Jim Leeke. Ballplayers in the Great War: Newspaper Accounts of Major Leaguers in World War I Military Service. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013. 269 pp. $33.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-7546-9.
Reviewed by Jon Marshall
Published on Jhistory (December, 2013)
Commissioned by Heidi Tworek (University of British Columbia)
They were larger than life, heroes whose courage and patriotism were only matched by their zest for fun and games. At least that is how major league baseball players in the U.S. military during World War I were portrayed in articles compiled by Jim Leeke in Ballplayers in the Great War: Newspaper Accounts of Major Leaguers in World War I Military Service. The book is a worthy addition to The McFarland Historical Baseball Library series.
Leeke, a contributor to the Society of American Baseball Research Baseball Biography Project, diligently combed through more than seventy newspapers to research this book. He found hundreds of accounts of ballplayers in publications ranging in size and prestige from the London Times and New York Tribune to the Ogden (Utah) Standard and the Graham Guardian of Stafford, Arizona.
Using these primary sources, Leeke shows how the war had a powerful impact on baseball, causing the 1918 season to end early and leading 64 percent of National League players to go on active duty through either enlistment or the draft. Ballplayers in the Great War follows the experiences of players, managers, team executives, and even New York Yankee co-owner T. L Huston as they moved from their teams to military training camps to the front lines and then home again. Several of them came home maimed, one of them was charged with draft evasion, and seven of them died, according to Leeke. The book leaves one wondering how many potential stars never became known to fans because they were wounded or lost their lives in the trenches.
Ballplayers in the Great War is effective at demonstrating the bitter division between the players who took part in the war and others who avoided it by signing up for jobs in the shipyards and steel mills that involved playing in company baseball leagues. “Ball players who are in the draft and jump their clubs to go to work in the steel and shipbuilding leagues are not doing baseball a bit of good,” star shortstop Walter “Rabbit” Maranville told the Cato (New York) Citizen. “They are also not helping Uncle Sam. They are not skilled enough to be of much help in those concerns and their chief object is to play ball. Fans will remember those players who left their clubs, and after the war is over those who come back undoubtedly will be tormented all around the circuit for their act” (pp. 121-122).
In addition to revealing the jingoism and what Leeke calls the “cocky optimism” of the era, the book captures a time when sports writing was much more colorful than it is today (p. 3). Take, for example, this ditty from The Sporting News about young St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Marvin Goodwin:
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
Up above the world so far.
We will praise your pitching skill
If you ‘bean’ old Kaiser Bill.
Marvin, you can make it hot
For the battery: ‘Me und Gott;’
Help the English and the French
Put the Kaiser on the bench.” (p. 169)
In today’s era of an all-volunteer military, when professional athletes rarely serve in the armed forces, Leeke helps us picture a time when ballplayers were expected to sign up and were called cowards if they did not. The book is full of tales of bravery--some of them perhaps exaggerated by the hometown sportswriters. Hugh Miller of the Phillies, according to The Sporting News, was in a hospital cot in France when “he picked up his weary bones, grabbed a gun and performed prodigious deeds of valor--the official citation is left to tell the story” (p. 147).
While Ballplayers in the Great War offers some stunning examples of heroism, it also describes dozens of games between army and navy teams designed to keep the troops entertained. The book explains that baseball was considered so essential to morale that the Y.M.C.A. shipped 144,000 bats and 79,680 balls to the troops overseas (p. 193) and the Knights of Columbus sent former Chicago Cubs star Johnny Evers to train the French how to play the American game (p. 212). One gets the impression from Evers and others that if only the French knew how to play baseball, they might have fought better in the war. The climax of the book is a game featuring several American stars that was played in London on July 4, 1918, and attended by King George V. Writers covering the game seemed certain baseball was ready to sweep across England.
Ballplayers in the Great War would make a good supplementary reading for a history, American studies, or media studies course specializing in sports or the World War I era. It is also recommended for hard-core baseball fans who will enjoy thinking of the Hall of Fame fantasy team they could put together from soldiers and sailors such as Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, Casey Stengel, and Rabbit Maranville. Part of the book’s fun is also learning about the lively personalities of lesser-known players such as Benny Kauff, “Death Valley” Jim Scott, and John “Dots” Miller.
Leeke provides informative introductions at the start of each chapter. These introductions are brief, however, and the book would benefit from the inclusion of more context about the war and baseball with each chapter. Leeke uses a thematic approach to organize his material rather than a chronological one. This has the advantage of keeping the information about each player together in distinct chapters, but it can become disorienting when one player is returning home after the armistice to be followed a few pages later by a player who is beginning basic training in 1917.
While Ballplayers in the Great War thoroughly follows the exploits of major league players, it pays scant attention to the many talented African American players who were barred from the American and National leagues. Research into their experiences during the war would be a worthy future project. It would also be interesting to learn why some stars never enlisted--Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson, where were you?
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