Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War

by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Basic Books, 2020
Jim Gallen, Reviewer

Ruth of the Red Sox

The Great War unleashed fevers that spread far beyond the battlefield. War Fever is the story of three lives that it changed forever—one an unmitigated tragedy, another a perverse tragic glory, and the third a vaulting to demigod status.

Kurt Muck was conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra until his German nationality made him an enemy alien under suspicion for everything from espionage to sabotage. Babe Ruth was a German American pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who, within the scope of this book, adapted to and molded the game with which his name will ever be associated. Charles Whittlesey was a Boston Brahmin and Wall Street attorney who carried on the tradition of a family that had fought for its country from the Pequot Wars.

Muck's misfortune arose out of a sudden national hostility to everything German and rumors such as a refusal to play "The Star-Spangled Banner," which he denied. Despite his Swiss citizenship, it led to investigation that uncovered compromising letters with a woman that provided evidence for criminal prosecution. Confronted with that, he chose to accept internment as an enemy alien in Georgia after which he was deported back to Germany, a victim of the unthinking prejudice of his era.

Ruth avoided the anti-German hysteria as he successfully transitioned from the American League's most dominant left-handed pitcher to "The Babe" (how American and Bunyanesque can you get?), the perennial symbol of baseball power. As players were either pulled away by the draft or abandoned the game for "essential jobs" that carried draft deferments, the Red Sox roster was depleted of hitting, a gap which Ruth filled. Between intolerance of wartime "slackers" and decreased attendance, Ruth's exploits renewed the public's interest in baseball, making it the national pastime.

Roads readers may find the story of Charles Whittlesey to be the most interesting. A quiet scholar, he attended Plattsburg Camp and received a commission in the National Army, a polyglot amalgamation of draftees from various lands. He was placed in the 77th Division, officered primarily by scions of establishment families and enlisted men drawn largely from the streets of New York. As a major commanding the 308th Infantry Regiment, he led his men to France.

Charles Whittlesey in France

Whittlesey's rendezvous with destiny began on 2 October 1918 as the Meuse-Argonne offensive launched. The 308th initial success earned it eternal fame as "The Lost Battalion" although it was neither a battalion nor lost. Breaking through enemy lines, it got so far in front of other units that it was cut off and deprived of reinforcement and resupply. Whittlesey directed and encouraged his diminishing effective forces until relieved. His rejection of surrender demands—"Go to Hell!"—although probably apocryphal, gave voice to American determination and became his nickname for life. The authors' descriptions of life in "the pocket," the wounded and starved who fought on, the depleted food and ammunition, the stench of decaying flesh and the burns from flame throwers put the horrors of war onto the printed page. The names and actions of his men personalize the battle in which even carrier pigeons had names and played vital roles. Quotations of Germans outside the lines send shudders through the reader. Amidst the din, Whittlesey could still allude to the poetic "Pipes at Lucknow." He was awarded the Medal of Honor, a decoration that he believed belonged more to his men than to him. Sadly, the returning hero was unable to cope with the world in which he found himself—probably a victim of what today would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder

Oh, by the way, the Spanish flu (which Ruth contracted) intruded into these three tales and created another crisis for the torn world.

The events narrated in this work bring to mind many subsequent events. The internment of German enemy aliens presaged the evacuation of Japanese Americans in a greater war. The isolation of the Lost Battalion brings to mind the "Battling Bastards of Bastogne." Ruth's rescue of baseball is akin to McGuire and Sosa's repair of its reputation in the wake of the strike. Read in the summer of 2020, the accounts of the Spanish flu are easily compared to current news. As to racial stereotyping, well, take your pick.

Whether your passion is the Great War, human rights, baseball or the fascinating interplay of life, War Fever is a book you will not want to miss.

Jim Gallen

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting review, Jim, thank you. I have to confess that I'd never heard of Kurt Muck before. A really sad story.