American Baseball: Why do they call it a World Series?

Brian Wilson by randychiu on Flickr

The U.S. baseball World Series has come to California. The San Francisco Giants are playing the Texas Rangers in the championship series of United States professional baseball. Normally I don’t follow baseball but my hometown Giants have captured the imagination of fans all over Northern California, and I have found myself caught up in the fever.

So why do they call it a “world” series, anyway? Sure, almost 28% of the players are foreign-born Hispanics (the majority coming from the Dominican Republic) and one of the thirty major league teams is based in Toronto, Canada, but it’s not nearly as popular around the world as it is in the U.S. So why do they call it a world series? The answer is that no one really knows. One unconfirmed story is that “The New York World” newspaper, baseball sponsor from the late 19th century, lent their name to the first “World Series” in 1903 that pitted the winners of the National and American leagues.

Another story claims that in that same year, Barney Dreyfuss, owner of the Pittsburg Pirates sent a letter to the owner of the Boston Americans challenging the team to “a World’s Championship Series.” However the name started, it is clearly a misnomer, but just as clearly, for over a hundred years the name “World Series” has stuck.

Baseball is related to the English game of rounders and became popular in the United States in the mid 19th century. Professional leagues sprouted up in the late 1900’s with the National and American leagues usually playing each other for the ultimate title since the turn of the 20th century.

There are plenty of colorful characters on my hometown team, the Giants, but one of the more interesting is Brian Wilson. Wilson, in baseball parlance, is a closer, the pitcher who comes in and protects a lead late in the game. In addition to his pitching brilliance, Wilson is known for his beard, which is dyed black which contrasts his naturally brown hair. This past week, many Giants fans wore fake black beards in the stands to honor the quirky pitcher. This past weekend was also the American holiday of Halloween, a time when kids and adults wear costumes every October 31st. One of the more popular costumes was a Giant’s baseball uniform and a big fake black beard.

We are more than halfway through this year’s World Series and the outcome will be known within the next several days. We’ll know who the champion is, but we won’t know why we Americans keep calling it a World Series.

About the author

Jason Malinowski
Jason is back from living abroad with his family for a year, volunteering in Peru and travelling around the Mediterranean. He's originally from California and has lived most of his life in the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and San Diego.
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  • Fair question. And aren’t the champions of the NFL and NBA also considered “World Champions”? Even though these leagues only exist in the US (well, again, the NBA has one Canadian team). I guess it can be argued that these leagues attract the world’s most talented athletes. But so does the NHL and I’ve never heard a team referred to as world champions, just Stanley Cup champions.

  • I hear it’s the first time the Rangers made it to the World Series, is that so? anyway, people are going nuts about it over here in Dallas!

  • Ana,

    You are correct. It is the first time that the Texas Rangers have made it to the “world series”. While I’m happy for the folks in Dallas, I will be wearing my fake beard and rooting for the Giants tonight in game 5.
    Thanks for commenting.

  • Sean O.

    There used to be a team in Montreal (Canada) too, called “The Expos” after the World’s Fair Exposition held there at some point. They moved to Washington DC and are now the Nationals, which was the name of a team previously located in DC.

  • Sean,
    You are right. I remember seeing the Montreal Expos play when I was a young boy. I watched Willie Mays get his 3000th hit against them. In over a 100 years of baseball, only 27 players have done that.
    Thanks for commenting.

  • Carlo,
    You’ve got a point about the other American professional leagues, although I don’t think that the “official” titles of those championships officially include the word “world”. Football has the “Super Bowl” and basketball has the “NBA finals”. Baseball seem a little more over the top with the World Series.
    Thanks for commenting.

  • Hey Jason,

    This has long been a source of confusion for me! Your points are very valid; I would add that if you are going to call yourself a world champion of anything, you need to invite other countries to play against. The lameness and arrogance of doing otherwise is superbly annoying. Not to mention that the U.S. has been schooled in basketball in various championships in recent years, and that a team from Cuba or Japan could easily give any American team a run for its money. Ok, I feel better now. Jeff

  • I know practically nothing about baseball, although we used to play rounders at school! It’s not that popular in the UK. My husband tells me that baseball is big in Italy though. Do the Italian teams ever make it over there?

  • Jeff,
    I’m glad that I could provide some free therapy. Your point about the international basketball teams is a good one. Yup, I think they need to come up with a new name.
    Thanks for commenting.

  • Liz,
    You are the first person I know who has actually played rounders! I have not heard of any Italian baseball expertise. Typically, if there are some good players there, they will want to come to the US to play and I haven’t heard of any.
    Thanks for commenting.

  • It was compulsory in high school, until age 14. I think it’s the same in most British schools. But I was really bad at it, so I probably don’t count haha.

  • Ahmed

    I wonder if for some Americans the world is just the US; I remember an american girl telling me she travelled all over the world: Texas, California, New-York, etc. just the american states!

  • Gopal

    It is called the World Series because that’s what the powers of baseball wanted it named.

    And like most American enterprises, the rest of the World is powerless to do anything about it, whether they understand that rationale, or not.