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It was a different 'world' in 1917

It was a different 'world' in 1917

Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drum's rum-tumming everywhere
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over
And we won't come back till it's over, over there

That was the chorus of George M. Cohan's popular 1917 song, "Over There," and, of course, they weren't talking about the baseball Yanks. It was the year that a "world war" became a stark reality, as the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered a global theater of combat that had begun three years earlier.

It also was the year Hollywood produced the most elaborate silent film to date, "Cleopatra"; the year Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik party began a Russian Revolution; the year J.R.R. Tolkien first wrote of a chimerical place called Middle Earth; the year John F. Kennedy was born; and the year Dutch spy Mata Hari was put to death.

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And on the 15th day of October that year, a year when the term "world" really meant something to all Americans, the Chicago White Sox were the new "world" champions. Replacing the Boston Red Sox as the new lords of Major League Baseball, the White Sox, led by a manager named Pants Rowland and a remarkable talent named Shoeless Joe Jackson, beat the New York Giants in six games.

Many people are looking back now at 1917 because the White Sox have not won a World Series in the years since, and the point is not that it was a "different world" back then. The point is: It was, in every sense, completely a "world" in 1917.

What a world.

America was a nation insulated by oceans to the right and left, with a soul spawned in places like Philadelphia and Boston where it had declared its right to be free of Old World ties. It had been through a Civil War, and it had built itself through an Industrial Age with a ribbon of railroads, and it had been the country that took in immigrants from everywhere.

In 1917, it was a nation that looked at the world much differently. Mainly, it looked at the world. The overwhelming conversation of the day was the inevitable U.S. participation in the battle abroad, and German U-boats were the catalyst. The most infamous sinking had been that of the British passenger ship Lusitania in 1915, and in early 1917 Germany had announced it would engage in unrestricted submarine warfare. On the second day of April, new U.S. President Woodrow Wilson delivered a war address to Congress, and four days later the first world war became official. Conscription began that June 5 with "Army registration day," and the war would end a year later.

"We are now about to accept the gauge of battle with this natural foe to liberty and shall, if necessary, spend the whole force of the nation to check and nullify its pretensions and its power," Wilson said in his declaration. "We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included; for the rights of nations, great and small, and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy."

That was life in 1917. It was also the year that the National Hockey League was formed with five teams, following a series of disputes with the National Hockey Association. America was Major League Baseball; its neighboring country to the north was the National Hockey League. Open your eyes in 1917 and you saw the world.

You also saw the gradual decline of Vaudeville, because of emerging cinema. Theda Bara starred in the title role of the Fox silent film "Cleopatra," with its lavish sets and costumes. "Why Marry?" opened at the Astor Theatre in New York -- the first dramatic play to win the Pulitzer Prize. You saw a woman in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time: Jeannette Rankin of Montana. She voted against the war in 1917, and she would become the sole representative to vote against it in 1941.

What a world.

That summer of 1917, the White Sox were putting together a season of 100 victories -- in a 154-game schedule. They led the American League in batting and pitching, and they overwhelmingly led the AL with a season attendance of 684,521. The Detroit Tigers had Ty Cobb, but the White Sox had bats spread out and they had incredible pitching. Three Chicago pitchers ranked among the AL's top five in ERA: knuckleballer Eddie Cicotte (1.53 to go with a league-leading 28 victories), Red Faber (1.92) and Reb Russell (1.95).

In the month before the White Sox opened that season, a voice named Harry Caray had just entered the world; Tsar Nicholas II of Russia had just abdicated; and the U.S. had just purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million, the same amount it had paid in January for the Danish West Indies. One can imagine a home going for that amount on either property now. And while you are imagining 1917, imagine what a crying newborn named Harry Caray must have sounded like.

The White Sox opened that season just after the enactment of the Jones Act, which granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. Now Puerto Rico has inextricable ties with Major League Baseball, but the world was opening up in 1917.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin and Dizzy Gillespie were born in 1917. So was pitcher Johnny Sain. And on Oct. 15, the very same day that the White Sox won their last world championship behind Faber's complete game, Mata Hari -- stage name for Dutch dancer and accused World War I spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle -- was shot by a French firing squad. "Harlot, yes. But traitoress? Never!" she had said during her trial. (People are theorizing about the "Black Sox Scandal" of 1919 as a possible "curse" during this title drought, but did anyone ever look into Mata Hari?)

It was the year that America called off the search for Pancho Villa, with Pershing's troops returning from Mexico to the U.S. and Mexico adopting its Constitution. There was a bigger world out there in 1917. It was a different world. The Chicago White Sox were the world champions, and in a world at war people were looking "Over There."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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