When Ty Cobb Went Off To War

In 1918, Ty Cobb was in his 14th season in big league baseball, but he was still at the top of his game. That season he won his 11th batting title, hitting .382 to pace the American League easily. But he didn’t collect 200 hits or put up any other gaudy numbers, largely because the season was shortened due to the Great War. Baseball had decided to end the schedule on Labor Day due to the hostilities between the Allies and the Axis Powers in Europe.

Since America’s entry into the war in April of 1917, baseball had been in a patriotic mood. Frequently teams were marched onto the field carrying bats on their shoulders as if they were rifles, the players marching in formation. In both leagues, teams began drilling as if they were military units, with the Tigers being no exception. Each major league team was assigned a drill instructor, and when Detroit’s instructor (a Sergeant Thorne) was called to active duty, second baseman Ralph Young – who had graduated from a military academy – took over.

Unlike the Second World War, where the U.S. entered the conflict in the off-season and players voluntarily entered the service, America did not begin to call up citizens for duty until a few months after declaring war in 1917. Major League Baseball players, for the most part, did not enter military service during the 1917 season. Therefore, outside of the military drilling, the 1917 regular season was barely affected by the overseas conflict. Cobb also applied to the Augusta, Georgia Draft Board, making himself eligible for military service. Cobb was placed in a special class. The military would draft younger men before turning to Cobb’s group.

The War in Europe dominated headlines in 1918. On a road trip to Washington to face the Senators, Cobb visited the War Department, where he took his mandatory army physical and applied for the Chemical Warfare Service. Spurred by patriotism and the memory of his grandfather’s service in the Civil War hero, Cobb felt compelled to get into the fight. A few days later, while Detroit was in New York to play the Yankees, Cobb received word that he had been accepted into the Chemical Warfare Service. He was to report in October.

The Chemical Warfare Service had been organized by General John J. Pershing in response to several deadly poison gas attacks on American troops by the Germans. The attacks had generated considerable outrage, and the creation of the CWS was front-page news. The CWS was created to perfect methods to withstand poison-gas attacks, but more importantly (and controversially), it was charged with developing poisonous gas weapons to be used against the Germans in Europe. Other baseball figures who would also serve in the CWS included Christy Mathewson, Branch Rickey, and George Sisler.

Following the end of the 1918 season and a few weeks at his home in Georgia, Ty arrived in New York and reported for duty on October 1. He was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army, and after a relatively short time in accelerated training, he and his unit sailed for France. The Army hoped that Cobb and the other sports figures in the CWS would be effective in training enlisted men in the area of chemical and biological warfare. But according to Cobb, he ended up training “the darnedest bunch of culls the World War I Army ever grouped in one outfit.”

The training exercises in France, though they took place far behind the front lines, were extremely dangerous. Cobb would march his troops into an airtight chamber, where they were to quickly assemble their gas masks when they received a signal that the poison was about to filter into the room. However, on one occasion something went terribly wrong.

During one exercise, Cobb and his troops either missed or were slow to react to the signal and many of them stumbled from the chamber having inhaled the poison into their lungs. For weeks Cobb suffered with a hacking cough while a “colorless discharge” drained from his chest. Others were not so lucky – they died after the exposure. Christy Mathewson, the great National League hurler who also served in the CWS, inhaled so much of the gas while in France that he later developed tuberculosis. He died from the disease seven years later, in 1925.

Cobb had been in France less than a month when the war ended suddenly on November 11. The Allies, bolstered by the influx of American troops, had deflected the last German offensives and hurtled the aggressors back into the Rhine. When the Hindenberg Line was breached by the Allies, the Germans collapsed in disarray. Within a few weeks, Cobb was onboard the largest ship in the world – the U.S.S. Leviathan – one of the first transport ships back to the United States.

Cornered by newsmen in New York upon his arrival, Cobb spoke modestly of his brief foray as a soldier.

“I hardly had time to get used to the idea [of being in the Army]. I’m proud to have been in uniform in some small way and to see our great nation dispel the enemy in such miraculous speed.”

Despite hinting that he would never play baseball again, Cobb was back in a Tiger uniform in 1919, winning his 12th – and final – batting title.

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