A little more than a century ago, the Great War threatened the entire 1918 baseball season. In response, team owners such as Harry Frazee of the Boston Red Sox kept baseball off the casualty list by organizing a public-relations campaign promoting the sport’s patriotism. They combined this public imaging with a private lobbying campaign that aimed to convince politicians to let them finish the season in some form. The owners also cut player salaries, trimmed rosters and raised ticket prices across the board to offset the “war tax.” This push succeeded, saving the sport from economic cataclysm while giving Americans something around which to rally.
After the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Frazee bet $2,000 that the global conflict would be over before the 1918 season began. But during the winter months of 1917, his hubris turned into nervousness. As the war escalated and the demands for American manpower intensified, he feared that the draft would deplete his roster and derail his business. A full 90 percent of major league players were eligible for conscription. By January 1918, 11 Red Sox had already joined the defense industry or the armed services — the most in Major League Baseball. Frazee harbored nagging doubts about whether he could even field a team.
While most team owners feared bankruptcy, he wagered that Americans would be more inclined to seek a diversion in a time of war — if he could put a winning team together. So he made multiple trades and paid more than $60,000 cash to the Philadelphia Athletics to improve his roster.
Yet, publicly, the Red Sox owner made clear that he would do nothing to hamper the war effort. “We want to win the war, don’t we?” he asked a reporter. Baseball players were not above making the same sacrifices as other Americans — and they certainly should not receive an exemption from the draft. Country came before baseball.
Frazee made sure that his devotion to the cause remained visible once the season began. He transformed Fenway Park from a place of leisurely escape to a venue for instilling nationalism and militarism as baseball became more than a diversion. Baseball stadiums provided a stage for military preparedness and players asserted their public role as soldiers and citizens. Elaborate military parades, marching bands and recruiters appeared on baseball fields.
At Fenway, the Red Sox promoted Liberty Bond drives, honored soldiers and sailors and encouraged fans to enlist in the armed forces. Before the games began, Babe Ruth and his teammates, wearing full baseball uniforms, substituted bats for rifles and conducted military maneuvers under the instruction of a drill sergeant, a demonstration of patriotism that linked the national pastime to the country’s war effort.
Yet all the marching and posing was far more calculated than Frazee let on publicly. The owners based their decision to have players conduct military drills not on patriotic sentiments but on the bottom line. They hoped that if the players received formal military training of some sort, then the War Department might allow them to remain on their respective clubs through the 1918 season.
Behind the scenes, Frazee worked to ensure that this would be the case. Although he publicly stated he would not request special favors for his club from the government, he did long before the season began. In December, Frazee had contacted Capt. William R. Rush, commandant of the Boston Navy Yard, offering to donate the receipts from exhibitions that would benefit the Navy Relief Fund in exchange for exemptions for Red Sox players already serving in the Navy.
Awaiting a reply from Rush, Frazee also lobbied Franklin D. Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the Navy. He wanted Roosevelt to authorize a deferment for player-manager Jack Barry and left fielder George “Duffy” Lewis, both of whom were already enlisted in the Naval Reserve. Writing Roosevelt on Jan. 23, 1918, he reminded him of President Woodrow Wilson’s stated desire that baseball continue uninterrupted, but Wilson’s support fell short of exempting players from the draft. Without the services of eight players already serving in the Navy, Frazee wrote, “I might as well shut my gates.” Roosevelt sympathized with him and wrote Rush, suggesting that they consider helping Frazee but only if the commandant agreed that it was appropriate.
But neither Roosevelt nor Rush could help him because the Navy and the War Department deemed this special treatment inappropriate. Besides, none of the players serving at the Navy Yard wished to return to the club for fear that they would be vilified as “slackers” who had betrayed their country.
In May 1918, about a month after Opening Day, baseball received a blow: Provost Marshal Enoch Crowder, the head of the Selective Service, announced that by July 3 all draft-age men with deferred classifications would have to enlist in the military or obtain work in an “essential industry.” The War Department made its position clear: young, able-bodied men would either shoulder Springfield rifles on the fields of France or manufacture them on the home front. The “work or fight” order, as it was known, meant that ballplayers who were engaged in unproductive labor were likely to be drafted — and that put the season at risk. The demands for manpower simply overwhelmed Wilson’s preference that ballparks remain open during the war.
By July 19, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker made clear that baseball was not an essential industry, and therefore every draft-eligible ballplayer was subject to the work or fight order. After appeals from the baseball magnates, Baker finally agreed that Major League Baseball could finish a shortened season by Labor Day. He also gave the players on the pennant-winning teams until Sept. 15 to comply with the order. That meant that the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs could compete for the championship.
The 1918 World Series marked an important turning point in the relationship between sports and patriotism. For the first time in series history, fans sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a ritual that transformed baseball games into spectacles of patriotism. And the ticket returns helped the owners financially survive a season that almost didn’t happen.
In the end, the owners reluctantly accepted wartime limitations and turned them into a rallying cry that helped them pack stadiums. Today, the owners confront an even more daunting problem. In a world of social distancing, filling stadiums would be more than irresponsible. It would border on criminal.
Yet Major League Baseball has an opportunity to learn from history. During World War I and World War II, and in the aftermath of 9/11, baseball played an important role bolstering American nationalism. And as the owners discovered, uniting the nation in a time of crisis can also be good for business.