Today’s post comes from Daniel J. Fleming, an archives technician at the National Archives at Boston.
The successful postseason run of the 2018 World Series champion Boston Red Sox provides a timely opportunity to revisit the franchise’s championship team from 100 years ago.
As America entered World War I and many of Boston’s ballplayers joined military service, the Red Sox owner lobbied the Navy for help to keep to his team competitive and financially viable.
Ironically, the absence of several key players allowed for the emergence of an iconic baseball slugger whose bat and arm would help the Red Sox clinch another title.
A charter member of the American League since its inception in 1901, the Red Sox built themselves into one of baseball’s preeminent teams, winning six league pennants and five of the first 17 World Series within their first 18 seasons of play.
Following back-to-back championship seasons in 1915 and 1916, the 1917 Red Sox finished in second place in the American League to the eventual World Series-winning Chicago White Sox. Despite falling short of a third consecutive title, the Red Sox were poised to remain perennial contenders, led by veteran outfielders George “Duffy” Lewis and Harry Hooper and southpaw pitching stalwarts Babe Ruth and Carl Mays.
America, however, required her sons to serve in a national emergency rather than play in the national pastime when Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
Congress’s subsequent passage of the Selective Service Act of 1917, implementing the draft, required all males between the ages of 21 and 30 to register, an age group that comprised most professional ballplayers, including most of the Red Sox.
Upon the conclusion of the 1917 season, nearly half of the Boston roster enrolled in military service. Twelve of the team’s 27 players, including Lewis as well as second baseman and player-manager Jack Barry, traded their baseball uniforms for those of the Army or Navy.
Most of these players joined the First Naval District’s Naval Reserve Force, with eight of them, including Barry, performing their duties at the Boston Navy Yard. Lewis was assigned to duty at the Mare Island Navy Yard in California.
Anticipating the adverse impact that losing so many of his players would have on both his team’s fortunes and his financial investment in the franchise, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee spent the winter of 1917–18 politicking for relief. Frazee lobbied Capt. William R. Rush, commandant of Boston Navy Yard, to grant leave for his players, especially Barry, for parts of, if not all, the 1918 season. Frazee went so far as to offer to hold Red Sox exhibition games at Fenway Park to raise proceeds for the Navy Relief Fund.
In an endorsement to the First Naval District Enrolling Officer, Rush appears to not have taken Frazee’s fund-raising statements seriously, calling them “abstract—nothing concrete about them.” While Rush acknowledged the possibility of allowing Barry limited leave for 30 days, he could not foresee doing the same for all of Barry’s Red Sox teammates.
Reinforcing Rush’s decision to not grant Frazee’s request, the District Enrolling Officer, G. G. Mitchell, reported that in a meeting of the professional baseball players enrolled in the District’s Naval Reserve Force, “it was unanimously asserted that none of the players wanted to play ‘league ball,’ and they would not accept a furlough unless they were ordered.”
Mitchell added that recent speculation in Boston newspapers about the possibility of the players leaving Navy service to play for the Red Sox reinforced their attitude to reject playing for their professional clubs.
Frazee was undeterred by Captain Rush’s decision and appealed both in person and in writing to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. Instead of asking for leave for all of his players, Frazee, in his January 23, 1918, letter to Roosevelt, scaled down his request to secure leave for Barry and Lewis only, describing them as indispensable and irreplaceable to his team.
Indeed, both players were instrumental to the team’s success, as they had been mainstays in the Red Sox lineup in 1917. However, Frazee’s request was also strategic in nature, and he conveyed his approach in his letter to Roosevelt. Both Barry and Lewis had registered for the draft during the June 5, 1917, registration, as required under the Selective Service Act.
However, Frazee stated his awareness of a request made to Congress by Secretary of War Newton Baker to amend the selective service draft to exempt registered, undrafted males aged 31 years and older from the draft. Barry’s 31st birthday was April 26, 1918, while Lewis would turn 31 on April 18, 1919.
Both players were also married, which may have put them into a temporarily deferred draft class as opposed to an unmarried registrant. Essentially, Frazee sought the release of Barry and Lewis from service until their 31st birthdays, at which point he anticipated that they would have then been exempted from the draft by an act of Congress.
In his January 24, 1918, letter to Captain Rush, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt offered to support a decision by the commandant to place Barry and Lewis on the inactive list, if he chose to do so.
However, according to a February 9 telephone transcript between Commander Overstreet at the Navy Department in Washington and Captain Key at the Boston Navy Yard, Key emphatically stated that “The Commandant absolutely refused to consider giving those men any leave and absolutely turned down Frazee,” further detailing that Captain Rush had made efforts to tamp down newspaper reports to the contrary.
While neither Lewis nor Barry, nor most of their teammates in the Navy Reserves played for the Red Sox in 1918, their absence provided an opportunity for a future Hall-of-Famer to showcase his offensive prowess.
Babe Ruth had already established himself as one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers, leading the Red Sox to back-to-back World Series titles in 1915 and 1916. In the 1916 season, Ruth led the league with a 1.75 earned-run average (ERA), amassing a record of 23 wins against 12 losses in a league-leading 40 starts. Ruth followed that performance with a 24-13 win-loss record in 1917, sporting a 2.01 ERA, and a league-best 35 complete games.
Ruth had also demonstrated his potential as a slugger during his pitching starts. But with a need for offense in the Red Sox lineup, Ruth, for the first time in his career, started games in which he was not pitching. As a result, Babe Ruth played in 95 of the Red Sox’s 126 games during the 1918 season, leading the league in home runs (11) for the first of 12 times in his career.
Ruth pitched in half as many games as in the previous two years, while still commanding the mound, achieving a 13-7 win-loss record and a 2.22 ERA in 19 starts. After leading the Red Sox to the 1918 American League pennant by 2.5 games over the Cleveland Indians, Ruth shut down the Chicago Cubs lineup in the World Series, allowing only two runs in 17 innings pitched, including throwing a complete-game shutout in the first game of the series.
On September 10, 1918, the Red Sox clinched their fifth championship, defeating the Cubs in the World Series, four games to two. Their victory came just days before the Selective Service Division implemented “work or fight” rules that required able-bodied males, including baseball players, to be employed in essential occupations to support the war effort.
However, the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, rendered selective service efforts moot, and baseball saw its full complement of players return to the field in 1919.
Ruth pitched and hit for one more season at Fenway Park, while the Red Sox were unsuccessful in repeating their championship performance, finishing in sixth place out of eight teams in the American League.
Prior to the 1920 season, Frazee made several player transactions, including selling Babe Ruth’s contract to the New York Yankees. Ruth won four World Series championships as a member of the Yankees, with whom the slugger bashed a majority of his career total 714 home runs. Ruth was inducted as a member of the first class of baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1936.
The Red Sox’s 1918 championship was their last for 86 years, when they began a new run of success, claiming baseball’s crown in 2004, 2007, 2013 and their ninth title in 2018.