October 1918: A bad month for baseball

By the end of the 1917 season, a large number of players were already in Army or Navy uniforms with more awaiting their turn to report. So, 1918 was going to be shortened by 14 games with the regular season ending on September 2, 1918.
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by Samuel O. Barnes

 Eddie Grant, seen here in a New York Giants uniform, was the first, and most prominent, former Major League ballplayer to be killed in action during the war. Grant had already retired from baseball and was working as a lawyer when war was declared. Courtesy Library of Congress

Eddie Grant, seen here in a New York Giants uniform, was the first, and most prominent, former Major League ballplayer to be killed in action during the war. Grant had already retired from baseball and was working as a lawyer when war was declared. Courtesy Library of Congress

Any way you look at it, 1918 was a rough year for Major League baseball. Following much arguing and negotiation after the turbulent 1917 season, it had been decided that the 1918 Major League season would be shortened. And why not?

By the end of the 1917 season, a large number of players were already in Army or Navy uniforms with more awaiting their turn to report. So, 1918 was going to be shortened by 14 games with the regular season ending on September 2, 1918. The World Series would be played from September 5-14, 1918.

A good plan for sure, but even the weather turned against the national pastime at the start of the 1918 season. Rained out games and cancellations played havoc with the opening weeks.

More and more players disappeared from their team dugouts to go into the military or to work in war-related industries. When the World Series was finally played, there were problems with lagging tickets sales and unhappy players whose salaries were tied to those sales.

As bad as the season had been, October would be worse. The Spanish flu pandemic had started its most violent stage in September. By the beginning of October, it was ravaging cities and military training camps on the east coast and in the midwest. At some military camps, the death rate was reaching 100 a day. Few believed things could get worse.

 After the signing of the Armistice, a large number of Doughboys found themselves occupying the German Rhineland. In this photo, Albert Pittson, an engineer in the 3rd Division, poses with his baseball mitt and ball in the German town of Ochtendung in April 1919.

After the signing of the Armistice, a large number of Doughboys found themselves occupying the German Rhineland. In this photo, Albert Pittson, an engineer in the 3rd Division, poses with his baseball mitt and ball in the German town of Ochtendung in April 1919.

TRAGEDY IN THE MEUSE

Then, on October 5,1918, word reached the United States that Eddie Grant, a well-known Major League ballplayer, had been killed in action in the Meuse-Argonne.

The largest land battle in American history, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, began on September 26, 1918. The US First Army, with 1.2 million Doughboys either preparing to attack or in tactical reserve, had the task of breaking the Hindenburg Line in some of its most heavily defended areas. Another 600,000 Doughboys were in France to provide the logistical support for these attacking soldiers.

Leading one of the attacking companies of the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division, was the former major-leaguer, Captain Edward Grant. Grant had attended a civilian readiness training camp before the war where the Army quickly recognized his leadership skills. During his baseball career, Grant had played in over a thousand major league games and had compiled a career batting average of .249.

 A group of National Guard soldiers gather around some of their baseball equipment for a photograph. The campaign hats and canvas leggings visible in this photograph would disappear and be replaced with more practical cloth caps and puttees after the soldiers arrived in France.

A group of National Guard soldiers gather around some of their baseball equipment for a photograph. The campaign hats and canvas leggings visible in this photograph would disappear and be replaced with more practical cloth caps and puttees after the soldiers arrived in France.

None of that mattered on October 5, as Grant led his company forward trying to pierce the German defenses and rescue a unit from his own division, the famed “Lost Battalion.” German artillery fire killed Grant as he led his men through the forest. He was the first Major League ballplayer to be killed in action during the war.

After the war, the New York Giants erected a monument in his honor at their Polo Grounds stadium where it remained until the stadium was demolished in 1964. Grant continues to be honored by the Edward L. Grant Highway that remains in use today in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium.

Just a few days after Grant’s death, two former minor-leaguers fell while participating in the Meuse-Argonne attacks. Battery mates, Corporal Bernard Leo Dolan and Sergeant Matthew S. Lanigan were serving with the 78th Division on October 16, when both were killed in action while attacking German positions near the Aire River.

 One of the few benefits of serving at posts in Texas and the Southwest was the abundance of open space to play baseball. In this photograph, left-hand hitting Lieutenant Houghten of the 13th Cavalry Regiment takes his turn at bat. It is interesting to note that the lieutenant is still wearing his spurs as he waits for the pitch. Courtesy the Robert Goodwin Collection

One of the few benefits of serving at posts in Texas and the Southwest was the abundance of open space to play baseball. In this photograph, left-hand hitting Lieutenant Houghten of the 13th Cavalry Regiment takes his turn at bat. It is interesting to note that the lieutenant is still wearing his spurs as he waits for the pitch. Courtesy the Robert Goodwin Collection

Lanigan’s hometown newspaper later reported their deaths and wrote that the two were “...inseparable pals. In the Army, they were allotted places in ranks side by side, and thus, they went into the battles in France.” Like Eddie Grant, they now rest in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

Although not taking part in the offensive, Lt. Alexander Thomson “Tom” Burr, a former Yankee outfielder, was undergoing gunnery training as a pilot in the 31st Aero Squadron in France at the same time. On October 12, his aircraft collided with another aircraft and Burr was killed. On the same day, Harry M. Glenn, a former catcher with the St Louis Cardinals, died of the Spanish Flu while in training to be an army aircraft mechanic in Minnesota. A few days later, on October 20, Norman Triplett, a well-known Negro League ballplayer, died of “measles and pneumonia” after serving only a month in France. All in all, October 1918, had been a bad month for the game of baseball.

After the two bad seasons of 1917 and 1918 together with the deadly month of October 1918, perhaps baseball’s luck was about to change with the signing of the Armistice in November 1918. Things were certainly starting to look up. Many looked forward to the 1919 season when the players and fans could return to the game they so dearly loved.

Who could have guessed that 1919 would be remembered not as the first triumphant post-war season of baseball, but as the year of the Black Sox scandal?

Sam Barnes is a graduate of James Madison University and works at Fort Lee for the Army. He has teamed up with Pete Belmonte and Alexander Barnes to write “Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball During the Great War” for Schiffer Publishing.