Baseball’s Connection to World War I and World II Helps Frame our History

During the first half of the 20th century, the United States fought in two World Wars. The nation’s identity and culture changed as more than 500,000 Americans lost their lives in these conflicts, and millions more became veterans. These wars changed families and altered the course of our nation’s history. But at least one aspect of American culture remained consistent throughout these tumultuous decades—America’s love of baseball.

The connections between America’s favorite pastime and World War I and World War II run deep. Below is a historical timeline showing just some of the moments in our history, where baseball and the wars collide.

July 4, 1918: In the midst of World War I, American Independence Day is officially observed in Britain for the first time. The celebrations include a baseball game at Chelsea Football Ground between the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army with the king and queen in attendance, along with 18,000 spectators. The Navy won the game 2-1.  During World War I over one million American troops passed through Britain, en route to the Western Front in France and Belgium.

October 9, 1918: Capt. Edward Grant, former Major League Baseball (MLB) player, is killed in France during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Grant, who served with the 77th Infantry Division, was hit by enemy artillery fire during an attempt to rescue the “Lost Battalion” in the Argonne Forest. He is buried at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Grant played in nearly 1,000 games with an overall batting average of .249.

October 16, 1918: Cpl. Bernard Leo Dolan and Sgt. Matthew S. Lanighan, both serving with the 78th Infantry Division, are killed during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The two battery mates–Dolan was a pitcher, Lanighan a catcher–hailed from Lockport, NY, and played for a variety of minor league and semi-professional teams before entering the war. Both men are buried at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. An article in the December 11, 1918 Lockport Union-Sun & Journal reads: “The two boys were inseparable pals. In the army they were allotted places in ranks side by side and thus they went into the battles of France.”

January 15, 1942: After receiving a message from MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis asking if the upcoming season should be canceled in the wake of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt responds in an unambiguous letter, writing  “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” The President’s response, in what became known as the Green Light Letter, ensured that the MLB would continue throughout the war.

January 22, 1944: Allied forces land at Anzio and Nettuno in Italy. In the months to follow, American soldiers stationed in the area introduce baseball to the local communities. To this day, baseball remains a popular sport in Nettuno, where Sicily-Rome American cemetery is located.

April 20, 1944: Capt. Elmer J. Gedeon dies during a bombing mission over France. He is just one of two MLB players killed during World War II.

December 17, 1944: During the Battle of the Bulge, 11 members of the African-American 333rd  Field Artillery Battalion become separated from their unit. The 11 are discovered by the German Army, tortured, and summarily executed. Technician 4th Class James “Aubrey” Stewart, a left-handed pitcher who played for the Piedmont Giants, an African-American baseball team based in West Virginia, is one of the victims. He is buried in Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery.

March 6, 1945: 1st Lt. Harry O’Neill is killed by a sniper on Iwo Jima. He is one of two MLB players killed during World War II.

Hundreds of men who served in World War I and World War II played professional baseball. Even more spent time playing for minor league teams. Most survived the war, and continued their careers on the field, but a small number paid the ultimate sacrifice, and never returned to the field.