Monday, May 29, 2017
Memorial Day 2017
Today is Memorial Day. Like millions of other Americans, I will spend this Monday free of work. Soon, I will be hiking in the beautiful Kentucky hills as my wife rides her horse, Lefty. The sun outside is shining, and there isn't a cloud I can see in the sky. As I walk in the woods this afternoon, I for one, will be saying a private thank you to the men and women who gave their lives, and whom Memorial Day commemorates. As a single example of the many Americans who perished in the service of this country, I would like to share once again the story of Eddie Grant: big league ballplayer and infantry officer. I've posted this one before, and with good reason. Eddie Grant was the most prominent baseball player to have died in the First World War, a man loved and respected by his teammates and fans, whose death in combat served as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made so that we in America can live as we choose.
This story remains one of my personal favorites, and I even had it set to be included in my book The League of Outsider Baseball. For a few reasons, I cut the story at the last minute, but I will include it here, on Memorial Day, where feels more appropriate. I will also show one of the never before seen illustrations I completed to accompany the book version. So, to Captain Grant and the other men and women who died in the service of this nation, I offer a humble and heart-felt "thank you."
They called him "Harvard Eddie." At a time when most ballplayers barely had a high school education, third baseman Eddie Grant, Harvard Class of 1909, was a member of the Massachusetts Bar, a full-fledged lawyer. He was also a darn good third baseman, batting .322 for Jersey City and leading the Eastern League during his first year in pro ball. The next season, 1907, Grant was called up to the Philadelphia Phillies. He quickly gained attention, not from his bat or fielding skills, but for what he would say on the field: when calling out his claim on a pop fly, instead of yelling the common "I GOT it!", Harvard Eddie called out the proper phrase, "I HAVE it!" much to the amusement of his more modestly educated teammates.
During off seasons, Grant returned to Boston to practice law, but each spring he took up baseball again. Traded to Cincinnati in 1911, he lost something at the plate and his batting average plummeted; the death of his wife after barely nine months of marriage might have been the reason. In 1913, the New York Giants aquired Grant, and although he rode the bench more often than not, John McGraw took a liking to the scholarly third sacker and made him the Giants' bench coach. As much as he loved the game, Grant disliked the life of a part-time coach and player, and a the age of 32, retired to pursue his law career full-time.
The Great War had been raging in Europe for 3 years by now, and many of Grant's Harvard classmates were active participants even before the U.S. entered the war. Whether they drove ambulances for one of the volunteer organizations operating just behind the trenches or flew airplanes for the French in the Lafayette Flying Corps, college educated men of that era felt a sense of duty and adventure that sadly seems lacking these days. Once America entered the war in April of 1917, even more of these privileged men from wealthy families left their lucrative careers and easy lives to become officers in the rapidly expanding U.S. Army. Back then, the Army assumed that a college educated man made a natural leader, and "Harvard Eddie" was made Captain of Company H, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. After a period of training on Long Island with his men, Grant sailed for France in the summer of 1918.
The American Army was eager to prove itself to their Allies, France and Britain, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was its chance. Launched on October 2nd, 1918, the Battle of the Argonne was one of the fiercest fights in American military history. The 77th Division charged into the Argonne Forest and strait into the solidly entrenched veteran German Army. It was during the confusing first day of the battle that Major Whittlesey, a New York attorney, got isolated and pinned down deep within the dense forest. Although forever known as "The Lost Battalion", Whittlesey knew exactly where he and his men were, it was just that no one else in the U.S. Army did. After a few anxious days, American aviators braved the dense German anti-aircraft fire and finally located Whittlesey and his battalion. Pilot Lieutenant Harold Goettler and his observer, Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley, volunteered to circle the forest with the idea that the place that did not fire back at them would be the the location of the lost battalion. They were right, and after taking heavy fire which mortally wounded both men, their DH-4 aircraft crashed just short of the French lines. The French soldiers rushed forward to help the downed aviators. Goettler was already dead but Bleckley, with his last dying breath pressed a bloody note into the hands of the closest French soldier. On it was a map showing the location of Whittlesey and his men! With this new information, Captain Eddie Grant and Company H was among the units rushed into the Argonne to rescue the Lost Battalion.
By the morning of October 5th, Eddie Grant and his men had been on the front line and in the thick of the fighting for 4 days. No one, most of all Captain Grant, had had any time for sleep. Being awake and constantly under enemy fire for 4 days must have been a terrible feeling. Add on top of that the responsibility for the lives of the 150 men of his company, and you can imagine the stress Grant must have been under. Taken out of the line that day for rest, a fellow officer described the captain as barely able to lift his arm to bring a cup of much needed coffee to his lips. But his company's reprieve was short-lived. The Lost Battalion had been found, and someone had to rescue them. When orders to move-out came, Grant got to his feet and took his place at the head of his Company. He led them right back into the Argonne.
The Germans threw everything they had at the Americans rushing into the forest. If Whittlesey and his dwindling men could be captured or killed, it would be a devastating blow to the upstart fresh Americans, as well as their weary Allies. The story of the Lost Battalion had made newspapers all over the globe, and its rescue would come as a giant shot in the arm to the young nation eager to prove itself to the world in the greatest war mankind had ever known. As the 307th Regiment marched forward, the German artillery pounded the road leading into the forest. Men and horses were torn to bits by the constant exploding shells, but Captain Grant and the American Army moved forward through the hail of shrapnel.
Among the wounded being brought back past the advancing infantrymen was Major Jay, commander of Grant's battalion. Recognizing Eddie, Jay waved him over. All the other ranking officers were either dead or wounded. Harvard Eddie was now in charge of the battalion.
Though it didn't seem possible, the shelling increased. The Germans knew they had to destroy the Americans before they reached Whittlesey. The whole road had become a deathtrap, but everyone knew they had to move forward. Grant called his officers together to brief them on the situation. At that moment a shell exploded, tearing apart the two young lieutenants standing next to Eddie. Grant tried yelling over the screams and explosions for a stretcher bearer. Signaling his men to take cover and waving his arms wildly in desperation for medics that never came, the next shell exploded directly on top of Harvard Eddie. He died instantly.
New York sports writer Damon Runyon was a war correspondent in France during war, and had known Eddie Grant well during his time with the Giants. He wrote a stirring eulogy for the former third baseman entitled "Eddie Grant Sleeps In The Argonne Forest". The story was reprinted widely, including in the 1919 Spalding Guide and Grant, the only major leaguer killed in the war, gained posthumous fame. In 1921 the New York Giants dedicated a plaque commemorating the former infielder and bench coach in front of which a wreath was placed each Memorial Day in a solemn ceremony started by his old friend, John McGraw. That plaque was infamously stolen after the last Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1957. Historians searched in vain for the plaque or any trace of who the scumbag was who stole it, but it wasn't until 1999 that a couple moving into their new Hohokus, New Jersey home discovered a plaque wrapped in a blanket, hidden in the attic. Turns out the home was formerly owned by a New York City cop whose police beat in 1957 included the neighborhood surrounding the Polo Grounds. But, in a strange twist, baseball historians aren't positive the plaque is the real one stolen from the Polo Grounds. The San Francisco Giants, for their part, didn't seem to care, as they continue to distance themselves from their former life in Manhattan. First World War historians did, however, finally get the team to install a replacement plaque in their new ballpark a few years ago. You can see it near the Lefty O'Doul entrance, but in this day and age of so many "heroes", this modest memorial to a fallen soldier who gave his life for his country just doesn't seem to be enough.
Dedicated to every serviceman and servicewoman who interrupted their lives, and in some cases such as Captain Grant, gave their life, so I may live free in this great country of ours. Thank You.