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The Steel Leagues
This is the first part of a two part article.
The National League dominated the majors during the early years of professional baseball. The American Association, its long time rival was always out matched and the rebellions that both faced in 1884 and 1890 were short lived. Ban Johnson’s League was finally able to achieve parity with the senior league and by 1917 they had settled into a stable if somewhat turbulent marriage.
In 1918 the two major leagues discovered that they faced a new challenge from corporations involved in the war effort. These were referred to collectively as the “The Steel Leagues,” and the Steel Leagues had the all the advantages.
Two issues combined to facilitate the rise of the Steel Leagues, conscription and the “Work or Fight” ruling. From May onward the exemption status of ballplayers who did not want to serve was unclear and the Steel Leagues could offer not only an exemption but money.
“What is your draft status” became part of the baseball vocabulary in 1918. It impacted every minor and major league team. In cases like that of the talented Danny Cass kept it kept him off the roster.
Per Wikipedia, “Conscription was divided into different classes. The first candidates were to be drawn from Class I. Members of each class below Class I were available only if the pool of all available and potential candidates in the class above it were exhausted. There were three drafts. The first, on June 5, 1917, was for all men between the ages of 21 and 31. The second, on June 5, 1918, registered those who attained age 21 after June 5, 1917. A supplemental registration, included in the second registration, was held on August 24, 1918, for those becoming 21 years old after June 5, 1918.The third registration was held on September 12, 1918, for men age 18 through 45.” While we know the Great War ended on 11/11/1918 during the summer of 1918 many in Washington felt the war could drag on for three more years.
Here is a list of the classes;
Class 1 – Eligible and Liable for military service
Class 2- Temporarily deferred, but available for military service
Class 3 – Exempted, but available for military service
Class 4 – Exempted due to extreme hardship
Class 5 – Inedible for military service
For Washington the status of the players in the spring is as follows;
Johnny Lavan, subject to twenty-four hours’ notice to report for duty as a medical officer in the navy. Sam Rice, with his prior naval service, had been called up.
At the end of April Ed Gharrity and George Dumont, both with 1-A status and not wanting to get drafted jump to the Bethel helm Steel League. The loss of Gharrity was a tough one since Griff had dumped John Henry during the spring. Other major leaguers and minor leaguers who don’t want to serve follow. While some do actual work in support of the war effort, others are there to play baseball.
The great German spring offensive sent shock waves through the Allies. Washington quickly implementing plans to vastly increase the size of its military. In May 1918, Provost Marshal Enoch Crowder issues an order that anyone eligible for the draft who was not employed in a war related work would be subject to immediate call-up effective in July. War related work included ship construction, munitions and also farming.
“Work or Fight”
In May according to one report, “Club owners feel reasonably confident that the “work or fight” order issued by Provost marshal Crowder will not be applied to baseball players. The outlook for another baseball season, however, is not encouraging, according to a member of well-informed baseball men in New York.”
From May until July the status of baseball players is unclear. Those in the 1-A class expect to be called up at some point. They can enlist, wait to be drafted or join the Steel Leagues.
Adding to the confusion among players is the structure of the draft. There is no consistency between the local draft boards and confusion over jurisdiction. “Joe Finneran of the Yankees was told by his New Jersey draft board to play ball as that was his way of supporting his wife and minor child. Hi Myers of the Dodgers was given the same directions by the East Liverpool, Ohio draft board. Another Dodger, Joe Nixon got the same message from his board in Texas. The Brighton draft board however, ordered the entire personnel of the Braves to show why they should not lose their deferred classifications, they did this despite not having jurisdiction over most of the players. The same board ruled against John Henry’s plea to be allowed to play baseball. But Henry resided in Amherst and was under that board’s jurisdiction.”
Defections to the Steel Leagues become common. By Mid May well known players like Joe Jackson and Lefty Williams jump. Babe Ruth uses the option of jumping to the Steel leagues as a threat in his battles with Red Sox Manager Ed Barrow.
Later the two visit with their former teammates and the press records this, “Joe Jackson and Lefty Williams, young shipbuilders, are in Boston, and visited with the White Sox, but failed to pay their respects to manager Rowland and did not call at Fenway Park. Jackson and Williams explained that they are members of a crew aboard a ship that was engaged in its trail trip, and that their coming had nothing to do with the national game. The former Sox contented themselves with gossiping with the fellows on the veranda of the hotel. Both were tanned, looked in excellent health and physical condition, and both expressed their satisfaction in the work in which they are now engaged.”
The departures of players to the military and the Steel Leagues are duly reported in the press. The minor leagues are severely impacted. The owners are quick to notice.
The near hysteria is evident in the following passages;
“Charlie Comiskey is still withering over the action of Claude “Lefty” Williams and Byrd Lynn, both of whom were summarily dismissed and their contracts cancelled on their announcement that they intended to quit and enter a shipyard at Wilmington, Delaware. Comiskey has taken greatly to heart the criticism hurled at Joe Jackson.”
In June 1918 Ban Johnson publically comes out for protection from the Steel League’s blandishments. “Ban calls it most unfair for Steel League promoters to entice major league players to break their baseball contracts, and, if it is possible, he hopes to put a stop to the practice by appealing to headquarters. This has to stop. If the army takes every player in the American League, forcing us to close our gates, my magnates will never complain. The war is the bigger game. But we hold it unfair for the Steel Corporation, doing Government work, to be allowed to compete with us in the matter of providing sport by taking out assets. Mr. Charles Schwab is quoted as saying he knows nothing of conditions, but we won’t remain in ignorance long. We’ll show him letters from Steel League managers written to American League players, offering them, in addition to soft jobs, exemption from military service and fat bonuses for playing baseball on the side.”
The June 1918 article in the Washington Times adds this, “It is reported by nearly every major league manager that in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York alleged agents from Steel League teams fairly swarm around the hotels frequented by the ball players, offering them fat jobs and military compensation. When Joe Jackson, the White Sox outfielder, was placed in class 1-A of the draft, he received his notification one night, and according to well-authenticated statements, had skipped to Wilmington, Delaware, the following morning to become a painter and to play ball for the shipyard’s ball club. He is on the same team with George Dumont and Ed Gharrity. All have been exempted from military service.”
More defections. “Steel League to get Felsch. “They’re still flopping to the Bethlehem Steel Corporation League. Telegrams and special delivery letters flood the official’s office at Bethlehem every day. From all parts of the country come wires. Some are from big leaguers, others from star minor leaguers, and, of course, a lot of brush and sandlotters are trying to get out of the war. The latest conquest is catcher Earl Blackburn, who jumped from the Kansas City Club of the American Association, to Bethlehem. Blackburn has seen big league experience. Bethlehem was in need of a catcher until Blackburn showed up. Dick Wright, the former Lehigh and Lafayette star, who was doing the bulk of receiving, suffered a pair of crushed fingers by having them caught in a machine at the Bethlehem plant. Manager Tom Keady had hoped to have George Lees, of LeHigh and White Sox fame, back of the bat, but he was recently drafted and is now stationed at Camp Meade. Don’t be surprised is Happy Felsch, the White Sox outfielder, who deserted the majors last week, winds up in the steel circuit. He has wired for a position, and it is said that Buck Weaver, the Sox shortstop, and first baseman Walter Holke, of the Giants, and pitcher Mule Watson, of the Phillies, have sent out feelers to find out what kind of jobs they can get. Felsch left the Sox last Monday, saying that he had obtained employment with a Middle Western gas concern which is classed as an essential industry. He played with a Polish team in Milwaukee on Saturday, but his wire to Bethlehem Steel officials was received a few days previous.”
July 19th Secretary of War Baker declares that baseball is a non-essential occupation. The owners are blindsided by this announcement. The ruling came in the appeal of Washington’s own, Eddie Ainsmith’s reclassification. The ruling makes 247 major leaguers eligible. For Washington the number is 13 players. Players in categories other than 1-A can now be reclassified.
It should be noted, and will be addressed later, that while many did serve, others did not want too and sought safe haven. The US Government also conducts what some call “Slacker-Sweeps.” Some of these are conducted in crowds lined up to watch professional baseball games.
Adding to the drama is the behavior of American League President Ban Johnson. While National League owners rally behind League President John Tener, the tyrannical rule of Ban Johnson was said by some to be over.
Ban Johnson early in the war stated that “The American League was ready to close its gates overnight.” Then he stated that he would “be in the trenches of France before Captain Huston.” who went over with the first engineer troops to cross the pond.
TH Huston was part owner of the New York Yankees. He was one of the first to enlist and go to Europe. In the spring, while in Europe, Huson predicted the end of baseball unless its leaders grasped their opportunity and became of “real service to the country.” His article was met with criticism from the magnates. The Washington Times adding, “The magnates continued to trudge along in their blindness until last week when the bomb landed in their camp. It caught them unprepared.” This was also in the press, “They apparently had no time to keep informed about what was being prepared in Washington. Indeed, Clark Griffith was allowed to carry on the case of baseball practically himself.”
After the ruling Ban Johnson issued another statement “ordering the closing of all Saturday’s games.” The press writes, “This caused an incipient uprising among his magnates, four of whom took exactly the opposite view of the situation, and Ban rescinded the order. While the Government was preparing to put the skids under the game, Johnson and Tener were spitting at each other like angry cats on the back fence, threatening the structure of baseball because of a second rate pitcher with the Athletics, one Scott Perry.”
Meanwhile the papers began to print highlights of Steel league games.
Secretary Baker clarified his ruling on 26 July that baseball could continue until 1 September. It would be a short season with a World Series.
This article sums up the situation. “It is a race between the local draft board and the players.” That was the only comment officials of the Provost Marshal General’s office would make this afternoon on the announcement by the American League magnates that they would play their schedule out to September 2 and then play the World’s Series if the local draft boards would permit. Decision in the matter will be in the hands of the local boards and opinion here was that if the players did not find “useful; occupation” for themselves before 2 September they would jeopardize their classifications and many of them would be called up for immediate induction into the military service.
In August more defections to beat the September deadline. “Charlie Risberg and Fred McMullin have left the White Sox and gone to California to take positions with shipbuilding concerns. Chick Gandil is also expected to leave and work in a shipyard.”
Nor is baseball alone. In early August came this, “Work or Fight” may be extended. When Secretary Baker rules that baseball was a non-existential occupation and that diamond stars of draft age who had secured deferred classification must after 1 September obtain work that would benefit the nation, complaints began to filter into General Crowder’s office that actors, and particularly “movie” stars, should also feel the weight of the Government’s power to force men of draft age to either “work or fight.” The large number of chauffeurs throughout the country have also fallen under the scrutiny of the Provost Marshall’s office. There is some talk of including lawyers, barbers, circus men, and a host of others in nay new regulations.”
The season ends on 2 September. The World Series would end on 11 September 1918. The Red Sox defeating the Cubs in six games. The great guns of war fell silent at 11AM on 11 November 1918.
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