Tag Archives: World War I

Baseball on the Front Lines, 1917

12 Nov

In 1917, a soldier with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Third Battalion, First Brigade, just returned from Europe, wrote a letter to Grantland Rice of The New York Tribune, just as many Canadian troops were about to be supplanted by newly arrived Americans at the front lines.  The soldier said he was writing Rice to tell him “something about bomb throwing” and how the best pitchers of the day would fare in Europe:

“It is not speed that is counted upon, unless it is getting the bomb away, once you pull the pin, and in the second place, it is not a baseball throw that hurls the bomb into the trenches.  It is more of a throw on the style of a cricket player with an overhand delivery that loops the bomb into the enemy trench.  A straight throw, such as an outfielder’s peg or a slap across the diamond, would invariably hit the top of the parapet and do no mortal damage.”

The soldier also wrote about baseball games near the front:

“Let me tell you, Mr. Rice, about baseball in France.  We Canucks surely did have to have a game to try to try to get our minds off the hell that was going on, and it would have done Ban Johnson’s heart good to see two rival teams playing within a mile and a half of the firing line.”

With bombs dropping near their “stone-based diamond,” the game went on as though it were taking place in “some back lot in Toronto,” and the soldier claimed an outfielder briefly chased what he thought was a fly ball that turned out to be “a four-pounder from the Huns that lit and puffed up in the next field.”

The soldier said he wanted Rice to understand that although they were “intermingled in all the most vivid essences of hell, sport is the only relaxation for the nerve-wrecked body.”

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American soldiers play baseball at the front in gas masks, 1918

He wanted Americans to know that just “because you are in this scrap” that baseball should continue to be played in the states.

The soldier closed by saying he would like to return to the front:

“I would like to get back to it, but that is impossible now, and we who have returned look to see many of your boys take our places, for God knows we have done our bit.

“Sincerely,

“No. 7,128—A Co., 3d Bat., 1st Brigade, Canadian Expeditionary Force.”

 

 

“Some Players seem Terribly Stupid”

7 Sep

Henry Beach Needham was a journalist and fiction writer, best known for being a long-time friend, and occasional biographer of President Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1906, he approached Connie Mack with a request to travel with the Philadelphia Athletics and publish a profile of the manager and his players.

Needham

Needham

Initially apprehensive, Mack allowed Needham to accompany the club and two became close friends.

Over the next nine years (until he was killed in a plane crash in France while covering the war) Needham would write many profiles of his friend Mack in pages of “McClure’s Magazine,” and syndicated in many newspapers.

In 1911, just before the start of the World Series, he asked Mack:

“What is the first thing you demand in a youngster?’

“’Speed!’ replied Mack.  ‘Double plays are what lose you your games.  A slow man gets doubled up at first.  The only excuse for having a slow man—unless he’s a first-class pitcher or a splendid catcher—is that he can play the hit-and-run.  If he can’t signal to the base runner and then connect with the ball, he will hit into a double play—and there goes your game.”

Next, Needham asked if “baseball brains” were next in importance:

“’Y-e-s,’ replied Mack, with some hesitation, and then he qualified:

“’Hold on!  There’s something to be said about gray matter.  Some players seem terribly stupid.  Why—you can tell ‘em a thing over and over, and they will go into the game and do exactly opposite to what you have told them.  Then—all of a sudden it will come to them—and then they have it.  Why—I know a great player in our league.  For two or three years he was as stupid a player as you ever saw.  Then—suddenly it all came to him.  Now he won’t make the wrong play twice in a season.’”

Mack

Mack

Needham asked about players staying in condition:

“’I take that for granted,’ said Mack.  “Major league players have got to be in condition—or their clubs can’t win.  I haven’t any rules.  Why—I never have had any.  But my men always take care of themselves.  This may interest you:

“’Before the World Series last year I got my team in a room together.  Why—I told them that, no matter what the results, we didn’t want to have any regrets.  I reminded them how in other years it was said that the losing team hadn’t taken care of themselves.  Then I said that I wanted every man who could honestly promise to say that he wouldn’t take a drink until the series was over.’

“’Now, if there is one of you who can’t do without his drink,’ I said to them, ‘I want him to say so.’ Then I went down the line, and they all promised, every one of the 23.’

“’Why—I’m morally certain that not one of those 23 men touched a drop in those two weeks.  And a few of them are accustomed to have their bottle of beer every day of their lives.’”

The sober Athletics

The sober Athletics

Needham said there was discipline on Mack’s club, but it was “discipline through force of example:”

“Connie Mack does not smoke or drink—merely because he cares for neither—and he is clean as a hound’s tooth.”

Needham, who said “No one can get (Mack) to prophecy” made a prediction about the manager, then 48-years-old:

“Twenty years may elapse before Connie Mack wins his last pennant.”

Mack did win his final  pennant twenty years later in 1931.

Letters from the Front–Joe Jenkins

30 May

When Joe Jenkins, backup catcher for the Chicago White Sox, enlisted in the army shortly after the 1917 World Series, it didn’t cause much concern for the team’s prospects.  The Chicago Daily News said:

“With Ray Schalk behind the plate, the Sox could give away a dozen Jenkinses and not miss them.”

joejenkins

Joe Jenkins

Malcolm MacLean of The Chicago Evening Post said regardless of Jenkins’ value to the White Sox, the catcher was committed to the war effort.  He recounted a conversation with the usually “happy-go-lucky” Jenkins during Chicago’s spring trip to Marlin Springs, Texas before the 1917 season:

“(I) spied Jenkins sitting alone in the smoking compartment of the special car.  There was no smile on his face.  He invited us to have a seat.

“’”I’m thinking about this war,’ he said.  ‘It’s up to us young, unmarried fellows to get busy, and I’m going to be one of them within a few months.’”

Jenkins went to officer’s training school at Camp Gordon, Georgia, and then to France as a second lieutenant with the 132nd Infantry Regiment, composed primarily of soldiers from Chicago’s South Side.

Jenkins at

Jenkins at Camp Gordon

Shortly after the armistice was signed in November of 1918, MacLean was a given a letter Jenkins had written to a friend in Chicago several weeks earlier.  MacLean said Jenkins had been “promoted, while under fire from second to first lieutenant.”

According to MacLean, “At one stage of the game, all the other officers of his company being disabled, Jenkins commanded his company in an advance,” and as a result received the promotion.  MacLean said Johnny Evers mentioned in a letter that he had met Jenkins in France shortly after the latter was promoted.

Jenkins also wrote two letters to White Sox President Charles Comiskey—as with the letter MacLean was given, both letters to Comiskey were written before the armistice, but received weeks after—and were printed in Chicago newspapers.

In the first, Jenkins wrote:

“My Dear Mr. Comiskey…I have been in the front line for four days, having gone up to look over the situation with the major.

“Believe me, I am a brave man, but I did not bargain to eat any of these high explosives.  One of the shells just missed me about ten feet.  It hit on top of the trench and had it hit in the trench I would not be writing to you today.

“To be honest with you, this is some league that I am in and it is a lot faster than the old American, for you know that when you boot one in this league you are through and can’t come back.”

Jenkins wrote to Comiskey again, approximately three weeks later:

“Well I thought you had forgotten me, but today I got your letter, and you may be sure that I was delighted to hear from you.  We have been scrapping for the past ten days on the Meuse, North of Verdun, and believe me, the fighting has been hot and sharp.  We have just been moved to a more quiet sector, the purpose for which is rest, and believe me we can use it nicely.  It is becoming apparent that Germany is through, and in the last offensive I was in their spirit and morale was at a very low ebb.”

Jenkins also assured Comiskey that the Chicago Southsiders in the 132nd “can go some.”

The catcher  told Comiskey he planned on joining the Sox at Mineral Wells in the spring of 1919 and promised:

“I will bring something back in the line of a trophy for your office with me as shipping it would be risky.  This trophy that I refer to was taken where the fighting was thickest.”

There is no record of what the “trophy” was or whether Jenkins brought it to Comiskey.

Jenkins said in closing:

“Give my regards to all the boys and tell them that in this league over here the pitchers all have plenty on everything that they throw.”

Jenkins made it back to the US on April 15, 1919—on the same ship as Sergeant Grover Cleveland AlexanderThe Chicago Tribune said:

“Jenkins fought in Flanders, the Argonne, and St. Mihiel.  He escaped unwounded and looks ready to play baseball at a moment’s notice.”

Sergeant Grover Cleveland Alexander

Sergeant Grover Cleveland Alexander

He didn’t make it to Mineral Wells but joined the Sox for their opener in St. Louis.  The Daily News said he told manager Kid Gleason he was available to pinch hit:

“’You know I’m a valuable man in a pinch, Kid.  When I came up to hit in a pinch over there the Kaiser lit out for Holland and he’s been there ever since.”

1919 White Sox, Jenkins is bottom left

1919 White Sox, Jenkins is bottom left

Ready to play or not, Jenkins appeared in just 11 games for the pennant-winning White Sox—four behind the plate—and had three hits in 19 at bats.

He remained with the Sox through the 1919 World Series—a member of two World Series teams, he did not appear in a game in either series—and was released that winter.

His big league career over, Jenkins played 11 more seasons in the minors, retiring in 1930.

Independence Day 1918

4 Jul

In June of 1918 it was announced that King George V would be attending, and throwing out the first pitch, at the July 4 baseball game between the United States army and navy teams.

The Associated Press (AP) said the King was looking for help to prepare for the Independence Day game:

“At the request of the king, Arlie Latham, a former big league player, who will umpire the Fourth of July game, sent the King a regulation baseball a few days ago.  The next day Latham called at the Palace and gave the King a brief lesson as to how the baseball should be handled.

“The proper form in pitching was rather hard for the King to get, as he is used to a different type of throw, as in cricket, but the royal student finally began to get something approaching the right swing.  Since then the King has been practicing in his spare moments on a blank wall in the garden.

“The King has expressed hope that he will be able to throw out the ball in a manner to win the approval of the American Rooters.”

Whether he actually practiced is unknown, but the plan to have the King throw out the first ball was scrapped, and he instead walked the ball out to Umpire Latham and handed it to him.

Regardless of how the ball was delivered, the press in London understood the gravity of the gesture.

The London Daily Telegraph said:

“Nothing will give greater pleasure across the Atlantic than the appearance of the King and Queen at the baseball match at Chelsea.  That mark of understanding and attention will appeal to the heart of America far more than any military pageant or review, and the handing out of the ball by the king to the players—an act which will seem trivial and incomprehensible to the German mind—is likely to do more toward the removal of century-old prejudice in America against the name ‘King George’ than the ablest diplomacy or the most persuasive rhetoric.”

The London Daily Sketch memorialized the event in verse:

“King George III with cannon balls

Did try our brothers to dispatch.

King George V the country calls

To watch with him their baseball match.”

King George shakes hand with Lt. Mims, captain of the army team.  Admiral Sims looks on.

King George shakes hand with Lt. Mims, captain of the army team. Admiral William  Sims looks on.

On July 4 The AP reported:

“King George saw the American Army defeated in a hard-fought baseball game today.  The opponent of the army team was one picked from the American navy, which won by a score of 2 to 1.  Every one of the nine innings had its thrills for the more than 18,000 spectators.

“King George followed the game closely and enjoyed it thoroughly.  At the close he turned to Admiral (William) Sims and General (John) Biddle and expressed the hope that he might be able to see many more games before the summer was over.

“Few sporting events since the war began have aroused so much interest and discussion in London as yesterday’s game.  Independence Day was on everybody’s lips…For several days the newspapers have been explaining baseball and the people of London have been pouring over the mysteries of the American national game, instinctively trying to find in it some parallel to their own cricket.  Many persons went to the game armed with clippings and drawings of a diamond showing the position of the players.

“American soldiers and sailors on their way to the game were heartily cheered.  Outside the entrance to the Chelsea football grounds, where the game was played, the people lined the streets for several blocks and crowded the windows in their homes to watch the crowds.”

Hall of Famer Herb Pennock pitched for the navy team which was captained by his Red Sox teammate Mike McNally.

Most sources reported the the attendance as 18,000.  McNally, in a letter to Red Sox Secretary Larry Graver said in a letter reprinted by The AP:

“There were some 50,000 people present.  King George, Admiral Sims, and a lot of other ‘big guys.'”

The wire service summed up the importance of the day:

“No Country ever celebrated the national anniversary of another country as the people of Great Britain today celebrated the Fourth of July.”

Dispatch from the Front—March 1918

26 May

“Supply exhausted of first base mitts, masks, catchers’ mitts, protectors, fielders’ gloves and rules supply low.  Spring supplies should be rushed as rapidly as possible on different ships.  Increase of athletic goods essential.  Unexpected needs in front require a large increase.”

The New York Sun said the above cablegram was sent from France to the Y.M.C.A. in New York.

“It calls attention to what our men overseas regard as one great deficiency in the equipment of the United States troops.  Baseball is still our national game, even over there in Flanders, and the basemen object to taking hard throws from across the diamond with their bare hands.”

Baseball game with members of the Twenty-eighth Division, Three Hundred and Second U.S. supply train in France

US troops play baseball in France, 1918

The Sun said the Y.M.C.A. had already provided to “the men of the expeditionary forces in France:  79,680 baseballs and 19,000 bats, 8,000 fielders’ gloves, 2,000 catchers’ mitts,” and more was on the way.

“When the umpire calls ‘play ball!’ American soldiers forget all about the grim business of war.  A baseball game…for the time being is the principal object in life.  The game must be played with all the national enthusiasm.  It must be played right.  That’s why they want more rule books.  The few that went over have been thumbed so much that the replenishing supply is made part of a cable message at so much a word.”

“Play makes the boys who are fighting for democracy forget that they are fighters and recall that they are democratic.  Old-fashioned army officers who were bitterly opposed to the introduction of such fol de rol into the training of the greatest army the United States ever has been called to raise have retracted their strictures against the innovation. “These men know how to play now; at least 70 per cent of them had no idea of where to begin  when they were sent to training camps.  So war has done what the most prominent advocates of physical training and scientific play have failed to do.  It has made the young men of America nearly 100 percent interested in athletics as active participants.”

Dr. George J. Fisher of the Y.M.C.A. said:

“’These boys who are sending for mitts and gloves aren’t going to give up playing ball when they come home and the victory has been won.  They are coming home to make America what many of us have been trying to make her—a play nation.”

Happy 4th of July

4 Jul

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The 1918 New York Giants and Army Band and Color Guard from Governor’s Island on Opening Day.

Baseball’s First Chinese Player

30 Jul

Vernon L. Ayau’s professional career lasted less than half of one season, but in the process, he became the first Chinese player in professional baseball and his signing nearly broke up a league.

Ayau, born January 31, 1894, in Maui, Hawaii, played on the Chinese University of Hawaii team that toured the US in 1913, 14 and 15.  He was said to have caught the eye many in professional baseball including New York Giants manager John McGraw.

Chinese University Team

Ayau was described as a slick fielding shortstop with an excellent arm, but a weak hitter.  In December of 1916, he was offered a contract by Bill Leard, manager of the Seattle Giants in the Northwestern League.  Leard played against Ayau when he went to Hawaii after the 1916 season with an all-star team put together by former Northwestern and Pacific Coast League player Charles “Cy” Swain.

Within weeks, Northwest League players passed a petition expressing their displeasure with the signing, and newspapers in league cities came out strongly against Ayau.

Anti-Chinese sentiment was especially strong in areas where Chinese workers were being hired as miners, and mining unions in Butte and Great Falls (two league cities) threatened to “take action to have (Ayau) removed from the league.”  Shortly before the signing, a Chinese mine worker had been dropped from a bridge into the Missouri River by members of the miners union.

Leard received death threats but along with Seattle’s ownership held his ground and Ayau was on Seattle’s opening day roster.

His time with Seattle only lasted until May 20 when Leard announced his release.  Despite the early threats of boycotts and other action, he was actually signed and released by Tacoma and later Vancouver in the Northwest League over the next six weeks.

By July 1917, Ayau’s career in professional baseball was over.  He hit only .203 in 133 at bats with the three teams.  Contemporary news reports noted his weak hitting but universally praised his glove and arm.  That month he joined a semi-pro team in Wildwood, NJ that also included his former Chinese University teammate Lee Tin.

After serving in the US Army as a member of the infantry in France, Ayau returned to New Jersey where he continued to play semi-pro ball for several years.

He died in Penns Grove, New Jersey on March 28, 1976.