Aug. 9, 2008 - Royston, Georgia
Georgia's great baseball legend was commissioned by Washington to defend our country's freedom in France in 1918. Branch Rickey and Christy Mathewson joined Cobb for the two month stint before arriving in New York on December 16th. His near death experience cost the life of Mathewson seven years later.
Shortly after New Years Day 1918, Ty Cobb expressed his interest to join the Marine Corps. Being subject to the draft and slightly missing the draft the previous year, friends of Cobb believed that he would secure a place in the Army or Navy before the draft could catch up with him.
“Cobb is coming over to Paris Island next week to see me,” said “Nig” Clark, former Cleveland Indians catcher. “He is just itching to get into harness with a gun and bayonet and get at the Germans.”
Clark had also visited Ty at his Augusta home on several occasions at Cobb’s request to show him a few pointers to being a uniformed officer.
“He kept me busy showing him all the bayonet exercises and manual of arms, always watching me like a hawk,” confirmed Clark.
Two weeks later, the local exemption board where he was registered, elevated Cobb to a class 1. Cobb was given an order number of 1368, being the ninth man to register at his post.
Upon hearing of his new classification, Cobb claimed that he was “willing to serve whenever he is called upon.”
The following week, January 24th, Cobb was reclassified because he had a wife and three children that was dependant upon him. The deferred rating resulted from parental dependency that placed him back in class 2.
Maj. Joseph Thompson, former coach of the University of Pittsburgh football team, then with the 110th Infantry at Camp Hancock, believed that Cobb would be in the battle by the end of summer.
“It is my honest opinion that Cobb will retire from baseball before the 1918 season is over and enter service. He is one of the finest fellows I have ever met and his talk is continually about the war game and the part he feels he should play in it,” said Maj. Thompson.
On April 24th, while on a road trip in Cleveland, Ty helped his younger brother Paul enlist and join the Marine Corps where he was immediately dispatched to Paris Island, South Carolina for training.
By the middle of July Cobb was ready to join the colors. “I feel mean every time I look at a casualty list,” Cobb said. “And though I am in a deferred class because I have a wife and three children, I feel that I must give up baseball at the close of the season and do my duty by my country in the best way possible.”
Cobb told Washington, “I don’t believe the people care to see a lot of big, healthy young men out on the field playing ball while their sons and brothers are abroad risking their lives to conquer the Huns.”
On August 17th, 1918, Ty Cobb took his test for commission in the Gas and Flame Division for the United States Army and was pronounced in PERFECT condition in ever aspect. The physical examination warranted Washington authorities to summon Cobb’s order and serial number from the Augusta exemption board.
Seven days later between a double-header game in New York, Cobb made an address to the patrons to buy war savings stamps. He promised the crowd that he would be in France by the end of October.
On August 28th, the War Department issued a commission as Captain to Cobb for his acceptance. The following day, the War Department announced the appointment of Tyrus Raymond Cobb to the Chemical Warfare Service of the U. S. Army. He is requested to appear in Washington with in ten days.
Cobb was not the only athlete to be commissioned to the Army’s Chemical Division. Christy Mathewson, pitcher for the New York Giants; Branch Rickey, president of the St. Louis Cardinals; Percy Haughton, former president of the Boston National League club; were all part of the Army’s elite Chemical Division.
The Gas & Flame Division was first thought to be a bombproof position with the Army, but to the contrary, these men were compared to the Special Forces of today. Their responsibility included training CWS officers in the proper mechanics of using their gas mask.
According to Maj. Gen. William L. Silbert, director of the U. S. Chemical Service, these men will “carry out cloud attacks, operating projectors or light mortars that throw shells filled with gas. These men will stay with the troops through their engagements. They will go over with the gas troops as gas officers.”
For over a year, Washington manager, Clark Griffith, sent uniforms and baseball equipment to the troops so they could indulge in America’s game. By mid September, it was reported that of the 20,000 baseball bats sent overseas.
Cobb’s name was requested to be on nearly 6,000, outdistancing his nearest rival, Walter Johnson by 4,200. It was clear that Cobb was considered a true American icon during the war period.
On September 30th, Cobb was headed to Camp Humphreys, Virginia where he received prep training at Central Officers School. Here Cobb would receive training where his troops would carry out attack ahead of the attacking boot and gun infantries.
The Washington Post explained their duties and responsibilities; “They carry tanks on their backs and advance against the enemy under cover of artillery barrage, squirting flames of liquid fire from nozzles attached to tanks of the fluid. The gas men, when advancing to the attack, carry a sack of gas filled bombs which they hurl into the trenches and dug-outs after the fashion of grenade throwers.”
On November 2nd, 1918, Cobb kept his promise that he would be in the heat of the battle by the end of October. Cobb arrived in France safely and prepared to face the enemy.
The War Department broke the news that Major League Baseball could resume in 1919 to Ban Johnson on December 4th. General March sent letters to the head of both big leagues.
“The War Department, under present conditions, could see no reason why the game should not be resumed in accordance with the usual regular schedule.”
Cobb arrived from France aboard the prestige Leviathan, an American transport ship, at pier 4, Hoboken, at 8:45am on December 17th, 1918. Many men of bravery and heroes of combat were aboard the huge ocean liner.
Many of the young soldiers took the most interest in Captain Ty Cobb during the voyage and Mr. Cobb gave a speech during one of the minstrel shows. Cobb invited some of the youngsters to a game that he was to participate in.
For a password at the gate, Cobb said, “Just tell them that you were on the Leviathan when Cobb tried to make a speech at sea.”
Cobb returned to the U.S. just two days away from his 32nd birthday, vowing to give up the game, but admitting that baseball held a terrible fascination for him. He only had rest on his mind and did not want to ponder any decisions about his future plans. “I’ve made no plans, whatsoever, ahead of my rest.”
Cobb could not refrain from talking about the great fighting men “over there,” declaring “The American Army has the finest personnel on earth, with everyone on his toes every minute. A lot of that can be credited to baseball and its close association to the American boy.”
Cobb continued, “When my youngsters grow up, all three of them are going to get Army training.”
Cobb never did see any real action, but had just completed his training at the American General Headquarters when the armistice was signed. However, during a training exercise at a gas school in Chaumont, France, some gas was released before the officers in charge gave out the go-ahead.
Christy Mathewson, also a Captain equal to Cobb, was part of that exercise. Mathewson and Cobb received a full dose of the poisonous gas before rushing on their gas mask and helping the other CWS troops to safety.
Cobb coughed up green fluid for months and Mathewson’s dose was believed to be what led to the tuberculosis that took the star’s life several years later in 1925.
Cobb wept at the news that Mathewson had died. Brother officers and fellow league mates, they always held each other in high esteem and both had cherished their stint in the United States Army.
Ty kept his old uniform around the Cobb home for many years before donating them to the Salvation Army in Augusta, Georgia.