“[T]he war will be forgotten — and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered; — the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin.” ~ Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
I read the news today.
And, it was not lost on me – or on anyone else, it seems – that Thursday, April 6, marked the 100-year anniversary of the United States’ entry into its first global war. World War I.
(These are the things we are meant to pause and think about once every hundred years or so.)
That war – “the war to end all wars,” which, as you know, didn’t end a thing – is remembered, by anyone who actually remembers such things, as the war that brought us a slew of patriotic songs like “Over There” and the start of chemical warfare, including the use of mustard gas.
Who knows if anyone was thinking of parallels when, on this 100th anniversary, the United States engaged in a 21st-century bombing of a Syrian airbase engaged in the same kind of chemical warfare. See, some things don’t change much at all. (The sarin gas used by Syria, by the way, was developed in 1938 by the Nazis, but never used by them. )
You might be rolling your eyes right now, heavy-sighing, wondering how to get out of this downer of a post. Wondering where the baseball is.
And, so to baseball.
Nearly 800 professional ballplayers were veterans of World War I.
If that didn’t make you do a double take, you weren’t reading carefully, so here it is again.
Nearly 800 professional ballplayers were veterans of World War I.
And, sure, you’ve heard of the biggest ones, including Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb …
… Christy Mathewson …
… and Branch Rickey …
Virginia had more than a few, including Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey of Culpeper …
… plus Gordonsville’s Marv Goodwin, and Remington’s Jud Wilson to name just three.
(I wrote about Goodwin and his baseball and military career which you can read here.)
But, here’s the thing.
These enlisted and drafted men weren’t all tucked away in cushy jobs on U.S. bases where they whistled away the war in safety, while playing ball for local “war service leagues.”
Sure, some did.
But, many more were sent to France where they fought brutally in the trenches.
Mustard gas was frightening and new, and the United States and the Allies were feeling their way when it came to both protecting their troops from Germany’s lethal gas attacks, and (you’re not going to like this) manufacturing and using the same destructive warfare gasses against the Germans.
Cobb, Mathewson, and Rixey were some of the biggest stars of their day. All three, along with Rickey, were made officers in the Gas and Flame Division – the division on the front lines that was charged with carrying out mustard gas attacks.
In the huge scope of sucky, dangerous, and awful military jobs, I’m guessing the Gas and Flame Division was right up there among the suckiest.
Pick your three favorite players of today. Whoever. National League. American League. Pitcher. Fielder. I don’t care who you pick. Pick three.
Can you see those three players intentionally being sent to the front lines of the world’s most dangerous war zone in the military’s most suckiest job?
You can’t. (If you said, “Yes, I can,” you’re just being difficult.)
Phillies pitcher Eppa Rixey was a graduate of the University of Virginia with a masters in chemistry. He enlisted in early 1918.
I thought that his chemistry background determined his placement in the division. I was wrong.
In 1918, the United States announced the creation of an elite “Gas and Flame” fighting force tasked with “delivering gas to the enemy in all ways,” as General William Sibert, the head of the Chemical Division, put it.
This was, I’m guessing, the most patriot and pleasant way to describe a job which was to stand several feet in front of the enemy and throw mustard gas grenades at them while they threw mustard gas grenades back at you.
Captains Mathewson and Cobb
“We do not want a man simply because he enjoys the reputation of being a good athlete,” the General said. “We are searching for good, strong fellows, leaders of men, endowed with a large amount of common sense, to act as Gas officers and stay right with the men during gas attacks. So we choose such men as Mathewson [and] Cobb. … They will not be kept in ‘bomb-proof’ jobs, but will see active service at the front.”
It was baseball that made these men attractive to the division.
Reports at the time recognized that these ballplayers were physically fit, natural leaders, and celebrities known to every soldier. They could act quickly and decisively in stressful and dangerous circumstances, and their troops would trust them and obey orders because of who they were.
Placing popular players in the trenches also was designed to help calm the public’s fear of chemical warfare. Americans would, I guess, take comfort in knowing that their sons, brothers, and fathers who were fighting in France were being protected by baseball’s greatest “heroes.”
Cobb remembered it like this: “The doughboys who came our way largely were hard cases and rejects from other services. The theory was that they would listen to well-known sport personalities – and to some extent it was effective. Those that gave us trouble and didn’t heed orders didn’t last long.”
(By “didn’t last long,” Cobb didn’t mean they moved to other units, he meant they didn’t last long in the trenches. I think you know what he means.)
Putting some of America’s biggest celebrities in the thick of the war seems like a strange public relations gimmick, even by today’s standards. But, I guess it worked.
The war ended just a few months later anyway, so the fighting division didn’t last all that long.
Eight major leaguers, 25 minor leaguers, and two Negro League players were killed during World War I.
Those who returned to baseball often struggled in their first seasons back.
Captain Rixey returns from war in May 1919 and signs a new contract with the Phillies.
When Rixey returned to the Phillies, The Philadelphia Inquirer tempered fans’ enthusiasm. “[T]here is no telling what these fellows returning from overseas are going to do in baseball. … [W]e just mention these things so there will be no undue disappointment. … [I]t will be a long time before the boys return to normal. Therefore too much must not be expected of big Eppa. … [I]f he does not show all his old time form, he must not be blamed.”
And, he didn’t.
His ERA ballooned from a pre-war 2.27 in 1917, to 3.97 in 1919 and 3.48 in ‘20. It wasn’t until he was traded to the Reds in 1921 that he started to settle back into the Hall of Fame pitcher he was to become.
And, then there was Christy Mathewson, one of baseball’s greatest pitchers who was managing the Reds at the time he enlisted.
Mathewson soon after enlisting.
While in France, Mathewson was badly injured in a training exercise when something went wrong and he and several soldiers were exposed to mustard gas.
(If you find it odd that the military actually used lethal poison gas in a “training exercise,” I’m with you.)
Mathewson recovered enough to continue to serve even after the Armistice, when he and his troops tracked and disarmed live mustard-gas weapons that had been left behind on the battlefields.
But, Mathewson was never really quite right after that, was continually plagued by lung-related illnesses, and died of tuberculosis in 1925 at the age of 45.
The moral of this story? There’s no moral. Not where war’s concerned. Just remembering a long-ago war and thinking of its parallel to things today.
And, strangely, it also made me think of baseball.