World War I broke out in late-July 1914, following the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, though it was not until April 1917 that the United States officially entered the war. America had remained neutral in the conflict, at least until German U-boats began to strike at ships with Americans passengers on them. In retaliation, the United States declared war on Germany mere days before the start of the 1917 baseball season.
As the war raged on, Major League Baseball proceeded with its full schedule, in spite of the fact that most minor leagues shut down for the season. Very few professional players joined the military at first, either through the draft or through voluntary enlistment. This, unsurprisingly, did not sit too well with the American public. Even as owners donated money to the war cause and gathered up baseball gear for soldier recreation, the public demanded greater sacrifices from organized baseball. In response, owners cut down on team travel, reduced the 1918 schedule from 154 games to 140, and trimmed player salaries. When the criticism continued, owners answered with the insistence that baseball played a role as the national pastime. Its contribution to the war effort, they claimed, was in its ability to keep American spirits high.
Early in the 1918 season, however, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker determined that being a baseball player was a non-essential occupation to the war effort. Furthermore, all draft-eligible men employed in “non-essential” occupations were required to apply for work directly related to the war or take a chance on being called into military service. Baseball owners managed to delay the “work or fight” requirement until the end of the season on September 1st, and continued fighting in order to gain a longer reprieve for World Series participants. In spite of its misgivings, the government relented.
Nevertheless, an average of fifteen players per team found themselves drafted or chose to
enlist prior to the deadline. All teams, as a result, sought out replacements, who were often younger, less experienced, and less talented. As the quality of play deteriorated, so did fan attendance in stadiums. The 1918 World Series ended up being a match up between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. It remains the only World Series to be played entirely in September (running from the 5th to the 11th), due to the premature end of the regular season, and a number of players threatened to strike due to low attendance.
Game 1 of the 1918 World Series became the first time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed at a Major League game. Thanks to the war effort, no doubt, baseball seemed eager to continue to prove its patriotic contribution to the cause. (“The Star-Spangled Banner” would become the national anthem in 1931.) The Red Sox went on to win the Series, four games to two, led by a young pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth.
Meanwhile, in Europe, players who found themselves participating in the war had a not-so-enjoyable experience. Grover Alexander, considered to be one of the top pitchers of the time period, suffered from loss of hearing, shell shock, and would later develop epilepsy. He would later be driven to alcohol abuse, as a result of his experiences during the war. Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson were part of a gas defense drill that turned out very badly when a number of soldiers missed the signal to put their gas masks in place. Ty Cobb managed to escape unharmed, but Mathewson inhaled a considerable amount of poison gas. His health deteriorated over time, and Mathewson died of tuberculosis seven years later. Also among those sent to Europe were George Sisler and Branch Rickey. In total, an estimated two hundred and fifty ballplayers ended up serving in the military, while others joined the reserves or found war-related work.
If the war continued into 1919, rumor had it, owners would be forced to cancel the 1919 season altogether. Fortunately for baseball, however, Germany formally surrendered on November 11, 1918, thus ending the First World War.
It seemed like it was back to business as usual for baseball. However, the 1919 season would prove in phenomenal fashion that this was hardly the case. While baseball managed to continue limping along during the war, the racetracks had been forced to shut down entirely. As a result, gambling in baseball skyrocketed. This, combined with the efforts of owners to recoup loss funds as a result of the war, would set off a domino effect that resulted in a metaphorical explosion by the end of 1919.