Baseball and World War I

This is a guest post by Naomi Coquillon, an education specialist in the Interpretive Programs Office. The post ties together themes from two major concurrent exhibitions on display at the Library: Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I and Baseball Americana.

American soldiers play baseball in France, circa 1917–18.

When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, baseball had been known as the “national pastime” for 60 years and was on the cusp of a golden era. Wrigley Stadium was about to celebrate its third birthday. The Red Sox had just begun a sixth season in Fenway Park. Babe Ruth was almost three years into his storied career. And the massive national effort to raise an army and mobilize public support for the war touched nearly every aspect of American society – including the sport of baseball.

Major League Baseball players and teams supported the war effort by conducting demonstration trainings, opening stadiums for war-related charity events and participating in Liberty Loan bond drives – Christy Mathewson, pitcher for the New York Giants then manager for the Cincinnati Reds, helped sell more than $100,000 in bonds in a single day.

For American forces overseas, baseball was a means of boosting morale. The American military created 77 baseball diamonds in France, and on any given day some 200 games were played throughout the country. “The soldiers like to play ball. … You can’t get enough baseballs to go around here,” the Harrisburg (Pa.) Telegraph reported in August 1918.

Jeff Tesreau

On the home front, shipyards and steel manufacturers hired professional baseball players to do industrial work and recruited them to play on company baseball teams. Workers in shipyards, steel mills and munitions factories were exempt from the draft; among the major leaguers who joined these teams were “Shoeless” Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox and Charles “Jeff” Tesreau, pitcher for the New York Giants. Although these games were reportedly well attended, the players were often derided as “slackers” and accused of taking these positions to avoid military service.

In May 1918, the Selective Service Division issued the “work or fight” rule, which stated that by July 1, all men of draft age not involved in “useful” work could be brought before a draft board and compelled to participate in war work or military service. The regulation came to include such service professions as elevator operators and doormen as well as those involved in games and sports.

According to historian Jim Leeke, author of “From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War,” approximately 38 percent of active Major League players went on to serve, and eight current or former players were either killed in action or died of illness during the war. Among them was former Philadelphia and Cincinnati third baseman Eddie Grant, who perished during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, during which he led troops on a search for the famous Lost Battalion.

Branch Rickey

Future Hall-of-Famers Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb served in the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army under Branch Rickey, the former manager of the St. Louis Browns who would go on to his greatest fame as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mathewson suffered exposure to gas during a training exercise that left his lungs permanently weakened; he died of tuberculosis in 1925. George Sisler, who would also be inducted into the Hall of Fame, trained for the Chemical Warfare Service but did not serve abroad.

Baseball players who served overseas made their way home during the winter of 1918–19, and Major League Baseball began a shortened season the following April. Fans and players alike looked forward to the sport’s return; as the New York Times reported in January 1919, “Baseball stands in high favor among the soldiers. Since the armistice was signed they have talked about nothing else but the game. They are all anxious to get back home to see a good ball game.”

If you plan to be in Washington, D.C., this fall, consider stopping by our Echoes of the Great War exhibition in person to learn more about the story of baseball during World War I. And visit our Baseball Americana exhibition, too, located in an adjacent gallery on the same floor of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.

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