"Patriotic Industry": Baseball's Reluctant Sacrifice in World War I

Article excerpt

Nearly a century ago--as the Red Sox and White Sox held sway over the American League, and the National League was dominated by teams in the Northeast corridor--the United States found itself in a super-heated atmosphere of patriotic fervor. In the spring of 1917, the continuing and expanding German pugnacity on the high seas coupled with the revelation of the nefarious Zimmerman telegram, forced an agonized President Woodrow Wilson to abrogate his reelection pledge to stay out of the fight. In early April, he asked Congress for and received a declaration of war against Germany.

With America's participation as an active combatant now a reality, the nation's mobilization lurched into high gear, and to remove any trace of doubt as to the worthiness of the United States's commitment to the conflict, the Wilson administration sought to encourage--others would say coerce--a skeptical public into supporting the war effort. Legislation, in the form of the Alien Act, the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Sedition Act, and the Espionage Act, was adopted to squelch dissent of any kind among the populace, while the propaganda machinery embodied in the Committee on Public Information, created by the administration and fronted by George Creel, was chief among the instruments of promoting, indeed enforcing, patriotism. Associations such as the American Protective League, described by the historian David Kennedy as practicing "the excesses of a quasi-vigilante organization" with the blessing of the Justice Department, intimidated the United States citizenry into toeing the patriotic line so that the ultimate defeat of the Central Powers could be hastened. (1)

In 1917, baseball became immersed in this cauldron. The exigencies of the time dictated that young men be conscripted into the armed services or otherwise employed in war industry, such as working in a shipyard, munitions plant, or steel mill, to prepare the American military for action in Europe. On May 19, 1917, the government officially instituted the Selective Service Act, subjecting men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty--later expanded to a range of eighteen to forty-five years--to conscription. Eventually 24 million men (44 percent of all American males) would be registered; 6.5 million were deemed fit for service, with 2.7 million finally serving in the army during hostilities. (2) Given these numbers, it was only natural that a swelling of the military ranks would include athletes from the worlds of baseball, football, boxing, and tennis. As the national pastime lost increasing numbers to the war effort, baseball became increasingly resistant to the drain of players from its teams' lineups.

A nationwide Army Registration Day, held on June 5, 1917, was an unqualified success because Secretary of War Newton Baker and Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder employed the small tendrils of local draft boards overseen by men who in most cases were friends, neighbors, or at least acquaintances of many of their regional enlistees, thus avoiding the poor response rates that Baker and Crowder knew had hampered Union conscription attempts during the Civil War, in which high-ranking--and imposing--military officers comprised the committees that decided what men were to be inducted into the army.

For baseball's part, however, two weeks before Registration Day, National League president John Tener wrote to the NL club owners opining that he felt "no obligation, either fixed or moral, that we should depart from our daily routine of business" of playing scheduled games. (3) Days later the National Commission--comprised of Tener, American League president Ban Johnson, and commission head August Herrmann--asked that each team "co-operate heartily" with the registration event not by postponing games but by ensuring that "bands be engaged to play patriotic music ... where games are scheduled on that day." (4) Those obligated to register could do so from seven o'clock in the morning until nine o'clock that evening, and rather than overplay their patriotism by postponing contests, the commission felt that music would sufficiently convey "public expression of the willingness on the part of major league baseball clubs to serve the country at this vital crisis of its history. …