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Baseball, Bombs, and Wartime Decision-Making

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The following is a guest post by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

During an event as large and disruptive as World War I, individuals, organizations, and governments had to make difficult choices between competing societal needs. Examining sports pages from WWI-era newspapers provides an intriguing look at the interplay between celebrity, public entertainment, and wartime needs. Consider a column from the August 11 Arizona Republican, found neatly nestled amid baseball box scores, comic strips, and luxury car advertisements.

Arizona republican. (Phoenix, Ariz.), 11 Aug. 1918, Page 7

Here, former pitcher “Big Bill” James is lauded as “one of the ex-big leaguers who didn’t wait for the work order to fight.” A critical member of the Boston Braves team that went from last place to first and won the 1914 World Series, James later used his pitching prowess to teach soldiers the art of tossing bombs at Germans, the article states.

Students can analyze this item using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool to reflect on the relationship between baseball, celebrity, and wartime sacrifice. As they do so, they will likely generate questions for further research. For instance, what exactly was the role of celebrities like Bill James in WWI? Who produced this article? For what purpose? And what was the “order to fight” decree that James didn’t wait for, in doing his patriotic duty?

Other articles such as those found on page 14 of the May 24, 1918 New York Tribune provide opportunities to explore these questions further. We learn, for example, that the “order to fight” refers to a War Department ruling that all draft-eligible men employed in “unnecessary” occupations must apply for work directly related to the war, or risk being called into military service. The order affected athletes, including Major League Baseball players, but exempted actors and other entertainers on the grounds that they provided needed relaxation to citizens and raised morale. Various sections of the page provide opportunities for specific focus. For example:

  • Assign different groups of students to read: “What Officials Say About the Crowder Order” and “Arguments for Baseball.” Ask students to list arguments for and against the order and debate them in class. Are some arguments more compelling than others? Invite students to identify contemporary examples where government must balance competing needs.
New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 24 May 1918, page 11.
  • Ask students to examine “National League Players Subject to War Orders” and “American League Players Caught by Service Law.” They might count the number of players on each team potentially affected by the ruling. Assuming a roster of 22, what percentage of players could be affected? To grasp the scope of this issue, students might imagine that an equal percentage of their favorite teams had to quit, in order to fight a war overseas.

These are just a few ideas to help students start to grasp the disruptive impact of an event such as WWI, as well as difficult choices that must be made to navigate the many changes.  Let us know what other ideas you and your students come up with!




  1. Very well done! Will you include an exhibit in conjunction with the MLB All-Star Game and LOC exhibition tie-in this summer?

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