TehBen’s Book Club: Play Ball!

Winter frost is becoming less frequent, which can only mean one thing: springtime is fast approaching! Warmer temperatures, green grass, and the historic national pastime of baseball will soon again consume my life. Much like Ken Burns, the pursuits of baseball have kept me from a proper haircut, and the statistical depth of the game makes me feel like I’m actually participating in something intelligent. While the old game of ‘rounders isn’t quite what it used to be as far as popularity is concerned, there is no denying that it has shaped the United States and other parts of the world for the last 150 years. While connections to the Civil War and 20th century civil rights are well known, one such period in baseball history that’s been overlooked was the game’s influence during the First World War. Nearly every person involved in WWI was affected by baseball in some way, and one hundred years later, we have the chance to reflect on it through detailed accounts. For this installment of the TehBen.com book club, we review Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball During the Great War by Alexander F. Barnes, Peter L. Belmonte, and Samuel O. Barnes.

Before we dig too far in, let’s start with defining exactly what a “Doughboy” is within the context of World War I. Doughboys described American soldiers most commonly during WWI, because of their trademark white belts that were somehow cleaned using dough. This term doesn’t have much bearing on the content of the book, and you probably already knew about it, but I personally felt like a simpleton deprived of that basic designation from the top. Anyway, Play Ball! is a detailed account of how the game of baseball (or base ball in the contemporary spelling) was played during the era of the First World War both in America and during occupation inside post-Armistice Europe. Even before accounting for the war, baseball in the 1910’s was spreading faster than the Spanish Flu (too soon?). Almost everyone in America played the game, as it was the only true athletic hobby that could be played for a cheap investment. One example: full leagues could be played inside a single grammar school, and layers upon layers of interconnected seasons meant every able-bodied boy, (and even some girls) were swinging bats and throwing curve balls in the early 20th century. Once America entered the First World War, the boys who suddenly were forced to become men weren’t looking to give up their game and connection to home, and no military assignment would keep their passion for baseball dormant for long.

The authors of Play Ball! do a fantastic job of making each account seem personal upon reflection, like the reader is receiving first-hand knowledge of the events that unfolded. The most important style choice employed throughout was to keep quotes and anecdotes written in their same tone, with the same precise choice of words. For me personally, I love reading “old-timey” lingo and even before the expansive WWI knowledge of the work, reading the proper “portsiders” and “raisin growers” was well worth the price of admission. Along with copies of box scores and anecdotal evidence from written accounts at the time, silly little ball games that may have kept the fighting spirit alive in the doughboys can live forever thanks the memories inside of this book.

From the military training camps in the southern United States, to the wet grounds of France, to the occupation of the Rhineland, baseball was the chief diversion used to distract soldiers from the horrible bloodshed of the War to end all Wars. While it’s not a direct thesis of the book, it’s obvious to me that boosting collective morale with sporting events in either pickup games or militarily organized competitions was first manifested during this armed conflict. Play Ball’s carefully curated evidence of political cartoons and news articles further expands on this concept, describing instances of women’s games, and even desegregated games, decades before Jackie Robinson officially broke the color barrier in mainland America.

Rating: Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball during the Great War is a fantastic resource for anyone that’s a connoisseur of baseball history, military history, or any unique combination of the two. While not as overtly valorous as other moments in American history, the Doughboys and their relationship with the national pastime should be considered required reading for anyone seeking an understanding of who we are as a nation and the importance we place upon our game.

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An advance review copy of this book was graciously supplied by Schiffer Publishing. All thoughts and opinions expressed within this review are the sole opinion of the reviewer.

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