For baseball, World War I was an unwinnable battle | Frank's Place

YANKEES BABE RUTH
Babe Ruth worked for the Bethlehem Steel during World War I.

A small, yellowed card in the "Babe Ruth" file at the Lebanon County (Pa.) Historical Society is both funny and revealing.

This month America is commemorating the 100th anniversary of its entry into World War I. In the jingoistic confusion of April 1917, baseball and several other sports assumed they would be shut down for the duration.

"Sportsmen Will Not Be Found Wanting When Call To Arms Is Heard," read a banner headline atop the April 7 Inquirer's sports page.

But as leagues and organizations waited for direction from Washington, the games went on. Finally, in May 1918, the Selective Service Division issued a "Work or Fight" edict. Able-bodied men, including major-league ballplayers, had either to work in an essential industry or face the draft.

Some prominent stars enlisted. But others, including healthy young talents such as Babe Ruth, Joe Jackson, and Rogers Hornsby, scrambled to shipyards and steel plants - many in and around Philadelphia - where they took sham jobs and played for company teams.

When Ruth was hired for an estimated $500 a week by Bethlehem Steel in Lebanon immediately after his Red Sox won the 1918 World Series, he filled out a standard employee card, one that, thankfully, the historical society has saved. Among the questions he had to answer was this one: "Use intoxicants?"

Ruth, the perpetually thirsty Sultan of Sot, wrote "No."

Innocent as it now seems, Ruth's dishonesty was emblematic of baseball's uneasy experience with the War to End All Wars.

Then, as was later the case when a "God Bless America" break was added after 9/11, baseball liked to wrap itself in the flag. But in World War I the stars and stripes were inadequate camouflage for hypocrisy and venality.

The 22-year-old Ruth, who originally planned to play for a Chester shipyard, performed in a few games for Bethlehem Steel. In one, against the Shipbuilding All-Stars, a team composed entirely of major-leaguers, he was struck out twice by the Athletics' Scott Perry.

"The whole gang of them was draft-dodgers," a Lebanon mill employee who saw the game told writer William Ecenbarger in 1987. "They were supposed to be working for the war, but they didn't do any work. All they did was play baseball. Babe Ruth used to show up at the plant for an hour before practice. He'd be wearing fancy trousers, silk shirts, and patent-leather shoes. He'd just walk around talking to people about baseball. There wasn't anything essential about what he was doing."

Jackson and Hornsby wound up in Wilmington, with the Harlan Shipyard team. The quality of play in what came to be disparaged as the "Safe Shelter League" was so high, the talent so thick, that Jackson said it was "harder to hit in this league than in the American League."

Perhaps because he was leading the AL in batting at the time of his exit, Jackson became an easy target for fans, columnists, even his team's owner.

"There is no room on my club for players who wish to evade the draft by entering the employ of shipbuilders," said White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who nonetheless found room after the war.

As the 1918 season neared its premature conclusion - the schedule ended on Labor Day, the Series on Sept. 11 - scores of healthy young players joined the exodus to industrial leagues, avoiding a draft that would gather up 2.8 million other Americans.

Even the World Series was affected. The Cubs team that Ruth's Red Sox defeated, four games to two, was without several key players.

As the fighting dragged on and the body count from Europe's bloody trenches mounted, this charade attracted increasingly harsh criticism. The players were vilified as "slackers" and worse.

"It seems beyond belief that any well-trained athlete should be guilty of such yellow-hearted cowardice, traitors to their country's good, and worse than traitors to their own souls," said an editorial in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Baseball Magazine railed: "Shipbuilding and steel manufacturing concerns, by enticing major-league players to sign slacker contracts, are doing a grave disservice to a patriotic industry."

When 2,000 workers struck Philadelphia's Cramp Shipyard, one of their complaints was the favorable treatment given to the Phillies and Athletics players who worked there.

Trying to counter this negative publicity, baseball adopted as much patriotic trim as it could. Players marched in military formations at ballparks, and the national anthem became a pregame ritual.

Not all the sport's stars were slackers, of course. Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and Grover Cleveland Alexander, the pitcher the Phillies had recently traded to the Cubs, were among those who enlisted. But that backfired on baseball too.

During a training exercise in France, Cobb and Mathewson led 80 recruits into an airtight facility. There, as deadly fumes were released, they were supposed to don gas masks.

"There was some mix-up and the gas was already in the chamber before Cobb and Mathewson, the officers in charge, realized it," Charles Alexander wrote in his 1985 biography of Cobb. "Eight men inhaled a lethal dosage before somebody got the door open."

Others, including Mathewson, suffered severe lung damage. Never able to regain his health, his career truncated by the tragic mistake, the great pitcher died in 1925 at age 45.

Alexander, meanwhile, lost much of his hearing in an artillery barrage, an event that might also have left him shell-shocked. The afflictions exacerbated an already troublesome drinking problem.

Ruth insisted he was no draft-dodger. "Anytime they want me," he told reporters, "all they'll have to do is call me and I'll go."

Fortunately for him and baseball, the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918.

Ruth's last official day at the Lebanon steel mill was the following Feb. 28. A year later, he would be traded to the Yankees. And the roar of the 1920s would drown out baseball's painful memories of World War I.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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