Placeboball: When Baseball Proves Itself Nonessential

As great as baseball is, it can’t always be what we need, as was seen on May 26, 1918 at Weeghman Park, which is now Wrigley Field). (via Public Domain)

On May 26, 1918, a few of the approximately 24,000 fans in attendance at Chicago’s Weeghman Park (as Wrigley Field was then called) for the tilt between the New York Giants and the Cubs added an angry variant to the annals of the seventh-inning stretch. When the band launched into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one man, a “slacker or German sympathizer or conscientious objector or something of the sort,” failed to rise to his feet.

This was a provocative act in a time of conflict; the United States had been officially enrolled in the Great War since April of the previous year. Accosted by nearby fans, the man claimed to be physically incapable of standing, but, reported the Chicago Tribune, “when he refused to take off his hat that was too much.” A physical altercation ensued. Reports differ as to whether soldiers or sailors in the stands were among those who set upon the man or those who rescued him. Either way, he had to be taken out of the park for his own safety.

Major League Baseball and its fans like to celebrate the game as being not only the national pastime, but the great national unifier, but at that very moment, as dis-unified fans were litigating with their fists the very (and sometimes still) controversial issue of whether the United States should have entered into the war, the government was balancing the reality of that claim against other, more practical factors and finding it wanting. Thanks to a challenge to the government by Eddie Ainsmith, a career .207/.271/.275-hitting reserve catcher with the Washington Senators, baseball’s very right to exist at a time of national crisis, the very sort of crisis the game is supposedly designed to soften or ameliorate, was in doubt.

It’s easy for a baseball fan to be sentimental about baseball. The game makes its legacy a key part of its appeal, from Old Timers’ Days to throwback uniforms to retired numbers on every ballpark’s walls. The measured pace of the long season is like a mother’s reassuringly steady heartbeat to a newborn. The game’s basic continuity means that, though the ballparks mostly postdate his career and the uniforms are made of fibers he never wore, it’s not unrealistic to sit in the stands, squint your eyes, and pretend, if for a moment, that the left-handed hitter at the plate is Ted Williams.

Thus is the past always present in the game. Simultaneously, team loyalty, often passed from generation to generation, creates a feeling of community that can also be intensely parochial. The total effect is emotionally conservative; in an environment in which continuity with the past and lack of change is celebrated, it is easy to be resistant to change. “Everything is okay, see? We’re going on as we always have.” In such a state of mind, one can be lulled into believing that fires still burning have been put out and to be resentful of those who would argue to the contrary.

Google a simple phrase like “baseball heals country,” and you will be rewarded with countless headlines about the aftermath of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings, or even the June 2017 shooting at the Republican team’s practice for the annual charity Congressional Baseball Game. “Much of the ritual of public healing after the 9/11 attacks came at big-league baseball games, pastime as patriotism,” columnist Erik Brady wrote in USA Today last June 15 after the latter shooting in Virginia. “…Baseball is our everyday game, the one most connected to our past, always ready to get us back to the rhythms of life. Play ball.”

Those “play ball” moments that symbolize a return to normality are real, though significantly only to those predisposed to receive them. Those less attuned to the game may not ever get the news. Further, such sentimental evocations of baseball beg the question of whether or not the ritual of public healing is the same as actually being healed. If momentary remission, however much a relief, is tantamount to a cure, and when a promise that the “rhythms of life” go on despite the carnage about us is less reassurance than narcotizing distraction.

What if the only population being healed and unified are majoritarian baseball fans who are inclined to be affected by the game in the first place and might not have even needed the help? Were that to be the case, then all the claims for the game’s restorative powers would amount to special pleading for a kind of anesthetization only they can feel and the praise of community feeling in a group to which they already belonged.

Certainly, in the case of the May 26, 1918 game in Chicago, convening fans of disparate political beliefs and varying definitions of patriotism in the erstwhile friendly confines of the future Wrigley Field hurt rather than healed and fostered division rather than unity. At the time, much of the populace, spurred on by George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, the Federal government’s official war propaganda machine, was intensely agitated by the sorts of people mentioned in the Tribune’s coverage of the “near riot”—slackers (men of draft age and condition who had avoided military service), German sympathizers (disloyalty, particularly among the country’s huge population of recent immigrants), and conscientious objectors (those refusing service for reasons of personal morality). Tolerance of dissenting viewpoints was seemingly too much to ask despite the supposedly reassuring presence of such luminaries as John McGraw, Ross Youngs, Fred Merkle and Hippo Vaughn, the last an excellent left-hander who held the Giants to one run over nine innings while striking out seven in a victorious outing.

Just two days after the brawl in Chicago, the national government—in the form of Secretary of War Newton Baker and his proxy, Gen. Enoch Crowder—held the knitting-together aspect of baseball in the balance and decided other priorities had a greater claim on the nation. It was Crowder’s job to supervise the execution of the Selective Service Act of 1917, the law that sought to enlarge the Army from its paltry peacetime size of 108,000 men, a total that barely ranked among the 20 largest militaries in the world. The First World War was fought on a vastly larger scale than that. In 1916, the British suffered over 57,000 casualties at the Battle of the Somme on the first day alone. Clearly, the United States had a great deal of work to do if it was to get in the fight in numbers sufficient to have an impact.

It sounds like a simple problem to solve. Need an army? Enact a draft, call up every able-bodied man between the ages of 21 and 30 (these were the age ranges included in the 1917 Act), and hand them a gun. In practice, it’s much more complicated. “Selection,” wrote Crowder, “is the process of scientific distribution of manpower in time of war between the armies and the industries of a nation.”

Whatever your military goals, you also have to leave enough capable people behind to make the guns you’re going to give to your draftees, as well as the bullets that go with them, the uniforms they’ll wear, the food they’ll eat, and so much more, while also leaving sufficient production capacity to feed, clothe, and, yes, entertain the civilian population. This was especially difficult at a time when industry was, at least initially, largely hostile to the idea of employing women.

An additional complication is that not everyone in the eligible draft categories will want to go, and they often will have good reasons, or seemingly good ones, such as cases of hardship resulting from family dependents. If a fellow attested no one would be around to take care of his widowed, rheumatic mother, he might escape a trip to the front lines. There were, of course, many who also lied about such status or engaged in sham marriages so as to escape the draft.

This led to the constant fear of “slackers” and a tug of war between the country’s military needs, civil liberties, and the right to privacy. For example, in January of 1918, the New York Times reported under the headline, “SLACKER MARRIAGE IS NOT AN EXCUSE,” that in cases of marriage entered into subsequent to the enactment of the draft law, the state draft board was authorized “to disregard such marriage as a basis of deferred classification unless the board is satisfied that the marriage relations was entered into without intent to evade military service.” This no doubt led to some very embarrassing questions being asked (“Has the marriage been consummated? If so, when, and what proof do you have? Have you consummated it since?”), but it is a sign of how seriously manpower issues were taken that the government used the war as a license for voyeurism.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Finally, not everyone of military age and physical condition was invited to the fight. Sometimes that was a result of the wide variance in the way the local draft boards that reviewed each application behaved—some were very strict with exemptions, others inexplicably lenient, so one board might enlist 75 percent of potential draftees and another five percent. There were also countless cases of simple prejudice—boards had a strange habit of finding reasons to turn down African-American draftees. And often, potential soldiers were excluded on an official basis.

“Exemptions might also be granted by any government department to men or classes of men,” Crowder wrote, “employed or qualified for employment in any work certified by the department to be work of national importance,” which is to say they were deemed, vaguely, “essential to the war effort.”

From the start, this was a difficult balancing act with little national consensus as to how to mediate among all of these conflicting priorities, definitions and rules. Crowder had before him the example of Great Britain, in the war since its 1914 commencement. Britain had leaned too far toward filling the military ranks and had sapped industrial production. Yet, inclining too far the other way would cripple the army. As Crowder argued in 1917,

A vast production on our farms and in our factories is necessary in order to support military operations on the field of battle. But certainly no man can urge in this day of trial and sacrifice that this nation should deliberately neglect to make itself effective in the field of military operation on the plea that our greatest contribution to the cause of humanity is in attaining economic supremacy. To do so would be to relegate the United States to the rule of sutler of the fighting nations. We shall not confine our participation in this conflict to the baking of bread and the sharpening of swords of other men. This war will be won militarily on the devoted field of France. The blow that shatters the German line and extinguishes autocracy from the face of the earth will be the blow of man’s right arm and not the insidious stroke of the shrewd trader.”

Nor, Crowder might have said, would the Germans be defeated by the insidious stroke of Ty Cobb’s bat or the potential benefits to the gross national product of keeping hot dog vendors employed for the duration, but that thought was rapidly germinating.

As with all eligible Americans, ballplayers had been subject to the draft since its enactment, but they had been handled by their draft boards on a case-by-case basis. Baseball’s status as a whole, and if it was one of those industries “essential to the war effort,” had yet to be adjudicated. On May 28, 1918, two days after the altercation in Chicago, Crowder finally forced the issue.

In order to sweep up the so-called slackers, an amendment that broadened the reach of the Selective Service Act gave the general the authority to issue a “work or fight order.” As The New York Times explained, “The new order is aimed at idle men of draft age hanging around the pool rooms and race tracks, against men of draft age affiliated with the [Industrial Workers of the World labor] movement, men serving food or drink in hotels, public places, and social clubs, elevator operators, doormen, footmen, ushers, and persons connected with games, sports, and amusements.” “MAY BE BLOW TO BASEBALL,” The Times added in a supplementary headline. All men in nonessential occupations had to be in their new roles, whether in the military or in a war-important industry, by July 1.

“Actual performers in legitimate concerts, operas, or theatrical performances” were excepted. Baseball didn’t fall into this category because, lacking unified governance, it hadn’t asked to be placed there, whereas theatrical producers and the nascent movie studios had successfully argued their productions supported a large and economically important industry that provided income not just to actors but an army of associated occupations from costumers to set-builders.

The game was split between owners and executives who wanted to carry on and those who wanted to shut down immediately, even before the government asked them to do so. National League president John Tener argued that baseball shouldn’t be termed non-essential, “simply because what it produces is intangible.” (It was also, he added, giving the game away, not quite a sport but rather, “a business in which there is a great investment of money,” an argument that had proved persuasive when it came to other entertainment industries.) Conversely, American League president Ban Johnson was almost perversely eager to abort the season. “If I had my way,” he said, “I would close every theatre, ballpark, and other place of recreation in the country and make the people realize that they are in the most terrible war in the history of the world.” Baker declined to make a ruling, waiting for a definitive test case.

Paralyzed but playing on, the magnates waited for Crowder or Baker to say something. A decision finally came courtesy of Eddie Ainsmith. Ainsmith’s draft board had ruled that he had to fight because baseball was “non-productive” in the sense of the draft laws. Ainsmith’s appeal eventually reached Baker’s desk, and on July 19 he dropped the hammer, calling the ruling of Ainsmith’s board “plainly correct.” With that affirmation, he ended the possibility of ballplayer deferments based on the whims of local boards. There was now a uniform rule for all players, and the rule was, “You can do anything for the war effort but play baseball.”

Baker’s ruling addressed arguments that baseball was, of all non-essential industries, entitled to a special, sentimental status because as, “baseball has been accepted as the national sport of the people of the United States…the cessation of professional baseball would work a social and industrial harm far out of proportion to the military loss involved by the exemption of the limited number of players in question.” He responded,

The stress of intensive occupation in industry and commerce in America, in normal times, is such as to give the highest importance and social value to outdoor recreation…Certainly a very large preponderance of the audiences in these great national exhibitions are helped, physically and mentally, and mad more efficient, industrially and socially by the relaxation that they there enjoy.

But the times are not normal…we must all make sacrifices, and the nonproductive employment of able-bodied persons useful in the national defense, either as military men or in the industry and commerce of our country, cannot be justified…Our people will be resourceful enough to find other means of recreation and relaxation…and they will be wise and patriotic enough not to neglect the recreation necessary to maintain their efficiency merely because they are called upon, in the obvious public interest, to sacrifice a favorite form of amusement.”

Shorter Baker: Never mind healing, never mind unity, never mind magic baseball anything. Sometimes you just have to confront a problem in the most direct way possible. As he told Congress that August, “There are two ways of fighting this war. One is to make every possible effort and win it soon, and the other is to proceed in a somewhat more leisurely fashion and win it late.” At that point, Congress expanded the draft-eligible age boundaries from 21 to 30 years old to 18 to 45.

With virtually every player now eligible to be drafted, the owners dithered among themselves and dickered with the government, eventually coming to an agreement that the regular season would wrap at the beginning of September, when teams had played about 125 games, the World Series to be played immediately thereafter. In the event, the Red Sox beat the Cubs in six games. When Boston first baseman Stuffy McInnis gloved the last out of Game Six on September 11, the game went dark. No one knew for how long. With the war likely to go on indefinitely, it was assumed there would be no baseball in 1919.

As it turned out, a combination of American-infused offensives, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and collapsing support on the German home front brought the war to a shockingly swift conclusion that November. There would be a 1919 season, albeit an attenuated one of only 140 games. It might have been better had there not been a season at all, for rather than healing the nation the corrupt Chicago White Sox wounded it all over again, tampering, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “with the faith of fifty million people with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

We tell ourselves stories for many reasons, but that doesn’t make them honest. On Peter, Paul, and Mary’s 1964 album In Concert, Peter Yarrow jokingly identified three basic elements of a successful children’s song: “Simplicity, so the child can understand the song…pathos, to prepare the child for later traumatic experiences…repetition, to give the child a false sense of security.” This formula is exactly the same as any story of reassurance, including those about baseball. In all cases, truth is absent from the list of priorities.

Regardless of whether the date is 1947 and Jackie Robinson is breaking the color line, 1974 and Hank Aaron is breaking Babe Ruth’s record, or 2007 and the release of the Mitchell Report is creating baseball’s own brand of McCarthyism, or even today with basic, jingoistic appeals to a reflexive, unreflective patriotism—from hoary recordings of a long-dead Kate Smith belting out Irving Berlin’s invocation of a besieged nation in need of divine intervention to camo uniforms—baseball can sow discord as effectively as it distributes bobblehead souvenirs.

What often emerges in such times of crisis is a drive for conformity. In effect, the traumatic national event can be made to serve as a Trojan Horse to force a point of view. As George Creel wrote after the war, “When I think of the many voices that were heard before the war and are still heard, interpreting America from a class of sectional or selfish standpoint, I am not sure that, if the war had to come, it did not come at the right time for the preservation and reinterpretation of American ideals.” In reaction to this, historian David M. Kennedy wrote,

Clearly the paramount idea in Creel’s mind, as in the minds of many of his countrymen, was the ancient American longing for a unanimous spirit, for a single, consensual set of values that would guarantee the social harmony, not to mention the economic efficiency, of the nation… And no fact seemed more insulting to the ideal of unity in 1917 than the gaudy presence in American society of millions of unassimilated immigrants.”

In other words, the war was a vehicle to enforce a consensus that had always proved elusive. Even at the time of the Revolutionary War, it has been estimated that no more than one-third of Americans supported the cause of independence. In 1918, as in 2018, conflating dissent with unpatriotic feeling was the method of choice for solving the problem.

The events of 1918 have a ghostly echo in many of our present-day cultural-political disputes, but whatever side one takes, it is clear that brute force is inferior to reconciliation and understanding. Those long-ago Cubs fans who objected to their fellow spectator grabbing a chair while the anthem was playing might have been correct in inferring what his gesture meant, but had they somehow succeeded in beating him into obeisance they would have won an empty victory: Standing loyally at attention while harboring thoughts of dissent may make for patriotic optics but not for a patriotic reality. To achieve that, you need more than a song and a stadium.

Thus, conformity is not necessarily synonymous with a healing or unifying action. Nor is a momentary return to normality at a time of crisis or tragedy, however much a relief, a permanent return. The activities of daily life have been restored in the playing of a ballgame, but daily life also goes on in a thousand other ways, including in acts of dissent that will continue so long as the underlying issues go unaddressed. Any group action or “consensus” that results from compulsion is by definition not unity but the illusion of unity. The national pastime is a great game that contains depths that far exceed mere athletic performance, but only a quack doctor gives you a placebo and tells you you’re cured. We will remain divided regardless of what happens between the lines.

“The times are not normal,” Newton Baker said, eerily anticipating a cry we have heard frequently today. As he implied, at such times our distractions, however beloved, can be an impediment to solving our problems. We like to think otherwise, but in this sense, baseball remains, as Baker declared almost exactly 100 years ago, non-essential.

References and Resources

  • The Chicago Tribune
  • The New York Times
  • Chronicling America at the Library of Congress
  • Enoch Crowder, The Spirit of Selective Service, The Century Co (New York, 1920)
  • David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society, Oxford University Press (New York, 1980)
  • Jim Leeke, From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War, Nebraska (Lincoln, 2017)
  • Alan Wood, Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox, Writers Club Press (New York, 2000)
  • Margaret Wood, “World War I: Conscription Laws,” The Library of Congress Blog

Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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5 years ago

Wonderful writing.

5 years ago

This is too good for a baseball website (no offense meant), excellent writing!

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

This piece is more about an era that was as close to authoritarianism as this country has ever come to. The word “conformity” is brutally accurate. This was a war that was unnecessary and the Wilson apparatchiks used the federal government as a sort of police apparatus to suppress and punish dissent while at the same time coercing compliance with their unconstitutional commands. Baseball’s role in this fiasco was minimal at best. The notion of baseball as nostalgia is a good thing. Most grown men look back at baseball as a re-affirmatino of their childhood innocence. The look of perfectly manicured green grass with while chalk lines, the sound of the crack of the bat and the umpire’s bellowing voice combined with the taste of a hot dog and roasted peanuts brings back thoughts and recollections that far surpass one’s current drudgery. All in all, an informative contribution about the era of persecution and bellicosity.

Paul G.member
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

I agree that World War I was unnecessary, in the sense that it really never should have been started in the first place. However, once the Germans started sinking US merchant ships with U-boats, the United States was going to enter the war. The other options were to either let the Germans sink US merchant ships with impunity or cease trade with Europe, both of which would have been intolerable to any sovereign nation with any ability to do something about it. The fact is there was very little interest in the United States in getting involved in the war in just about every sector of the United States until the Germans forced the issue. For that matter, the Germans expected this result, but figured the submarines would starve out the Allies before the United States could change the outcome of the war. They greatly overestimated their submarine fleet’s abilities and greatly underestimated when the United States would be a major factor.

As to the comments on baseball and Woodrow Wilson, I agree wholeheartedly.

Paul G.member
5 years ago

I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the First World War to check out the YouTube channel The Great War. It has been reporting on the developments in the war on a week-by-week basis, exactly 100 years from the real events. There are also many specials about specific topics. Oddly, baseball has not been one of them as best I can tell, despite the fact that the man in front of the camera did have a baseball YouTube channel for a while.

I will also note that considering what happened in other countries, even neutral countries, during the war, the sitter here should be thanking his lucky stars he has it so good.

5 years ago

Very interesting, and well written. I would offer a minor caveat. Baseball cannot unify a nation; of course that is nonsense. But it has more modest virtues. More than once at a ballgame or a bar, I have had extremely enjoyable conversations about the game we are watching and about baseball in general with someone sitting by me. Often, I strongly suspect that if we were talking about gay rights, abortion, or the next election, our conversation would be a lot less friendly or even impossible. So baseball does allow us to share an experience and make a connection with people with whom we might otherwise have no avenues for communication. That is worth something at least, I would argue.

Las Vegas Wildcards
5 years ago

Regardless of one’s political views, it’s simply not too much to ask a multi-million dollar athlete to stand out of respect for the country which gave him that opportunity, and the military. Players today have plenty of more appropriate outlets to express their opinions.

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5 years ago

This piece is more about an era that was as close to authoritarianism as this country has ever come to. The word “conformity” is brutally accurate. This was a war that was unnecessary and the Wilson apparatchiks used the federal government as a sort of police apparatus to suppress and punish dissent while at the same time coercing compliance with their unconstitutional commands.