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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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In the sunny pause between a Sunday double-header in the spring of 1921, a military band led a solemn parade of ballplayers and soldiers across the wide lawn of the Polo Grounds to a spot as far from home as they could get without leaving the field. They stood in ranks around a flag-draped monument about the size of a batboy that had just been planted in the deepest part of center field, where long fly balls went to die. It was Memorial Day, and they had come to honor Eddie Grant, who had been, as sportswriter Fred Lieb put it, “called out by the great Umpire.”

Men Grant had served with in France offered testimonials to his character and courage, as did New York Giants manager John McGraw and a representative of his alma mater. “He made his sacrifice hit, and it was such hits that won the game,” said Thomas Slocum, vice president of the Harvard Club.

As Grant’s sisters pulled aside the American flag covering the granite monument, the band struck up “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” “Soldier, Scholar, Athlete,” read the bronze plaque affixed to the monument. The great sportswriter Grantland Rice (himself a veteran of the late war) wrote a memorial poem for the occasion, saying in its first stanza: “Far from the Game and the cheering of old, / Across in the Argonne will tell you the story, / Where each one may read on its rain-battered mould / A final box score that is written in glory. / Afinal box score of a Player who gave / The flag that he fought for, his ghost—and his grave.” Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis—the stern, whitemaned commissioner who would soon order the expulsion from baseball of the eight players involved in the Black Sox cheating scandal—lauded Grant as a man who gave “his all not for glory, not for fame, but just for his country,” and predicted that his “memory will live as long as our game may last.”

In the years that followed, whenever a ball was hit into deep center at the Polo Grounds, radio announcers would say it had gone “all the way back to the Eddie Grant monument,” keeping his name alive. Landis later championed him for election to the Hall of Fame. “Regardless of baseball performance, I would like to see Eddie Grant’s name on that list,” the commissioner wrote.

Grant didn’t make it into the Hall, though, and despite Landis’ prediction, his memory gradually faded. So did that of his friend and comrade in arms Charles Whittlesey, who had committed suicide in November 1921, jumping overboard from a ship bound for Havana, after serving as an honorary pallbearer at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And even before the global turmoil of the 1930s, the ideals that had sent Grant, Whittlesey and many of their high-minded comrades to France—the dream that their sacrifice would redeem civilization and that organizations like the League of Nations would assure lasting peace—were looking increasingly frayed. The war fought to end all wars turned out to be just the opening battle in history’s deadliest century.

Grant is buried with 14,245 other Americans in the Meuse-Argonne cemetery in France, in one of the long, pristine rows of white headstones—an ocean away from his family home in Massachusetts, and from Irene’s grave in Philadelphia. After the Giants played their last game in the Polo Grounds in 1957, fans tore apart the field, and the bronze plaque from the memorial that was meant to mark his name forever disappeared.

The plaque never resurfaced, as the Giants had promised, in their new San Francisco home.

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