Eddie Grant, a Harvard Law School graduate and a former third baseman who played for the Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants, was the first major league baseball player killed in World War I.
In all, seven other major league players lost their lives in the Great War. They are Lt. Tom Burr, plane crash; Lt. Harry Chapman, illness; Lt. Larry Chappell, influenza; Pvt. Harry Glenn, pneumonia; Cpt. Newton Halliday, hemorrhages; Cpl. Ralph Sherman, drowned, and Purple Heart winner Sgt. Robert “Bun” Troy, shot.
Known affectionately among his teammates as “Harvard Eddie,” Grant debuted in the majors in 1905 after he graduated from Harvard, where he starred at baseball and was the basketball team’s top scorer. Grant eventually would play 990 games as an infielder through 1915.
An average dead ball era hitter, neither spectacular nor a detriment, Grant’s career average was .249 with five home runs. Grant’s best big-league season came in 1909 when he hit .269 as Philadelphia’s leadoff hitter and finished second in the National League with 170 hits. Opposition players considered him an above average fielder and particularly adept at handling bunts. In the 1913 World Series which the Giants lost to the Philadelphia Athletics, 4-1, Grant saw limited action. He pinch-ran and scored in Game 2, and in Game 4, he hit a foul ball pop up that the A’s catcher easily snagged.
On April 6, 1917, two years after his baseball career ended at age 33, and with his law practice barely underway, Grant enlisted in the U.S. Army, the first major league player to sign up. In a letter to a friend, Grant proudly wrote: “I had determined from the start to be in this war should it come to us…I believe there is no greater duty than I owe for being that which I am — an American citizen.’’
Tom Simon, writing for the Society for American Baseball Research, recounts Grant’s fateful demise in his defense of America against the advancing Germans. On October 2, 1918, Grant’s 307th Regiment launched an attack in France’s Argonne Forest, a rugged, heavily wooded area with thick underbrush, deep ravines and marshes. Soon, Grant’s superior officers were killed, and Eddie took command. By the morning of the third day, October 5, Grant was exhausted. He hadn’t slept since the offensive’s beginning, and his fellow officers noticed him sitting on a stump with a cup of coffee in front of him, too weak to lift the cup.
One of Grant’s troops, a former Polo Grounds policeman, remembered: “Eddie was dog-tired but he stepped off at the head of his outfit with no more concern than if he were walking to his old place at third base after his side had finished its turn at the bat. He staggered from weakness when he first started off, but pretty soon he was marching briskly with his head up.”
When the Germans pressed forward, Grant yelled at his men to seek cover while he remained standing, waving his arms to call for stretchers. Grant’s courageous effort to save his fellow soldiers cost him his life. Maj. Charles Wittlesey, Grant’s friend who led the 77th Division in the battle historians call “the Lost Battalion,” said: “When that shell burst and killed that boy, America lost one of the finest types of manhood I have ever known.’’ When the battle ended, Grant’s fellow soldiers, realizing their leader had been killed, were overheard saying, “The best man in the entire regiment is gone.”
Grant is interred at France’s Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery along with more than 14,000 American soldiers. World War I historian Mike Hanlon has led tours of the war’s battlefields and the cemetery where he talks about Purple Heart recipient Grant.
Then-MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wanted Grant added to the Hall of Fame for his service to the country. Although Landis’ fine idea was rejected, Grant had a Bronx highway named after him, and a ball yard in his hometown Franklin, Mass.
The Giants, Grant’s last major league team, placed a bronze plaque in his honor on the center field fence of the Polo Grounds on Memorial Day 1921. The plaque identified Grant as “Soldier – Scholar – Athlete,” doubtless the order in which Eddie would like them listed.
Copyright 2022 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected]