The Dodgers are headed to the 2018 World Series–a miracle of miracles for this LA Dodgers fan. It’s October in America and time to think about baseball. I’m sure my grandfather, who loved baseball, would agree.
How did World War 1 impact baseball? That question came to me when I read a letter Grandpa wrote on March 30, 1918.
Why were the Cardinals playing at a military training camp? I did a bit of research and came up empty. Then, on a lark, I called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, better known as Cooperstown. I realized I’d landed on a bit of good luck when a woman (who only identified herself as Katherine) answered the phone. Not only was she a graduate student in American Social History, with a specialty in baseball, she was also a Cards fan. Within a couple of days, she sent me over 30 scanned pages of information on World War 1-era baseball. In her email response, she answered my specific question on why the Cards played at Camp Funston.
“The St. Louis Cardinals were struggling to achieve any post-season success during the years before/during World War 1,” she wrote, “a trend that changed only after the team brought on Branch Rickey who developed the organization’s minor league farm system. Like many professional teams, the Cardinals lost players to the draft and military enlistment, which was partly the reason Rickey sought to locate reserve players through a player development system.”
She mentioned the teams known to have played for the troops: Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis. The MLB sent teams to Foot Hood, Texas, she said, and Camp Pike, Arkansas, as well as Camp Funston in Kansas. Often, professional ballplayers, now in military training, faced former teammates on the field.
From Grandpa’s letters, I know baseball filled the spring days at camp. Beginning in March, 1918, he wrote about playing catch after supper, managing his company “C” team, serving as an umpire, and watching games. On April 27, he told Grandma,
“I never saw as many ball games in my life. There was at least a dozen in a mile square down this side of the river and a big crowd at each one.”
The army encouraged baseball, noting the benefits of exercise, recreation, and the kind of discipline and teamwork needed on the battlefield. This notice also ran in Trench and Camp, April 6, 1918, p. 6.
Baseball went with the troops overseas. The army sent equipment, as did the Y.M.C.A. The MLB sent some of its best players. Thanks (again) to Katherine, the intern at Cooperstown, I learned that the Chemical Warfare Service, also known as the “Gas and Flame Division,” included three future baseball hall-of-famers: Branch Rickey, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. All were in the thirties, and all were willing to take on one of the most dangerous assignments of the war.
In an article she sent, “Chemical Warfare Service: World War 1’s House of Horrors,” author Frank Ceresi wrote that over the summer of 1918, the Army recruited baseball players and athletes “with exceptional skill” to execute a daring plan. “They were tasked to prepare for battle with special orders to anticipate German gas attacks where the heaviest trench fighting would be, then turn the tables on the enemy by quickly spraying their flanks with jets of flame from tanks strapped onto their backs. Then, once their tanks emptied, they were to lob special ‘gas grenades’ at the fallen Germans and clear the area.”
Of the three baseball greats, only Mathewson was injured. The signal to put on his mask came too late, during one attack, and he suffered from exposure to the gas. This may have led, Ceresi suggested, to his death in 1925 from tuberculosis. (1)
Some baseball players stayed in the U.S. Certainly the most famous was Babe Ruth, who had registered for the draft, but hadn’t been called for service overseas. In the 1918 World Series–the only one played completely in September–his Red Sox team beat the Chicago Cubs, 4-2. At that game, a tradition was born when the military band played the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch. The crowd joined in. The singing of the national anthem (so-named in 1931) became standard practice at MLB games beginning in the 1941-42 season. (2)
Baseball has so many traditions, and the one I most treasure, is the practice of handing down the love of the game, one generation to the next. My grandfather is my link to the game. I will always remember the pleasure of sitting at his knee, quietly watching him listen to the Kansas City Athletics on the radio. This memory came to mind on a recent flight home. I shared a row with a man and his son, who was probably a young teenager. “We’re seeing baseball parks this summer,” the father said, explaining the new jersey his son was proudly wearing. We talked about baseball. I told him about my grandfather and baseball in World War 1. I asked him what he especially liked. “I collect signed, first-edition books on baseball.” His favorites? He scribbled them down on the back of a bookmark I had.
Before we landed, I mentioned one detail that puzzled me in World War 1-era baseball. The Y.M.C.A. sent indoor baseballs and indoor bats to France. Did he know about indoor baseball played during the war? He grew silent and said, no, quickly adding that he wanted to look into this as soon as he got home.
I bet he did. That’s baseball–so many facts and stats and enduring traditions over its long history. It’s no surprise to me that American soldiers played ball at military camps and places in France, however and wherever they could. And watch games. And long to be home to see their favorite teams in person.
When the Dodgers take to the field in the 2018 World Series, I’ll fold into the shadows of this rich history of the game. I’ll marvel at Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, two of the oldest (still standing) parks in baseball, festooned with patriotic bunting for the World Series. I’ll remember that only one team can win. I’ll take comfort knowing I’m not the only one yelling at the TV, the way my grandfather’s generation yelled at the radio or yelled from the stands. We know best, the fans. It’s baseball.
And so is the hope, that against all odds, my team will win. Go Dodgers!
Thank you, MLB, for supporting the troops in World War 1.
(1) Frank Ceresi, “Chemical Warfare Service,” included at http://www.baseballinwartime.com/chemical_warfare.htm
(2) “Baseball and the Star Spangled Banner” at https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/anthem
Online sources provided by National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“A Corner in Horsehide,” 34 ff. https://archive.legion.org/handle/20.500.12203/3469
“Baseball Champions American Expeditionary Forces,” https://books.google.com/books?id=2yJjJZF7lOYC&pg=PP457&lpg=PP457&dq=%22Baseball+Champions+American+Expeditionary+Forces%22+Lt.+Colonel+Malcolm+P.+Andruss&source=bl&ots=Vw_aXMk3D-&sig=pfQiUMfMYrUk8lTL4amvTor4O_w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiSnoG-rPLdAhUIIDQIHY4pCCsQ6AEwAHoECAAQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Baseball%20Champions%20American%20Expeditionary%20Forces%22%20Lt.%20Colonel%20Malcolm%20P.%20Andruss&f=false
Print sources provided by the National Baseball Hall of Fame:
Elias, Robert. “Real War (1917-1919)” in The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. The New Press, 2010.
Lane, F.C. “Baseball’s Bit in the World War.” Baseball Magazine, February 1918, 386-391, 436-437.
4 thoughts on “MLB and WW1 Baseball”
I really enjoyed this segment of your story and am fascinated by the way it continues to unfold!!
You’re a great reader! Thanks so much for your interest. Grandpa’s life will change dramatically in the very near future.
Interesting origin of the playing of the national anthem. It was changed from 7th inning to pre-game. Had to make room for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” I guess. Baseball was a core part of my growing up. I played sandlot ball with friends every single day in the 100 plus degree temps of San Bernardino in the summer. I listened to Dodger games with my father on the radio.
Baseball is, for many of us, a big part of our childhood and adult lives. It’s certainly a thread in mine.