Sunday, February 15, 2015

A bit about Baseball and the Great War

The impact of the First World War did reach into both Minor and Major League Baseball. The calling up of thousands upon thousands of servicemen did force many of the minor leagues to shut down, and eventually the war reached Major League Baseball. It was decided to shorten the 1918 season, and it was to end on Labor Day, September 2, 1918. The image of baseball was also used to promote enlistment and propagandize for the war effort. Headlines such as “Halifax Athletes in the Big Game” and “Crack Athletes who are now on the Firing Line” emphasized the parallels between sports and the martial. Selfish individualism characterized a young man who didn’t volunteer, whereas as true sportsman joined the team, in this case the Armed Forces. When ball games were played, they were often used to raise money for various aspects of the conflict.

Thousands of American and Canadian soldiers were deployed to Europe, and several exhibition games were played to, mainly for charity, but also to emphasize the role of American and Canadian forces in the war effort. There was also the hope that the United Kingdom would take to the sport. The Toronto City Council sent seven cases of baseball equipment to the Canadian forces in France as early as 1915 for recreational purposes. Once the United States entered the war, Harry Stringer, the Department of War’s Commission on Training Camp Activities reported about the popularity of baseball: “I saw our boys playing from London to Paris right up to the front line trenches…Rivalry is keen and men take as much interest in their respective nines as they do in the big league races at home.”

Canadian soldiers playing ball (

In 1918 a Anglo American League was organized with three army and one navy team from the United States and four Canadian teams from London headquarters, One of the top teams was from the U.S. 342nd Field Artillery’s AEF Club, and it featured future Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander on the pitcher’s mound. Most American teams did have four or five players with experience from the Major League, but the Canadians were to prove competent opponents up to the very end of the war.  


In mid-July 1918, just over a week after a big July 4th celebration, an exhibition baseball game between Americans – wearing gray uniforms - and Canadians in white was played in Bristol at Ashton Gate, the home of the Bristol City Football Club. The Canadian team came from a reserve battalion base at Salisbury Plain, and it was composed of Canadians from all over the country. The game was seen by thousands, including the Lord Mayor of Bristol and the Sheriff. The game fascinated the people of Bristol, and many found it akin to cricket. According to a local newspaper "Some were heard describing the sport as the old game of 'rounders' played on a scientific basis. Unlike cricketers, the players criticized each other's efforts with the upmost freedom, the talking on the field being continuous and emphatic." The game was evenly matched with the Canadians leading towards the end, although the Americans eventually won the ballgame.

Many players lost quite a bit of playing time due to the First World War. These included Grover Cleveland Alexander, Red Faber, Judd Wilson and Harry Heilmann. Other players lost playing time due to work in war-essential industries such as steel mills and shipyards. 

There were also players that paid much more than lost playing time. Fifty-four baseball players never made it back to a ball park. Eight Major League players were killed during the war. Edward Grant and Robert Gustave “Bun” Troy were killed in action in France. Tom Burr died in France as a result of a plane crash during a training flight, Ralph Sharman drowned during military training in Alabama while Larry Chappell and Harry Glenn succumbed to the Spanish flu. Newton Halliday died from tuberculosis combined with pneumonia, and Harry Chapman died from war wounds in Missouri. There were also deaths in the Negro League, with Ted Kimbro and Pearl “Specks” Webster dying from influenza. Eighteen players from the Minor League were also killed.

The first Major League baseball player to be killed during the First World War was Edward Leslie Grant, also known as “Harvard Eddie.” Grant. Born on May 21, 1883, Grant had indeed attended Harvard, and he played baseball as a freshman before being declared ineligible: he had been paid to play with a semi-professional baseball team. Later on, Grant played intramural baseball at Harvard as well as with Northeastern Federal/Outlaw League teams during the summer.

He made his Major League debut on August 5, 1905, and he was recruited by the visiting Cleveland Naps to fill in at second base for future Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie during two games against the Boston Americans. Grant was 3 for 8 and he made one error. He then proceeded to play with Jersey City Skeeters in 1906, and he hit .322, which gave him a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. The next nine seasons were spent in the National League, playing with the Phillies between 1907 and 1910 as well as the Cincinnati Reds between 1911 and 1913. He then finished his career playing for the New York Giants between 1913 and 1915. Grant was described by The New York Times as “a handy utility player and could fill any position on the infield. While never a heavy batsman, he was a skillful fielder and a smart baserunner” He also annoyed his teammates by not shouting the traditional “I got it” when a fly ball was hit in his direction, opting instead for the grammatically correct “I have it.” Grant was not a star, but he was popular with both fans and the press until he retired on October 6, 1915 to practice law after 990 games over ten seasons. He batted .249 in his career.

However, Grant was to seek service in the United States Army in 1915 when the “Plattsburg Idea” was implemented to prepare the United States for war. That same year saw some 1,300 prominent Americans – including four Roosevelts and Grant – entering a military summer program at Plattsburg, New York. Grant enlisted in the United States Army when war was declared in April 1917. He was amongst the first prominent athletes to join the Armed Forces, and his enlistment did make the news, with a wire service article titled “Eddie Grant Joins Uncle Sam’s League” appearing in numerous papers across the country. Grant was commissioned as a Captain in Company “H” of the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77nd Infantry Division. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Captain Grant’s superior officers became casualties, and he commanded his men during the four-day search for “The Lost Battalion”, a force composed of nine companies from the 77th Division, in all approximately 554 men, that had been isolated by German Forces. Captain Grant was killed by a shell during a search patrol. Baseball Magazine wrote that “Eddie Grant . . . has played his last game of baseball. He fell in the forefront, of an attacking column in that desperate fight which cleared the Argonne forest of its German invaders. Somewhere in France his grave is topped with a simple wooden cross, the last eloquent tribute to the soldier dead. But the memory of a brave man and a gallant gentleman will adorn the annals of sport long after the wooden cross has crumbled beneath the winds and ruins of that France he died to save." The Associated Press reported the following: “Captain Edward Grant, former third baseman of the New York National League Club, and attached to the 307th Infantry, was killed by a shell when leading a unit to the aid of the famous ‘Lost Battalion.’ The battalion was surrounded for five days in the Argonne Forest and Captain Grant was killed in one of the attempts to reach it.” Grant was buried in the Argonne Forest, but his remains were later moved to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.


Pitcher Robert Gustave “Bun” Troy was the second Major League player to be killed in action. He was born in Wurzach, Germany, on August 27, 1888, but he grew up in McDonald, Pennsylvania. Troy played in the minors for his first seasons. In his first year, 1910, he played for the McKeesport Tubers and he got six wins and eight losses. His batting average was .059.

He was then traded to the Steubenville Stubs for the 1911 season, and he recorded six wins and eleven losses with a .130 batting average. The 1912 season saw him traded once again, this time to the Adrian Lions, the D-level affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. The season earned him 23 wins and 14 losses with a .095 batting average. Troy was called up for one Major League game with the Detroit Tigers, and he played one Major League game for the Detroit Tigers against the Senators, striking out one batter and being struck out twice while batting. Despite shutting out the for six innings, six runs were scored by the Senators before the seventh inning was over. Troy was very disappointed, and he quit the Tigers.

In 1913 Troy was assigned to the Chattanooga Lookouts, but they sent him back to Adrian, and this time to the Adrian Champs, where he had 23 wins and 16 losses while batting .150. His final season, 1914, had Troy traded to the Pittsfield Electrics, where he had his best at the plate, hitting .177. He was also 19-13 in 36 games with 212 strikeouts.

Troy may have played some semi-professional baseball over the next two years, but he found himself in uniform in 1917, eventually being promoted to Sergeant in “G” Company, 319th Infantry Regiment of the 80th Blue Ridge Division. He died at Evacuation Hospital 8 on October 7, 1918, just two days after Eddie Grant after being fatally shot in the chest during the Meuse-Argonne campaign. His remains were brought back to McDonald in Pennsylvania in 1921, where he was laid to final rest. 1,000 people came to his funeral.  


Colin D. Howell. Northern Sandlots. A Social History of Maritime Baseball. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995