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The New York Yankees Go to War

The New York Yankees parade around the field at their spring training camp near Macon, Georgia in the Spring of 1917. (Bill Howard Collection)

On a recent trip to Cooperstown, New York, I purchased a small collection of original photographs depicting the New York Yankees baseball team during World War 1. The collection included one image of the Yankees parading in military formation at their spring training facility in Macon, Georgia and several others of the team in military uniforms and wearing life vests on the deck of an unidentified Navy ship.

Major League Baseball maintained a tense relationship with the U.S. Government during World War 1. Even before war was formally declared in April 1917, officials in the War Department were concerned that baseball and other sporting events would undermine the war effort by distracting public attention. The 1917 baseball season was compromised by a wet spring that postponed 48 games in the National League alone, as well as a challenging war economy. While only a few professional ballplayers were drafted, and even fewer voluntarily joined military service, 1917 was a difficult year for organized baseball. By the end of the year, half of all major league teams posted financial losses and eight of twenty minor league teams folded.

In February 1917, Yankees owner, Captain T.L. Hutson proposed a scheme for Major League ballplayers to participate in military drills and demonstrate support for the war effort. Just before spring training began in 1917, Hutson petitioned the War Department to provide a regular army drill instructor to train the Yankees ball team in rudimentary military tactics. Hutson even lobbied for rifles to be provided to the players. The New York Times reported on February 16, 1917, that the Yankees would start each day with a “march from their hotel to the ball park in formation” and that “one hour per day [would be] devoted to military instruction.” Hutson requested that “the ball players of the American League be given an opportunity to become civilian soldiers.”

Army Sergeant Smith Gibson (far right marching) leads the New York Yankees on to the field of the Polo Grounds on Opening Day, April 11, 1917. (Bill Howard Collection)

The military training was provided by U.S. Army Sergeant Smith Gibson of the 16th U.S. Infantry. He served as the recruiting officer for Macon, Georgia, where the Yankees maintained their spring camp. On February 27, 1917, Captain Hutson wired Major Dovey at the War Department: “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 to get a commencement at our other camps.” In response to Captain Hutson’s request, Sergeant Gibson was assigned to training duty with the Yankees and, not without controversy, accompanied the team with full expenses paid by the baseball club throughout the 1917 season. It was Sergeant Gibson who led the Yankees on to the field of the Polo Grounds on Opening Day, April 11, 1917.

Despite the opening day fanfare, the Yankees did not do well in 1917. The season marked the Yankees’ 15th year in New York and ended with a 71-82 losing record, 28 ½ games behind the Chicago White Sox. At the end of the 1917 season, baseball was subjected to even greater pressure by the War Department when government officials proclaimed that by July 1, 1918, all draft eligible men employed in “non-essential” occupations would either need to apply for work directly related to the war effort or risk military conscription. Professional baseball players were classified as “non-essential.” In reaction, baseball owners requested consideration and delay of the edict. Initially, an extension was granted for all ball players through September 1, 1918, but further extension was ultimately granted for those involved in World Series play. In addition, baseball agreed to a shortened season that ended on Labor Day and accelerated post season play.

New York Yankee ballplayers on deck of unidentified ship circa 1918. Each player wears a life vest. (Bill Howard Collection)

Taking into account minor and Major League ballplayers, a large number of professional baseball players did serve in the armed forces during World War 1. One of baseball’s top pitchers, Pete Alexander, served on the frontlines in France. Alexander experienced shell-shock, hearing loss, as well as a form of epilepsy that he resolved by declining into alcoholism. The Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson served in a special Chemical Warfare Unit along with Ty Cobb and Branch Rickey. Mathewson and Cobb were involved in a poison gas training exercise that went awry and Mathewson was overcome by gas. Just seven years after his exposure, he died from the debilitating effects of TB. He was just 45 years old. In all, there were eight Major League baseball players who died as a result of various causes during the war, including the National League infielder, Eddie Grant, who was killed in action. The following baseball players died in active military service during World War 1:

Lt. Alexander Burr

Harry E. Chapman

Harry M. Glenn

Eddie Grant

Newton Halliday

Ralph Sharman

Robert G. Troy

Yankee Ballplayers on deck. Second from left appears to be Bill Lamar, with Hall of Fame pitcher, Urban Shocker next to him on right. Center, fifth from left is the Yankee catcher, George Alexander. (Bill Howard Collection)

The photographs published here recall an important chapter in both baseball history as well as American history. As the United States entered the war in 1917, it joined a conflict that would chart a new course of global history. The war would realign Europe and herald the emergence of the United States on to the world stage. The U.S. was one of the few countries that came out of the cataclysmic World War 1 experience as a world power. The war devastated Europe, and in the peace that followed the Armistice of November 1918, were planted the seeds of discord that gave rise to the forces that endangered the world in the 1930s. The legacy of the war still haunts us today. The photos illustrated here depict a more innocent time, when baseball players drilled with bats instead of guns. They marched to the ball parks in formation to show support for the military and then wore the uniform of their nation in order to be part of the war effort. At the time, it was thought that this war would mark the end of war for all time. Such optimism can be seen in the faces of these men – professional baseball players - civilian soldiers - who smile and cavort, and look out from history to meet the gaze of our modern and knowing eyes.

Passing the time on deck, Yankee ballplayers play a game of dice. (Bill Howard Collection)

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