Shortened Season of 1918: How the Great War Begat the Great Bambino

CLEVELAND - 1919. Babe Ruth, pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, warms up before a game in League Park in Cleveland in 1919. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
CLEVELAND - 1919. Babe Ruth, pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, warms up before a game in League Park in Cleveland in 1919. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /
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With the baseball season on hold, we look back at the war-shortened season of 1918 and how the circumstances helped create the legend of the Great Bambino, Babe Ruth.

Since the National League of Professional Baseball began play in 1876, there have been a lot of schedule changes. We will work our way down to how a shortened season helped create Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees’ legend Babe Ruth, but first…

In 1876 there were eight teams and they were scheduled to play each other 10 times. Despite having 70 games scheduled, the final standings don’t quite add up.

1876 National League Standings

  • Chicago White Stockings: 52-14 (66 games)
  • St. Louis Brown Stockings: 45-19 (64 games)
  • Hartford Dark Blues: 47-21 (69 games)
  • Boston Red Stockings: 39-31 (70 games)
  • Louisville Grays: 30-36 (69 games)
  • New York Mutuals: 21-35 (57 games)
  • Philadelphia Athletics 14-45 (60 games)
  • Cincinnati Red Stockings: 9-56 (65 games)

This list brings up a few questions. One, how much did they revere their socks back then? We don’t respect our socks enough nowadays. Also, if the season had 70 games scheduled, why did only one team play 70?

Most games were played in the late afternoon or early evening, to accommodate the working gents of the time, as a result, many games would encounter weather or the setting sun. The games would be canceled, after all, ‘tis just a game… or ‘twas just a game. ‘Twisn’t like that anymore.

Today, we are taking a closer look at just three of the many players who were impacted by the shortened season of 1918. The season was prematurely ended on September 2 as ordered by the War Department. For some players it meant the end of their careers, some the end of their lives, but for one it was the beginning of a legend.

The Great War and “Shoeless Joe”

When the United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917, there were only about 100,00 volunteer troops available.

in 1918, Newton Baker (former Mayor of Cleveland and Secretary of War in 1918) and Draft-Lottery Director Enoch Crowder became two of the biggest names in the baseball world. When America engaged in the Great War, Crowder founded the Selective Service System, enabling the President to authority to draft men aged between 21-30 as soldiers.

Baker and Crowder deemed baseball to be a nonessential activity and issued a “work or fight” order to players. Players had to work in a job that supported the military effort or go overseas and fight. The American League’s defending champion White Sox lost several stars to the war efforts, including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and fell to sixth place. “Shoeless” Joe was the first-star player to avoid enlistment by finding work building battleships.

Joe signed up to play on their baseball team. He reportedly drew large crowds and also drew the heckling and the ire of some fans who thought him a coward. Even the local media piled on to Joe for jumping ship to a shipyard when his draft-exemption request was denied. Joe was married and supporting his aging parents but was still placed in class 1 of the draft. Even White Sox owner Charles Comiskey publicly scolded his star player for not being patriotic.

Joe may have faced public ridicule and lost respect, but Red Sox player-manager Jack Barry lost a lot more by enlisting.