Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice


Hank Gowdy: Baseball Player and War Hero

 by Frank Ceresi

 

 

Hank Gowdy 1914What an amazing life Hank Gowdy had!  How would you like to have played major league baseball during the tough and tumble early years of the 20th century, been the star and most valuable player of the 1914 World Series as a member of the championship “miracle” Boston Braves team, and been a bona fide war hero who served his country in two world wars?  Henry Morgan Gowdy was a man who epitomized, though his play on the baseball field and his exploits in the Armed Forces, the inexorable link between our National Pastime and service in the military.

Henry “Hank” Gowdy was born on August 24, 1889 in Columbus, Ohio.  His father was Horace C. Gowdy, an independent man of modest means, and his mother, Carrie Burhart.  Hank was taught early on to work hard and do his chores but like so many of his friends, he gravitated towards the playing fields once those chores were done.  He played football, basketball, and baseball at Hubbard Elementary and North High School in Columbus.  Though he enjoyed all team sports, he loved baseball and convinced an official from the Columbus Senators semipro team to give him a tryout.  His talents on the ball field began to blossom and he first signed up professionally with Lancaster in the Ohio State League. In 1909, New York Giants scout Billy Doyle purchased his contract for $40 back pay due from Lancaster.  He was assigned to Dallas (Texas League) for a few months’ more seasoning.  By this time, Gowdy was a strapping six foot two, 180-pounder who was considered a team leader.

Hank's major league career started in 1910, right during the height of the “deadball era” when he briefly played with John McGraw's Giants.  He only batted .214 that season and, after a few games during the 1911 season, he was traded to the Boston Braves.  Seeing some action in both 1912 and 1913, he still had not quite found his stride, accumulating 101 at-bats for the Braves but spending most of the two years honing his craft as a catcher for the Buffalo Bisons. It was a “make it or break it” time period for the youngster, but it was at Buffalo that he hooked up with a man who would become a major influence in his life.

Hank Gowdy
Photo from Frank Ceresi Collection

During the latter part of the 1912 season, the young catcher began to make his mark under the watchful eye of veteran manager George Stallings.  The son of a Confederate General, Stallings was a larger than life character known for his crafty, hardnosed baseball ways.  A superstitious and tough man who was never intimidated on or off the baseball diamond, Stallings had been managing in the baseball vineyards for years and had developed a reputation for being a fine judge of baseball talent.  He was especially looking for men who not only had the necessary skills to play the game but who could lead the team on the field as well. Stallings spotted what he wanted in the young Ohioan and became one of Hank Gowdy's most ardent supporters. The two seemed the perfect match. Both were hardnosed, no-nonsense natural leaders of men. That trait proved to serve both men well.

Even though Stallings left the Bisons in 1913, his “field general” Hank Gowdy ended up batting well over .300 for the year and became the mainstay of the team.  By the year's end Gowdy had developed leadership capabilities while playing perhaps the most vital position on the team . . . that of catcher.  Their separation would be brief, for Gowdy and Stallings soon reunited.  By August of that year, Stallings took the helm for the Braves and quickly recruited young Mr. Gowdy to help him anchor his new squad.

In the late 19th century, the Boston Braves (originally called the Red Stockings, the Red Caps, and the Beaneaters) were at the top of majors winning several championships, but by the time Stallings and Gowdy joined the club, the Braves were known as perennial losers in the National League - the senior circuit’s doormats. By the time the 1914 began, they had been absolutely dominated for several years by McGraw's New York Giants.  In fact, the Giants were coming off a season in 1913 in which they won 101 games while capturing the National League pennant. Stallings' Braves ended up a distant fourth place.  The Boston boys won 69 games but lost 82. Sure, that was an improvement of their last-place finish in 1912, when they barely squeaked out 52 victories, but most people thought that the 1914 season would simply bring more of the same.  That is, more misery for the woeful Boston Braves and more joy to the great New York Giants with their star pitcher Christy “The Christian Gentleman” Mathewson, at the top of his game.

Hank Gowdy in France
Hank Gowdy in France
Photo from Frank Ceresi Collection

But fate had other plans for Hank Gowdy, his manager George Stallings, and their team, for 1914 would become a spectacular season that is still considered amongst the most thrilling single baseball seasons of them all.  Not only did the Braves embark on the greatest team comeback in major league baseball history - coming back from being over 20 games behind the first-place Giants on Independence Day 1914 - but the team overtook their old nemesis with ease in September and went on to sweep the heavily favored American League Champion Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series, four games to none.  Hank Gowdy was in his prime. 

Much to Stallings’s joy and McGraw’s consternation, the “field commander” Gowdy made several clutch hits against Mathewson during the pennant drive in late August and early September.  Hank’s star burned most brightly in the cool air and gusty winds when summer turned to fall, when baseball is played at its toughest and best, during the October classic, baseball’s biggest stage, in the World Series. Having dispatched McGraw’s men, this time the duo faced the cunning and patrician Connie Mack, the A’s grand man who had carefully assembled what was thought to be, by far, the best team in baseball.

Stallings, Gowdy, and their men had other plans. Hank Gowdy proved to be the original “Mr. October,” long before Reggie Jackson claimed that moniker.  Gowdy hit safely six times and batted .545 for the World Series with three doubles, a homer, and a triple.  He was the peerless clutch hitter who anchored a team loaded with characters like Rabbit Maranville and grizzled vets like Johnny Evers.  He also made key hits during all of the games and eventually won the final game by going 3-for-4..  His bat was, as they say, “on fire!”  Later, Stallings himself would state flatly that Gowdy was the most valuable player during the “miracle” run. He called the games well, too. The A’s only scored five earned runs in the four World Series games.

Hank Gowdy

For two and a half years, Gowdy continued to catch for the Braves but the clouds of war soon interrupted the thrills of baseball. Hank, a very patriotic man who pined to serve his country, decided to lay down his bat for something more important. Soon he traded his baseball uniform for military garb and became the very first major leaguer to enlist in the Armed Forces during World War I.  On June 1, 1917, Gowdy signed up to serve in the Ohio National Guard and eventually reported for duty on July 15, 1917.  He was soon heading for the front lines in Europe. He later said that he saw things “no man should see”.  Baseball and the cheering crowds from Boston seemed a long ways away. The fighting was tough and brutal against the Germans, a determined enemy.

Hank Gowdy's war record was quite impressive. He served with distinction in the 166th Infantry Regiment and became a part of the famed “Rainbow Division,” the Fighting 42nd.  Gowdy carried the colors during the war for this spectacular fighting unit.  General Pershing himself dubbed them the “Rainbow Division” since they had the uncanny “luck” of being surrounded by actual rainbows on their way to and during the heavy combat they saw  in France. The men certainly needed all the luck they could muster because they were one of the first American divisions to reach the Western Front. They fought side by side with the French and the fighting was brutal. It was “trench warfare” in the most violent  sense of the word as the men engaged in “man to man” combat against the Germans, employing rifles and guns and, when they ran out of bullets,  with bayonets and knifes.

His regimental commanding officer, Colonel B W Hough, is quoted as saying that Gowdy was one of his top men in a regiment of many great soldiers.  “Every outfit ought to have somebody like Hank. The boys idolize him and he gets them all stirred up with his baseball stories. He helps ‘em forget about the terror of war. He carried the flag and . . . he was one of them who heaved gas bombs at the enemy . . . he was fantastic!”

Casualties were high but unlike so many of his counterparts in the Rainbow Division, Hank Gowdy returned to the United States in one piece.  By this time, the returning war vet Gowdy was a bona fide war hero, as popular in Boston as the mayor himself.  Hank gladly laid down his rifle and once again picked up his glove and returned to the game he loved. He resumed catching for the Braves from 1919 through mid-1923 when he was traded to his old rivals, the New York Giants, still led by John McGraw.  Certainly McGraw remembered Gowdy's clutch hitting as part of the “miracle” team. 

Gowdy played nearly 149 games for the New York Giants during a two and a half year stretch, and had the opportunity to play in the World Series again for both 1923 and 1924. The Giants beat the Yankees in six games in 1923, but bowed to the Senators in 1924.

Gowdy stuck with the game as a player for several more years, winding up his career with the Braves again in 1929 and 1930. After 17 years as a major leaguer, Hank Gowdy was not one to rest on his laurels.  He served as a major league coach through 1948 for three different teams - the Braves, Reds, and Giants – except for 1943 and 1944.  With World War II underway, Gowdy volunteered to serve his country for a second time. Initially rejected when he first applied in 1942, the Army took him early in 1943 and he was commissioned as a captain - at the “ripe old age” of 53.

Hank Gowdy
Photo from Frank Ceresi Collection

He again served with distinction and became, for an extended period of time, the Chief Athletic Officer at Fort Benning, Georgia, earning a promotion to the rank of major. He is the only major league ballplayer to have served with the armed forces in both World Wars.

To this day, the baseball diamond at Fort Benning, where soldiers enjoy playing the National Pastime, is called “Hank Gowdy Field.”  Gowdy passed away at the age of 76 on August 1, 1966 in Columbus, Ohio. He left no children but to this day, in and around Columbus, there are relatives and old timers who remember him well. A fine moral and modest man who conducted himself with class on and off the ball field, now we know that without any fanfare whatsoever, he was also a tough military man, who when he left playing baseball at the highest level to serve his country, he saw the terror of war, up close and personal.  For that, he deserves our eternal gratitude. 

Frank Ceresi is an attorney, author and baseball historian who runs his own museum consultation, legal services and professional appraisal business. See www.fcassociates.com.

This page last updated June 18, 2008.

 

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