One hundred years ago, the term WAR was used in a very different context.
World War I loomed over baseball, with talk that the season might not even be played.
While the minor leagues mostly shuttered themselves in 1917, baseball made a token effort to support the war cause. Few players enlisted. Some gate receipts were donated to the cause — as was baseball gear, as if in-between mustard gas shellackings, soldiers on the front were up to some ball. Players very visibly went through a dog-and-pony show of military drills.
One problem: Fans weren’t having it.
Under pressure to do more for the war effort in 1918, baseball owners gave in, a bit. The season was shortened to 140 games, and spring training was generally held closer to home cities. As to a greater sacrifice, baseball owners said no, the game itself had value in keeping morale and spirits high.
The man in charge of the draft, Enoch Crowder, didn’t feel the same way, and deemed that any man in a “non-essential” job — including base-ball playing — needed to apply for war-related work by July 1, or be drafted into the military.
Baseball won a victory of sorts, as the government allowed the season to be played by delaying the deadline for baseball players by two months, from July 1 to September 1, and giving the two World Series team an exemption to allow the World Series to be played.
Thus the season was trimmed by another two weeks, and players, feeling the pressure to enlist, did (more than half of all players joined the war effort before the deadline, a development that ended up having a devastating effect on the defending champion Chicago White Sox).
Red Faber, in fact, jumped the gun, reporting at the beginning of 1918 that he had been drafted, and was happy to serve. Anticipating the loss of Faber at some point in the season, White Sox manager Pants Rowland made outfielders Joe Jackson and Shano Collins available in a trade for pitching help. Interestingly, Rowland made it clear that center fielder Happy Felsch, much sought-after in trades, would not be traded.
You can’t trust just one report, but how crazy is it that Felsch would have been more valuable to the White Sox, and more asked-about in deals, than Jackson!
Jim Scott took it one step farther than Faber, who did begin the 1918 season pitching for the White Sox. For the 1917 champions, Scott was a fifth starter, throwing 125 innings with a 1.87 ERA and 3.0 WAR, but left the team in late August to attend officer’s training school, where he would be commissioned as a Captain as the second major leaguer to join the armed forces. At 29, Scott left the game a 28.0 career WAR pitcher, and never threw another pitch in the majors.
The White Sox, training in Mineral Wells, Texas, stopped off in Fort Worth for a final exhibition before the start of the season, and got spanked, 10-2, with starter Joe Benz surrendering 16 hits.
The war in Europe wasn’t the only cloud hanging over the start of the 1918 season — literal rain clouds joined in the fun. The White Sox managed to squeeze just seven games into April, with several rainouts. In its first full week of scheduled games, Chicago managed to play just twice, on a Monday and Friday.
Things wouldn’t end well for the White Sox in 1918, in-between two World Series appearances. But the season got off to a robust start for every White Sox not named Cicotte.
On April 16, 25,000 fans greeted the World Champions at Comiskey Park for the home opener — and witnessed a doleful 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the St. Louis Browns (57-97 in 1917, finishing seventh of eight teams in the AL). Eddie Cicotte got lit up, knocked out of the game after just 4 1⁄3 innings, surrendering 11 hits and three earned runs, for a 29 game score. Browns pitcher Grover Lowdermilk stymied the Sox, with a complete-game four-hitter and a 74 game score. (Lowdermilk would arrive on the South Side and chip in as a fifth starter for the 1919 pennant push.)
Two days later, the White Sox got even with a 5-0 win. Lefty Williams threw his own complete-game four-hitter, this one a shutout, for a 78 game score. The White Sox jumped on Urban Shocker, and perhaps even more so catcher Les Nunamaker, by stealing nine bases in the game — the only Pale Hose not to swipe a bag were right fielder Nemo Leibold, catcher Ray Schalk and Williams! Chick Gandil went 3-for-3 with a walk, double and RBI.
Four days after that, on April 22, Chicago got back on the field, losing 7-3 to the Detroit Tigers (who, in a nod to the awful weather, were playing just their second game of the season). Third baseman Swede Risberg comitted three of the White Sox’s four errors, and once again Cicotte struggled: seven innings, 10 hits, five earned runs, for a game score of 36.
After another four days, on the 26th, the White Sox got back to .500 by beating the Browns again, 6-2. Joe Jackson went 4-for-4 with two runs, a homer and five RBI. Four games in, and Shoeless was slashing .563/.588/.750. Williams won his second game, again going the distance with a six-hitter and 65 game score. Chicago wreaked its revenge on Lowdermilk, driving him from the box after five innings with eight hits and four earned runs, for a 31 game score.
On April 28, the White Sox took a 2-1 squeaker in St. Louis, scoring the eventual game-winner on an RBI double from Eddie Collins, who went 3-for-4 in the game. It was Faber’s turn to spin a complete game, allowing just six hits and one earned run, for a 70 game score. Brownie Allan Sothoron got the complete-game loss, tossing an identical 70 game score.
The White Sox began a series at the Cleveland Indians the next day, winning 8-4. Jackson went 2-for-3 and Cicotte, who came on for a three-inning save, helped the cause with a two-run double in the eighth. Williams moved to 3-0 with six innings, three hits, three earned runs, and six walks for a game score of 50. Williams ended April with a 1.88 ERA.
Chicago finished up the month on April 30 with a 13-3 win at Cleveland, clocking 17 hits and also benefiting from four Indians errors. Gandil went 4-for-5 and ended April at .458/.536/.583. Jackson finished the month even better, at .464/.516/.643. Benz, who was shelled in Fort Worth just a few weeks earlier, earned the complete-game, nine-hit win. With a game score of 56, it was no masterpiece, but it landed the White Sox in second place at 5-2, three games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox, who sat at 11-2.
In May, fortunes would change for the White Sox. More players would be lost, and controversy well ahead of any 1919 scandal took root.