The Day Wartime London Stopped for Baseball, July 4, 1918
Every nation involved in the First World War took its games to the front. In England, entire sports teams joined the Army together. The Allied troops played in their training camps, and later took their games to the front as well. Newspapers found parallels between sports and the “Greater Game” of war. Cartoonist Robert Ripley depicted the sports of Allied countries for American readers.
When America entered the World War in April 1917, baseball went to war, too. American League teams drilled under U.S. Army sergeants. Newspapers called amateur and professional ballplayers who played the game while in military service Uncle Sam’s League. Nearly every unit of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps had at least one good baseball team.
By late 1917, well-known major league players were entering the armed forces, where many continued to play ball. American doughboys played baseball in France, often with equipment supplied by the YMCA, Knights of Columbus, Jewish Welfare Board and other war charities. The Canadian Army had already been playing baseball overseas since soon after the start of the war in 1914.
Pass in Review
King George V took great interest in his new American allies and wanted them to feel at home in Great Britain. When the Anglo-American Baseball League planned a special U.S. Army versus U.S. Navy baseball game to celebrate the Fourth of July, the monarch promptly accepted an invitation to attend the event at Stamford Bridge, home of the Chelsea Football Club. What London newspapers called the “baseball match” immediately became important news on both sides of the Atlantic.
King George and Queen Mary review American troops marching past Buckingham Palace, 1918.
Umpire Arlie Latham, known as “the freshest man on Earth” during his playing days with the St. Louis Browns, visited the gardens at Buckingham Palace to teach the King how to throw out the ceremonial first ball. Arlie’s advice to the monarch: “More speed!” American sportswriters and cartoonists loved the unlikely pair. “Isn’t it enough to make the crickets whistle?” commented a newspaper in Pennsylvania.
(Philadelphia Public Ledger)
The U.S. Army Headquarters team’s star pitcher was Captain Edward “Doc” Lafitte, formerly of the Detroit Tigers and the Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the Federal League. He was a dentist attached to the Queen’s Hospital for Facial Injuries. A tall, rangy right-hander, Doc usually played for the Army squad while wearing a Tigers cap.
The stars of U.S. Navy Headquarters team were pitcher Herb Pennock and infielder Mike McNally of the Boston Red Sox. Both had entered the service following the 1917 season, and both would be traded to the New York Yankees after the war.
Pennock, “the Squire of Kennett Square,” Pennsylvania, was a rail-thin southpaw who began with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Later general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, he would be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame following his death in 1948.
McNally was the navy captain, despite having two officers as teammates. The son of Irish immigrants, nicknamed for his Pennsylvania hometown, “Minooka Mike” would enjoy a 50-year career as a player, manager, scout and baseball executive.
Led by King George V, London and all of Great Britain celebrated American Independence Day for the first time in 1918, 142 years after July 4, 1776. Old Glory flew beside the Union Jack atop government buildings. The highlight of the day was the army-navy baseball match at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea, west of central London. American soldiers and sailors set out for the game on horse-drawn carriages.
“The American and British Army and Navy ‘shake’ on their one purpose, to crush the Hun.”
Admiral Sims and Minister of Munitions Winston S. Churchill were among the speakers at a crowded Anglo-Saxon Fellowship meeting that morning in Central Hall in Westminster. Churchill, son of an American mother, was “defiantly pugnacious,” rousing the assemblage with his ringing declaration, “Germany must be beaten until she knows she is beaten.”
Prevented from throwing out the first ball by protective netting newly strung in front of the grandstand, George V strolled down onto the field to meet the two team’s captains and personally present the ball to the umpire. First, however, he borrowed a fountain pen to autograph the baseball, which was set aside for presentation later to American President Woodrow Wilson. A British paper published a cheeky poem:
King George the Third with cannon balls
did try our brothers to dispatch;
King George the Fifth the country calls
to watch with him their baseball match!
Members of the royal family gathered in a special box in the Stamford Bridge grandstand. George V sat beside the Queen Mother, youthful-looking Alexandra (on his left). Queen Mary and Princess Mary (both in white) sat farther down the row. A U.S. diplomat tried valiantly to exclaim the mysteries of the American national pastime to Queen Mary.
Fresh from his triumph at Central Hall, Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine, watched the baseball match from the Stamford Bridge grandstand, seated among what an American spectator called “a huge group of generals, a scattering of princesses and other royalties.” A London newspaper noted that Mr. Churchill was wearing “a very good looking top-hat and smoking a six-foot cigar.”
An enormous crowd of Londoners and Allied soldiers and sailors overflowed the Stamford Bridge grandstand and filled much of the grassy surrounds. The official attendance figure was 34,000, but published estimates ranged from 18,000 to 70,000. Mike McNally, who had played for Boston in the 1916 World Series, wrote home that 50,000 saw the game. Wounded British soldiers in their distinctive blue-and-white uniforms sat at the edge of the field beside the grandstand.
The Army and Navy teams played on a baseball diamond laid out on the grassy football (soccer) pitch. The pitchers threw from flat ground rather than a mound. Stamford Bridge was considered the Army squad’s home field. The Navy team played its home games at Highbury, home of the Arsenal Football Club.
More soldiers than sailors attended the game, but energetic Navy rooters outshouted the Army supporters. Petty officers led them in organized cheers like this one:
Strawberry shortcake, huckleberry pie,
Are we in it? Well, I guess!
Navy, Navy! Yes, yes, yes!
The energetic American soldiers and sailors often saluted the British monarch with chants and cheers. George V good-naturedly bowed to the compliments.
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
King! King! King!
The Army team wore light-green uniforms, the Navy dark blue with red piping. Umpire Arlie Latham was the game’s only umpire. He called balls and strikes from behind the catcher until a runner was on base, when moved behind the pitcher.
Londoners were alarmed by the Yanks’ traditional cries of “Kill the umpire!” American fans quickly assured them it was just part of the game and nothing unfortunate would actually occur.
Civilian and military cameramen captured silent newsreel footage of the raucous American holiday in the British capital, 142 year years after the Declaration of Independence.
REMARKABLE SCENES AT CHELSEA, read a headline the next day in The Times of London. “It took us completely away to those distant times when we could rejoice under a blue sky without looking for Zeppelins and Gothas. The afternoon was crammed full of extraordinary moments. It passed in such a pandemonium as was perhaps never heard before on an English playing field; not even on a football ground.”
American troops riding coaches to the game
(U.S. National Archives)
George V greets the Yanks
(U.S. National Archives)
The royals in the grandstand
(U.S. National Archives)
Scenes from the game
(U.S. National Archives)
American sailors celebrated their team’s 2-1 victory with a snake dance across the Stamford Bridge playing grounds. All then snapped to attention and saluted when a British military band struck up “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“The meaning of this most significant of all ball games was carried along the air,” said The Times. “There was more cheering afterwards, but cheering of a radically different kind. The crowd awoke to consciousness that the afternoon had passed into the history of two great nations.”
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a huge baseball fan, once autographed a baseball that was auctioned off for war charities.
George V autographed the Stamford Bridge first ball, which was set aside and presented to Wilson following the war. The King borrowed an American fountain pen to sign the ball George R. I., underline it with a flourish and add July 4, 1918. The R. I. was Latin for Rex Imperator, king-emperor.
Atta Boy, John
The Army-Navy baseball match at Stamford Bridge on the Fourth of July, 1918, was immensely important to solidifying the new Anglo-American alliance—the “special relationship” that would endure on through World War II and many conflicts since.
“If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it may be that it will be said hereafter, in the same symbolic sense, that the Great War was won on the baseball ground at Chelsea.” — Illustrated London News
All content compiled written by Jim Leeke
Web producer: Jeff Atteberry