Today’s post comes from Gregory Marose, an intern in the National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications.
Each January, as frost and snow cover baseball fields across America, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum provides heartwarming news for fans of our national pastime. This is the season when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America elects new members from the ranks of retired ballplayers.
When the Hall of Fame was first established in 1936, its inaugural class of inductees included legendary ballplayers Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Babe Ruth. These were four of the most talented stars of the early 20th century—a collection of hitters and pitchers worthy of Major League Baseball’s highest honor.
And while all four ballplayers are best known for their statistics and individual accomplishments, they also distinguished themselves for patriotic actions off the field.
As World War I drew to a close in 1918, both Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson served in France as part of the Chemical Warfare Service. Commonly referred to as the “Gas and Flame Division,” the unit combated the virulent effects of German gas attacks.
Throughout the final months of the war, the two ballplayers took part in several dangerous training exercises. “Men screamed . . . when they got a whiff of the sweet death in the air, they went crazy with fear,” Cobb recalled in his 1961 autobiography. The effects of chemical warfare took a particular toll on Mathewson, who died in 1925 at age 45.
Babe Ruth also registered for the draft during World War I, but he never saw active duty. This, however, did not stop “The Bambino” from displaying his patriotism. Ruth enlisted in the New York National Guard in 1924 as part of a public membership drive, ultimately serving three years as part of the 104th Field Artillery Regiment.
When World War II began, Ruth joined with Walter Johnson to help raise money for the war effort. The two legends participated in multiple fund-raising exhibitions during the war, including a 1942 game that helped raise thousands of dollars for the Army-Navy relief fund. Even when they were away from the diamond, both Ruth and Johnson continued their fund-raising efforts through the promotion of war bonds.
Since 1936, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has immortalized many other players who served America during times of war and crisis. This elite club includes the likes of Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio, whose records can also be found in the National Archives.
For more about our baseball records, read “Beyond the Box Office” from Prologue magazine. To find out more about draft cards, war bonds, and baseball-related documents, search our records using Online Public Access.