'On Account of War'

Written by: Matt Kelly

Many baseball fans are familiar with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Green Light” letter, in which he encouraged baseball owners and executives to “keep baseball going” to boost Americans’ morale during the country’s entrance into World War II. But the sentiment toward the National Pastime in wartime was much different a generation before.

By the spring of 1918, the nation had already been engaged for a year in what was known as “The Great War” overseas. Many minor leagues closed down in 1917, but baseball owners pressed on with a full major league schedule. Teams tried to show their support by having players participate in pre-game “drill” sessions, using their bats as props for guns. As American lives became more firmly endangered in battle, however, the public began to wonder why ballplayers were seemingly exempt from the war effort.

Amid rising cries to halt play, owners made a concession for the 1918 season by reducing the schedule from 154 games to 140. It was not enough, however, at least in the eyes of the military. On July 1, 1918, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker issued a “work or fight” order, stating that all draft-eligible men who worked in “non-essential” vocations must sign up for war-related work or risk being drafted for battle.

The game was given a temporary pass, as government officials declined to recognize it as one of the “non-essential” activities. But Newton’s favor turned by the end of July, when he publicly recognized that the unusually athletic men on the diamond should be using their talents to help their country on the battlefield. There was no getting around it: Baseball players would have to serve too.

American League president Ban Johnson recommended that major league operations cease on August 20, but National League executives insisted that the season continue until Labor Day and the World Series be played immediately after. And so, Monday, Sept. 2 marked a flurry of doubleheaders in both leagues – seven in total – as teams hurried to get games in before the abrupt deadline.

One of the final contests played that day, between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, is remembered in Cooperstown thanks to a scuffed up baseball in the Hall of Fame collection.

This baseball was used to record the final out in the last game of a shortened 1918 season between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. B-38-55 (Milo Stewart, Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Turned a shade of olive thanks to dirt and the long passage of time, the ball from nearly a century ago features red-and-blue stitching along with two historic inscriptions made in black calligraphy. One piece of rawhide 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.”

The game in reference, a 7-3 win for Detroit, featured a couple anomalies typically reserved for late-season contests. The pitcher Veach was originally the Tigers’ starting left fielder that day, and he was preceded by Ty Cobb in one of the Georgia Peach’s three lifetime mound appearances. Davy Jones, meanwhile was making his first and only appearance of the ’18 campaign – and the last of his career. Jones had not played in the majors in three years, and his two at-bats that day were so obscure that they were not recognized until 2004, when SABR researcher Dan Holmes found them in a box score at the Hall of Fame’s Giamatti Research Center.

The 1918 World Series began three days later on Sept. 5 – still the earliest calendar date in history for a Fall Classic contest. Though it was contested in front of war-distracted minds, the Series produced several enduring moments. The “Star Spangled Banner” was played at a big league game for one of the first times in history, starting a tradition that continues today. Babe Ruth extended his World Series-record scoreless streak to 29 and 2/3 innings. And of course, the Red Sox claimed the championship, their last in the 20th century.

Matt Kelly is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
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The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum features a collection of nearly 250,000 photographs like this one. Reproductions are available for purchase. To purchase a reprint of this photograph or others from the Photo Archive collections, please call (607) 547-0375 or email jhorne@baseballhall.org. Hall of Fame members receive a 10-percent discount.

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