The Corner

Sports

Red Sox Casualties of the Great War

Ernie Shore (left) and Grover Cleveland Alexander during the 1915 World Series (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

I touched on this in my book review on the homepage today, but whereas baseball fans are familiar with the toll of missed time from the Second World War on heroes of the game such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller, there is comparatively dim memory of the costs of the First World War. A couple of guys who had brief appearances in the majors died in the war, including one (Eddie Grant) who had a substantial career. The two men who share the National League’s career wins record (Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander) were heavily affected by the war. Mathewson was accidentally poison-gassed in training, wrecking his health. That effectively ended his managing career and probably at least accelerated his death from tuberculosis at age 45. Alexander, who would almost certainly have won 400 games if he hadn’t missed a year to war at his peak, damaged his pitching arm and suffered PTSD that formed a toxic combination with his alcoholism and epilepsy. The 1918 World Series between the Red Sox and Cubs might have turned out quite differently if Alexander had been available to pitch (although the Cubs had only been able to acquire him because of his draft status).

Less explored still is the guys whose playing careers were derailed. As it happens, three of Babe Ruth’s teammates on the 1918 Red Sox fit this category. One was Ernie Shore, linked in memory with Ruth for the day in 1917 when Shore pitched a kind of perfect game in relief of Ruth. Ruth had beaned the first batter of the game and been ejected; Shore got the runner caught stealing and retired the remaining 26 batters.

Fifty-eight and 33 with a 2.12 ERA from 1914-17, and 3–1 with a 1.82 ERA in the World Series in 1915–16, Shore was a valuable contributor and just 27 when he joined the Navy Reserves in 1918. He even got an officer’s commission, but was discharged when the war ended. But he never regained his pitching form, going 7–10 with a 4.39 ERA in two more seasons with the Yankees. As his SABR bio records:

“Ernie Shore came up from the South looking like a million dollars, but he was almost immediately stricken by a bad case of mumps,” the New York Tribune wrote that winter. “He never fully recovered during the season. He should be himself again in 1920.” The former sailor tried to explain his poor season at spring training in Jacksonville. He rightly noted to the New York Telegram that many other ballplayers returning from the service hadn’t played well in 1919. “The only thing I can attribute it to is that the hard army or navy drilling trained other muscles than those used in ball playing and tightened up some of the baseball muscles. That would apply particularly to pitchers,” Shore said. “I believe my arm is right again and I am hoping I will have one of my old-time Boston seasons.” Many years later, however, he acknowledged, “My arm was shot by that time.”

Then there’s Duffy Lewis, a star left fielder with the 1912, 1915, and 1916 teams who hit .302 at age 29 in 1917. From 1910–17, Lewis batted .289 with an OPS+ of 117 (i.e., 17 percent better than a league-average, park-adjusted hitter), worth 2.8 Wins Above Replacement by modern metrics. For years, before Fenway Park painted the Green Monster green in the 1940s, there was a hill leading up to the wall that was popularly known as “Duffy’s Cliff.” Lewis served in the Navy with Shore, and like Shore and Ruth he was a Yankee soon thereafter, but fell off to .272/.304/.352 (OPS+ of 78) in 1919-20, and washed out of the league in early 1921. Unlike Shore, Lewis found a second act in the Pacific Coast League, where he batted .403 in 1921. Playing in the thin air of Salt Lake City, Lewis adjusted to the power game Ruth had created; from age 33-36, he batted .378 and slugged .623, averaging 44 doubles and 23 home runs a year. In 1975, the Red Sox brought him back to Fenway to throw out the first pitch of a pennant-winning season.

Finally, team captain and first baseman Dick Hoblitzell, a 29-year-old veteran of a decade in the league who slumped early in 1918, lost his job to Ruth, and never played in the majors again after his service in the U.S. Army Dental Corps. Hoblitzell almost died of a bout of the Spanish flu while stationed in El Paso. Like Lewis and others of his era, he went to the minors for a few years when the big leagues wouldn’t take him any longer, and hit over .300 four straight years from 1921-24 in low minor leagues.

Shore, Lewis, and Hoblitzell were fortunate compared to Eddie Grant or even men such as Mathewson and Alexander, but they set aside their baseball careers to serve, and those careers were never the same.

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