Making the World Safe for Baseball

Making the World Safe for Baseball

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Making the World Safe for Baseball

The national pastime, organized baseball’s self-proclaimed moniker, represented an important American institution as the Great War began to enmesh Europe. The game’s association with democracy bred a poignant sense of patriotism among the players, fans, and other baseball aficionados as the conflict slowly ensnared the United States. Around the country, reporters emphasized baseball’s important role in the impending European conflict: in the New York Times, Benjamin DeCasseres wrote, “the world ought to be made safe for baseball,” since, as long as baseball embodied American democracy, “the Kaisers and the Trotskys would strike out.”[1] Accordingly, notes Richard Crepeau, the game “took its role in the First World War quite seriously,” identifying itself as the “game of democracy.”[2] In his analysis, Crepeau stresses the sport’s willingness to accept the Great War and the government’s mobilization efforts as both “good for America…and good for baseball.”[3] Harold Seymour, on the other hand, claims organized baseball demanded special favors and considerations from the government while maintaining an air of allegiance and patriotism.[4] An examination of Baseball Magazine, a premier baseball publication during this period, validates the latter argument, revealing the sport’s simultaneous claims of support for and exemption from the war effort.

Up until President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war, organized baseball remained rather detached from the European situation. Despite the war’s emerging influence on the affairs of the country, the World Series of 1915, columnist F.C. Lane reported, represented a week in which the “united American people” could “forget the war…and talk and eat and dream of baseball and who will win the all important series.”[5] As the baseball season reopened the following April, the sport possessed an aloofness not uncommon throughout the rest of American society. An interview with Detroit Tigers star Ty Cobb demonstrates this position. Refusing to take sides in the European conflict while placing blame for belligerency on the continent’s imperial heritage, Cobb states, “No, I haven’t any decided notions in favor of either side. I believe the conflict was inevitable, according to the system followed by both parties in Europe.”[6] The editors of the publication seemed to agree with such detachment by proclaiming a moral supremacy reminiscent of President Wilson’s own rhetoric. While Europe impeded civilization’s progress, according to one columnist, America’s growing acceptance of Sunday baseball represented a most telling and “hopeful sign of that progress.

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In July 1916, with the Zimmermann telegraph some six months away, another interview with Cobb in Baseball Magazine reveals an impartiality that would soon morph into the demonization of Germanic culture. When asked of his penchant for trickery on the diamond, Cobb found pleasant similarities between the German Kaiser’s “theory of frightfulness in war” and his own similar theory on the base paths.[8] However, with the U.S. declaration of war in April of 1917, public attitudes such as these changed rather quickly. As the war enmeshed and harnessed larger and larger portions of the country’s resources, the sport played an increasingly active role in the effort. Rather unaffected in 1917, the following year witnessed hundreds of Major Leaguers leaving the playing fields for jobs in war industries and combat across the Atlantic, forcing the baseball magnates, as well as the fans and remaining players, to improvise the sport’s continuation.

With the nation now at war, Baseball Magazine’s editorial scope changed into a patriotic display of American virtue rather than the previous detachment from overseas goings-on. As the government made soldiers out of baseball players in 1917 and 1918, letters poured into the offices of Baseball Magazine from both men in uniform and the general public, embracing those players making the sacrifice while admonishing the few who resisted. Located somewhere in France, First Lieutenant Elliot Dent, “an ex-player,” wrote of his genuine pride in knowing many of his old teammates had “come forward to do their part in this great fight for liberty and civilization.”[9] At the same time, a White Sox fan’s letter complained of the baseball star, Eddie Collins, and his unwillingness to enlist due to his marriage and family, as “he has certainly pulled some old stuff” and should be held accountable “for such foolish statements.”[10]

Correspondence with the soldier-players also revealed the importance of the game of baseball in training camps and combat, and the role, according to an anonymous columnist, of “the real world’s champions” in the “taming of the enemy or in training the dashing Sammies and the gallant Jackies.”[11] Tod Sloan, of the St. Louis Browns, wrote to F.C. Lane of Baseball Magazine of the importance of baseball in military training and of the “hold baseball has on the camp,” evidenced by camp leagues sprouting up throughout the United States and the Allied countries stationing American soldiers.[12] For Mike Menosky, a leftfielder for the Washington Senators stationed in France, his experience on the playing field was of great service to him, as the soldier-athlete was “familiar with discipline and knows the advantage of team play.”[13]

Others stressed the importance of the sport’s quality of fair play, a rather unique American concept. According to J.C. Kofoed, columnist for Baseball Magazine and member of the U.S. Expeditionary Force, baseball bred a certain element of democratic sportsmanship. As Kofoed notes, the game’s development in Germany “might have saved her the stain of mangled Belgium, of the Lusitania.”[14] A similar comparison was made by Lieutenant Leon Cadore, pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. While the U.S. Army developed quick thinking and individual initiative, the German equivalent, like their sporting culture, was “one vast scheme of iron discipline,” where the team acts under order, driven, rather than encouraged.[15]

Alongside such virtuous letters, the editors of the periodical displayed their most patriotic presentations of nationalism within songs, cartoon, and advertisements. In “Hints for Boy Scouts,” William F. Kirk writes a verse directing children to get a nickname “if your first name is Hans or Fritz.”[16] Referencing a baseball star commonly thought of as the prototypical “good American,” Kirk also instructs the Boy Scouts to never forget the ambition “to be another Christy Mathewson when you grow up.”[17] In another song, a Baseball Magazine reporter suggested the U.S. government draft a staff of “wild spitball pitchers” and have them “aim at Trotsky in Russia” because “one of ‘em is bound to bean the Kaiser in Berlin.”[18] Even Ford C. Frick, a War Department employee and future commissioner of Major League Baseball, provided a poem for the soldiers overseas. Representing the typical American as a rugged individualistic sportsman constantly faced with hardship and struggle, Frick urged the soldier-athlete to “fight our fight for the cause of right, for we’ve learned to ‘Play the Game.’”[19]

Other writers and cartoonists utilized the game as a symbol of the struggle between the war’s combatants. W.R. Hoefer constructed a matchup where Uncle Sam, hoping to score the Allies on base, awaited the pitch by Lefty Hindenburg. In a crude caricature of the German language, the writer depicted a weakened Germany, whose only hope in winning the “match” was to throw one over the plate “undt ven diss Ungle Sam svings ve start to pray.”[20] And, in another of Kirk’s utilizations of baseball language to depict the Great War, “Der Kaiser” stranded the bases loaded “with old Uncle Sam in the box.”[21]

The advertisements filling the magazine’s pages also reflect a penchant for patriotism. The editors juxtapose ads for War Saving Stamps and National War Saving’s Day with D & M Sporting Goods and Reach Athletic Goods, both of which are “as popular in the camps and rest-fields of France as on the baseball grounds of America.”[22] In other issues, ads urging the public to buy government bonds of the Fourth Liberty Loan precede the published letters from soldiers attempting to sell subscriptions of Baseball Magazine, a periodical selling like “hot cakes” to “the boys who are to go ‘over the top.’”[23]

Despite these expressions of allegiance, the periodical also exposed a different side of organized baseball’s response to the war effort. Unscathed in 1917, falling attendance and the loss of players to the draft and voluntary enlistment beset the game in 1918. Coupled with a new “war tax” levying ten percent from all entertainment admissions, the owners trimmed the schedule, limited spring training, raised ticket prices, and generally cut payroll and salaries. Faced with these growing sacrifices, baseball owners and executives believed they had to convince war leaders of the game’s uniqueness to the war effort in order to stop the outflow of fans, players, and revenue. Their attempts failed when Secretary of War Newton D. Baker declared baseball a non-essential occupation, subjecting all players to the May 23, 1918 “work or fight” order requiring ballplayers, along with other able-bodied men to volunteer, enter the draft, or work in an industry deemed essential to the war effort. Seeking special dispensation from this draft requirement, the owners obtained a two-month extension from the original date in order to carry out the World Series. As a result, fans and newspaper reporters across the country attacked owners, managers, and players as unpatriotic “slackers” who believed the game to be more important than other American institutions already making significant sacrifices for the war effort.[24]

Debunking a myth in which the baseball establishment willingly sacrificed everything for the good of the nation, essays rationalizing the sport’s deserved exemption fill the pages of Baseball Magazine. For one editor, the work or fight order’s sweeping nature was devastating to organized baseball, as the edict “would wreck the national pastime” in order to “supply a few hundred ill equipped young men” for work in industries already utilizing “the most unskilled labor in the land.”[25] For other Baseball Magazine writers, Secretary Baker’s “depressing,” “unfortunate,” and “rankly discriminatory” order was guilty of losing a large fortune for a meager gain: “Is it worth while to abolish an institution which has grown dear to the American public for such an absurdly small result?”[26] Some members of the public agreed, writing letters to the periodical supporting such a position. In one letter concerned with the “doom of baseball,” a fan asks, if the stage and theater are legitimate essentials to society and therefore exempt from the work or fight order, “why not baseball?”[27]

For columnists such as W.A. Phelon, baseball magnates deserved praise rather than lambasting. Showing a “great and gallant spirit in these trying teams,” the owners “never whispered – didn’t even talk about their own hard luck.”[28] For Phelon, the real blame for the “slacker” accusations belonged to the war industries themselves. Fostered and developed under the auspices of the government, steel, shipbuilding, and ammunition plants “drafted” baseball stars, such as Joe Jackson, promising enticing salaries and nominal positions in the plants, “with nothing to do by play ball” in their industrial or “Safe Shelter Leagues,” thereby perverting the patriotism of the work or fight order and ruining the prospects of the Major League season.[29] For these writers, baseball’s “fall from grace” resulted from the misrepresentation of an “industry” providing so much to the war effort with so little complaint.

However, the baseball establishment’s silence was ostensible at best. Although the public severely criticized baseball’s quest for exemption status, Jake Ruppert, president of the New York Yankees, stated, “I can’t think off hand of any other industry that has done more.”[30] According to him, not only are ballplayers an overly represented segment of the armed forces in relative terms, the government was asking more from these talented young men than the usual draftee, since ballplayers possessed a rather short career span now being “spent in the trenches.”[31] According to Ruppert, owners and players have liberally subscribed for Liberty Bonds, contributed to the Red Cross, and created charity exhibitions for soldiers and sailors. In this sense, baseball’s “black eye” is especially unfair, as the game provided a necessary function to the larger society and had, ultimately, “done its bit as well as, if not better than any other industry.”[32]

Baseball managers also joined in on behalf of the game’s defense. Edward G. Barrow, manager of the Boston Red Sox, spoke of the game as an essential component to American life worthy of both praise from the government and exemption from Secretary Baker’s order. Although the war was of vital interest to the public at large, the immediate objective of Barrow and, in his opinion, ballplayers and fans was to “win the championship of the world,” in a ballpark, not on the battlefield.[33] For Barrow, the World Series retained national significance despite the war, reason enough for the government to cut the game some slack. Commenting on the possibility of a government-induced cancellation of the championship, Chicago Cubs manager Fred Mitchell also argued, “the series…will not delay war preparation nor affect the output of ships or munitions.” For Mitchell, such a crime would rob both player and public of a unique national institution.[34]

Regardless, the baseball season of 1918 did continue, as the World Series pitted these two managers against one another in early September, a short time before the armistice would end the war. For the Red Sox, a certain pitcher with a peculiar batting talent helped them to victory. In the 1920’s, Babe Ruth would fundamentally alter the nature and style of the sport. Ironically, it was this individual, and not the Great War, that would have the most lasting affect on the permanence of the national pastime. However much organized baseball’s quest for favoritism and special consideration tarnished the game’s patriotic image, the public turned to the game in unprecedented fashion in the postwar decade. As an unsettled America began to move away from the dynamics of wartime and ease in the Roaring ‘20s, the lesson was clear, according to a writer for the Sporting News: in these “ticklish times,” a nation facing new challenges could always turn to the ball park “for safety’s sake and to keep a lot of us out of trouble.”[35]

[1] Richard Crepeau, Baseball: America’s Diamond Mind, 1919-1941 (Orlando: University Presses of Florida, 1980), 25.

[2] Ibid, 196.

[3] Ibid, 1.

[4] Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 248.

[5] F.C. Lane, “An All-Star Baseball Contest for a Greater Championship,” Baseball Magazine, November 1918, 58. <http:/> [17

November 2003].

[6] F.C. Lane, “A Day With Ty Cobb,” Baseball Magazine, April 1916, 6. <> [17 November 2003].

[7] “Editorials,” Baseball Magazine, July 1916, 31. <> [17 November 2003].

[8] Ty Cobb, “Trick Plays and How to Make Them,” Baseball Magazine, April 1916, 6. < http://www.> [17 November 2003].

[9] “Our Mail Box,” Baseball Magazine, July 1918, 316. <> [17 November 2003].

[10] Ibid.

[11] “The Real World’s Champions,” Baseball Magazine, July 1918, 315. <> [17 November 2003].

[12] F.C. Lane, “Letters from Major Leaguers in the Service,” Baseball Magazine, July 1918, 276. < http: //> [17 November 2003].

[13] Ibid.

[14] J.C. Kofoed, “Why Athletics Are So Essential in an Army Training Camp,” Baseball Magazine, July 1918, 285. < > [17 November 2003].

[15] Leon Cadore, “Baseball in the U.S. Army,” Baseball Magazine, August 1918, 344. < > [17 November 2003].

[16] William F. Kirk, “Clippings and Cartoons,” Baseball Magazine, August 1918, 310. <> [17 November 2003].

[17] Ibid.

[18] W.R. Hoefer, “Cutting the Corners,” Baseball Magazine, August 1918, 356. < http: //www.aafla. org/SportsLibrary/BBM/1918/bbm214t.pdf> [17 November 2003].

[19] Ford C. Frick, “To the Athlete-Soldiers,” Baseball Magazine, July 1918, 285. <http://www.aafla. org/SportsLibrary/BBM/1918/bbm213n.pdf> [17 November 2003].

[20] Ibid.

[21] William F. Kirk, “Clippings and Cartoons,” Baseball Magazine, July 1918, 310. < > [17 November 2003].

[22] “Advertisements,” Baseball Magazine, July 1918. < 1918/bbm213b.pdf> [17 November 2003].

[23] “Advertisements,” Baseball Magazine, August 1918. < > [17 November 2003]; “Advertisements,” Baseball Magazine, October 1918. < > [17 November 2003].

[24] Seymour, 247-248; David Quentin Voigt, American Baseball, Volume II: From the Commissioners to Continental Expansion (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983), 120; Dean A. Sullivan, ed., Middle Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1900-1948 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), xv.

[25] Seymour, 248.

[26] “Editorial Comment,” Baseball Magazine, October 1918, 457. < SportsLibrary/ BBM/1918/bbm216g.pdf> [17 November 2003].

[27] “Our Mail Box,” Baseball Magazine, August 1918, 380. < > [17 November 2003].

[28] W.A. Phelon, “Baseball History Up-to-Date,” Baseball Magazine, July 1918, 277. < > [17 November 2003].

[29] Ibid; F.C. Lane, “A Rising Menace to the National Game,” Baseball Magazine, August 1918, 345. <> [17 November 2003]; W.A. Phelon, “Closing Events of 1918 Baseball Season,” Baseball Magazine, October 1918, 483. < > [17 November 2003].

[30] F.C. Lane, “Editorial Comment,” Baseball Magazine, August, 1918, 330. < > [17 November 2003].

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Edward G. Barrow, “When A Pennant Is Almost Won,” Baseball Magazine, October 1918, 491. < > [17 November 2003].

[34] Fred Mitchell, “The Strength of the Cub Machine,” Baseball Magazine, October 1918, 464. < > [17 November 2003].

[35] Crepeau, 6.
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