It Takes a Team: Baseball and Our Armed Services
“When I was a boy growing up in Kansas,” an elderly Dwight David Eisenhower recalled, “a friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon on a river bank we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”
When we were young our first heroes were Mom and Dad. Cast in their mold, we soon sought to be heroes ourselves—ballplayers or movie stars, battlefield stalwarts or national leaders. But we learn that even a hero can go only so far on his own. Playing ball or defending our values, it takes a team.
The upcoming Major League Baseball game at Fort Bragg—the first regular-season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base—gives rise to thoughts about baseball’s long relationship with our armed services. Indeed, our national pastime’s origin, once thought to be the brainstorm of a boy who grew up to become a hero in battle, goes even farther back, beyond Abner Doubleday to … George Washington!
First in war, first in peace, and first president to play ball: General Washington was documented as playing a game of wicket, a bat-and-ball rival to baseball, at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1778. Revolutionary War soldier George Ewing wrote in a letter: “This day His Excellency [i.e., Washington] dined with G[eneral] Nox [Knox] and after dinner did us the honor to play at Wicket with us.”
Washington the ball club came to be described by sportswriter Charlie Dryden in 1909 as “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” But we can’t blame that on Old George.
Soldiers played variant games of baseball throughout the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The group of who in 1845 would form the pioneer Knickerbocker Base Ball Club began to gather for ball-playing exercise at New York City’s Madison Square three years earlier. Before it would be formally opened as a municipal park in 1847, the Square had consisted of a military arsenal and parade grounds.
While Abner Doubleday did not start baseball, he may be said to have started the Civil War, ordering the first Union barrage in response to the Confederate attach on Fort Sumter in 1861. Not to hint at his paternity, but it is an oddity that Doubleday served in the Mexican War at Saltillo, where on January 30, 1847, Adolph Engelmann, an Illinois volunteer, reported: “During the past week we had much horse racing and the drill ground was fairly often in use for ball games.” The great battle of Buena Vista occurred a few weeks later.
To discover the first clear influence of the military on baseball, we must look to the Civil War. Competitive baseball clubs had proliferated in the years before the war, and many men on both sides of the conflict continued their play when not in active combat. Troops on the march took time out to play ball, prisoners of war staged games, and several men who would go on to play in baseball’s first professional league, the National Association of 1871-75, were veterans of the conflict.
Professional baseball players went on to serve with distinction in the Spanish-American War, the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. The stories are legion—those who died like Eddie Grant, Elmer Gedeon, and Harry O’Neill; those who returned to play with grievous injuries, like Bert Shepard and Lew Brissie; those who gave up their prime years in the game to defend their nation, like Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams. Hundreds of major-league players served; Warren Spahn was in the Battle of the Bulge, while Yogi Berra was at Normandy.
During World War II even oldtimers like Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb donned uniforms in service of their country—baseball uniforms, as they staged exhibitions on behalf of war bonds. Servicemen overseas looked to letters from home and the box scores in The Sporting News to keep them in touch with what they had left behind, and what they were fighting for—an American way of life that was a beacon for a world in which the light of freedom had been nearly extinguished.
Pledging allegiance to our national game and our national service, cheering our representatives in victory, sharing their sorrow in defeat, permits us to become larger than our solitary selves, to stand up for our values and honor … to be American. Their heroism becomes, even if in small measure, ours. We are one.