called themselves the Royal Rooters. Both these teams and the Rooters have been the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and even songs, but their involvement in the 1915 World Series in particular has generated little interest from sportswriters or historians.

The lack of attention paid to the 1915 Series may be due to the dominant pitching and limited offense that was typical of baseball’s “dead-ball” era. Yet if events on the field represented their time, what happened off the field was new. Record crowds and celebrity guests indicated professional baseball’s increasingly respectable status in the nation’s northern cities, and a public battle over accommodations for the Rooters revealed that their cheering had become more than just a leisure activity. For these mostly prosperous and ambitious men, it had become a means of gaining political and economic influence.

The Royal Rooters had been accompanying Boston’s professional baseball teams on crucial late and postseason road trips since 1897. It appears they were the first group of fans in the United States to display this level of devotion, and their journeys to Baltimore that year, to Pittsburgh in 1903, and to New York in 1904 received substantial coverage in the Boston media and the sporting press. Much of the coverage focused on the Rooters’ gambling and rowdy behavior, an editorial decision that reinforced the idea that professional baseball, both on and off the field, was the realm of men who drank, gambled, and fought. This justly earned reputation made ballparks disreputable places that genteel women and children attended infrequently.

The Rooters’ behavior in many ways affirmed this tradition, even as several of them brought wives and daughters on these trips. Yet for the group’s leaders, fandom also reflected a belief that public allegiance to professional baseball in Boston could have political, economic, and social value. Connections existed between professional baseball and urban politics prior to the existence of the Rooters, but earlier politicians tended to avoid publicizing their sporting affiliations. In contrast, when Royal Rooter John F. Fitzgerald, a former U.S. Congressman and future Mayor of Boston, attempted to buy the Americans (soon to be known as the Red Sox) in 1904, he did so largely to keep his name in the paper between elections. When the Huntington Avenue Grounds opened in 1901 to house the newly formed Americans, Rooter Michael T. McGreevey moved his Third Base Saloon next to the park and fervently publicized his association with the team for the next two decades. McGreevey advertised on the park’s outfield walls, and made sure he appeared in published photographs with Red Sox players and management at spring training in Arkansas and California, at the 1912 groundbreaking for Fenway Park, and at World Series games throughout the 1910s. This strategy helped to facilitate McGreevey’s rise from poor laborer to prominent business owner, a path that John Keenan and Charley Lavis – the two men who led the Rooters during the 1915 World Series – also traveled.

When the Red Sox launched Boston’s decade of preeminence in professional baseball by reaching the 1912 World Series, the Rooters’ devotion to the team transformed from a regional into a national story. Their fandom received coverage in newspapers from the Tampa Morning Tribune to the Idaho Statesman, even prior to the near-riot that occurred before Game 7 of the Series when the Red Sox neglected to reserve the group’s usual seats.

The response to that fracas further reflects the influence that the Rooters’ popularity had gained them within baseball’s power structure. Although some observers have marked this moment as the beginning of the Rooters’ decline, the Boston press widely criticized the team for this incident. Moreover, American League President Ban Johnson immediately pronounced his admiration for the Rooters, and in 1913 the Boston Herald suggested that the subsequent departure of owner James McAleer and team treasurer Robert McRoy was a “direct result” of the episode. When the Boston Braves won their World Series championship in 1914, the Rooters once again traveled along, cheering the team and remaining a popular story in newspapers across the country.

By 1915, other politicians had begun to realize the value of publicly associating themselves with major league baseball. For example, James Michael Curley, Fitzgerald’s successor as mayor and chief political rival, had never displayed a previous interest in baseball but began pronouncing his support for the Red Sox that year. More nationally significant was the appearance of President Woodrow Wilson and his new fiancée, Edith Bolling Galt at Game 1 of the 1915 World Series. This occasion marked not only the first time a sitting President attended a World Series game, but also Wilson’s first public appearance with Galt. The fact that the president and his advisors perceived this game as an appropriate setting for presenting his betrothed to the American people just eighteen months after his wife’s death indicated professional baseball’s growing status as a reputable, family-friendly pastime.

So too did the 1915 World Series’ unprecedented popularity. In Boston, where Fenway Park was only three years old, the Red Sox borrowed newly opened Braves Field for their home games because they correctly anticipated fans would fill its larger seating capacity. Game 3 set a new major league baseball attendance record with 42,300 people packed into the stands, and Game 4 nearly matched that total with 41,096 spectators. Boston newspapers crowed over this achievement, and their simultaneous cautioning that readers should leave extra time to get to the park and anticipate challenges in navigating the crowds indicates that such attendance numbers were newsworthy.

Even before the Series started, the Rooters were at the center of another controversy that affirmed the game’s booming popularity would not endanger their status as professional baseball’s preeminent fans. Since 1897, opposing teams or league presidents had always reserved a block of tickets for them, but this time Phillies president William Baker refused to extend this courtesy, offering only scattered seats instead. In response, Red Sox owner Joseph Lannin pronounced that he would refuse to let the Red Sox play if the Rooters did not get their customary accommodations. Both executives’ proclamations were public relations gambits, and the Series was never in jeopardy, but the fact that the league commissioners stepped in to provide the Rooters’ tickets indicates their continuing influence within the baseball hierarchy.

These trailblazers continued to enjoy their celebrity role for a few more years; they attended the 1916 and 1918 World Series with the Red Sox, and even received tickets from the league for the 1917 Series despite the fact that neither Boston team reached the championship contest. After 1918, though, the Rooters largely disappeared from prominence, a decline that probably resulted from a combination of Prohibition and the collapse of both Boston baseball teams during the 1920s.

Baseball’s popularity continued to grow through much of the twentieth century, and in some ways the Rooters’ impact was temporary. It seems that no subsequent groups of fans in other cities emerged to parlay their hometown professional team’s success into personal improvements in their social and economic status. On the other hand, while the explicit material benefits of fandom dissipated after World War I, the “dead-ball era” was when the practice of rooting for professional baseball began to enter the cultural mainstream. Thus for those who wonder why today, as Jerry Seinfeld famously said, we “root for laundry” when we cheer for our favorite professional teams, perhaps we should consider whether our practice originates at least in part from our great-grandfathers’ efforts to improve their financial and social standing.

About the Author

Paul Ringel

Paul Ringel is Associate Professor of History at High Point University. He is the author of Commercializing Childhood: Children's Magazines, Urban Gentility, and the ideal of the American Child, 1823-1918 (2015). He is also the Director of the William Penn Project, a service learning initiative through which students explore the history of High Point's African-American high school during the Jim Crow era. His current research project is an exploration of the Royal Rooters, a group of celebrity baseball fans in early twentieth-century Boston.

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3 Comments

    1. Thanks, Michael. I have read Lieb and everything else I can get my hands on from this period of baseball and on the Rooters. As I try to expand this project into a book, my biggest job is to find more primary sources on these fans beyond the extensive newspaper coverage. If you or anyone else who reads these comments has any ideas about where to find correspondence from these fans or family archives, PLEASE let me know!

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