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Leeke chronicles Major Leaguers during WWI in ‘From Dugouts to the Trenches’

By Dennis Anderson
via the New Bedford, MA South Coast Today web site

Johnny Evers of “Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance” fame, was visiting an army chaplain at the front during World War I. The chaplain told Evers about finding a tattered baseball inside the pocket of a dead American soldier’s overcoat while searching him for personal effects.

Dugouts to Trenches“I’d like to have that ball,” the future Hall of Fame second baseman said.

“Not for a million dollars,” the chaplain replied. “I’m too big a fan, and this is too precious to me. It will be too precious to others. If I can find (his family) when we get back that boy’s baseball belongs to them. If not, then I’ll keep it as one of the biggest prizes of my life.”

This poignant vignette is one of many in Jim Leeke’s well-researched book “From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War” (University of Nebraska Press; 238 pages; $32.95). Leeke tells the story of two seasons 100 years ago when professional ballplayers, executives and sportswriters enlisted, waited for the draft to catch up to them or went to work in steel mills or shipyards.

World War I was already raging in Europe for four years by the time the United States joined the Allies in the battle against Germany and the Central Powers in April 1917. That spring, American League and some National League teams hired army sergeants to drill players, some reluctantly, before games and to encourage fans to donate to the war effort or to send baseball equipment overseas.

One player, Billy O’Hara, an outfielder from Canada who played for John McGraw’s New York Giants, had already experienced considerable combat by 1917 and was wounded. “How small the great games of baseball I have played seem beside my days in the trenches,” O’Hara told a sportswriter. “Life and the world seem mighty small and no-account when you have seen your best friends die about you every day. I remember the time when we sympathized with a pal that got spiked in a baseball game. Day after day I have seen good pals shot through the head drop dead at my feet.”

World War I, like World War II and Vietnam generations later, engaged a great percentage of the country’s young men compared to today. The government’s Work or Fight policy of 1918 required men of draft age to work in a war-essential industry, such as steelmaking and shipbuilding, or enlist. Baseball was not considered an essential industry.

By spring 1918, 76 Major Leaguers were in the military, 48 from the American League and 28 from the National League (there were only 16 Major League teams then). There were 120 players in the military by July 1918.

Read the entire article on the South Coast Today web site here:

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