Baseballs at War

Once in awhile I come across a little gem of info that I don’t know what to do with because it’s not about Minneapolis parks, but is too interesting to let slip back under the covers of history. So this…

From the Minneapolis Tribune, Thursday, February 7, 1918, dateline New York, in its entirety:

Baseball To Follow The Flag In France

There is a probability baseball will be played extensively by the troops in France this spring. The Y.M.C.A. war work council has awarded a contract for 59,760 baseballs, probably one of the largest orders ever placed. Special preparation has to be made in packing these balls so they will not be affected by dampness. Special cases are made for the purpose.

I looked to see if I could find an image of a 1918 baseball online that I could post here and I found two noteworthy images.

The first was a 1918 baseball for sale at the time of this writing on eBay. The names of soldiers, complete with rank are printed on the ball. I don’t know if this was one of the balls sent to France by the “Y”, but it was clearly well-used. I love the red and blue stitching. I wonder if it was so tightly wound—or juiced—that it could leave a ball yard at an exit velocity of well over 100 mph as they do at Target Field these days. Doubtful.

1918-wwi-military-baseball.jpg

This 1918 baseball signed by soldiers, complete with ranks, is for sale on eBay by showpiecessports. The linked page above includes seven more photos of the ball. Thanks to showpiecessports for permission to use their image.

I also found another image at the National Baseball Hall of Fame that tells more of the story of baseball and WWI. This photo suggests that the ball used by the soldiers was the same—red and blue stitching—as that used by Major League Baseball. One notable change in the game since 1918 is immediately obvious: game balls weren’t discarded then after they had hit the dirt once!

1918 WWI Ball Hall of Fame

One panel of the ball reads, “Season ending on Labor Day on Account of War.” The other, “Last ball used in game at Navin Field. Hit by Jack Collins off Bobby Veach. Caught by Davy Jones.” For Bobby Veach, who led the American League in RBI that year as an outfielder, this was the only pitching appearance of his 14-year career. Thanks to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for permission to publish this image. (Milo Stewart, Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

The excellent article that accompanies this photo tells of how baseball players were viewed as potential soldiers in the Great War. Quite different from WWII. The full story of the game and the season from which this ball was saved—101 years ago this month—is fascinating. A little of everything: Star Spangled Banner, Ty Cobb, rifle drills, the Boston Red Sox winning a World Series before Big Papi, and more.

With all those YMCA baseballs going to France in 1918, I’m surprised the French didn’t pick up any interest in the game, but they seem not to have. I suppose when part of your country is reduced to sticks and mud and cemeteries, you don’t have much time to think about new sports played on fields of grass.

IMAG0470

The American monument to soldiers–some of whom may have played with those YMCA baseballs–who died near Chateau Thierry in WWI. Not many miles from this sobering, beautiful monument is where Ernest Wold and Cyrus Chamberlain, two young men from Minneapolis, died as aviators in the war. The Minneapolis airport, owned by the Minneapolis park board from 1926-1943, was named Wold-Chamberlain Field in their honor. (Photo: David C. Smith)

Baseball and war brings to mind the mistaken perception that baseball was spread in the other direction, to Japan, by American soldiers after WWII. Baseball was popular in Japan decades before then.

The University of Chicago’s baseball team played the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in August 1910 on their way to the West Coast for a trip to Japan to play Japanese university teams. The next spring a team from Japan’s Waseda University—which had hosted the U of Chicago team—played two games against the Gopher nine at Northrup Field and Nicollet Park, losing 3-2 in 15 innings and 8-2.

The Tribune reported that the Chicago team—and a University of Wisconsin team in 1909—had been treated as “national guests” of Japan and noted that special arrangements were being made to entertain the Waseda University team “so they will feel they are the guests of the Twin Cities as well as the university.”

I have not found any similar stories about teams from the Sorbonne in Paris looking for games with local nines.

The Minneapolis park board did not create its first baseball field until 1908. Before then, sports fields were not viewed by many people as legitimate uses of public park land.

I wonder if we’ve sent any baseballs or baseball fields to Afghanistan? You’d think we might have after nearly two decades of war there. On the other hand we’ve had military bases in Germany for more than 70 years and only Max Kepler to show for it baseball-wise. Taking nothing away from Kepler; I hope he’s healthy for the Twins in the play-offs.

David Carpentier Smith

 

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