Leeke, Jim. From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War. University of Nebraska Press, 2017. PP. xii + 238. Notes, bibliography, index, photos, $32.95 hardback.
Reviewed by Doug Wilson
World War I was a new kind of war, one that touched on every phase of life around the world. It demanded an unprecedented effort and unity of purpose at home that made nascent professional sports irrelevant. Now, a century later, Jim Leeke takes the reader through the war from the viewpoint of baseball in the thoroughly researched and comprehensive book, From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War.
As the author states in the foreword, while baseball during World War II has been extensively chronicled, baseball in World War I has largely been overlooked in literature since by the time the participants reached the age at which they would have normally written down their memories, the country was embroiled in a newer, larger World War. All we have now are contemporary newspaper accounts and historical records. The author mines these completely as he keeps to a rigid chronological procession from the beginning of spring training in 1917 through the conclusion of the war.
In March 1917, as war-ravaged Europe and most believed the United States would join at any time, New York Yankee co-owner T.L. Huston pushed for military preparedness for baseball and hired an active duty military drill sergeant to work with the team’s players. The Army quickly realized the recruiting value, as other owners just as quickly realized the advantage for their public image, and soon other teams set aside time each day in the spring for military drills. By the time the season opened, the plan had become “both a serious-minded boost to military preparedness and a wildly successful public relations ploy by owners and magnates” (p. 14). Teams regularly drilled throughout the season and a competition was held for the best-drilled team.
America entered the war officially on April 6, 1917, a week before the baseball season opened. According to the author, “Flags flew, rhetoric soared and the baseball season began as usual” (p. xi). But things would not remain usual for long. As Leeke writes, “So much changed that within 18 months the major leagues were scarcely recognizable” (p.xi).
A draft call was issued for all men between 21 and 31. The first draft took place July 20, 1917, a little past the midway point of the baseball season. As most major league players fell within the age range of the draft, this put the game in obvious danger. Surprisingly for modern readers, as the public was whipped into a patriotic fervor, professional athletes were expected to do exactly their share for the country; no more, but certainly no less, than everyone else. Consequently, it was not a foregone conclusion that the nation needed professional baseball to survive.
In addition to the drilling of players, major league owners offered elaborate displays with flags, the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, free admission to men in uniform, and opened ballparks for recruitment rallies and draft registration day. They helped sell millions of dollars of Liberty Loan bonds and played exhibitions in military camps. Some, such as Charles Comiskey, who donated tens of thousands of dollars to the American Red Cross, and Washington’s Clark Griffith, who started the Bat and Ball Fund that resulted in more than $150,000 worth of baseball equipment for troops, did even more.
All was not patriotism and benevolence on the part of the owners, however. They were businessmen who tenaciously fought for their preservation of their tenuous product, which had only recently defeated a serious threat from the Federal League. They openly campaigned for exemptions for themselves and their players and energetically resisted a federal war tax on their gross receipts. They hoped to avoid the fate of the minor leagues, which were devastated due to decreased interest, increased travel expenses, and the loss of players (at the beginning of 1917, there were 22 minor leagues across the country, but by July 1918 only one minor league remained—a revamped International League).
In response to speculation, President Wilson said he saw no reason for baseball to fold. He did not go on to say that athletes would receive special consideration, however, or state that professional baseball was a necessity for the morale of the country, as presidents would suggest in future wars. The first major leaguer drafted was the A’s shortstop on August 2, 1917; others soon followed. Despite fears, the overall effect on baseball in 1917 was minor. The World Series went off as planned, but trouble was on the horizon.
The Work or Fight ruling in 1918, which stated that all able-bodied men had to either enlist in the military or take essential employment, was a potential death knell for the major leagues. The date was originally set for July 1, which would have wiped out the season. One estimate noted that of the 309 men currently on major league rosters, 258 fell under the order. Owners were eventually able to get an agreement to allow them to end the season early, by Labor Day, with an exemption granted for the two World Series teams to continue a few weeks longer.
Many players took shipyard jobs to avoid military service. Shoeless Joe Jackson left the White Sox abruptly in May 1918, after learning he was high on the list to be drafted in the next call. He turned up a day later working for a Bethlehem Steel shipyard and played his first game for the company team two weeks later (he would lead them to a championship). Jackson was the first big name player to jump to the steel/ship industry and consequently took much heat in the press. Many more followed and the shipyard ball teams soon rivaled their major league counterparts. It is clear that had the war continued into 1919, major league baseball would have had a very hard time continuing.
By September, 1918 more than 1,250 minor and major league ballplayers, owners and writers were actively serving in the military. “While fewer fought in front-line units than critics might have preferred, ballplayers were fairly well represented within the American Armed Forces by the end of the war,” explains Leeke (p. 189).
The author chronicles the wartime years of both heroes and goats. The first active major leaguer to enlist was Braves catcher Hank Gowdy, hero of the 1914 World Series. He became the face of baseball’s war effort in the press and served for the duration. Captain T.L. Huston, who possessed both needed military and engineering experience, volunteered and left in June 1917 to command a unit for the Army Corps of Engineers. While few players followed these men in volunteering, the vast majority dutifully signed up and complied with the draft or war-time employment. Only a few players tried to avoid duty altogether and they were labeled as slackers and heaped with scorn and disdain.
Interestingly, the war destroyed two of the greatest National League pitchers of the deadball era. Grover Alexander was drafted early in the 1918 season and was assigned to the 342nd Field Artillery. After enduring intense combat in France, he suffered from shell shock. Although he pitched until 1930, Alexander, who had won 30 games three times before 1918, battled alcoholism and epilepsy, was tormented by demons, and was never the same.
Christy Mathewson, who was managing the Reds after giving up pitching a year earlier, was commissioned in the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service (along with Ty Cobb and Branch Rickey) and was quickly sent to Europe. In October, Captain Mathewson and Captain Cobb were involved in a tragic training accident using real poison gas in France. Eight men died in the incident and Mathewson sustained lung damage which contributed to his early death in 1925.
The Armistice was signed November 10, 1918, and owners scrambled to assemble rosters for 1919 amid the players straggling back from Europe and the shipyards. The major leagues shortened the 1919 season to 140 games by pushing back the start to April 19, but otherwise the game continued as usual, or so it appeared. But as Leeke points out, “Baseball returned not to glory but to the worst disgrace in its history” (p. 193). Many of the seeds that caused the Black Sox scandal were planted during the war and sprouted among the general moral decline of post-war excess.
Overall the author does a commendable job organizing and laying out the material in this book. A highlight of the book is the pictures, many from the author’s private collection, which allow a view into the bygone era. A comprehensively annotated scholarly work, this is not a light, easy read and it may not be of interest for a less-than-casual fan of the game. It may well now be the definitive work on the subject, however. The book was named a finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research’s Larry Ritter Award for the deadball era for 2018, illustrating the regard the book is held among the author’s peers.
Doug Wilson is the author of five baseball books, including Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks (to be released March, 2019). Visit him at http://dougwilsonbaseball.blogspot.com/