The sport of baseball flourishes today with millions of fans around the world enjoying the Major Leagues every season. However, big league baseball had a number of obstacles to overcome to get where they were, with an early one being the “Great War”—World War I. The intersection of the game and the first true global conflict is detailed in fascinating detail in Jim Leeke’s From the Dugout to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War (University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 238 pp).
Baseball has traditionally held the identity as “America’s Game,” Which was a problematic factor when the war broke out. Most owners and players wanted the game to go forward, but patriotism was fervent around the country and concessions had to be made. Leeke does a wonderful job in detailing the part that the majors played to ensure their allegiance to country was made known and didn’t alienate them from the fan base they had worked so hard to gain.
Although the majority of players did not serve in the military, many players held “essential duty” government jobs, which was often as basic as playing for a manufacturer’s company baseball team. Ultimately, more than a hundred major leaguers saw active duty, with a number dying while in service. The politics of it all were part of a greater debate on duty and what was the right way to handle baseball while the war rages across the globe.
A unique way that Major League Baseball was able to project its patriotism was through its use of turning teams into drilling units. Teams hired military drill masters to teach players who to drill like a proper Army unit, using baseball bats instead of actual guns. In many cases they became quite good and participated in contest to raise money for the war effort.
Leeke has strongly researched his subject and it shows throughout. He replays the various twists and turns that happened throughout baseball, as the majors struggled to justify remaining open during the struggle, while other lesser leagues had to close seasons early or simply went out of business for lack of product.
From the Dugouts to the Trenches is a fascinating read that ties baseball to the larger societal issues of the time. This should be a must-add for any serious baseball historian’s library and will likely only increase the curiosity of readers into this particular time frame in baseball history.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.
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