Nearly 800 Ballplayers …

“[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.

(Oh, boy.)

World War I Recruitment Poster. Public Domain, Library of Congress

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 …

Public Domain

… Christy Mathewson …

Public Domain

… and Branch Rickey …

Public Domain

Virginia had more than a few, including Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey of Culpeper …

Public Domain

… 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.

Marshfield WI News, 9 19 1918

But, many more were sent to France where they fought brutally in the trenches.

Oregon Daily Journal, 12 9 1917

Charlotte Observer, 4 16 1918

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.

Scranton Republican, 11 5 1918

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.

El Paso Herald, 1 1 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.

Public Domain

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.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 24 1919

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.

Public Domain

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.

Cincinnati Enquirer, 12 28 1918

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.

 

23 thoughts on “Nearly 800 Ballplayers …

  1. Actually most gas was delivered by artillery shell, not grenades (although there were gas grenades). Still not a pleasant job. If something went wrong then you ended up dying early as Mathewson did. If you can find it, look for a poem by Wilfred Owen titled “Dulce Et Decorum Est” which is about a gas attack in the trenches.
    I suppose the most famous casualty was Eddie Grant, who was killed in the Argonne in 1918. There was a monument for him in the Polo Grounds. And Grover Cleveland Alexander suffered shellshock (we call it PTSD today, but shellshock is such a more descriptive word) and some deafening while in France in 1918.
    And as for World War I in general, I’ll let Owen, in “Anthem for Doomed Youth” speak for me:
    “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
    Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
    Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.”
    RIP
    and by the way, Wilfred Owen was killed in action in about a week before the war ended.
    v

    • Thanks v … and especially for the clarification of the shells vs. grenades. I was researching Rixey and reading about how the Gas & Flame division would “pack” their gas weapons and I got totally overwhelmed by the many different weaponry they were using and all the technical details. Completely outside my wheelhouse, war is. But I have been wanted to write this and these past few days gave me the push I needed.

      Alexander’s “shell shock” was a huge thing in Philadelphia, too — the Phillies had traded him to the Cubs because they thought he would be drafted, trying to cut their losses I guess. When he was not his “old self” when he returned to the Cubs, the Inquirer started handling Rixey’s return with kid gloves, asking fans to “be nice” when he got back from France.

      I read “All Quiet on the Western Front” in high school … it lingers with me to this day.

      • Back when I was in the army, we had to be “gassed” yearly. They took us to a “gas chamber” and fed in tear gas. You went in with your mask on and then took it off. It was supposed to make us trust our gas masks. A thoroughly unpleasant day. One year some wag (I wish it was me but it wasn’t) tacked up a copy of Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” on the door. The commanding officer was not happy and threatened all of us with court martial if we didn’t tell him who did it. We didn’t (Hell, I didn’t know until later who it was) and he finally had to back down. I fell in love with Owen that day.
        I seem to recall the Remarque quote above is from the final chapter (just before Paul dies). Like you, I still remember the book.
        v

  2. I, for one, don’t mind if you lead us into some uncomfortable places, now and then. Baseball has its serious side; it’s not all green grass outfields and the crack of the bat. Doesn’t hurt to go deeper, into the lives of the people who play the game- and the circumstances that ended their lives. As always, thanks.

  3. All Quiet was difficult to read. Every chapter planted a few more seeds of anguish about war. Thank you for these words about real people who were actually there

  4. I often think about all of the ballplayers who lost time because of WWII, but forget how many also fought in the “War to End All Wars.” Very good article.

  5. Incredible, remarkable, wonderful, terrible … I love this piece and the beauty you bring to these stories. So much I had not realized about our beloved ballplayers (oh, and Cobb) during the war. It’s a terrific tribute for the centennial. (I actually spent yesterday afternoon at our Fort York for the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, so reading this piece was a perfect cap to the commemorative events.)

    • “Oh, and Cobb.” Exactly! (I’ve had some people trying to do the revisionist history thing on Cobb, arguing that a new book makes him out to be “not as terrible” as once thought. He’s still terrible, of course, but, apparently, I should cut him some slack. No slack.)

      Thank you for your kind words. I almost didn’t post this piece because it was so heavy and difficult. But, I wanted to tell that story and I’m glad I did.

  6. Thanks for the history lesson…and of course how it relates to baseball. I never knew anything about the major league players that were sent to fight in World War I. Great, informative post.

    Thanks for sharing, Jackie.

  7. Jackie, I don’t think any of the professionals of today in any sport would forego their millions to accept the awesome honor to serve their country, especially without a draft. The fact that these men saw their duty and embraced it says something vital about hat time in our history. The commentators of today would spend inordinate amounts of time trying to fill in their missing time and extrapolate what their careers might have been. It is due to these men and their humble sacrifice that the games can go on without interruption.

  8. Jackie…it’s ALL baseball. And this is a very interesting and thought-provoking piece of writing. When are we going to learn anything is what I want to know. Or…is it possible for us to learn anything about this because maybe war and eating each is simply in our DNA and who we are.

    You probably didn’t think it was possible to go more downer?

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