from the dugouts to the trenches

Reviewed by G. Louis Heath, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor, Ashford University, Clinton, Iowa

17 april 2017       archive

This book proves that life in baseball dugouts constituted excellent preparation for the military life of World War I trenches. In fact, many Major League and Minor League players who served in The Great War excavated dugouts into the walls of trenches to serve not only as safe havens but as living quarters on duckboards. The players deployed their youth, aggressiveness, physical skills and stamina, and never-say-die spirt in the service of victory for the Allied Powers. This highly scholarly University of Nebraska sports volume (30 pages of notes precede a 12-page index) documents the broad arc of their largely unstinting contribution to the war effort. Out of the larger history, the author teases compelling cameos of individual sacrifice as well as a coherent picture of organized baseball's generally patriotic responses to the war effort.

The United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917. Immediately, the nation began to mobilize as it never had before. The world's seventeenth largest army set about to enlist through its newly created Selective Service System a large number of soldiers, initially 400,000 and a total 3 million by war's end. And, of course, pro baseball players were among the potential recruits. Soon all eight American League teams and two in the National League (Brooklyn and Boston) had drill instructors. The players drilled an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, in addition to preparing for the MLB season, a regimen the War Department approved.

Newspapers even reported the drills. Players briskly executing right and left dress and right about face, and marching to and fro with bats in place of model 1903 Springfield rifles, made for riveting copy. Cornelius McGillicuddy, aka Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, noted, "We have entertained the American people and now we will do all in our power to protect them." (page 15). The week following the declaration of war, the baseball season opened, the first ever to begin during wartime. And this points up a major emphasis of the book: As we girded for war and teams drilled, we still played baseball. And we would manage to play it throughout as many players became soldiers and their teams adapted to the demands of internecine conflict in Europe.

Uncertainty in the forms of tenuous fan interest and sparse attendance (the causes may not be what you think; so read the book) beset not only MLB but more intensely the 22 Minor Leagues. Three leagues failed within a week early in the baseball season: The Class C Virginia League folded May 16; the Interstate League, a Class D circuit, folded May 18; and, the Class D Georgia-Alabama League went under on May 23. "American soldiers had yet to set foot on a French battlefield, but Minor Leagues were falling like machine-gunned poilus." (page 23)

Boston Braves catcher Henry Gowdy became the first Major Leaguer to enlist in the U.S. Army. He had hit .545 for the "Miracle Braves" in the 1914 World Series. He immediately became MLB's greatest war hero, shipping out to Europe in early June. However, no big leaguers followed his example. As per diktat from league offices, they dutifully registered with the Selective Service draft on Registration Day, June 5, and waited for the July 20th lottery in room 226 of the U.S. Senate Office Building.

Soon after Registration Day, the North Carolina and Central Texas Leagues collapsed. Others followed after the Fourth of July, including the Class B New York State League and the Class B Central Association that included the Iowa cities of Clinton, Cedar Rapids, and Fort Dodge. Only five of the Minor Leagues would complete the 1917 season intact. The draft and war economy would take their toll. Industry and agriculture boomed to supply our "doughboys." Ironically, many were making enough money to spend on baseball but the frenetic demands of war production accorded them little, if any, time to attend games, if indeed there were any games available to spectate.

American troops were desperately needed in Europe. France's General Henri-Philippe Pétain, commander in chief of the French army, confided to American General John "Black Jack" Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, that he felt France and her allies were losing the war, that, in fact, it was nearly lost. Yet, the United States could not rush our soldiers to Europe for we had nowhere to train them! It took us six months to build facilities to get training fully underway.

Most Major Leaguers waited to be drafted. Understandably, they hoped to complete the baseball season before embarking for service in Europe. They were men, some with families, who depended on their playing income. They had to balance personal and wartime priorities as much as possible. And, indeed, some did play the entire season until the October, 1917 World Series that saw the White Sox defeat the Giants. Many White Sox players bought Liberty Loan war bonds with their winners' shares. And the two teams would play an October 16 exhibition game for the Army's famed Rainbow Division on Long Island. So ended the troubled 1917 season amid mobilization for The Great War.

In the winter of 1917-1918 the prospects for the Major League season looked bleak to National League President Ban Johnson. He gave himself to the war cause by volunteering for service at age 50 but was rejected after he badly failed the military's physical exam. (Not all conscripts and volunteers enlisted in the Army; some donned the U.S. Navy's blue jumper.) Perhaps the future got a little brighter for Johnson after his physical but for the pro leagues all vistas looked very gray.

Not all Major Leaguers exhibited patriotism or ended up in the military. Cincinnati pitcher Fred Toney went on trial for draft evasion, culminating in a hung jury. The judge docketed the case for retrial during the next court term. As he awaited a new trial, eleven days later, Toney pitched a 3-0 shutout against the New York Giants. A number of MLB pitchers failed physicals because of neuritis in their arms and other maladies. Some players went to work in "essential jobs" in shipyards, steel mills, and munitions plants, for which they received Selective Service exemptions. The book offers no guesstimate as to numbers exempted, but it does offer the figure of "over 1,250" players, team owners, and sports writers in uniform.

What emerged stateside were company teams who played in the Bethlehem Steel Corporation Baseball League. The author's recount of this history is detailed, compelling, well written.

Shoeless Joe Jackson was drafted away from Charles Comiskey's championship White Sox. Though drafted, he landed a cushy job as an "inspector" for Bethlehem Steel despite his functional illiteracy. What he mostly did was play baseball for the Steel League. Of course, all this was prelude to the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which he figured prominently. It would be nice to know if prelude and scandal were all of a purposeful piece on Shoeless Joe's part. (I bet we will never know.)

This book recounts "service nines" and their rivalries (Chapter 7). For example, teams from the 4th and 5th Naval Districts, headquartered in Philadelphia and Norfolk respectively, played a series to decide which team would meet the Great Lakes squad for the championship. Also in Chapter 7, the reader will find special attention accorded to U. S. Army teams playing in Europe.

Not only the enemy killed pro players in uniform but the flu epidemic claimed lives. For example, pitcher Dave Roth of the International League, pitcher Harry Acton of the New York State League, St. Louis Cardinal catcher Harry Glenn, and Braves outfielder La Verne "Larry" Chappell all succumbed to influenza in the trenches.

The Meuse-Argonne offensive, named for a river on the right and a forest on the left of the Americans' line, began on September 26, 1918. It lasted 47 days, and claimed 26,277 American lives with an additional 95,786 wounded. U.S. involvement proved decisive in defeating Germany. Sports correspondent Damon Runyon with the First Army described the hellacious vicissitudes of this battle and their deadly aftermath, including the death of New York Giant Edward Grant. Another famous journalist, First Lieutenant Grantland Rice, is also substantially referenced here.

The last chapter, "Armistice," is about pro baseball beginning the process of recovering from the nefarious impact of war. Overall, 1919 became a good re-building year for the Minor Leagues. Unfortunately, war gave way to the Black Sox scandal for the Major Leagues though they too made progress in the restoration of our national pastime. In fine, the author, Jim Leeke, a former sports journalist who covered Major League Baseball for a Northern California suburban daily, has done an outstanding job with a complicated story. He has teased out the personal stories and details from the holocaust of war to give faces to some of the many who served. It is a very human story he writes that covers the full range of the best (and a little of the worst) of the men who left their baseball dugouts for the trenches of The Great War.

From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War would make a fine acquisition for any public library, no matter how small. It offers a very good read to any reader interested in how our military history has shaped our national pastime. And for the diehard baseball fan, this book is a must read that would make an excellent addition to your library.

Jim Leeke, From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 272 pages. $32.95, hardcover, 32 photographs.

Copyright © 2017 by G. Louis Heath

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