Hall of Famers served in World War I Gas & Flame Division
It began with tear gas in the summer of 1914, and by 1917, the German, French and British were assailing one another with deadly chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas.
The United States responded by creating the Chemical Warfare Service in the summer of 1918 to combat the gas attacks. The elite corps, commonly called “The Gas & Flame Division,” recruited top athletes to fill its ranks.
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Mathewson had written Reds owner Garry Herrmann that he would be returning in time for the 1919 campaign, but Hermann had not received his letter and hired a replacement. So Mathewson accepted a position as assistant manager under John McGraw with the team he had starred for as a pitcher, the New York Giants. But a cough that had stricken him after the botched gas-mask drill continued to dog him. His fading health forced him to retire from baseball after the 1920 season.
Doctors examined him in 1921 and diagnosed him with tuberculosis. The disease had killed his brother in 1917, and it is possible that Mathewson had been exposed to it through him. It is also possible that the mustard gas he had inhaled had weakened his respiratory system, making him more vulnerable to contracting the disease.
Hhe was sent to the tuberculosis sanitarium in the Adirondacks mountain village of Saranac Lake, N.Y., where he was not expected to live more than six weeks.
Mathewson spent two years convalescing and felt strong enough to return to baseball in February 1923 when Emil Fuchs, the new owner of the Boston Braves, named him president of the team. His physicians cautioned Matthewson not to work himself too hard. But he did not know any other way. In the spring of 1925, he caught a cold he couldn’t shake, and his cough returned. He went back to Saranac Lake to recuperate.
In September, it looked like Mathewson might be improving, but then he took a turn for the worse and on Oct. 7, the first day of the 1925 World Series played between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators, Mathewson died at the age of 45. The official cause of death was tuberculosis penumonia.
The following day, before the second game of the World Series, players from the Pirates and Senators wore black armbands to honor Mathewson. The 44,000 fans at Forbes Field stood while the flag was lowered to half-mast and all sang “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Cobb attended Mathewson’s funeral two days later in Lewiston, Pa. The Pennsyvlvania native was laid to rest in a cemetery next to his alma mater, Bucknell University, where Mathewson had starred for both the football and baseball teams.
“(He) looked peaceful in that coffin,” Cobb said. “That damned gas got him and nearly got me.”
John Rosengren is a freelance writer from Minneapolis