On Armed Forces Day, Remembering Baseball’s First World War I Volunteer

by Joe Guzzardi
[cartoon id="231584"] Despite his 17-year career as a big-league player and coach, Major Harry Morgan “Hank” Gowdy is, to most baseball fans, a relative unknown. To military historians, however, Gowdy is famous for being the first player to enlist in World War I. Amazingly, by 1943, a 54-year-old Gowdy also served during World War II. During his two stints with the New York Giants and another two with the Boston Braves, Gowdy had only modest on-field success, as attested to by his career .270 average. But in the 1914 World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics, Gowdy hit a lusty .545 with three doubles, a triple and a home run to lead his Braves to a four-game sweep over the heavily favored A’s. Gowdy’s Miracle Braves had a well-deserved reputation as baseball’s toughest nine, a team that battled back from dead last at midseason to win the pennant by 10-1/2 games. In a testament to the rough and tumble Braves, Gowdy’s teammate and Hall of Famer Johnny “the Crab” Evers purposely let a fastball bean him in his helmetless head to drive in the game’s winning run. When World War I broke out in 1917, Gowdy enlisted in the National Guard. By the following year, the catcher-turned-soldier was in France serving in the 166th Infantry Regiment, dubbed the Rainbow Division, the fighting 42nd, by General Pershing. Gowdy battled in the trenches and often engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat. “Every outfit ought to have somebody like Hank,” regiment commander Colonel B.W. Hough said of Gowdy. “The boys idolize him and he gets them all stirred up with his baseball stories. He helps ‘em forget about the terror of war. He carried the flag and ... he was one of them who heaved gas bombs at the enemy ... he was fantastic!” Tossing grenades was Gowdy’s specialty. Evers witnessed Gowdy during a training session chuck a gas bomb 73 yards. And Gowdy’s grenade-hurling - “great exercise for the arm,” he called it - paid off when Hank returned to the Braves and regained his status among the most effective catchers at throwing out would-be base stealers. In three separate seasons, Gowdy’s caught stealing percentage led the National League. “Lank,” the 6-foot-2 Gowdy’s nickname, frequently told his fellow Doughboys that while he was eager to trade his gas mask for his old catcher’s mask, he was unfazed by “the fast ones from Fritz,” meaning incoming German bombs. Upon his return to Boston, the Braves designated May 24, 1919, as “Hank Gowdy Day.” Fans greeted “The Fair-Haired Skyscraper,” another Gowdy moniker, with a standing ovation. Braves and opposing Cincinnati Reds’ players embraced Gowdy, and the assembled 16,000 fans chipped in to present him with $800 in Victory Bonds, a gold watch and a cigar cutter. Gowdy rewarded the fans’ generosity when he smacked a single off the first pitch he had seen in more than two years, a hit that sparked the Braves to a 4-1 victory. When the Great War ended, President Warren G. Harding called for “a return to normalcy.” For Gowdy, normalcy meant serving as a Braves, Reds and New York Giants coach. Then, at World War II’s outset, Gowdy’s peace-time routine ended. Gowdy re-enlisted in the Army, and took the chief athletic officer’s post in Ft. Benning, Ga. Gowdy remains the only MLB player to have participated in both major U.S. wars. In a fitting tribute to the war hero and World Series champ, the baseball diamond at Ft. Benning is called Hank Gowdy Field. - Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at [email protected]