The following has been excerpted from From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War by Jim Leeke (May 2017).
From Chapter 7: Work or Fight
Nine days after Joe Jackson’s unexpected defection in Philadelphia, Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder handed Major League Baseball an even bigger shock. He announced a new draft regulation on May 23 that Americans everywhere immediately dubbed the “work or fight” rule.
“This regulation provides that after July 1 any registrant who is found by a local board to be a habitual idler or not engaged in some useful occupation shall be summoned before the board, given a chance to explain, and, in the absence of a satisfactory explanation, to be inducted into the military service of the United States,” read the statement from Crowder’s office.1
The government aimed the regulation squarely at poolroom loafers, gamblers, and men who worked in “bucket shops and race tracks, fortune tellers, clairvoyants, palmists and the like.”2 Beyond those who worked in such shady establishments, the new regulation also applied to ordinary workers who sold food or drink in public places; elevator operators, doormen, footmen, and other attendants; those associated with games, sports, and amusements, except legitimate performers in concerts, operas, or theaters; and domestic workers and sales clerks. It didn’t matter whether men working in these occupations held low draft numbers or were in Classes II, III, or IV on the grounds of dependency. “We shall give the idlers and men not effectively employed the choice between military service and effective employment,” the statement read. “Every man in the draft age at least must work or fight.”
The provost marshal general said the ruling would affect ballplayers if strictly enforced, but the War Department hedged: “No ruling as to whether baseball players or persons engaged in golf, tennis or any other sport come under the regulations regarding idlers and non-essential pursuits will be made until a specific case has been appealed to the provost marshal general’s office.”3 The New York World estimated that, if applied, the edict would leave just thirty-six current players in the Major Leagues.
Organized Baseball was shocked. “The blow came like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky to most of the baseball men,” Fred Lieb wrote in the New York Sun. “Baseball officials and executives seemed to think that if the Government cared to have big league baseball terminated for the period of the war all that would have been necessary would have been a suggestion to that effect last winter.”4
League officials and magnates made the right sort of statements in response. In effect, they said that they would close their parks if necessary, but that baseball was still valuable to the country. “I do not believe the government has any intention of wiping out baseball altogether,” Ban Johnson commented, “but if I had my way I would close every theatre, ball park and other places of recreation in the country and make the people realize that they are in the most terrible war in the history of the world.”5
Detroit Tigers president Frank J. Navin was even more candid. “Such an order would cause us to close our park,” he said. “The order would leave me Donovan as pitcher, Stanage behind the bat, Spencer at first, and Jennings at short. How does that sound for a pennant winner?”6
Baseball continued amid tremendous uncertainty. In Richmond the Virginia League launched its season the same day General Crowder dropped his bombshell, “the last organization under the jurisdiction of organized baseball [to] get under way,” according to the Washington Times. “To-day’s opening is unprecedented in the history of baseball, in that it is the latest ever held.”7 How long the Virginia or any Major or Minor League would keep playing was an open question. Many believed that the work-or-fight edict signaled the end of baseball for the duration.
“The condition in the majority of minor leagues . . . has been usually precarious in that the scarcity of labor in the smaller cities has robbed these leagues of their week-day support,” wrote Louis Lee Arms. “They have lived by Saturday and Sunday patronage alone, and no week passes without the discontinuing of some minor league race. While, generally, the playing personnel of the minor leagues contain either younger or older players than the majors, the Provost Marshal’s order would in all likelihood cause those minor leagues that have been in operation to discontinue.”8
It would have been more accurate to write that several circuits simply hadn’t resumed operations for the 1918 season. But Arms was correct about the huge pressures on the ten Minor Leagues that had taken the field. Class C and D baseball had almost vanished, with only one circuit surviving at each level. Class B had three leagues and Class A only two. The highest level, Class AA, had three leagues, including the merged and still-troubled new International. The first of these final ten went under June 15.
“The addition to the heaping debris pile of Organized Baseball is the Blue Ridge League, which started with four clubs late in May, ran a couple of weeks and then decided to quit,” said Sporting News.9 The popular little Class D league had played only in Maryland and West Virginia, having lost two franchises in Pennsylvania. “Increase in transportation, inability to secure good players at fair salaries and other reasons, all of which were caused by the war, in an indirect way, prompted the moguls in their action,” the Washington Star reported.10
Soaring transportation costs troubled all of Organized Baseball in 1918. The sixteen Major League clubs each traveled about ten thousand miles by rail during a season, with each player getting a sleeping-car berth. “Including the war taxes, it is figured that traveling expenses this year will total more than $170,000 for the two leagues, or an average of more than $10,000 for each club,” a wire service reported. “It is believed that as a result of the new rates the clubs will decide to carry not more than 14 or 16 men on the road in order to save expenses. Under former conditions managers thought nothing of buying tickets for at least 20 players.”11
The next Minor League to suspend was the Southern Association on June 29. The directors cited lack of interest, poor attendance, and the work-or-fight regulation, but others saw an additional influence. “The Southern was doomed by the placing of army camps and cantonments in the territory of every city in the league. The fans got so they liked the army games better than they did the league contests.”12 Since franchises and players fell under the so-called war agreement of the National Baseball Association, which defined a half season as a completed season under wartime conditions, all territorial rights were protected. Still, many players soon signed with other leagues. The Red Sox snatched three men from pennant-winning New Orleans. “While none of the three are .300 hitters, they are experienced fielders and immune from a call into the army.”13 The Pirates also signed three men from Birmingham, including outfielder and future Hall of Fame manager Billy Southworth.
- “‘Work or Fight,’ Choice Given Men within Draft Age,” Washington Star, May 23, 1918.
- “‘Work or Fight,’ Choice Given.” A bucket shop was a type of stock brokerage operated from a drugstore, hotel, or cafe—essentially, a betting shop, where often the supposed trades were never made.
- “Every Man of Draft Age Must Work or Fight by July, Declares Provost Marshal,” New York World, May 23, 1918.
- “Crowder Mandate Strikes at Leagues,” New York Sun, May 24, 1918.
- “What Officials Say about New Crowder Order,” New York Tribune, May 24, 1918.
- “Base Ball Men Are Aroused by the Proposal to Compel Players to Work or Fight,” Washington Star, May 23, 1918.
- “Virginia League Off to Its ’18 Campaign,” Washington Times, May 23, 1918.
- Louis Lee Arms, “Professional Sports Hard Hit by Command to Work or Fight,” New York Tribune, May 24, 1918.
- W. W. Flannery, “Blue Ridge Gives Up Ghost,” Sporting News, June 20, 1918.
- “Blue Ridge to Quit,” Washington Star, June 13, 1918.
- “More Trouble for Majors,” El Paso Herald, July 6, 1918.
- “Army Baseball Killed the Southern League,” Bridgeport Times, July 6, 1918.
- Daniel, High Lights and Shadows, June 26, 1918.