Remembering the First Major Leaguer to Die in War

Eddie Grant was the first MLB player to die in World War I. (via Charles M. Conlon)

Achilles wanted to go home. He was pissed off at Agamemnon because he felt the Greek king had slighted him, so the great hero sat in his tent playing his lyre and preparing to take his men and his ships back to Phthia. Agamemnon sent his best generals to try to convince Achilles to hang around. But Achilles stood firm, telling his buddies about the prophecy his mother laid on him before he left.

“There are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live forever; whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” Eventually, Achilles is stirred to action, and the prophecy is fulfilled. He secures his legacy by rallying the Greeks to victory but is undone, presumably, by his lack of protective footwear.

The point of Achilles’ story is this: Heroes are supposed to be remembered. That’s the bargain we implicitly make with them, that their sacrifices will become part of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Of course, heroes don’t engage in their adventures, be they large or small, because of that notoriety. They do it because it’s the right thing. And it’s because they do these right things that we laud them. George Washington beat the British and willingly gave up power. Ted Williams sacrificed years of his career to fight for his country. David Denson risked his career before it even truly began to come out as gay.

But in almost all cases, we eventually fall short in this bargain. Heroes are forgotten and become lost to time. There are simply too many. With more being created every day, sadly, we can’t keep up with them all. Perhaps, in atonement, we can revisit one this Memorial Day that we don’t talk about enough. We can dust off the legacy of the first confirmed major league baseball player to be killed in action, Eddie Grant, remembering him, and by extension, all those others whom we forget.

Grant was born into a blue-collar family in Franklin, Mass., on May 21, 1883. His dad was a contractor. After graduating from high school, he went to a prep school for a year, which is where we think he started playing ball regularly. From there, he enrolled in Harvard, where he played both baseball and basketball as a freshman. But that summer he played semipro ball in North Carolina and was declared ineligible. He was considered something of an average student, but he was serious about his studies. Grant took extra courses, graduated early, and enrolled in law school.

Unable to play for Harvard, Grant suited up for various clubs on campus and hired himself out over the summer to professional and semi-pro teams in the area. It’s in this capacity that he wound up making his major league debut. With Nap Lajoie suffering from blood poisoning, Cleveland was desperate for someone, anyone, who could fill in at second base in early August. The team brought in Grant, 22, for two games.

On Aug. 5, he had three singles in his debut, and The Boston Globe reported that he “put up a clever article of ball…This player has speed and gave every indication of filling the bill for Cleveland during the absence of Lajoie should he go with that team.” But he also “fell down in the pinch…as he fumbled a grounder that developed two runs and then lost a splendid chance to tie the score in the eighth” when he struck out with the tying run on third base. Grant was left behind when Cleveland blew town at the end of the series.

The next year, he was signed by the Phillies, and by 1907 he was in the majors. Grant was a pretty typical third baseman for the era. As Bill James explained in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, “until 1930, teams tended to emphasize hitting at second base, and fielding at third base, rather than the other way around.” The increased emphasis on bunting and the decreased importance of double plays naturally funneled light-hitting, good defense guys like Grant to third. So while Grant’s .249/.300/.295 career batting line was by no means good, it wasn’t atypical. Again, typical for the era and the position, Grant was well regarded for his ability to sacrifice bunt and run the bases and was considered one of the smartest players in the game.

Grant played regularly for the Phillies through 1910. That year, he also met Irene Soest, whom he married in February, 1911. He wrote “The happiest moment was when I put the ring upon her finger. She was to be mine for all time—not only in this life, but in the life to come. And then after signing a book and receiving happy wishes we were ready to start on our life together.” That winter, he was traded to Cincinnati in what was actually a pretty huge challenge trade. The Phillies and Reds each dealt their starting third baseman, a starting outfielder, and two solid starting pitchers. But the Phillies definitely got the better of the deal, getting both Hans Lobert and Dode Paskert, who both wound up being really valuable players for the next five years or so.

Grant and his wife made secret plans for him to retire after a year in Cincinnati. He would leave the game behind, return to Boston, and build a law practice in earnest. But that fall, while they were visiting Harvard for the annual Harvard/Yale football game, Irene suddenly died from an undiagnosed heart condition; they had been married only nine months. Grant was understandably devastated. His sister wrote later that, “The terrible shock and the ending of a truly great love did something to Eddie from which he never recovered.” He never spoke her name again but carried her picture for the rest of his life.

Instead of retiring, probably as a way to help himself cope, Grant went back to Cincinnati in 1912. He played poorly, however, and had to share the third base job with Art Phelan. John McGraw purchased him as a role player from Cincinnati in June of 1913. The Giants were on their way to winning 101 games and making it to the World Series for the third time in three years. The Little Napolean used him very sparingly, almost exclusively as a pinch hitter, pinch runner, and defensive replacement. He made two appearances in the World Series that year.

In Game Two, with the score tied in the 10th inning, Giants catcher Larry McLean singled to lead off the inning against Eddie Plank. McGraw brought Grant in to pinch run for McLean. Hooks Wiltse, who had been a really successful pitcher earlier in his career but who had here been inserted for Fred Snodgrass earlier in the game, bunted Grant to second base. Then Christy Mathewson, allowed to hit for himself, singled, scoring Grant with what would turn out to be the winning run. The series was tied at a game apiece.

But Philadelphia would win the next two and took a three-one lead into Game Five. The A’s were winning 6-5 in the bottom of the ninth, so the Giants had three chances against Chief Bender. Doc Crandall grounded out, and Fred Merkle flew out to right, bringing up starter Rube Marquard. McGraw subbed in Grant to pinch hit, but he popped out to the catcher, giving the A’s the series win.

Despite this, McGraw liked Grant a lot in the same way that he loved Mathewson, another immensely intelligent college boy. He kept him around for 1914 and 1915 in an expanded role as bench coach and utility infielder. Then Grant served as a minor league manager in 1916 while also reportedly lawyering a little.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But in April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, and the Axis powers and entered World War I. Grant immediately signed up for a private officers’ training program in New York and was determined to become a soldier.

I want to emphasize a few things here. First, Grant was 34 years old at the time and probably could have skipped the war. But he volunteered. In fact, he was so enthusiastic he joined the Plattsburgh Movement, a Teddy Roosevelt-supported project that was trying to ramp up the available pool of soldiers for a nation woefully unprepared for war. Because this movement was not supported by the federal government, Grant had to pay for his training himself.

“I am going to try to be an officer,” he wrote to his sister. “I don’t know how much of a success I shall make at it. I had determined from the start to be in this war if it came to us, and if I am not successful as an officer I shall enlist as a private, for I believe there is no greater duty that I owe for being that which I am—an American citizen.” But Grant did make it through officer training. He shipped out in 1918, a captain in H Company of the 307th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Division in the U.S. Army.

He was initially optimistic in letters home to his sister, but his enthusiasm waned quickly in the face of action. He wrote in the last entry of his journal, “I look forward to staying here to the end. All I hope is that I’m lucky enough to do that.” He, of course, was not.

In early October, the Allies launched an offensive in the Argonne Forest. Nine companies of Grant’s division, led by Grant’s friend from law school, Charles Whittlesey, pushed ahead. But their flanks became bogged down, and these nine companies were quickly cut off from the rest of the Allied army, behind enemy lines, and sustaining heavy losses. They were pinned down for days with little food or water and a rapidly diminishing supply of ammunition. They were forced to fight hand-to-hand at various points. They were bombed by their own artillery. And carrier pigeons were the only way to communicate back and forth.

For days, these men held out while American forces tried to reach them, only to be turned back. On Oct. 5, the day after the Germans had cabled Washington to negotiate a surrender, Grant and his men were attempting another rescue mission. At one point, his wounded commanding officer ordered Grant to take command of the battalion and the rescue effort. Soon, he and his men came under artillery fire. A shell burst just above Capt. Eddie Grant, killing him instantly. He was the first of five major leaguers to die in combat–though a total of 12 have died while on active duty–and certainly the most experienced. He is buried under a white marble cross in the Meuse-Argonne cemetery in France.

The Lost Battalion, as they came to be known, were finally rescued two days after Grant’s death. Between 500 and 600 soldiers had gone into the Argonne, but just 194 came back out. Of the rest, 197 were confirmed dead. At least 150 were either captured or missing. We think about them and their sacrifices even more rarely than we remember Grant’s, though they are no less deserving.

Grant was recognized by the Giants in 1921 with a memorial in center field. Just in front of the clubhouses in center field at the Polo Grounds, 483 feet from home plate (and actually in play), they placed a bronze plaque on a granite monument celebrating him as a “Soldier. Scholar. Athlete.” Grant’s sisters were there to dedicate it. McGraw laid a wreath. Grantland Rice wrote a poem for the occasion. Kenesaw Mountain Landis eulogized him, as did men he served with and representatives of his alma mater. Everyone was sure his memory would last forever.

Eventually, though, the Giants announced they were moving to San Francisco. In the madness after the last home game, fans swarmed the field after the last out, chasing their heroes back toward the clubhouse. During the pandemonium, someone pried off and absconded with the bronze plaque commemorating Eddie Grant’s life and sacrifice. It was never found, and Grant–like most heroes–faded from our consciousness. We stopped thanking him for what he gave up. He deserved so much better from us. All of our heroes do.

This Memorial Day, let’s live up to our end of the bargain.

References & Resources

  • Kevin Coyne, Smithsonian Magazine, “Ultimate Sacrifice”
  • Bill James, The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
  • Tom Simon, Society of American Baseball Research, “SABR Bio Project: Eddie Grant”
  • Richard Slotkin, Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality
  • Boston Daily Globe, “Play In Their Old-Time Form: Champs Wipe Out a Big Handicap and Win From Cleveland by Hard Hitting,” Aug. 5, 1905
  • Boston Daily Globe, “Unveil Memorial to ‘Eddie’ Grant: Monument to War Victim
    at Polo Grounds,” May 31, 1921
  • Boston Daily Globe, “Capt. ‘Eddie’ Grant Killed In Action: First Major League Ball Player to Fall in France,” Oct. 22, 1918

Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for Baseball Prospectus and co-hosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.
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5 years ago

Great article, but you’ve got your labeling of the armies wrong. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire were the Central Powers, not the Axis, and the US was on the side of the Triple Entente.

Richard Chester
5 years ago

There is a street in the west Bronx named after him, Edward L. Grant Highway.

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5 years ago

Remember his merit

Marc Schneider
5 years ago

Very moving article. Thanks.

5 years ago

Great story, thanks.

Andrew Perpetua
5 years ago

I have a newspaper snippet about Eddie Grant that I’d like to share. This is from Syracuse Herlad, October 23, 1918 written by Damon Runyon:

With the American First Army, Oct. 23.- Harved’s Eddie Grant, the old Giant third baseman, sleeps in the forest of Argonne, only a few yards from where he fell. His grave is marked by some stones and a rude little cross tenderly reared by his men.

Eddie died leading his battalion, in a desperate fight to relieve Whittlesey’s beleaguered men two weeks ago. He was commanding a company of Three Hundred Seventy infantry from Camp Upton, when the battle began.

For four days and four nights, his company was part of the command which was trying to get to Whittlesey. On the morning of the day that relief was effected, Eddie was so worn out he could scarcely move. Some of his brother officers noticed him sitting on a stump, with a cup of coffee in front of him.

Two or three times, they say, he tried to lift the cup, but he was so weak he couldn’t do it. Finally with a terrific effort, he gulped down the coffee, when the command came to move.

He stepped off at the head of his company as briskly as ever. On the way through the forest, fighting at every step, Grant came upon stretcher bearers carrying back the major commanding the battalion, who had been wounded. The major called to Grant:

“Take command of the battalion!”

Eddie Grant was then one of the few officers left. The major had hardly spoken when a shell came through the trees, dropping two lieutenants in Grant’s company. Eddie shouted:

“Everybody down,” to his men, without hunting for cover himself. He called for more stretcher bearers for the two lieutenants. He was calling and waving his hands when a shell struck him. It was a direct hit.

Officers and men say Eddie’s conduct during the fight was marvelous. He never slept while the drive for Whittlesey’s position was on.

The writer yesterday saw Christy Mathewson, Grant’s old teammate and his roommate while Eddie was with the Giants.

Matty was greatly saddened by the news. He is a captain in the gas corps.

Andrew Perpetua
5 years ago

One other thing I’d like to share. Eddie Grant served as the captain of many men from New York, including a police officer who served as a security for the Giants. This police officer stated on many occasions that there was never a single bit of difference between the way Eddie Grant walked into combat and the way he walked from the dugout to his position at third base.

Eddie Grant’s final words were “stretcher, stretcher, stretcher” as he was desperately trying to get aid for his fallen comrades.

Another bit of trivia: The Giants were a bit upset that the league wouldn’t allow them to wear a golden star. At the time, if a player died in battle, the team would wear a golden star on their uniform, and on their team flag, to commemorate the loss. However, since Grant wasn’t a member of the Giants when he signed up, the Giants were refused this right to honor his death.

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5 years ago

Heroes are supposed to be remembered

Marc Schneider
5 years ago

Wars make heroes but it’s a terrible price to pay. As the saying goes, old men start wars and young men (now women too) fight them.

5 years ago

Didn’t the Eddie Grant plaque turn up in Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ a few years back…or was that some sort of hoax?

Jason S.
5 years ago
Reply to  Mike

This website, which I admit I know nothing about, claims to have acquired it from its “owners” in Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ.

5 years ago

Can you list the 12 players who died in the war

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5 years ago

Although he was actually in Australia, Bieber was spotted wearing a coordinating all-black outfit from his Purpose Tour line with a vibrant pair of blue Nike sneakers

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5 years ago

He is a good man

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5 years ago

Thank you so much for commenting, it is lovely and really makes my day!