It’s been 100 years since the United States became involved in World War I. To mark that centennial, the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., has planned a unique celebration: On Friday, the college will gather Navy sailors and Army soldiers to play a baseball game as if it were 1917, the school announced. That means flannel uniforms, a larger strike zone and, yes, spitballs and some other currently illegal pitch deliveries.
“There’s no way we can understand World War I unless we first consider the history of it in all respects,” David Kohnen, who is organizing the game in conjunction with the Naval History and Heritage Command, told the Associated Press. “Baseball is part of the story of the American experience during the First World War.”
While baseball didn’t have a direct impact on the outcome of the war, it has been credited as a diplomatic tool. For example, on July 4, 1918, Britain officially observed American Independence Day and celebrated by holding a baseball game between Navy sailors and Army soldiers on the grounds of London’s Chelsea soccer team, according to the federally run American Battle Monuments Commission. Around 18,000 spectators, including King George V, came out to watch the game that the Navy sailors won, 2-1.
That game was part of a league created in Ireland by Navy Adm. William S. Sims in 1917, which was meant to dispel tensions between the Irish population, which was already deeply suspicious of British activity, and the U.S. military. The U.S. troops sported an array of confusing last names due to various lines of lineage, Kohnen said.
“Through baseball, Sims attempted to show that our troops and sailors were no longer German, or Irish, or anything other than American,” Kohnen, the director of the college’s John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research and the Naval War College Museum, said in the school’s announcement last week. “Not only did baseball provide a diversion from the horrors of war, but baseball also demonstrated a unique American identity.”
The league proved quite popular and attracted some big-name talents, who were serving in the military at the time. Among them were Hall of Famers Herb Pennock and Casey Stengel, who served in the Navy, and Oscar Charleston, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson, who served in the Army.
No pro players will be involved in Friday’s game. Instead, students of the war college will suit up to play seven innings for free in Cardines Field. The game, which is open to the public, is slated to begin at 4:30 p.m. EDT.