Remembering How The Great War Changed U.S. Sports
When America entered the Great War in 1917 — a war that began 100 years ago this summer — Major League Baseball faced a special problem: It had a hefty German heritage. Its best-known team, the New York Giants under John McGraw, was even sometimes called "McGraw's Prussians" for its tough, fighting spirit. Obviously, just as sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage," that had to go, too.
Among the many German-American ballplayers, the most prominent was Honus Wagner, known as The Flying Dutchman. "Dutch" didn't refer to the Netherlands, but was derived from Deutsch. Indeed, to this point a player named Charles Dillon Stengel was known as Dutch. Only after we went to war was Casey Stengel born.
A great many major leaguers joined the war effort. From the 16 teams, 255 players entered armed service, and others went to work in various war industries. There was even talk of canceling the 1918 season, but President Woodrow Wilson was a fanatical baseball fan, and ultimately it was decided that the national pastime was too important to the national psyche to be shuttered. However, it was ruled that the season would end on Labor Day.
A month later, on Oct. 5, only five weeks shy of the armistice, a third baseman named Eddie Grant was killed in action in the Argonne. He'd been known as "Harvard Eddie" — for his alma mater — and he was famous for his precise grammar, saying "I have it" when he called for a pop fly, instead of "I got it."
The most glamorous athlete to fall was Hobey Baker, who was recognized as by far the greatest American ice hockey player. Baker flew in the Lafayette Escadrille, received the French Croix de Guerre for exceptional valor, and is known, lyrically, as the last American to die in World War I. Six weeks after the armistice, Baker took a plane up for one final spin in France. It crashed, leading to the romantic myth that he had committed suicide because after the thrilling valor of the hockey rink and the gallant battles in the air with the Hun, life thereafter for him would be too tedious. Legend aside, he is remembered by the Hobey Baker Award, which is given to the nation's finest college hockey player.
The Great War over, over there, the Yanks came back, and baseball, the national pastime, began anew and was almost immediately taken to even higher heights by a pinstriped Yank of German-American heritage, one George Herman Ruth. They did not need to change his All-American nickname: Babe.