October sees the conclusion of the Major League Baseball season in America. Thirty teams began the competition in April with the ambition of winning the sport’s premier competition, but as autumn rolls around, only one will emerge triumphant. If you are familiar with American sports you’ll already know that divisional structuring and the road to the all-important championship decider is as typically complex as one would expect.
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The competition is divided into two leagues of fifteen teams apiece, the American League and the National League, each separated into three divisions of five. With a mixture of games contested between teams from within a division and a select number of games against teams across the entire league, each team will play a whopping 162 games during the regular season. The sheer number of matches played is down to the ‘series’ format which sees teams facing each other consecutively over the course of a varying number of days – usually three or four.
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The three divisional winners from each league and two additional ‘wild card’ teams with the best win-loss records progress to the postseason. Two teams from each league eventually progress from this knockout round to compete in their respective league Championship Series with the winner of each respective Championship ‘Pennant’ going head-to-head in the all-important World Series. This year, the season culminates with the annual best of seven series beginning on October 25th.
This historic match was first contested in 1903 and was won by the Boston Americans (now known as the Red Sox) who defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates by 5 games to 3 in what was then a 9 game series. However, while it is recognised as the first World Series championship, it wasn’t sanctioned under any specific governing body. This therefore led to a bizarre situation the following year when the owner of the then New York Giants refused to allow his National League winners to face American League winners Boston – and no World Series match was contested. New rules swiftly came into force and from 1905 onwards the game has been played on an annual basis and, unlike other sports, this even includes during the years of both World Wars.
After 1904, the only other occasion the World Series wasn’t contested was in 1994 due to a national Player Strike over pay.
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The New York Yankees are MLB’s most successful side with 27 World Series wins. Having briefly started life as the Baltimore Orioles (no relation to the modern day team of the same name) in 1901, the franchise was bought out and moved to New York under the name New York Highlanders. In 1912 they became the Yankees and never looked back. After beating the New York Giants by 4 games to 2 in 1923 to win their first title, it was a steady stream of success right up until the turn of the century. Despite a couple of fallow periods, including a 18 year World Series drought from 1978 to 1996, the Yankees are historically baseball’s biggest side. Their famous insignia is one of the most recognised brand logos the world over – even by those with little to no interest in the game.
Sport and superstition go hand in hand. In America, Baseball is notorious for its concerns about how ‘curses’ have impacted the fortunes of certain sides. The Boston Red Sox’ 86 year World Series drought from 1918 to 2004 has often been attributed to the ‘Curse of the Bambino’! Having been one the most successful teams up until this point, the Red Sox chose to sell would-be superstar Babe Ruth – the Bambino – to their rivals, the abovementioned Yankees in 1919. While the latter excelled, the Red Sox suffered a string of near misses over the decades in pursuit of the big prize.
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The city of Chicago cannot seem to escape Baseball curses. Firstly, the Chicago White Sox went from 1917 to 2005 without a World Series title. Many put this down to the 1919 ‘Black Sox scandal’ when several White Sox players were accused of throwing the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds for money. The ‘curse’ seemingly proving to be apt punishment. Across town, the Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 and could potentially blame this on a literal scapegoat! The Curse of the Billy Goat began in 1945 when the Cubs were potentially poised to win the World Series at 2 games to 1 up against the Detroit Tigers. Playing game 4 on their home stadium of Wrigley Field, the owner of the local ‘Billy Goat Tavern’, Billy Sianis, decided to bring his pet goat Murphy to the game. Other fans complained about the goat’s overpowering smell and Sianis was ejected. The disgruntled landlord reportedly cursed the Cubs who went on to lose that game and eventually the series by 4 to 3. The Cubs have failed to even reach a World Series since.
Whether taken seriously or tongue-in-cheek, these curses play a significant role in the mythology of the game and certainly add to its romance.
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The sport is no stranger to controversy. The Black Sox scandal showed that the game could not be complacent about match-fixing and casts suspicion over other incidents around that period. In what seemed like reflection of American society at the time, the professional game was initially all-white, with African-Americans being made to play in a segregated league until integration in the 1940s. Jackie Robinson signing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 was a watershed moment. Recent controversies have surrounded the use of performance enhancing drugs with a number of players over the last three decades being accused, confessing and ultimately found guilty of steroid use.
The sport known as ‘America’s Pastime’ hasn’t allowed negativity to blight it however. From baseball’s humble origins to its current status as both a national and worldwide phenomenon, the sport’s rich, storied and colourful history simply adds to its tapestry and quite simply makes the game all the more interesting and appealing.