2018 SABR Baseball Research Award Winner
Baseball, like the rest of the country, changed dramatically when the United States entered World War I, and Jim Leeke brings these changes to life in From the Dugouts to the Trenches. He deftly describes how the war obliterated big league clubs and largely dismantled the Minor Leagues, as many prominent players joined the military and went overseas. By the war’s end more than 1,250 ballplayers, team owners, and sportswriters would serve, demonstrating that while the war was “over there,” it had a considerable impact on the national pastime.
Leeke tells the stories of those who served, as well as organized baseball’s response, including its generosity and patriotism. He weaves into his narrative the story of African American players who were barred from the Major Leagues but who nevertheless swapped their jerseys for fatigues, as well as the stories of those who were killed in action—and by diseases or accidents—and what their deaths meant to teammates, fans, and the sport in general.
From the Dugouts to the Trenches illuminates this influential and fascinating period in baseball history, as nineteen months of upheaval and turmoil changed the sport—and the world—forever.
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About the Author
Jim Leeke is a former news journalist, retired copywriter and creative director, and a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of several books, including The Best Team Over There: The Untold Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Great War (Nebraska, 2021) and From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball during the Great War (Nebraska, 2017).
Read an Excerpt
From the Dugouts to the Trenches
Baseball During the Great War
By Jim Leeke
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Jim Leeke
All rights reserved.
In March 1917, with his country on the verge of entering the war in Europe, Sgt. Smith Gibson unexpectedly became one of the most famous soldiers in the U.S. Army. Gibson ran the recruiting office in Macon, Georgia, the spring-training home of the American League New York Yankees. Macon was only about 125 miles from Gibson's hometown of Opelika, to the west across the muddy Chattahoochee River in Alabama. During seventeen years in uniform, the sergeant had never received orders quite like those that had just arrived. He was to become the Yankees' new military drill instructor — among the first, so far as anyone knew, ever in the history of Organized Baseball. Soon all eight teams in the American League, plus two in the National, would have drillmasters, too.
A country boy who knew little about big cities, Sergeant Gibson could thank a prominent New Yorker for his new job in baseball. Capt. T. L. "Til" Huston, the Yankees' co-owner, was energetically pushing what newspapers up north called his pet scheme for military preparedness in baseball. In late February Huston and the sergeant had sat down for a chat in Macon. Gibson had said he was willing to drill the Yankees, if and when Huston could get him permission from the War Department. The magnate had promptly fired off a telegram to Maj. Halstead Dorey, a baseball fan serving on the staff of Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood at Governors Island in New York. Dorey had been the guest of honor at a dinner Hustonhad given for baseball writers and officials at the Hotel Belmont in New York City on Washington's Birthday. The major had then traveled down to Washington, DC, and "unraveled between seventeen to one hundred miles of government red tape" to support Huston's plan.
Although lengthy, the red tape was only a minor hindrance. Regulations prohibited the army from assigning drill sergeants to outside organizations, but nothing prevented a commanding officer from granting furloughs of six weeks to three months to any sergeants whom the league needed. Likewise, the War Department couldn't issue arms to civilian groups, but clubs could buy condemned rifles for drilling. Major Dorey also puckishly warned the Yankees' co-owner about an ailment he called "rifle arm," which a few sportswriters apparently took seriously. This post-drill stiffness, Dorey said, was likely to appeal to tired pitchers looking for an alibi to avoid work. "I would rather have them suffering from rifle arm than from slacker's knee," Huston retorted. On February 27 Huston wired Dorey from Macon:
Sergeant Gibson on recruiting duty here says he has an efficient force which will readily permit him to give two hours or so each day to drilling our baseball club, and he is anxious to do the work for us. If you can have him made available to drill us it will quickly start the movement here and will make it easier for other clubs to get started. Your prompt action will be appreciated. Kindly answer [at] my expense.
Wires flew for several days between Macon, Governors Island, and American League headquarters in Chicago. "How about Nationals?" Dorey wired to Georgia, meaning the National League under former Pennsylvania governor John Tener. "The National League has not taken up military training," Huston replied. "Gov. Tener, its president, is a high class patriotic gentleman and is very strongly in favor of the movement. Am wiring him on the subject."
Huston kept up his campaign, and the army soon realized the tremendous recruiting benefits of cooperating with Major League Baseball. Dorey wired him March 4 that recruiting sergeants in Macon, Augusta, and Jacksonville had been assigned to the Yankees, Senators, and Athletics, training in those respective cities. Every American League club soon had its own drill sergeant, although it took a couple of days for the army's Department of the South, headquartered at San Antonio, to assign men from Dallas to the St. Louis Browns at Palestine, Texas, and the Detroit Tigers at Waxahachie. The army declined American League president Ban Johnson's offer to have the league pay the sergeants' traveling expenses. Instead, the league would reimburse them for their services.
As opening day of training camp neared, Huston wondered how his Yankees would react:
Captain Huston has been somewhat apprehensive as to the ball players' view of the military plan, and he was greatly gratified to find that every one of the 18 men in camp are enthusiastically in favor of it. He was still more gratified by the news that Macon will add 50 sons of Georgia in addition to the company. In addition to that the City Council of Macon has agreed to provide suitable drill grounds.
The Yankees held their first drill on March 6. "Despite numerous disappointments ... Huston persisted in his efforts to obtain a regular army officer to drill his ball team, and now his work is crowned with success," New York Sun sportswriter Frederick G. Lieb wrote from Macon, under a headline that called the club "Huston's Regiment." The New York Herald reported the same day, "Preparedness, so far as the baseball players of the New York American League Club can contribute to it, began this morning."
Sergeant Gibson's tiny regiment comprised thirty-two ballplayers, Huston, manager "Wild Bill" Donovan, business manager Harry Sparrow, a coach, a scout, a groundskeeper, eight newspapermen, and J. McKay, a Macon businessman. Fortunately, Captain Huston wasn't the only former soldier in Gibson's command. Two of the writers had served during the Philippine Insurrection (1899–1902), and outfielder Tim Hendryx, catcher Les Nunamaker, and McKay all had been in the National Guard. Gibson appointed the six old hands as his corporals. A newspaperman who didn't drill with them was promptly labeled a slacker and threatened with a court-martial.
Gibson started his troops with the basics: how to stand, right and left dress, right and left face, and right about face. He gave them a little speech, saying he hoped to make the Yankees the best-drilled team in the American League, then set them to marching. "The squad was formed in two lines and then counted off into fours," the New York World reported. "This arithmetical progression safely attended to, the squad marched across the field in columns of four until Harry Sparrow hollered for mercy. Harry's feet were tiring under his 250 pounds of flesh." Huston, in contrast, was "as enthusiastic as a little boy playing with his first toy. The owner of the Yankees praised the boys for their fine showing and is looking forward to a good team of soldiers as well as a good team of ball players."
The New York scribes later gathered around the sergeant for his take on the proceedings. Gibson told them he was pleased by what he had seen that morning. Most of the Yankees were green, but they had followed his instructions well, and he thought they would make "corking good soldiers." The noncommissioned officer added, "Capt. Huston should be complimented for his good work in this movement."
Capt. Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston had bought the Yankees in January 1915 with partner Jacob Ruppert, a brewery baron, sportsman, and former congressman. Both men had military experience. An army engineer during the 1898 war with Spain, Huston had stayed in Cuba afterward to make his fortune in construction. Yankees historians Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz describe him as "informal, familiar, rumpled, self-made." Ruppert was his exact opposite, a fastidious and formal man who had taken over the family business. He was also a former colonel in the New York National Guard. Naturally he and Huston took an interest in military matters and in the war that had raged in Europe for more than two years. Huston even declared that he was "willing to pull out the old army uniform again if Uncle Sam should need his services." What might have seemed an idle boast by an out-of-shape, middle-aged baseball magnate was both sincere and prescient.
Huston first floated his grand plan for drilling ballplayers in February 1917 — not for his Yankees alone but for all Major Leaguers. He received the immediate backing of Byron Bancroft "Ban" Johnson, the American League founder and president, which seems surprising. Steinberg and Spatz write that Huston and Johnson had "a mutual hostility that went back many years, though its source remains unclear." The league president had supported Huston and Ruppert in purchasing the Yankees, but the owners would clash repeatedly with him for years afterward. Nonetheless, in the momentous early spring of 1917, Huston and Johnson cooperated on the baseball preparedness movement. Some in the National League poked fun at the American League players as "Ban's and Till's 'tin soldiers.'"
"We have no way of knowing what may eventuate in the United States during the next few months," Huston said, "and it would be a source of great satisfaction to the ball players and their followers to know that they were prepared to lay aside the spiked shoe and the glove and take up the rifle if their country needed them."
The movement generated a good deal of ink on the nation's sports pages, especially in New York City. Huston "is working on a scheme whereby he hopes to make the influence of organized baseball deeply felt as a power to patriotism and action in case Uncle Sam comes to grips with the Central Powers," columnist W. J. "Bill" Macbeth wrote in the New York Tribune. Huston wouldn't release details, but "has been working with his colleagues for some weeks now."
Johnson sounded rather martial, too. In another article in the same edition of the Tribune, the American League's powerful leader said that if the country entered the war, his circuit not only would release any players who wanted to enlist but also would look after their families while they were gone. "I approve of the suggestion made by Captain Huston, of the New York club, in regard to military training for ball players," Johnson added. "Captain Huston would have certain hours set aside during training season for military drill. It would set a good example for others in military preparedness."
Huston had aggressively pushed the plan during the winter of 1916–17 as America edged steadily closer to war with Imperial Germany. He offered details in a letter to Johnson, reprinted in numerous newspapers February 10. Huston outlined three main points:
First, make a military school of spring-training camps. The Yankees themselves, Huston wrote, planned an hour of drill in the mornings and another hour in the afternoons, not to interfere with regular baseball work. Success depended on obtaining the services of "a good regular army sergeant to drill the company."
Second, continue the drills during the regular season for two hours in the mornings and a shorter period in the afternoons. By combining the players and officials of the home and visiting teams (about 60 men) with 140 or so local fans, a city would have enough men for two companies. "Do this on all of our eight [American League] parks," Huston recommended, "and also offer our parks for military drill purposes."
Third, open a training camp in the fall, immediately after the World Series. Huston suggested locating it in the South and opening it to all professional ballplayers, umpires, sportswriters, and anyone else connected with baseball.
"Of course, the whole scheme must have the support of the regular army, and we must have expert instruction, and the players must realize that the movement is a great one and must be approached not with levity but in a seriousness and unalloyed patriotism," Huston wrote to Johnson. The Yankees co-owner had already contacted Leonard Wood, the army commander in the East, and Gen. William Black, chief of engineers, and believed he could get War Department backing.
New York World sportswriter Bozeman Bulger wrote that many Major Leaguers were looking forward to the military drills while snow still covered the Northeast. He added that several American League managers expected to field well-drilled teams in time for the 1917 season opener. Bulger also offered the view of an unnamed army officer: "It will be a wonderful help if professional baseball can have 400 men in shape for service in case they are needed. If the minor leagues should fall in line we could almost count upon another regiment." New York Giants manager John McGraw also weighed in. "If the drill exercise was too long or too severe it might be a little hard on the older players, but if all the clubs do it there will be no advantage, or disadvantage, to any one during the season," McGraw said. "You must remember that the players will have to do their hard work of practice on the diamond in addition to having military instruction. That, though, could be worked out satisfactorily later on."
American League club owners expressed no reservations at all. President Frazee of the Boston club later said that the system "might with profit be followed by the great employers of this country — the great railway and transportation corporations, steel works, wholesale houses, automobile manufactories and the like." The AL owners immediately backed Johnson, publicly endorsed the Huston plan, and empowered their president "to consult with Major General Leonard Wood concerning the detailed working out of this project."
The rival National League, however, stayed silent. Everyone, in fact, was fairly quiet until the end of February, when Huston dispatched his telegram to Governors Island requesting the services of Sergeant Gibson. Then things happened quickly.
Out in Illinois, in the snowy Middle West, Sgt. Walter Smiley attracted the same phenomenal interest as Sergeant Gibson. Smiley's suitors were Charles Comiskey and his Chicago White Sox.
Like Gibson, Smiley was an army recruiter. He worked from Chicago, looking for able-bodied men to fill out the service's meager ranks. His job wasn't easy. A year earlier, he had recruited in several towns in southern Wisconsin and come back largely disappointed. Only six of twenty-four young men in Racine passed the army's preliminary examination. A local newspaper said Smiley found the army's strict regulations a hindrance to recruitment.
"He said that out of 3,500 applications at the Chicago office during the Mexican scare only 200 men were accepted," the paper reported. "From ten to fifteen men a week, he said, were turned down, because of inability to read and write and speak the English language. These were men, too, who had been born and raised in Chicago." Even worse was Smiley's astonishment at "how many men are walking the streets with diseases of one kind or another which would keep them out of the army, and who do not know there is anything the matter with them." Now, in the spring of 1917, Sergeant Smiley was preparing to take charge of a team of Major League ballplayers, among the healthiest young fellows in the country.
Smiley's name first appeared in the Chicago newspapers on the same day that the New York papers had noted Sergeant Gibson. Smiley "will probably go on the spring training trip with the White Sox to teach them military drill," Day Book reported. "Smiley was formerly a star player in the Manila army league and should be popular with the athletes, even though he forces them to work."
Either the army had assigned him or the White Sox had selected him — perhaps both — precisely because Smiley was a good army ballplayer. He had hit .372 in Manila and won a medal as his team's most valuable player. Later he had captained an army nine in Japan and China. Now twenty-three, the Philadelphia native had first enlisted in 1911. A photo showing him wearing U.S. Army baseball flannels would soon appear in papers across America. Unlike Gibson, already on duty near the Yankees' spring-training camp, Smiley was working up north in Chicago.
White Sox owner Charles Comiskey understood public relations and quickly latched onto the athletic sergeant. "Commie" was also a longtime friend and compatriot of Ban Johnson — although their relationship, too, would soon grow troubled. Johnson no doubt kept Comiskey apprised of Huston's scheme. "Sergt. Smiley's services were offered Comiskey by Adjt. Gen. McCain, and Comiskey immediately accepted," the Chicago Tribune reported March 2. "The sergeant will be on board in full uniform when the Sox special pulls out for Mineral Wells [Texas] Sunday night."
Johnson made it clear that he hoped to secure other army ballplayers like Smiley from the War Department. "The army by assigning drill officers who know the game of baseball will in turn be benefited, and they can then teach the regulars the scientific end of the game when they return to the ranks," Johnson said. "The ball players, on the other hand, will more readily adapt themselves to military discipline under an officer who not only knows the arts of war but is acquainted with sport itself." The army got the message.
Excerpted from From the Dugouts to the Trenches by Jim Leeke. Copyright © 2017 Jim Leeke. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Introduction 1. Sergeants 2. Selective Service 3. Buildup 4. Winter 5. Spring 6. New Season 7. Work or Fight 8. Calibers 9. World Series 10. Strain of Battle 11. Armistice Epilogue Notes Bibliography Index