War, Fever, and Baseball in 1918

Babe Ruth in 1919 (Library of Congress/Book cover via Amazon)
Reading that history should offer us a little inoculation against a recurrence of panic and embrace of government authoritarianism.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE R andy Roberts and Johnny Smith didn’t set out to write a book about the Spanish-flu pandemic of 1918, but the outbreak looms like the ghost at the banquet over their new book War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War. A recurring storyline that runs through the book’s narrative has a much more urgent feel today as America is in the grips of the worst pandemic since that terrible autumn.

War Fever looks at America in the First World War through the lens of three interwoven stories, all tied to Boston in 1918: baseball legend Babe Ruth, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Karl Muck, and Charles Whittlesey, the commander of the “Lost Battalion” in the Argonne Forest. One became an American legend during the war; one was destroyed by it; one met both fates. The three storylines never intersect and rarely share the same lessons, so the book has to rely on brisk storytelling and the reader’s interest in combining them into a larger picture. Along the way, there are many memorable cameo appearances, by figures including General Pershing, Walt Disney, Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, Billy Sunday, Damon Runyon, and Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

As America’s first war in Europe, the “Great War” marked a turning point for a nation not yet accustomed to projecting itself into the affairs of other great powers. America’s participation in the war, unlike its involvement in the Second World War, was short and belated: The nation declared war in April 1917, two and a half years into the conflict, and took over a year to raise and transport enough soldiers across the Atlantic to actually enter the fight in any numbers. But if America’s time on the Western Front was short, the war hung more heavily over the home front. The elements it mixed — a diverse, immigrant nation with a foreign war, mass mobilization of men with a viral pandemic, progressive social engineering with a wartime state — did not go together well.

Babe Ruth’s story is the best-known of the three, although readers who know his years as a Red Sox pitcher and Yankee slugger will be interested in a closer focus on the season when he was truly a two-way player, making the transition to the everyday lineup while remaining a key contributor on the mound. Allan Wood covered much of the same ground in his excellent 2000 book Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox, but Roberts and Smith integrate Ruth’s story more thoroughly into the wartime context. The war helped push reluctant Red Sox manager Ed Barrow to put Ruth in the daily lineup. As the military draft claimed hard-hitting outfielder Duffy Lewis and first baseman and team captain Dick Hoblitzell (neither of whom would be the same player when they came home), Barrow was too short of hitting to turn up his nose at the help, even if it meant fewer turns on the hill for the best lefthanded pitcher in the American League.

In the low-home-run Dead Ball Era, Ruth’s status as a pitcher gave him the freedom to swing the bat in a then-unorthodox pursuit of power. He did not merely transition to hitting in 1918, he transformed his patience at the plate: He went from 52 walks per 600 at bats in 1914–17 to 110 in 1918, and 140 in 1919, while cutting down his strikeouts. It was his home runs, though, that changed the world. Ruth would hit only eleven of them in 1918, but the final tally misses the timeline. He homered in four straight games shortly after entering the lineup in May, and in three straight games in June. Seven home runs in 17 games was an unprecedented pace in an era when the league leader would often barely clear double digits. Ruth cracked two home runs in two months off Walter Johnson, then the best pitcher in the league, the second of which was thought to be the longest ball ever hit in Griffith Stadium. These were the only home runs Johnson would surrender in over 600 innings over 1918 and 1919. Roberts and Smith follow the home-run fever that Ruth spawned that spring, with cables across the Atlantic reporting each day’s scores to the troops, along with news of whether the Babe bashed another big one.

The longballs didn’t last: As pitchers worked around him and the quality of the baseballs degraded owing to wartime materials, Ruth did not hit a single home run after July 1. He didn’t hit a home run at home all year. His assault on the record books would wait another year.

Along the way, Ruth dodged an array of distractions and dangers to his season. Some, like his carousing, womanizing, and a mid-season holdout, were self-inflicted. The conditions of the time also intruded. Ruth came down with the Spanish flu in mid May after a day at Revere Beach and was laid up for almost two weeks because a doctor overtreated his throat with silver nitrate. Then there was the war. Unlike in 1942, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Green Light Letter” let baseball go on as usual through four wartime seasons, baseball in 1918 faced questions much like those of today: what to do if the season just cannot be played. The secretary of war ultimately issued a “work or fight” order that shut the regular season down by September 1, a directive the owners generously interpreted to let them play the World Series after that.

The decision to wrap the season up early may have saved the World Series: As Roberts and Smith note, its end on September 11 was followed within 48 hours by a huge outbreak of the Spanish flu in Boston. Most sporting events were canceled in October. The power struggle over how to handle the shutdown also hastened the end of American League founding president Ban Johnson’s two-decade reign over the AL, as he lost out to the owners’ effort to keep the game going at all hazards. If Roberts and Smith overdraw some of their arguments about Ruth and baseball as a metaphor for industrial war, they offer plenty of detail on how the owners wrapped the game in the flag and the war effort in order to stave off public and political sentiment to shut them down.

The flu presented many of the same instincts we see today: callous disregard for the danger of big public gatherings, haste to embrace masks and home remedies, suspicion of foreigners. The New York Times opined that it ought to be branded “the German plague.” Packed army bases and huge crowds signing up for the draft were ideal breeding grounds for disease.

Karl Muck’s story reflects a darker side: suspicion that German immigrants were saboteurs. The illustrious conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra really was a German sympathizer. He befriended the German ambassador, had tried to enlist in the German army at age 55 when the war broke out, and sneered privately at “swine-like” Americans. He was also, like Ruth, a womanizer, which made him an easy mark for government investigators. But at a time when anti-German feeling ran so high that the Boston Pops stopped selling pretzels, Muck did not deserve the populist, xenophobic newspaper campaign against him that led to his detention in a federal internment camp. What FDR did to Japanese Americans in the Second World War was only a larger-scale version of what Woodrow Wilson did to German Americans in the First.

Muck, who was ultimately deported and lived to an old age in Hitler’s Germany, was fortunate compared to an immigrant German miner lynched by an ignorant mob. Roberts and Smith contrast Muck’s sad fate with that of the German-American Ruth, a son of Baltimore who grew up speaking fluent German but was embraced by Americans not as “Root” (as Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert would call him in later years) but as the all-American “Babe.”

Charles Whittlesey was from a different world: the Brahmin upper crust, Williams College, Harvard Law School, and a Wall Street banking practice. Scholarly, poetic, pedantic, and understated, Whittlesey was an unlikely symbol of the American warrior, yet he became perhaps the best-known American hero of the war as the commander of the legendary “Lost Battalion.” The six-week Battle of the Meuse-Argonne is little celebrated today, but it was the largest, bloodiest battle in American history and pivotal to bringing Germany to its knees. Whittlesey’s battalion was cut off from the rest of the American line when they alone in their sector reached their day’s objective deep in the Argonne. His calm authority held his men together through a sleepless weeklong ordeal of filth, deprivation, and fire from all directions. Even his carrier pigeons were inspired to feats of heroism.

Yet, Whittlesey became known back home for telling a German demand for surrender “Go to hell” — words he never claimed to have uttered. The newspapers didn’t need to embellish much else of his deeds, but they made a larger-than-life figure out of a man who wanted nothing of the Babe’s sort of celebrity. He was haunted by the deaths around him in the war, even one from the world of baseball: longtime Phillies and Reds third baseman Eddie Grant, who had known Whittlesey at Harvard Law, was killed leading one of the missions to rescue the Lost Battalion. Publicity-shy as he was, Whittlesey was seemingly tireless in commemorating and advocating for veterans after the war, but, unable to find peace, he eventually committed suicide at sea.

Neither war nor fever spares any element of society from our baser instincts. Americans in 1918 justly celebrated their heroes, but they also embraced destructive panics and government authoritarianism. Reading that history should offer us a little inoculation against a recurrence.

 

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