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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Of course Grant and the rest of Company H knew nothing of these high-level discussions. On the morning of October 5, they were concerned only with their more immediate mission to rescue Whittlesey’s Lost Battalion.

Grant tossed aside the dregs of his coffee and gathered his men. He walked wearily with the column, leading them through the hills and trees toward the valley where his classmate was stranded. They hadn’t gotten too far when they met two stretcher-bearers carrying a familiar figure, Maj. DeLancey Jay, the officer to whom he had once shown Irene’s picture. Jay had been wounded trying to do just what Grant was now attempting.

“Take command of the battalion,” Jay ordered Grant, now the senior surviving officer.

As Jay was carried back, Grant moved forward. He was soon stopped again when a German shell ripped through the curtain of yellowing leaves. His lieutenant fell.

“Flop, everybody!” he shouted, trying to bring order to the chaos. He stayed standing himself, though, and called for help for the wounded man.

“Stretcher! Stretcher! Stretcher!”

A second shell tore through the trees, and as it exploded a jagged piece of shrapnel sliced into Grant’s side, dropping him to the forest floor, dead in an instant. Folded in his map case was a map of this sector of the Argonne. Afellow officer who later retrieved the map was astonished to find when he opened it that one of the four jagged holes the shrapnel had ripped through it—the second from the top—marked the precise spot of Grant’s death, in front of the trench La Pavillon at map coordinates 73-97. At the place where the third baseman who was so adept at the sacrifice bunt had stood for his last breath was now a tear in the map in roughly the shape of a triumphal arch.

A colonel halted the attack soon after Grant was killed. “We can’t afford the price,” he said. “My men deserve a better break than being sent to slaughter.”

The Americans finally broke through to the Lost Battalion two days later. Whittlesey and 193 of his men were able to walk out; the other two-thirds were either dead or too injured to move under their own steam. A month later the armistice was signed. Whittlesey was acclaimed a national hero and awarded the Medal of Honor, but in a newspaper interview upon his return he modestly tried to deflect the glory to the comrades who had tried to reach him—especially the one with whom he had strolled around the Common in Cambridge and drilled at Plattsburg. “I can just see and hear that boy when he heard that my battalion was trapped in the woods, saying ‘Well, if there is any chance to get my old friend “Whit” out of that hole, I want to be the man to do it,’ ” Whittlesey said. “When that shell burst and killed that boy, America lost one of the finest types of manhood I have ever known.”

Eddie Grant was not the only baseball player to die in combat, but he was by far the most prominent, not just in World War I, but in any subsequent war. (Pitcher Christy Mathewson was gassed in an Army training accident, which may have made his lungs more vulnerable to contracting the tuberculosis that eventually killed him, at age 45, in 1925.)

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