MLB and WW1 Baseball

The Dodgers are headed to the 2018 World Series–a miracle of miracles for this LA Dodgers fan. It’s October in America and time to think about baseball. I’m sure my grandfather, who loved baseball, would agree.

How did World War 1 impact baseball? That question came to me when I read a letter Grandpa wrote on March 30, 1918.

Baseball, Funston, 1


I like how “a big Easter celebration” and “a big ball game” get equal attention.

Why were the Cardinals playing at a military training camp? I did a bit of research and came up empty. Then, on a lark, I called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, better known as Cooperstown. I realized I’d landed on a bit of good luck when a woman (who only identified herself as Katherine) answered the phone. Not only was she a graduate student in American Social History, with a specialty in baseball, she was also a Cards fan. Within a couple of days, she sent me over 30 scanned pages of information on World War 1-era baseball. In her email response, she answered my specific question on why the Cards played at Camp Funston.

“The St. Louis Cardinals were struggling to achieve any post-season success during the years before/during World War 1,” she wrote, “a trend that changed only after the team brought on Branch Rickey who developed the organization’s minor league farm system. Like many professional teams, the Cardinals lost players to the draft and military enlistment, which was partly the reason Rickey sought to locate reserve players through a player development system.”

She mentioned the teams known to have played for the troops: Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis. The MLB sent teams to Foot Hood, Texas, she said, and Camp Pike, Arkansas, as well as Camp Funston in Kansas. Often, professional ballplayers, now in military training, faced former teammates on the field.

From Grandpa’s letters, I know baseball filled the spring days at camp. Beginning in March, 1918, he wrote about playing catch after supper, managing his company “C” team, serving as an umpire, and watching games. On April 27, he told Grandma,

“I never saw as many ball games in my life. There was at least a dozen in a mile square down this side of the river and a big crowd at each one.”

baseball ad, Apr 6, 1918 (0137)

Local vendors sold uniforms and equipment. This ad ran in Trench and Camp, April 6, 1918, p 2. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society.

The army encouraged baseball, noting the benefits of exercise, recreation, and the kind of discipline and teamwork needed on the battlefield. This notice also ran in Trench and Camp, April 6, 1918, p. 6.

baseball excuses, funston


Baseball went with the troops overseas. The army sent equipment, as did the Y.M.C.A. The MLB sent some of its best players. Thanks (again) to Katherine, the intern at Cooperstown, I learned that the Chemical Warfare Service, also known as the “Gas and Flame Division,” included three future baseball hall-of-famers: Branch Rickey, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. All were in the thirties, and all were willing to take on one of the most dangerous assignments of the war.

In an article she sent, “Chemical Warfare Service: World War 1’s House of Horrors,” author Frank Ceresi wrote that over the summer of 1918, the Army recruited  baseball players and athletes “with exceptional skill” to execute a daring plan. “They were tasked to prepare for battle with special orders to anticipate German gas attacks where the heaviest trench fighting would be, then turn the tables on the enemy by quickly spraying their flanks with jets of flame from tanks strapped onto their backs. Then, once their tanks emptied, they were to lob special ‘gas grenades’ at the fallen Germans and clear the area.”

Of the three baseball greats, only Mathewson was injured. The signal to put on his mask came too late, during one attack, and he suffered from exposure to the gas. This may have led, Ceresi suggested, to his death in 1925 from tuberculosis. (1)

Some baseball players stayed in the U.S. Certainly the most famous was Babe Ruth, who had registered for the draft, but hadn’t been called for service overseas. In the 1918 World Series–the only one played completely in September–his Red Sox team beat the Chicago Cubs, 4-2. At that game, a tradition was born when the military band played the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch. The crowd joined in. The singing of the national anthem (so-named in 1931) became standard practice at MLB games beginning in the 1941-42 season. (2)

Baseball has so many traditions, and the one I most treasure, is the practice of handing down the love of the game, one generation to the next. My grandfather is my link to the game. I will always remember the pleasure of sitting at his knee, quietly watching him listen to the Kansas City Athletics on the radio. This memory came to mind on a recent flight home. I shared a row with a man and his son, who was probably a young teenager. “We’re seeing baseball parks this summer,” the father said, explaining the new jersey his son was proudly wearing. We talked about baseball. I told him about my grandfather and baseball in World War 1. I asked him what he especially liked. “I collect signed, first-edition books on baseball.” His favorites? He scribbled them down on the back of a bookmark I had.

Baseball titles cropped

Before we landed, I mentioned one detail that puzzled me in World War 1-era baseball. The Y.M.C.A. sent indoor baseballs and indoor bats to France. Did he know about indoor baseball played during the war? He grew silent and said, no, quickly adding that he wanted to look into this as soon as he got home.

I bet he did. That’s baseball–so many facts and stats and enduring traditions over its long history. It’s no surprise to me that American soldiers played ball at military camps and places in France, however and wherever they could. And watch games. And long to be home to see their favorite teams in person.

When the Dodgers take to the field in the 2018 World Series, I’ll fold into the shadows of this rich history of the game. I’ll marvel at Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, two of the oldest (still standing) parks in baseball, festooned with patriotic bunting for the World Series. I’ll remember that only one team can win. I’ll take comfort knowing I’m not the only one yelling at the TV, the way my grandfather’s generation yelled at the radio or yelled from the stands. We know best, the fans. It’s baseball.

And so is the hope, that against all odds, my team will win. Go Dodgers!

Thank you, MLB, for supporting the troops in World War 1.

MLB contributions WW1

Included in story, “Baseball’s Bit in The World War,” Baseball Magazine, Feb. 1918, p. 390.



(1) Frank Ceresi, “Chemical Warfare Service,” included at

(2) “Baseball and the Star Spangled Banner” at

Online sources provided by National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

“A Corner in Horsehide,” 34 ff.

“Baseball Champions American Expeditionary Forces,”

Print sources provided by the National Baseball Hall of Fame:

Elias, Robert. “Real War (1917-1919)” in The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. The New Press, 2010.

Lane, F.C. “Baseball’s Bit in the World War.” Baseball Magazine, February 1918, 386-391, 436-437.


Baseball. . . Somewhere in France

Summer, time to read, time to watch baseball. I found this story in Trench and Camp and loved the picture painted by the sports writer. At a baseball game behind the front lines in France, he described fans cheering the game and the aerial combat overhead. Grandpa wasn’t in this crowd, but I bet he would have enjoyed the action!

In case these terms are new to you (they were to me): Archie refers to anti-aircraft fire, boche to German, and poilus to French soldiers.

Baseball game, france (1) headline

Headline of story that ran in Trench and Camp, May 11, 1918. Used here with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society. Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.


With the American Army in France, May 2–The big league baseball teams in the spring training camps at home have nothing on the American soldiers, so far as limbering up the old wing and priming the batting eye is concerned.

It is the spring training season over here too.

Back of the lines, in the rest camps or along the roadside, you can hear the thump of the ball in the mitt, the crack of the bat and all the familiar baseball sounds–as well as a few war sounds thrown in.

A game of “old cat” was broken up recently by an airplane-anti-aircraft scrap overhead. The game was being played in the middle of the public square at Luneville (about ten miles from the German border and nine miles back of the front lines.) There was a good bleacher crowd of mixed poilus and dough boys. The sun was beaming down from a cloudless sky and the war seemed a thousand miles away.

“Archie” Butted In.

But just then an “Archie” spoke and everyone looked skyward. There was the boche. Gun after gun came into action. Fluffy white wings broke all about him. He dodged and twisted and turned.

Within a few minutes the guns had put a complete circle of bursting shells about the plane. Then American rooting began.

“Attaboy! Get him kid! That was a close one. Now, just once more,” were some of the cries that went up.

Everyone was bending back, shading his eyes and watching the sight. The airplane got thru the circle of “cream puffs” safely and darted back toward home, an occasional shell bursting behind him.

“Foller him up, kid, foller him up!” was the encouragement shouted from the American rooters. But the boche out-legged the guns and disappeared.

“Who’s at bat and who’s on base” a sergeant yelled, as the machine disappeared. A minuter later the ball game was on again.






Reading corner inside a Y.M.C.A. hut at Camp Funston, 1914-1919. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

The Y.M.C.A. ran what they called “rest and recreational” programs in fifteen buildings at Camp Funston. This is one of the smaller structures, called a “hut.” Soldiers wrote letters at desks running along the walls, played board games, or caught up on the news. The “war articles” received special prominence, ingeniously held by clothespins, tied onto what looks like a pipe, and hung from the ceiling.

The welcome banner includes the Y.M.C.A. logo used during World War 1. The inverted red triangle, which originally carried the words spirit, body and mind on the three sides, was adopted in 1897 and used continuously by the Y.M.C.A. until 1967.

4-24-18 letter YMCA

Letter to Grandma, April 24, 1918. Grandpa rarely wrote on both sides of the paper, as encouraged, because the ink bled through the thin paper.

Soldiers received stationery, free of charge, at the Y.M.C.A. They could take the paper and envelopes back to the barracks, or write at one of the desks, as Grandpa apparently did that night, in the minutes before the hut was closed.

The Y.M.C.A. built larger structures at camp for concerts and lectures. The camp’s newspaper, Trench and Camp, often reported on Y.M.C.A. activities and attendance. Here’s the tally for February 1918, printed in the March 16 issue.

  • Estimated attendance at the 15 Y.M.C.A. buildings: 404,999
  • 60 lectures held: 30,888
  • 425 educational classes: 13,575
  • Books circulated: 10,225
  • Athletic events, participants: 20,242; spectators: 18,765
  • 173 religious meetings: 29,154
  • 117 entertainments held: 48,815
  • 109 motion pictures: 73,250
  • 358,795 letters written at Y huts

During wartime, it was no small task to book speakers, or to find and fund the supplies and equipment needed to keep the soldiers entertained. For example: dominos became scarce, as did checkers and checkerboards.

dominos cropped rev.

Trench and Camp, March 30, 1918. Courtesy Kansas State Historical Society.

This story struck close to home. I have a checkerboard my grandfather made, although I’m not sure when. He painted the grid on the back side of glass, and then glued a pad to form a base. I see it everyday, as it sits under my laptop.

Grandpa's checkerboard

I’ll end this post about the good work of the Y.M.C.A. with a nod to baseball, one of the athletic activities much loved at Camp Funston. This cartoon ran in Trench and Camp, in a group of cartoons titled “A Practical Little Game Called ‘Swat the Kaiser.'” Yes, that’s a Kaiser baseball. . . .

Baseball Kaiser cropped

Trench and Camp, May 18, 1918. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society.


It’s Time for Baseball!

Today, March 29, 2018, major league baseball opens its season. For the first time since 1968, all teams will open on the same day.*

A hundred years ago tomorrow, March 30, 1918, Grandpa attended the first of two MLB exhibition games at Camp Funston. The St. Louis Cardinals met the 89th Division’s team.

Funston Baseball Team

Among the talented members of Funston’s team was future hall-of-famer, Cubs pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (standing right of the commander), 1918. Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and reuse restrictions apply.

March 30, 1918

There is a big ball game this afternoon and tomorrow afternoon. The 89th Division team plays the St. Louis Cardinals. I want to go, wish you were here to go with me. 

March 31, 1918

We have to go on guard at 4:30 this afternoon. I wanted to go to the ball game but I guess I will have to call it off. The game was real good yesterday, won by the 89th but I look for the Cardinals to take the game today.

He was right. The 89th Division took the first game, beating St. Louis, 9-8, in ten innings. The Cards won the second game, 13-10.

I love baseball and I love the picture of MLB teams playing at army camps during World War 1. Why did the MLB get involved in the war effort? Well, that story will unfold in upcoming posts. First, I want to share why I was so thrilled to find these mentions of baseball in my grandfather’s letters.

Grandpa showed me how to love baseball. I can see him in his living room in Effingham, Kansas. He’d sit near the south window and turn on the big wooden radio, which stood on a nearby end table. Once the radio clicked on, the announcer of the Kansas City Athletics began calling the game. That’s when Grandpa reminded me of the house rule: don’t say a word. If I wanted to listen to the game with him, I had to sit quietly and listen. And so I sat on the floor and did just that. Well, what I really did was look at him and study the interest on his face as he transformed the words of the announcer into a picture of the game. The crack of the bat sent his mind’s eye traveling with the gaze of the cheering fans, as they followed the ball over a distant fence. I fell in love with baseball at my grandfather’s knee.

Effingham living room

My grandparents in their living room in Effingham, Kansas. The radio I remember would have been on a table near the couch on the right. Family photo, 1960s.

Loving baseball comes with a price. It comes bundled up with hopes and disappointments. A big one came for my grandfather in October of 1967. That’s when Charlie Finley, who owned the K.C. Athletics, received permission to move the team to Oakland, California. The move broke my grandfather’s heart. Literally. Grandpa died a month later of heart disease. I was 15 when he died, too young to understand what had happened. But I’ve long believed that Charlie Finley’s decision to move the A’s killed my grandfather. I know there’s no reason to believe my own account of his death. But today, on opening day, on a day to remember all things baseball, I’m sticking to my story.

And those Oakland A’s, that team torn away from Kansas City? There’s a rule in my house: no watching, no talking about, no cheering on that team. Out of respect to my grandfather. Out of respect to the game he loved.


*For more on the two times MLB teams have all opened on same day: