Ultimate Sacrifice- page 3 | History | Smithsonian
Current Issue
July / August 2014  magazine cover

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Baseball was a different game then, built more on speed and finesse than power. The bunt was an important strategic tool, and Grant was adept on both sides of it—laying them down and scooping them up. “As a batter Grant was noted for his ability to sacrifice,” a fellow player, Mike Donlin, once observed, “and he could lay back near third base and still throw out the fastest runners after they had bunted.”

Near the end of the 1910 season, the bachelor third baseman walked into a Philadelphia drugstore one afternoon to buy some cigars. As the clerk waited on him, a tall, handsome young woman came in. “Have you ever happened to meet Miss Soest, Mr. Grant?” the clerk asked. He hadn’t, but he was more than happy to do so. She was 20, her name was Irene, and they walked along the street together that very afternoon. He began to call at her house, where her mother had yet to hear the news that baseball players these days were gentlemen, not ruffians. After the season ended, Grant came back to Philadelphia to spend Thanksgiving with Irene, and then Christmas too, when he gave her a diamond to announce an engagement her mother only grudgingly approved. They were married February 28, 1911, at Epiphany Chapel at 17th and Race, where Irene had taught Sunday school and was active in the Girls’ Friendly Society. “On that day my blessed sweetheart became my wife,” he later wrote. “How radiant and happy she was.”

The newlyweds planned to live near Irene’s mother, but Grant was traded to Cincinnati before the new season started. The move didn’t trouble him much—he was in love, and he expected 1911 to be his last year in baseball. After the season, he and Irene would settle in Boston where he would devote himself to his fledgling law practice. Late in November, he took his young bride into Boston from their apartment in Brookline and bought her a moleskin stole and a muff. They were going to his alma mater for the big football game with Yale, and he wanted her to stay warm in the windswept bowl of Soldiers Field. But the morning of the game, not quite nine months since their wedding, Irene awoke at seven complaining of pain around her heart. “She died in his arms before aid could reach her,” the obituary in a Philadelphia newspaper reported. The typhoid fever she had contracted as a girl, the doctors surmised, must have left undetected damage.

“The terrible shock and the ending of a truly great love did something to Eddie from which he never recovered,” his sister Florence Grant Robinson would later write. She never heard him speak Irene’s name again. The day after a family Christmas in Franklin that year, he took his gun, his fishing gear and his copy of Emerson’s essays up to a camp in New Hampshire, where he spent several solitary weeks contemplating his loss. He also filled a leather-bound notebook with a tender memoir of his life with Irene.

“The happiest moment was when I put the ring upon her finger,” he wrote about their wedding day. “She was to be mine for all time—not only in this life but in the life to come. And then after signing a book and receiving happy wishes we were ready to start on our life together—all too short it was to be.”

Eddie Grant went back to Cincinnati after all, alone, and played another season and a half there before the Giants, the dominant team in the National League, acquired him in the middle of the 1913 season. Manager John McGraw valued both his hands and his brain, relying on him as a utility man and a bench coach. Grant spent some time at every position in the infield, from his accustomed third base all the way around the horn to first, and hit for his highest full-season average ever (.277) in 1914. His numbers slipped in 1915, and he retired at the end of the season at age 32. He spent 1916 dabbling in law and coaching a Giants farm team in New Jersey.

As Grant’s baseball career was tailing off, the Great War in Europe was raging, and America’s entry into it began to appear ever more likely. College students and businessmen were being recruited into what came to be called the Plattsburg movement—named for the Plattsburg Barracks in upstate New York—to sign up for private officer training camps started by another Harvard man, Gen. Leonard Wood, championed by Theodore Roosevelt, and meant to foster a well-trained officer corps. One-third of the 1,200 men who attended the first camp were from Harvard. The movement attracted many of Grant’s peers, adventurous idealists who had been drilled with the dictum of Harvard’s Josiah Royce that the highest good could be achieved only by “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”

Grant found his cause when America entered the war in April 1917, and he signed up immediately for Plattsburg—“keen for war’s grim game,” as the New York World reported in a photo spread about prominent enlistees. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was at camp with him, along with Charles Whittlesey. “I am going to try to be an officer,” Grant wrote a friend. “I don’t know how much of a success I shall make at it. I had determined from the start to be in this war if it came to us, and if I am not successful as an officer I shall enlist as a private, for I believe there is no greater duty that I owe for being that which I am—an American citizen.”

In April 1918, Grant landed in France as a captain with Company H of the 307th Infantry Regiment in the 77th Division, the so-called Statue of Liberty Division from New York City. “I want also to impress upon you that I am not the least bit pessimistic about this. And can’t see why any of you should be,” he wrote to his sister Florence. “Why the Germans won’t be able to win a game from us. We would knock old Hindenburg out of the box in the first inning.”

The war’s brutal toll quickly belied such optimism. Grant kept a diary his first few months in France but stopped abruptly on July 30, as his unit neared more serious action. “I look forward to staying here to the end,” he wrote in his last entry. “All I hope is that I am lucky enough to do that.” The men from Company H had been falling steadily—blasted by German shells, riddled by nests of machine gunners, picked off by snipers, bayoneted in hand-to-hand combat. Marini was dead, and Stein and Romanchuk and McCallister and Farrell and Dubinsky. Germany was collapsing at the top, but its soldiers were still killing their enemies as if it were 1914. “To avoid further bloodshed, the German government requests the President to arrange the immediate conclusion of an armistice on land, by sea and in the air,” the German chancellor had cabled Woodrow Wilson on October 4.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus