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Ultimate Sacrifice

At age 33 in 1917, the Harvard-trained lawyer and Major League baseball player Eddie Grant volunteered to serve in World War I. He fought as he'd played: selflessly

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Artillery barrages aimed at the Germans had fallen instead on the Americans, and food drops meant for the Americans had landed on the Germans. Pershing’s patience was wearing thin. “I direct that a vigorous effort be made this afternoon to relieve the companies on the left of the 77th Division that are cut off,” he had ordered the morning of Saturday, October 5, 1918.

It was the kind of stern order that the war’s long stalemate had driven commanders to issue—asking their men to make almost suicidal runs into the teeth of the enemy. Eddie Grant was sitting on a stump, coughing from the bronchitis that he could have used as a ticket off the line and barely able to drink a cup of coffee, when word came to move out and rescue the Lost Battalion.

Edward Leslie Grant—in his family he was often called Les—was born in 1883 in the town of Franklin, Massachusetts, halfway between Boston and Providence, the son of a contractor who built many of the Victorian houses that still line its streets today. His baseball career began at a local prep school, DeanAcademy, and continued on the freshman team at Harvard. He was eager to join the varsity—then perhaps the best collegiate team in the nation—when he returned as a sophomore, but word had reached school officials that he had earned $40 plus room and board for a summer playing semipro ball in North Carolina, costing him his intercollegiate eligibility. He played varsity basketball instead, starred on the intramural baseball teams, and grew impatient to graduate and pursue the unique dual career path he envisioned for himself—professional baseball and the law.

“I would respectfully petition to be allowed to take six and one half courses during the first half of the ensuing year,” he wrote to one of Harvard’s deans in September 1904. “I wish to do this as this number will give me just enough for my degree and I may be enabled to enter the LawSchool next year.”

By the end of the spring semester in 1905 he needed but one more course. He read Dante for his Italian class that summer, played semipro ball in nearby Lynn, and made a brief Major League debut. When the Cleveland Indians came to play the Boston Red Sox in August, their star second baseman, future Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie, was sidelined with an infected leg, and the team picked up Grant as a substitute. He had three hits in his first game—and “showed promise as a second baseman,” according to the New York Times—but got none in his second, and he returned to Lynn when Cleveland moved on.

Grant was a student of modest achievement—just above a C average in that age before grade inflation—and wide interests. He studied Greek, Latin, German and Italian, as well as history and economics; and like all undergraduates, he was bathed in the heady idealism championed by a faculty that had a defining influence on America’s moral and intellectual climate. To pass through Harvard in Grant’s era, as Walter Lippmann, T. S. Eliot and W.E.B. Du Bois did; to study under such intellectual giants as George Santayana, Josiah Royce, William James, Hugo Münsterberg and George Herbert Palmer; to grow to political awareness under the progressive leadership of one of Harvard’s proudest graduates, President Theodore Roosevelt (class of 1880), was to acquire almost inevitably a belief that humanity was evolving toward a more perfect state and that the duty of all individuals was to devote themselves, even to sacrifice themselves if necessary, to that higher cause.

“The social order of the future is neither that of paternalism nor that of individualism, but that of fraternalism,” declared clergyman Lyman Abbot, a baccalaureate speaker at Grant’s graduation in June 1906. “It will be a social order in which each member of society will recognize that the interest of one is the interest of all.” When Grant started law school, one of the first people he befriended was Charles Whittlesey, a tall, bespectacled WilliamsCollege graduate with the same prim schoolmaster’s visage as Woodrow Wilson. They often sat talking on the law school steps, strolled around Cambridge Common and occasionally ventured into Boston together. In the spring of 1906, Grant signed on in the minors with the Jersey City Skeeters and led the Eastern League with a .322 average. The Philadelphia Nationals, also known as the Phillies, signed him in 1907, and by 1908 he was their regular third baseman. By 1909, he was their leadoff batter, with 170 hits, second in the National League.

In those years, baseball was assuming its dimensions as the national pastime. The first World Series had been played just six years earlier, attendance was soaring at new stadiums that were rising everywhere, and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—written in 1908—seemed on everyone’s lips. “The ‘mob and hoodlums’ that hurled epithets and missiles at the umpire, that waited with stones outside the ball grounds to make it pleasant for the opposing nine, have passed away,” Pearson’s Magazine noted in 1909. “The ‘rowdies’ who filled the air with profanity, who made the game a slugging match in which brute strength and arrogance were the only assets—they, too, have departed.”

Anew kind of player was emerging, as well, the magazine claimed: “clear-brained, clear-eyed young men” who play the game “on lines that are purely scientific.” Leading examples of these “Transformers of Baseball,” as it dubbed them, were Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Frank Chance, Johnny Evers and the “Harvard man . . . playing third base with the PhiladelphiaNationals,” Eddie Grant.

“There are more college men playing ball every year, but they are no higher type than most of the non-college men,” Grant modestly told Pearson’s.

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