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Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books series talks baseball and WWII

WHEELING — The horrors of World War I didn’t dim sports enthusiasts’ passion for America’s pastime.

Author Peter L. Belmonte appeared recently at the Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books series to talk about his book, “Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball During the Great War.”

During the war, a number of professional baseball players enlisted or were drafted into the armed forces and took their love of the game abroad. Pros joined amateurs to form teams at U.S. military installations at home and near the battlefields in Europe, he said.

Many minor leagues, facing financial difficulties and manpower shortages, folded after the United States entered the war in 1917, but major league teams continued to play. The New York Yankees performed a military-style drill — with team members carrying bats instead of rifles – as a show for spectators on opening day that year, he said.

The Selective Service Act of 1917 caused some pro players to enlist, while others took jobs in war-related industries to avoid the draft.

“There was much criticism of those men who avoided the draft,” Belmonte said. “Only about 56 professional players were legally exempted.”

More than 700 major leaguers and in excess of 1,000 minor league players served in the armed forces during World War I, he said. Hank Gowdy, a Columbus native and catcher for the Boston Braves, became the first active major leaguer to enlist when he joined the Ohio National Guard.

As the armed forces opened more training camps, thousands of men were involved in establishing baseball teams for the new units. Even on small military bases, every unit had a team. The bricklayers of the 11th Construction Company fielded a powerhouse team that went undefeated, he said.

Belmonte, a retired Air Force officer and veteran of Operation Desert Storm, showed the Wheeling audience a 1918 photograph of soldiers playing baseball while wearing gas masks. He also offered a photo of German prisoners of war playing with an American team.

As the American Expeditionary Forces arrived on the Western Front, Base Hospital 5’s team from Harvard was the first to play, holding games at Camiers, Frances, in the early summer of 1917, he said. Salvage Squad 6 played games closest to the battlefront.

Eight major league players, four from the Negro leagues and at least 27 minor league players died in the service, he added. Capt. Edward “Eddie” Grant -who had played for the Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants -was the first major league player killed in action.

Sgt. Robert “Bun” Troy, who grew up in McDonald, Pennsylvania, was killed in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Belmonte said. Troy had played in minor leagues before joining the Detroit Tigers. According to a military document, his mother lived in Weirton at the time of his death.

Lt. Alexander “Tom” Burr, who played with the New York Yankees, died in an airplane crash in France. Cpl. Ralph Sharman, a Philadelphia Athletics player, drowned during training in 1918. Major league players Harry Chapman, Larry Chappell, Harry Glenn and Newt Halliday died of illness during the war, he said.

After the war ended, American occupational forces continued playing baseball in Europe. Belmonte showed a photo of a huge crowd attending a game in Germany in 1919.

However, U.S. teams didn’t leave behind a legacy of baseball because Europeans didn’t have much interest in the game, he said.

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