Baseball and the Armed Services

Fort Bragg Game

Fort Bragg Game

On July 3, 2016, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will support a regular-season game between the Miami Marlins and the Atlanta Braves at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The game will air nationally on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and ESPN Radio at 8:00 p.m. (ET).  A new 12,500-capacity ballpark constructed by MLB and the MLBPA will host the “Fort Bragg Game” during the military post’s annual Fourth of July festivities. Following the game, in which the Braves will be the home team, the ballpark will be converted to a permanent softball field and multi-purpose facility for those who serve at Fort Bragg, a gift courtesy of the Major League Clubs and Players. This event will mark the first regular-season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base.

That baseball and the military go back a long way, even prior to the advent of professional league play, is widely known. But for the details, I offer the article below, first published in Total Baseball‘s premiere edition in 1989. The author, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr., is a longtime expert on baseball and the military (and my friend for thirty-five years). He served with the United States Navy (1966-1969) and served in the Naval Reserve for thirty years, retiring with the rank of commander. His several books include Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League, 1981, and Vol. 2, The American League, 1982; and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II, 1984.

Baseball and the Armed Services

Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.

It is regrettable that the average fan has little or no knowledge of the historical relationship between the military and baseball, considering that the links between the two date back to the beginning of the game’s evolution in North America approximately 150 years ago. Perhaps it is because most people associate baseball with pleasure and military service with anything but that; or it may be that those who have never served in the armed forces have no appreciation of the value of baseball in relieving either the stress or boredom of military life, depending on one’s circumstances. Whatever the reasons, the connections between the armed services and this truly international pastime are long and storied, and deserve our careful and devoted attention because the military has had a profound impact on the propagation of baseball worldwide and on the development of the game as a social leveler and instrument of international relations.

A story about the origin of baseball was advanced by a committee of the game’s elder statesmen in 1907. The committee, led by former player and sporting goods magnate Albert G. Spalding, said that Abner Doubleday had designed the first baseball diamond at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839 while a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. This version was quickly accepted as official by the baseball moguls and held sway for several decades, but it is now considered a myth by serious baseball historians.

Abner Doubleday in Saltillo, 1847

Abner Doubleday in Saltillo, 1847

Doubleday fought in the Battle of Monterey during the Mexican War; sighted the first gun in defense of Fort Sumter when it was fired on by Southerners on April 12, 1861, thus starting the Civil War; fought at Second Bull Run and Antietam; distinguished himself at Gettysburg by helping to repel Pickett’s Charge, the Confederates’ major attack of the battle; and eventually retired from the Army as a general in 1873. He was dead, however, by the time the committee put forth its opinion, so no one could get his views on the matter. There is nothing in his writings which suggests he invented the game, and other early commentators such as Henry Chadwick advanced different theories regarding the origin of the game. Nevertheless, the name of Abner Doubleday, a career soldier, remains inextricably linked to baseball in the popular mind.

To discover the first bona fide influence of the military on baseball, and a tremendous one at that, we must move ahead to the American Civil War (1861-1865). Baseball before the Civil War was almost exclusively a gentleman’s game, with the upper classes of society participating and the true amateur spirit and British rules of sportsmanship holding sway. Most of the prominent teams were in the East, with a few, such as those in Chicago and St. Louis, in the Midwest. During the war, baseball became a sport played by people of all social classes over a wide geographical area. It was played among Union troops during their leisure hours and an unheard-of crowd of 40,000 soldiers watched a game in Hilton Head, South Carolina, on Christmas Day, 1862, between the 165th New York Volunteer Infantry (Duryea’s Zouaves) and a team picked from other Union regiments. A.G. Mills, later to become president of the National League, played in that contest.

Baseball was known in the South prior to the Civil War. Soldiers were said to have played baseball during the Mexican War, the game was popular in New Orleans, and many people south of the Mason-Dixon Line subscribed to Northern periodicals which featured baseball news. Nevertheless, the growth of the sport in Dixie was greatly stimulated by Northern prisoners playing the game to relieve boredom or tension in Southern POW camps. Their guards first watched, then decided they wanted to try, and finally organized teams to play against their captives. Southern POWs returned home similarly enlightened about the game. With more than a million men under arms during the conflict, is it any wonder that the game proliferated when the veterans went home to practically every town in the nation?

Union Prisoners at Salisbury, NC

Union Prisoners at Salisbury, NC

The Civil War accelerated two trends that were first discernible in the late 1850s: increasingly fierce competition and with it increased commercialism. Diaries written by Union troops in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia show that as the war went on and baseball became ever more popular and competitive, emphasis on skill was the great consideration. If a player was good, he got to play. Teams in Army units may have been promoted by officers or high-ranking noncoms, but the players on the field were the most skilled. In 1863 and 1864, some outfits had first and second teams based on skill levels. This idea of skill predominating over social or military rank certainly fit the competitive pattern of post-Civil War baseball, as more emphasis on winning led to keen rivalries between cities and the rise of professionalism.

In 1873, eight years after the cessation of hostilities in the United States and twenty years after American ships under Commodore Matthew Perry had succeeded in opening Japan to the West, two American missionaries named Wilson and Maget introduced baseball to the Land of the Rising Sun. The game took root in part because influential Japanese of that time, such as Kido and many former daimyo (feudal lords), supported its growth. They originally viewed baseball as an American version of a martial sport like Japanese judo or kendo. Practicing the sport was in their minds a way of getting at the essence of the American fighting spirit, and thus baseball was played every day, regardless of weather conditions.

Japan Baseball, 1870s Children's Book

Japan Baseball, 1870s Children’s Book

As time went on, the game evolved into a high school and college sport. From 1888 until 1902, the top team in Japan was that of First High School, now known as Tokyo University. It sometimes played games against American residents in Yokohama and teams from U.S. Navy battleships. Whenever the battlewagons made port calls in Yokohama, the First High School club would challenge them and usually would win the contests. Judging from a few of the scores, the Japanese students had ample reason to feel good about their progress in the sport: in 1902, they slaughtered the U.S.S. Kentucky, 35-1, and the next year clobbered the same ship again, 27-0!

The United States involved itself in war with Spain and its colonial possessions in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean in 1898. The Spanish-American War was short, lasting roughly the length of the baseball season. The war didn’t have a significant impact on the game at home but undoubtedly influenced its spread to Puerto Rico, and other lands which border on the Caribbean, and the Philippine Islands.

Dr. Arlie Pond was pitching for the Baltimore Orioles of the National League when the war started. He had won 16 games for the Orioles in their pennant-winning season of 1896 and followed it up with 18 victories in 1897, but at the start of hostilities he entered the Army, joined a medical unit, and went first to Cuba and then the Philippines. After the war and the Philippine Insurrection, he left active duty but stayed in the Philippines and devoted the rest of his life to combating disease there, except for World War One, when he returned to the States and became assistant surgeon general of the Army with the rank of colonel. Near the end of the war, he went with the U.S. forces to Siberia following the Russian Revolution. In 1919, he returned to the islands after again relinquishing his Army commission and died there in 1930 at the age of fifty-seven.

A year after the war, Dave Wills quit his medical studies at the University of Virginia to play first base for Louisville of the National League. After hitting only .223 in twenty-four games, he decided to join the Marines and wound up staying twenty years in the service. He served as a paymaster in the European Theater with the rank of major in World War One and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery upon his death in 1959. A little more than a decade after the Spanish-American War, Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, a Negro League great, was first recognized for his baseball ability while serving with the Army (1911-1915) in the Philippines.

Popular Magazine, April 17, 1917

Popular Magazine, April 17, 1917

World War One began in Europe in August 1914, but the United States didn’t enter the conflict until April 1917. Before the Yanks went “over there,” Canadian units in the British Army took the lead in teaching many Englishmen and Australians how to play. In the fall of 1917, a series for the championship of the Canadian forces overseas was played in England. One hundred and one teams took part, with several minor league and semipro players dotting the rosters.

By the end of 1917 there were seventy-six American major league players in the service: forty-eight from the American League, including fifteen Boston Red Sox, and twenty-eight from the National League. Forty-two were in the Army, twenty-one in the Navy, and thirteen in other branches of the service.

In May 1918 there occurred the promulgation of a “work or fight” order by the provost marshal of the armed forces, General Enoch Crowder. It was designed to force all men of draft age out of nonessential work and into the Army or war-related employment in order to aid in the prosecution of the war. Baseball players were classified as nonessential while actors, opera singers, and movie stars were deemed essential. This was because the baseball magnates didn’t present their case in person, as did representatives of the other specially exempted occupations.

Relatively few players left baseball, however. The great majority remained with their teams. When the July time limit set by the Crowder order was reached, various draft boards issued conflicting orders to the players, some saying their work was essential and others saying it wasn’t.

Eventually the Crowder edict was enforced and Organized Baseball shut down its operation by the beginning of September 1918, although two additional weeks were allotted for the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. Despite the fact that the Crowder edict applied only to men of draft age, the owners decided not to finish the season with players younger than eighteen or older than thirty-five. The magnates made it clear to the players, however, that the reserve clause was still in effect, that the players weren’t free agents, and that they would be bound to their former teams upon resumption of play.

Babe Ruth Draft Card

Babe Ruth Draft Card

By the end of the war in November 1918, 144 American Leaguers and 103 National Leaguers were in the military. Very few players went into war-related work. Of the 144 American Leaguers serving Uncle Sam, a considerable percentage of them were known to be overseas. At least eighty-three were in the Army and forty-one in the Navy. The Detroit Tigers led the league with twenty-five servicemen, while the team with the fewest was the St. Louis Browns with thirteen, even though the Brownies had won American League prexy Ban Johnson’s $500 prize for performing best in military close-order drill (using bats as rifles) in 1917. Among the National Leaguers, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates tied for the lead in enlistees with eighteen apiece, while the Cincinnati Reds had only six. Boston Braves catcher Hank Gowdy was the first major leaguer to volunteer for military service. He was eventually sent to France, as were other prominent players and executives such as Cincinnati Reds manager Christy Mathewson, Detroit Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, Brooklyn Dodgers hurler Sherry Smith, Chicago White Sox catcher Joe Jenkins, Boston Braves executive Percy Haughton, and St. Louis Cardinals executive Branch Rickey. Haughton and Rickey received their commissions as majors and Mathewson was a captain in the Army’s gas-and-flame division. Mathewson suffered gas poisoning during his service. It led to tuberculosis and his ultimate demise in 1925. Former major leaguers killed in action were infielder Eddie Grant, who had played for four teams between 1905 and 1915, in the Argonne Forest in October 1918; Robert Troy, who had been born in Germany and pitched and lost one game for the Detroit Tigers in 1912, at the Meuse in October 1918; and Alex Barr, also with one game in the big time as a New York Yankee outfielder in 1914, on his twenty-fifth birthday, November 1, 1918, a mere ten days before the armistice.

Servicemen’s baseball was alive and well in Europe in both 1917 and 1918. In addition to the aforementioned Canadian championship series in England in the fall of 1917, an Anglo-American League was formed. It was composed of regular teams of American and Canadian soldiers, and was organized in London by W.E. Booker and former big leaguer Arlie Latham. The league played a regular weekend schedule in London, the English provinces, and Scotland. Every team had four or five professional players. A benefit game between American Army and Navy teams at Chelsea, London, on July 4, 1918, drew more than forty thousand spectators, including the King of England and Allied military notables. The regular season ended on September 7, 1918, but the clubs continued to play Sunday ball until September 29.

Whereas the Canadians had initially taught baseball to the British and Australians, the Americans introduced it to the French. The game was not exactly new in Paris because Americans had occasionally played it there before the war. Once the Yanks began arriving in large numbers, games were played every Sunday in the Bois du Boulogne and other public parks. The YMCA organized an Association League in France, with thirty teams playing a fifteen-game schedule each Sunday up to the middle of September. Shortly before the armistice, French soldiers were under orders to learn baseball! Their primary teacher was erstwhile National League great Johnny Evers, who had been sent to France by the Knights of Columbus for that purpose. Where did all the equipment come from? There were three sources: the aforementioned YMCA, the Knights of Columbus and the Ball and Bat Fund, headed by Clark Griffith, manager of the Washington Senators. The fund disbursed $63,865.29 worth of baseball gear, although the supply ship Kansan, with its load of equipment for the American Expeditionary Force, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine while en route to Europe.

King George, Lt. Mims, London, July 4, 1918

King George, Mike McNally of Red Sox, Chelsea, London, July 4, 1918

The top service teams of World War One (1918) included the 342nd Field Artillery, American Expeditionary Force club, which featured Grover C. Alexander and several other major leaguers and beat all comers; the Second Naval District, Newport, Rhode Island, aggregation, with a handful of big leaguers on its roster; the Great Lakes, Illinois, Naval Station club, piloted by White Sox outfielder Phil Chouinard and later Senator shortstop Doc Lavan, which posted a 30-8 won-lost record and had Hall of Fame pitcher Urban “Red” Faber and pro football great George Halas; the 85th Division, Battle Creek, Michigan, nine, which lost only one game, beat the Great Lakes club, and had the Browns’ Urban Shocker hurling for them; the Camp Dodge, Iowa, club, which logged 27 wins against 8 setbacks and counted six major leaguers among its players; the San Diego, California, Naval Training Camp team, with a 78-10 record to its credit; and the Kelly Field club in San Antonio, Texas, which won 42 games and lost only 8.

Second part tomorrow!





The article mentions Ty Cobb’s service during World War I.. It’s worth noting that unlike Mathewson, with whom he served, he was still an active player and could easily have gotten out of military service as so many players such Babe Ruth did. However, Cobb felt that as he supported the war he should serve in it it rather than just expect others to serve while he stayed home.
In the many articles that appear on Cobb that criticize him as a person, I rarely see any reference to his decision to serve. Compare it to modern day players who said and say they support our military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan but wouldn’t consider for a moment giving up their big salaries and enlist.

Thanks for this, Steve. Point well taken.

Not only that, but Cobb was in the same chemical warfare unit as Mathewson and was also in the training accident that people suspect triggered Mathewson’s TB. (TY COBB, Leerhsen, p. 300)

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