Sports Shorts: The First World Series Home Run
1903 Pittsburgh Pirates
By Michael Remas
On the first day of October in 1903, a young man from northcentral Pennsylvania hit the very first home run in World Series history – yet few baseball fans can tell you his name or what was memorable about his feat.
The First World Series Home Run
Jim Sebring, of Liberty, Tioga County, hit a historic first World Series home run for the Pittsburgh Pirates; his fan base today extends far beyond the region of his birth.
The history-making home run is seldom recalled, celebrated or on film in the historic manner of Babe Ruth’s “called shot,” Carlton Fisk’s winning blast or Kirk Gibson’s gimpy home run trot.
The fact that Sebring was a star in that inaugural series wasn’t enough, as the Pirates lost to the Boston Pilgrims, five games to three—and it wouldn’t be long before Sebring had to cope with tragedy.
A look back
Nine games had been scheduled in the first series as baseball’s modern era began in 1900 and Sebring, playing right field and batting seventh, homered in the seventh inning of the opening contest, won by Pittsburgh, 7-3, at Boston.
It was a long way from home but it didn’t faze the 21-year-old left-handed hitter. He went 3 for 5 with 4 RBIs, including a triple and his historic homer—an inside the park hit with bases loaded, off the famed Cy Young.
Stories of the game state that Sebring’s hit was over the right fielder’s head. Thinking the ball would roll into the overflow crowd standing behind ropes for a ground-rule triple, Buck Freeman of Catasauqua, Pa., saw it stop about 10 feet short. By the time Freeman threw it back to the infield all four Pirates had scored.
Nor did Sebring slow down after that first game. He was the leading hitter of the series with a .333 batting average compiled on 10 hits in 30 at bats, the most hits by any player, plus 7 RBI. And it turned out that Sebring was the only Pirate to homer, while Patsy Dougherty hit two for the champion Pilgrims.
Playing on sandlots in Liberty and nearby Williamsport as a youth, Sebring had attended Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, where the famed pitcher, Christy Mathewson of Factoryville, would later matriculate. After a short stint there Sebring signed in 1902 to play for Worcester, Mass., in the Eastern League.
He became a Pirate, that same year, however, when Pittsburgh signed the 20-year-old and installed him into the starting lineup. He made a quick impression, hitting .325 in 19 games after his debut Sept. 8. That pace continued the following season. Playing daily, Sebring batted .277 with four home runs, 64 RBIs and 20 steals in 124 games, helping the team to the NL pennant and their 1903 World Series berth.
Sebring opened the 1904 season as a Pirate but after hitting .269 in 80 games, he was on his way to Cincinnati as part of a three-team August trade. His average dipped to .225 over 56 games with the Reds. In all, he played 136 games that year, batting .250 but with no home runs.
By his own choosing, Sebring saw limited action in 1905. Compiling a .286 average with 2 homers in 58 games, he returned home to his wife, who was ill and unable to be left alone for long periods. To make ends meet, he finished the year playing for Williamsport in the Tri-State League. The team won the championship, finishing with a half-game lead over Johnstown. Sebring logged a .329 batting average and was credited by sportswriters with inspiring the team.
Sebring was said to share player-manager duties of a stronger Williamsport team in 1906 but the squad finished second; by 1907 Sebring’s contract was sold to league rival Wilmington Del., and in 1908 he played for Harrisburg.
At age 27, Sebring got another shot at the majors in 1909 with Brooklyn of the NL. But his career was winding down. He got into 25 games for 81 at bats but hit only .099 and was traded to the Washington Nationals of the American League, where he played only one game. The end was fast approaching
Sebring spent five seasons in the big leagues, played in 363 games and compiled a .261 batting average with 6 home runs.
However, he never play again after the 1909 season. As the year ended he was sick with Bright’s disease, reports state. Not yet 28 years old, he died in Williamsport on Dec. 22, a little more than six years after accomplishing a “first” that has been all but lost in baseball history.
A small tombstone marks his burial site in Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, with no mention of his historic feat, simply his identity – James D. Sebring, Mar. 25. 1882 – Dec. 22. 1909.
Michael Remas is a retired Pennsylvania newspaperman.