1918: The MLB Goes to War

The league was already in spring training this year when quarantining started across the country in March. It became apparent that the season would at least have a late start and most likely be a bit shorter than the normal 162 game season. It turns out there would be no sports at all for about four months which, it turns out, would be a little bit shorter than I needed to finish this research project on the six times MLB seasons have been cut short and a few other times seasons have been interrupted in some capacity. I have been scouring the baseball biography encyclopedia, SABR biographies, baseballreference.com and other searches between kids' naps while typing away since the start of the shutdown. While I generally write about the great players that haven't made it into the Hall of Fame, I couldn't tell this story of baseball without including Hall of Famers, and for some of the older guys their stories have faded from memory as well. I try to highlight award winners, guys that should have won awards, the winning teams and the teams that made great impacts on their strange times while also shedding some light on the reasons these seasons were interrupted as well. Writing this took so much time that I would write about something happening in years past and those same themes, almost every theme, would find its way into the current events of the country or the news of baseball. And hey, while I'm at it, I'll be adding a whole bunch of guys to the Hall of Good Enough as well.

Highest Paid Player: Ty Cobb, $20,000

US President: Woodrow Wilson

In The News

  • The Russian Czar and his family are killed by revolutionaries

  • German Keiser Abdicates

  • Japan Invades the Russian City of Vladvostok, holding it until 1922

First Class Postage Stamp: $0.03

Number of Games: 123-131

Number of Teams: 16

Teams of 1918: NL: Cubs, New York Giants, Reds, Pirates, Brooklyn Dodgers, Phillies, Boston Braves, Cardinals. AL: Red Sox, Indians, Washington Senators, Yankees, St Louis Browns, White Sox, Tigers, Philadelphia Athletics.

The World Series Era of baseball started in 1903 and over those years the game has seen wars, pandemics, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and labor disputes. On a few occasions the season has been delayed or cut short. On a few of those occasions missed games were not made up and the season was shortened. This year we are facing a very different season than ever before, almost half the length of the previous shortest seasons baseball had ever seen.

1918 was a really strange year. There was a World War, a flu pandemic, the Red Sox played the Cubs in the World Series and hamburgers ate people. World War I had been going on in Europe for a number of years before the United Stated declared war in April 1917. Before the declaration there had been movements toward neutrality around the US, despite a number of American ships that had been sunk by the Germans. When the US entered the war a draft was soon enacted as well as many non-military sacrifices in the home front. The MLB made efforts to avoid having players drafted into the military and to continue their 1917 season as normal. Teams tried to put on a show of support for the War at first instead of shutting down and joining the effort. During the 1917 season players would put on "drill" displays before games, players marching around the field with bats on their shoulders instead of rifles. This was the owners way of trying to get players exempt from fighting in the war, but it came off looking like play acting instead of support.

By 1918 public outrage for baseball’s lack of involvement beyond formalities forced the owners to allow players to be drafted and to shorten the season from 156 games to 140. Ultimately, an average of 15 players per team were drafted into the war effort and the season was shortened again to 120 games. It was the spring of 1918 that American fighters made it over to Europe to fight and the war was over in November of the same year.

Not every player made it back from the War, Christy Mathewson, the biggest star in the league who had just transitioned into managing before the war, suffered lung damage from a chemical training exercise that led to tuberculosis that ultimately killed him seven years later. In total, eight players died either from illness or in battle while serving in the military during World War I. This year has also been revisited in the news quite a bit this year because it was also the year of the Spanish Flu that claimed more lives than the combined military and civilian deaths in World War I.

Spanish Flu

No active major league players died from the pandemic, but a couple of minor leaguers that had previously played in the bigs, the head of the Baseball Writers of America, as well as one of the most prominent umpires of the first two decades of Major League Baseball were lost. Umpire Silk O'Laughlin only lived to be 46 years old, but in those years he was still regarded as one of the best umpires of the first two decades of the World Series era. Passing in December of 1918, O'Laughlin also working in the off-season with the Department of Justice in Boston. The baseball world was shocked. He had umpired the 1906, '09, '12, '15 and '17 World Series, had ejected 164 men over his career and his calls at the plate made him famous around the country even through his protective mask. He was the first man in blue to eject Ty Cobb from a game and later ejected Cobb in the notorious game where Ty ran into the stands to fight a disabled man, which led the the first time a team went on strike (in protest of Cobb's suspension). More on that in a later year's installment. O'Laughlin holds the distinction of being the last umpire to work a no-hitter by himself when Smoky Joe Wood managed the pitching feat in 1911. Future Hall of Fame umpire Billy Evans said of his time working with O'Laughlin, "He had a heart of oak, a keen intellect, and the courage to do what he believed was right, regardless of the opinion of others."

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox seem to be a team that is linked with tragedies of the 1910’s, Fenway Park was opened the day the Titanic sunk and their last World Series Championship season in 86 years came the year American involvement in World War I and the Spanish Flu. Before the Red Sox next won the World Series in 2004, players were showered with Yankee Stadium chants of “1918! 1918!” as a reminder of Boston’s championship drought and the string of success that came to the teams in pinstripes starting soon after that year. It was the second to last season Babe Ruth played with the Red Sox and the first where he led the league in home runs with 11. It was one of his last seasons as a two-way player, a 23 year old that season who also posted an ERA of 2.22 in 19 starts and won two games, including a shut out, in a World Series that he posted a 1.06 ERA. This was his third World Series Championship with the Red Sox, but it would be his next trip to the series where he would hit his first World Series home run as a New York Yankee. Ruth wasn’t the only Hall of Famer on the Red Sox that season, Harry Hooper, a member of Boston’s Golden Outfield of years past was an offensive leader of the team as well, leading the Sox in runs, hits, triples and stolen bases. Ruth led the league in pretty much every other offensive category including 2B (tied with Hooper), HR, OBP, SLG In this deadball era, again, Ruth led the league with 11 homers, a tiny tally even in a shortened season, Boston’s rotation was the strength of the team. Along with Ruth were Carl Mays, Bullet Joe Bush, Sad Sam Jones, and Dutch Leonard.

Carl Mays was the ace of the Red Sox in the 1918 season winning 21 games in the shortened season and leading the league with eight shutouts. A submarine pitcher he was described as “a cross between an octopus and a bowler,” throwing the ball at such odd angles that it would be hard to find coming out of his hands, knuckles often scraping the dirt. There is a very real argument that Mays, not Ruth, was responsible for the end of the dead ball era in baseball and the more supernatural “curse” on the Red Sox after 1918. During a game in 1919 Mays was looking the other way when his catcher accidentally hit him in the back of the head with a throw intended for second base. He stayed in the game but left the team for a permanent fishing vacation in the middle of the season, refusing to come back to the Sox. Mays tried to become a free agent, the president of the American League sued to try to make him return to the Red Sox as the Yankees tried to sign him to a contract. It took an injunction from New York Judge Mountain Landis to allow Mays to go to the Yankees.

In the next season Mays name became infamous in baseball history when he hit Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in the head with one of his submarine pitches resulting in the only on field death in MLB history. Mays was a pariah to fans after this event, but continued to have a productive career. It would be several decades before players were required to wear helmets, but the immediate safety measure of replacing scuffed and soiled balls making them more visible to hitters and less likely to curve dramatically, two advantages to hitters. The ball went from a shadow darting around on its way to the batter to being a bright white beacon flying straight into the strike zone. Suddenly the ball really did look like a beach ball compared to the scuffed up, dark and dirty thing it was before. And it wouldn't come off the bat with a spray of spit for the fielders to deal with, so errors may have taken a dip as well.

Mays, Bullet Joe Bush and Sad Sam Jones would all join Babe Ruth on the Yankees and all but Mays were on the first New York championship team of 1923. Dutch Leonard was actually traded to the Yankees during the 1918 season but failed to report and was sent to the Tigers. Leonard was the first player with the name “Dutch Leonard” to pitch in the major leagues but even with 139 wins he was not the winningest Dutch Leonard, that would be Dutch Leonard with 191 wins. No relation. However, Dutch Classic does hold the single season ERA record of 0.96 pitching for the 1914 Red Sox.

The Reserve Clause

The business of baseball was not the same in 1919 as it is now. Not only were contracts much smaller back then even after taking into account a hundred years of inflation, but players didn't change teams nearly as often. This was the result of the Reserve Clause, a policy that started in the National League in 1879 of adding a clause to players' contracts stating that even after a contract was up, the team would reserve the rights to the player instead of granting them free agency to sign with any team they choose. If a player wanted to get out of their contract with a team they could hold out (and not get paid while holding out), ask for a trade (which might not be granted to a desired team) or retire. There were a few instances of players getting fed up with the reserve clause and starting their own leagues but the federal anti-trust exemption for Major League Baseball meant that the MLB would always have a business advantage on those league and they would always be short-lived. The Reserve Clause would exist until 1975 and the anti-trust exemption is still in effect today.

The 1910’s were a golden age of crazy nicknames and 1918 was a banner year for it. Stuffy McInnis named for calls of “that’s the stuff, kid,” of his youth, was the defensive cornerstone of the Red Sox and won a total of four World Series with the A’s, Sox and Pirates. Smoky Joe Wood was a great pitcher of the time who had won two World Series with the Red Sox, won 34 games in a season and led the league in ERA another year, but in 1918 he became a full-time hitter playing all over the field for the Indians and was fifth (with a whopping FIVE) in the majors in home runs.

Spit-balling

One of the craziest names in early baseball belonged to Hall of Fame spitball pitcher Burleigh Grimes, and yes, that was his birth name. He was born at the end of the 19th century and his father died at a young age, Burleigh set out to earn for his family at thirteen years old as a logger. One day a stack of 17 foot logs fell on him in an accident that very likely could have killed him, but young Burleigh lived to live as a child laborer another day. He made a dollar a day with that job. When he took up baseball he taught himself how to throw a spitball, a pitch that was legal at the time. His foreign substance of choice was slippery elm. It turns out the tough, former logger had a sensitivity to the substance he chewed and couldn't shave his face for a few days before pitching, earning him the nickname, "Ol Stubbleface." He was a struggling young Pirate pitcher until he was a throw in on a trade for Casey Stengel to the Dodgers in 1920. When the spitball was banned at the end of the 1920 season, he was the youngest of seventeen players grandfathered into legally using the pitch for the rest of their careers. He used the pitch legally until he was the last of the bunch to retire in 1934. He actually makes an appearance in the 1971 post talking about pitchers of that time as he was still around and kicking… he even married his fifth wife, a 48 year old lady in 1975 at the age of 82 and would love well into his 90's. In his career he won 270 games, 3.53 ERA and a 52.8 WAR on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Note: Oddly, I found some discrepancies in my research of Grimes' younger days. One source said that his father was the manager of a semi-pro team who gave him $25 on his sixteenth birthday and told him to make something of himself. Although that does jive with his quote of working at a younger age to support his family after the death of his father.

End of the Deadball Era

The NL home run leader (with eight), and owner of all of the NL deadball home run records (24 homers and 119 RBI in 1915), Phillie slugger Gavvy Cravath played with a very different ball than Babe Ruth who ultimately shattered all of his MLB records. Cravath led the league six out of seven years while he was over the age of 32 and he retired just as the livelier ball was introduced. He was sometimes called “Cactus” due to an “abrasive and gruff personality” which was a side effect of everyone back then having an abrasive and gruff personality.

Chicago's Missed Opportunity

The 1918 World Series was a match-up that could have been revisited in 2003 were it not for interventions from the baseball gods. The Cubs were an impressive 84-45 in the short season, thanks to a rotation of three pitchers with 19 or more wins. They were led by a dominant season from Hippo Vaughn who won the NL pitching triple crown and solid seasons from Lefty Tyler and Claude Hendrix.

Fred Merkle gained infamy in a game as a Giant where he had a base running flub against the Cubs so bad that his name is more famous as “Merkle’s boner” than his glove or his bat. At least Johnny Pesky was able to get past his own “boner” and all of us have gotten past calling mistakes on the field “boners.” In 1918 Merkle was a veteran leader, now of the Cubs, leading his team to the World Series as one of the best hitters in the league. This was a team that had only one Hall of Famer playing for them at all, Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander, who had only three starts before shipping off to war. It was to be his first year with the Cubs after three straight pitching triple crowns with the Phillies.

This was well before any of the major awards were given out. Cy Young had only retired seven years prior and it wouldn’t be until 1957 that the pitchers’ award would be given out. The MVP award wasn’t a consistently given award, it was awarded from 1911 to 1914, then 1922 to 1929 and now has been awarded every year since 1931. The Rookie of the Year wouldn’t be given out until Jackie Robinson’s inaugural season in 1947, now the award is named for Robinson. Here, I might as well hand out these awards over a hundred years later although with a bit of understanding of changing attitudes on statistics, but while attempting to avoid bias based on the totality of players careers.

AL MVP - "Tioga" George Burns 1B, Philadelphia A’s (not the Giants’ George Burns)

Walter Johnson had the highest total war, Ruth was a two-way player and led the league in homers, Ty Cobb was the batting champ and George Sisler led the league in battling WAR. The A’s were bad with a lineup made filled with rookies and guys hitting less than .200 on the season. Burns had the most well rounded seasons he could have without pitching. After 1917 he was traded to the A’s for Ping Bodie, a guy with a crazy name he changed because as one of the first Italian Americans in the league people had trouble with “Francesco Stephano Pezzolo.” Burns was sometimes listed as “Tioga” George Burns because there was another George Burns in the league playing for the New York Giants at the same time who also had a pretty decent 1918 season. Tioga had an especially well rounded season despite the dysfunction in Philadelphia, second in the AL in AVG behind Ty Cobb, led the league in hits and was among the leaders in home runs and RBI. In 1920 Burns went to the Indians where it is said his greatest contribution to baseball history might have been in gifting a heavy black bat to Rookie shortstop Joe Sewell to give him a bit of confidence before his first game replacing former shortstop Ray Chapman who had just been killed by a pitch by Carl Mays. Sewell named the bat “Black Betsy,” used it throughout his Hall of Fame career. Burns was traded to Boston a couple of years later for Stuffy McInnis, and a couple more years later he was back in Cleveland. In 1926 Burns set a single season record for doubles with 64, led the league in hits with 216, hit .358 with 114 RBI and he took home a very real MVP trophy.

NL MVP - Heinie Groh, 3B Cincinnati Reds

Heinie Groh, the third baseman with Reds and later with the Giants, led the NL in runs, doubles and OBP. Heinie used a piece of dead ball equipment, a “bottle bat,” a bat with a thick handle used for choking up in order to scrape together small ball runs. A great fielder, he was often a leader in fielding statistics and during the 1922 World Series with the Giants he stole the Yankees hitting signs, picking up on when they would bunt or swing away, buying himself fractions of seconds in the field to react on the way to winning his second World Series. Zack Wheat was the batting champ and Rogers Hornsby had the highest WAR for hitters, but Groh filled out the stat sheet and led his team to a winning record, unlike Wheat's Dodgers and Hornsby's Cardinals.

NL Cy Young: Hippo Vaughn, LHP Chicago Cub, Pitching Triple Crown

Hippo Vaughn was the ace of the team winning a pitching triple crown for the NL with 22 wins, a 1.74 ERA and 148 strikeouts. He also led the league in shutouts and WHIP. The previous year, Vaughn was on the losing end of a double no-hitter, the only one in MLB history through 9 innings, he gave up the no-hitter in the tenth and lost it on a dribbler by Jim Thorpe. Just over a month later he won both games in a double header, 4-1 and 5-1. Later in the year he stole home as a base runner, pretty impressive for a 6’4, 300 pound pitcher. In the 1918 World Series Vaughn started three of the first five games for the Cubs in a 4 games to 2 victory for the Red Sox. He lost a 1-0 game to Ruth in game one, lost to Carl Mays 2-1 in game three and won game five 3-0 against Sad Sam Jones.

AL Cy Young: Walter Johnson, RHP Washington Senators

One of the greatest pitchers of all-time, Hall of Famer Walter Johnson was known for a fastball that ran in on hitters like a train on the tracks. A side arm thrower, it is now believed that a lot of his velocity may have been perceived, the result of his long arms and possibly a deceptive release point. I believe the documentary Fastball were able to measure the speed of his pitches in the mid-90’s compared to modern measurements of pitch speed from the point of release. Regardless of how fast the ball really came from the mound, “Big Train” held the career strike out mark for decades, leading the league in twelve seasons. Twice in his career he loaded the bases with no out and managed to strike out the next three batters on nine pitches. The 1918 season fell right in the middle of his twenty-year career and two of his best years fell before and after that year, his 1913 year was considered his best ever, and the 1924 season he finally won the World Series for DC, something the city wouldn’t see again until 2019.

NL Rookie of the Year: Charlie Hollocher, SS Chicago Cubs

He was one of the best shortstops of his short career, from 1918 to 1924, he didn’t really have any competition as the best rookie in the National Leagues in 1918. He was the offensive “spark plug” of the Pennant winning Cubs, leading the NL in games, at bats, hits and total bases. He hit .316 that year with a .378 OBP. Nearly drafted for the war,, receiving his draft letter during the World Series where he only hit .190, he avoided service because he was hit by the flu and didn’t fully recover until the war was over. He was a .304 career hitter, and 894 hits over seven years, although he only played more than 100 games in four seasons. More of a fielder as he was first signed, Hollocher changed his stance to make an impression on the league with his bat. His glove remained one of the best in the league throughout his short career as well. A tragic figure in Cubs history, his .340 AVG in 1922 was the highest by a shortstop since Honus Wagner in 1908 but a stomach ailment, “a nervous stomach,” limited his playing time in his last two seasons and ended his career at age 28 after instances of deserting the team. In the news story of his death one Chicago paper referred to Hollocher as a “moody, neurotic boy.” He died at the age of 44 from a self inflicted gunshot wound to the throat with a shotgun.

AL Rookie of the Year: Scott Perry, RHP Philadelphia A’s

One of only seven pitchers to win twenty games for a last-place team, Scott “Rope” Perry managed a 20-19 record in a season where his team played only 130 games. He had cups of coffee on three different teams in three years before his full rookie season on the A’s in 1918 at the age of 27. It wasn’t entirely that he couldn’t catch on with any teams, he had a tendency to keep going back to the minor league team he had been playing with, the… checking notes... “Atlanta Crackers.” Yeesh. He was the ace on a bad Philadelphia team desperate for players yet he posted a 1.98 ERA and 30 complete games with a sidearm motion reminiscent of Walter Johnson. With a pandemic and a world war, there weren’t very many players coming up for their rookie seasons in 1918 despite great numbers of players being drafted. His rookie year, despite 19 losses, was his finest year by far. The next two years Perry lost 17 and 25 games, one of only three pitchers in MLB history to lose that many in a season. Manager John McGraw turned down trade offers from a couple of MLB teams until he barely got anything back for the A’s and Perry was trade to a minor league team, his career to basically end in exile.

This would be the last season the Red Sox would win the World Series in the twentieth century and the first time players would leave to go to war. The Great War would end in November of 1918, but the Spanish Flu would stick around until 1920. This would be the beginning of the end for Dead Ball Era of baseball, but still a year that would define the careers of a few of baseball's all-time greats.

The Hall of Good Enough Players of 1918

George Burns, OF NYG, 15 YRS, 39.4 WAR, 2077 H, 362 2B, 383 SB, .287 AVG, .366 OBP

"Tioga" George Burns, 1B PHA, 16 YRS, 34.6 WAR, 2018 H, 444 2B, .307 AVG, .354 OBP

Gavvy Cravath, OF PHI, 11 YRS, 33.0 WAR, 1134 H, 119 HR, .287 AVG, .380 OBP, .478 SLG

Heinie Groh, 3B CIN, 16 YRS, 48.1 WAR, 1774 H, 308 2B, 180 SB, .292 AVG, .373 OBP

Charlie Hollocher, SS CHC, 7 YRS, 23.2 WAR, 894 H, 145 2B, 99 SB, .304 AVG

Sad Sam Jones, RHP BOS, 22 YRS, 42.8 WAR, 229 W, 250 CG, 3.84 ERA, 1.411 WHIP

Dutch Leonard, LHP BOS, 11 YRS, 36.8 WAR, 139 W, 151 CG, 2.76 ERA, 1.225 WHIP

Carl Mays, RHP BOS, 15 YRS, 51.1 WAR, 207 W, 231 CG, 2.92 ERA, 1.207 WHIP

Stuffy McInnis, 1B BOS, 19 YRS, 34.3 WAR, 2405 H, 312 2B, .307 AVG, .343 OBP

Fred Merkle, 1B CHC, 16 YRS, 19.8 WAR, 1580 H, 290 2B, .273 AVG, .331 OBP

Scott Perry, RHP PHA, 7 YRS, 12.7 WAR, 40 W, 69 CG, 3.07 ERA, 1.356 WHIP

Hippo Vaughn, LHP CHC, 13 YRS, 46.5 WAR, 178 W, 214 CG, 2.49 ERA, 1.201 WHIP

Smoky Joe Wood OF/RHP CLE, 14 YRS, 40 WAR, 553 H, 118 2B, 23 HR, .283 AVG,

.357 OBP, .411 SLG/117 W, 121 CG, 989 K, 2.03 ERA, 1.087 WHIP

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