First, let's get some things out in the open: the Boston Pilgrims never existed. The American League franchise began in 1901 was simply called "Boston" by the local sportswriters, or occasionally the "Americans", due to the large embroidered A on the front chest pockets. It was not until 1907 that the team's crimson hosiery earned them their vaunted nickname, the Red Sox. And at no time in between were they monikered the Pilgrims. Yet somehow in the years since that first decade of American League ball, the Pilgrims nickname was added on, and stuck. And so, in deference to the myth, this writeup shall be about the Boston Pilgrims, the AL team in Boston from 1903 to 1906 and the first World Series champions of baseball.

1903

It's hard to imagine, given the Red Sox' current penchant for choking and general malaise, that they would be the first team to ever win the World Series. But the 1903 Pilgrims were a franchise built for success. Led by their player-manager Jimmy Collins, their All-Star outfield trio of Chick Stahl, Buck Freeman, and Patsy Dougherty, and their pitching ace Cy Young, the Pilgrims seemed destined for a great season.

Unfortunately, the team got off to a rocky 15-15 start, and their starting catcher Duke Farrell broke his leg attempting to stretch a single into a double. Then the team turned things around, winning 11 games in a row and taking a commanding lead in the AL pennant race. The team continued their dominance throughout the rest of the season, and after June 21 never relinquished their pole position. Highlights of the season included Dougherty hitting for the cycle in a 15-14 loss to the New York Highlanders in which the teams combined for 37 hits and 12 errors; a streak of 17 consecutive innings in which the Pilgrims scored at least one run; and a trip to the "Championship of the United States", as the World Series was previously called.

The first World Series was a best-of-nine event, and Cy Young led off for the Pilgrims. Unfortunately, he was outclassed by Pittsburgh Pirates ace Deacon Phillippe, and Jimmy Sebring batted in four runs for a 7-3 victory. Bill Dineen pitched Game 2 for the Pilgrims, throwing a three-hit shutout. The Pirates came back to win the next two games, giving themselves a 3-1 lead in the Series. By this time, however, Phillippe had pitched 3 of the games and was virtually exhausted - the rest of the Pirates staff was ravaged by pneumonia and the flu. Deacon beleaguered onwards, but the Pilgrims dominated, winning the next 4 games and capturing the first crown in modern Major League Baseball history. Dineen's 3-1 record and 2.06 ERA earned him the first award for Most Valuable Player of the World Series (bestowed on him by the team owner), and he was given a $500 bonus.

1904

1904 proved just as fortuitous for the Boston squad. Though they lost a dependable starter in Tom Hughes and Dougherty was traded to the Boston rivals the Highlanders midway through the season, the team was carried by 37 year old Young, who pitched marvelously throughout the entire season, topped off by a perfect game on May 5 against the Philadelphia Athletics. That game was bookended by 15 1/3 hitless innings, giving him 24 1/3 and the record for nearly 40 years. With other rockets such as Dineen and George Winter surrounding him, Young and the Pilgrims again flourished through the entire season. Some interesting notes:

  • On May 21, shortstop Bill O'Neill became the only modern player to commit 6 errors in one game - to be fair, he did it in 13 innings, though his last one proved to be the game-loser.
  • On August 6, after returning to their Cleveland hotel following a game against the Indians, Dineen, shortstop Freddy Parent, pitcher Norwood Gibson, and second baseman Hobe Ferris discovered a fire ripping through the fifth floor. The teammates promptly put out the fire, and were lauded as heroes the following day.
  • Two weeks later, on August 17, Jesse Tannehill threw the team's second no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox, which featured Jesse's brother Lee at third base.
  • The season came down to a final doubleheader against the Highlanders. If the Pilgrims could win one of the two games, they would clinch the pennant. In the first game, Bill Dineen faced New York ace Jack Chesbro (who won 41 games that year, a major league record) and the two battled to a 2-2 tie heading into the ninth. Chesbro's concentration must've worn down, however, as he threw a wild pitch allowing Lou Criger to score the winning run, giving the Pilgrims their second pennant.

Due to logistical and economic reasons, the two competing leagues decided not to hold a World Series in 1904, and so the Pilgrims were content to be merely champions of their own field of competition.

1905

1905 saw the addition of Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett to the lineup. However, the team's potent lineup of years past failed to materialize, and the Pilgrims suffered throughout the season. A good portent of the season occurred in their third game, when Winter threw a one-hitter and lost 1-0 to the Washington Senators. The team started off 0-6, their worst start in franchise history, and never regained their losses. Bill Dineen's no-hitter on September 27 and a hard push at the end gave the team a respectable 78-74 record, but it was only good enough for fourth place. Only one starter (manager Collins) batted above .260, and Burkett proved to be more of a liability with his caustic attitude than a threat with his bat and speed.

1906

The 1906 team was a shadow of the champion Pilgrims of '03 and '04. Gone from the starting lineup were Freeman, Criger, Burkett, Dougherty, and Collins. The pitching rotation of Young, Dineen, and Winter had lost its luster. The team proved its anemia by losing 20 games in a row in May. In particular, pitcher Joe Harris got the worst of it all, finishing with a terrible 2-21 record to go with his 3.52 ERA (monstrously high in the dead ball era.) To make matters worse, on August 29 Jimmy Collins decided enough was enough and went on an unannounced vacation with his wife. In return, the Pilgrims suspended him and named Chick Stahl acting manager. By then, the team was already 34 games out of first place and were playing meaningless games. To put an exclamation point on the season, September 1 saw the then-longest game in Major League history as the Pilgrims and Athletics squared off for a 24 inning battle. After giving up 1 run in the 6th inning, Harris threw 17 innings of shutout baseball - only to give up 3 runs in the 24th for the loss. And on the final day of the season Stahl, who had announced his pending retirement a week earlier, hit a two-run homer against his old teammate Tom Hughes to give the Pilgrims the lead. However, in classic Pilgrims fashion, they squandered and then surrendered the lead, and the Highlanders won. The Pilgrims finished 49-105. It was embarrassing, and later proved tragic, as Stahl, named the rechristened Red Sox manager in February 1907, committed suicide one month later, lamenting in his final words: "Boys, you drove me to it." He was 35.

Conclusion

Like their modern-day counterparts, the Pilgrims saw the highest heights and the lowest valleys in their relatively short existence (or lack thereof.) Whether or not the nickname ever was is unimportant: in either case, the team that played in those mythical shoes gave color and history to the great game of baseball. From first to worst, the Boston Pilgrims' legacy is probably most defined by their connection to the very first championship in baseball, and the days when they were kings of the sporting world.

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