Like Chicago, Boston has a team in each of the four major sports leagues (MLB, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL). Some other cities can also make that claim (including New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas, Detroit, Denver, and Phoenix), but many more can’t (such as Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Seattle, Milwaukee, and San Antonio). Boston’s sports teams, like Chicago’s, are woven into the fabric of their community. Boston and Chicago are among the very best sporting towns in America.
So what’s the best way to determine which one is better? Counting championships is one way to do it, of course, but Chicago comes out on the wrong end of that equation. Besides, Andre Dawson played in both cities during his career, and never suited up for a World Series game—let alone won a championship—in either one, and yet he’s still in the Hall of Fame. Surely championships aren’t the only metrics that count.
Perhaps we can look at the times when a championship was decided between these two cities and their teams. The times when Boston and Chicago went mano a mano, with a championship on the line. That seems to be a fair way of stacking these cities up against each other. But, in looking at all the years these cities have been fielding professional teams, the sample size for making such a comparison is distressingly small.
Boston and Chicago are two of the Original Six hockey franchises, and the two teams have appeared in the Stanley Cup finals a combined 29 times over the years (with 18 appearances for the Bruins, and 11 appearances for the Blackhawks). It’s astonishing that these two teams have never before played each other for the Stanley Cup. Over a five-year stretch in the early 1970s, the two teams traded off appearances in the finals, like ships passing in the night. But they never met each other in the finals, and so we have no history to serve as our guide.
How about basketball? The Bulls and the Celtics both play in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, meaning they couldn’t play against each other in the NBA Finals. The best they could hope for is to play in the Conference finals, but that hasn’t happened since the Bulls moved over from the Western Conference in 1980. From the Bulls’ founding in the late 1960s, and all through the 1970s, a Bulls-Celtics NBA final was a possibility, at least in theory, but it never came to pass. Again, basketball offers us no insight into past competition between the two cities.
The only time that Chicago and Boston have met to determine a baseball championship was all the way back in 1918. To give some idea of the time frame involved, consider that the first commercial radio station was still two years away. It was an important and unique Series in 1918, and one we still commemorate today, in a fairly significant way.
1918 was the first, and most likely the only, September Series that baseball has ever seen. As America was gearing up to become involved in the Great War in Europe (what we now call World War I), Secretary of War Newton D. Baker determined that all men had to “work or fight” by July 1. Baseball owners were permitted to end their season on Labor Day, with the World Series to be played the following week.
The Boston Red Sox won the American League pennant, led by their pitching star-turned-hitter Babe Ruth. The Cubs won the National League title, and returned to the series for the first time since 1910. It must have been awfully hard for Cubs fans to endure an eight-year gap between World Series appearances.
The Series opened in Comiskey Park—since the Cubs could draw larger crowds there than in their own Weeghman Park—on Thursday, September 5, 1918. A brass band played patriotic tunes throughout the game, but the seventh-inning stretch provided the most enduring moment. Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” could be heard by the crowd of just under 20,000, and the fans came to their feet and sang along. Players on the field also stood at attention while this display of patriotism unfolded. Boston went on to win the first game by a 1-0 score, but the impact of Key’s song had not gone unnoticed.
The playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the seventh-inning stretch was repeated for Games two and three—think of it as an early version of “Sweet Caroline”–and the teams split those games. The Series then moved east to Boston, with the Red Sox holding a two games-to-one advantage. But before the Series started up again in Boston for Game four, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee had an idea.
Harry Frazee had purchased the Red Sox at the age of 36. He was a producer of musical shows, and is said to have eventually traded Babe Ruth away to help finance his productions. But all of that was still off in the future back in 1918. Frazee’s success means that he knew how to please an audience, and he decided to move the Francis Scott Key ritual from the seventh-inning stretch to before the game started. This was done for Games four, five, and six, and thus an American tradition was born.
The Red Sox won the Series in six games that year, with Carl Mays and Babe Ruth each winning two games for the Red Sox and posting ERAs of 1.00 and 1.06, respectively. With its victory over Chicago, Boston established inter-city bragging rights that would last—incredibly—for another 67 years. That’s because the two cities would not meet again, with a championship on the line, until Super Bowl XX in the New Orleans Superdome on January 26, 1986. That’s when Chicago emphatically evened the score against Boston.
Any Chicagoan over the age of 30 could probably tell you about that game. It started out with a scare, when Walter Payton fumbled the ball on the second play from scrimmage. New England kicked a field goal just over a minute into the game, and it looked like the AFC’s wild card team had a chance against the mighty Bears. But by halftime, the Bears had built a commanding 23-3 lead, and the rout was on. The lead ballooned to 44-3 by the end of the third quarter, and the final score was 46-10. To give an example of the Bears’ domination, consider that New England’s leading rusher was Tony Collins, who gained four yards on three carries. A more dominating Super Bowl performance has not been seen since.
After several decades of waiting, Chicago had finally evened up with Boston at one title apiece. And since then, there has been nothing new to report. Over the past quarter of a century, Boston and Chicago have not had an opportunity to break their championship deadlock on the field. Fans in each city probably thought 2003 would be the year that the Red Sox and the Cubs would meet again in the World Series. It turned out that Dusty Baker, Grady Little, Mark Prior, and Pedro Martinez had other ideas. And another opportunity had not presented itself, until now.
Chicago fans think our teams are the best, and Boston fans think likewise about their teams. After the dust of this year’s Stanley Cup finals has settled, we’ll know which city can claim bragging rights over the other. Because those rights are likely to last for a very long time, I’m going with the Blackhawks in six games. Go Blackhawks! And Go Chicago!