On Veterans Day, remembering all Cleveland Indians players who served — including nine during World War I

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 1, 1917: Members of the Cleveland Indians take part in a military drill formation (left dress) with Lieutenant Harrison (far right) front row) prior to a game during the 1917 season at League Park in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Cleveland Indians Archives) *** Local Caption *** Stan Covaleski, Fritz Coumbe, Bill Wambsganss, Brown, Lieutenant Harrison, Jack McCallister, Elmer Smith, Otis Lambeth, Lee Fohl.

“Winning the war must come ahead of winning championships.”

–Jim Dunn, Indians Owner

Opening day at League Park looked extra festive in 1918. Red, white and blue bunting decorated the ballpark. Flags of the allied troops ran up the flag pole. Another flag was also hoisted on that April day: a nine-star service flag. Each star represented a member of the ball club who was serving in World War I. (Interestingly, the ninth star did not represent a player; rather, it represented Tom Herbert, the head usher at League Park.)

That preceding November, a Plain Dealer headline read: “Tribe Hit Harder Than Its Rivals By Call To War.”  Rookies and veterans alike were among the nine players in the service.  Right-handed pitcher Red Torkelson had just begun his big-league career in 1917. Joining Red was first baseman Louis Guisto, who had appeared in 73 games that same season.

Pitcher Ed Klepfer found himself in Europe and in the heat of battle. He wrote about the experience of being shot at in a letter to Tribe catcher Steve O’Neill. He described the sensation as the same feeling “when you are up at the bat and Walter Johnson buzzes one of his fast ones by your ears.”

Elmer Smith, who would go on to World Series fame in 1920, was promoted to the rank of Corporal while in France. During his time overseas, Smith began to teach French soldiers how to play baseball. But in his words, “They are slow to learn.”

Not all of the men who entered the service made it overseas. Tribe third baseman Joe Evans was drafted in the summer of 1917 but his service was deferred to allow him the opportunity to finish his medical degree at the University of Mississippi. There was some silver lining to the situation as Evans was permitted to play for Cleveland during his summer break.

In the middle of the 1918 season, news came that Bill Wambsganss was drafted. Tris Speaker, 30 years old and almost beyond the draft’s maximum age, announced that he was going to enter the service after the season and planned on becoming a naval aviator.

When the season came to an end on September 1, the Indians found themselves 2.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox. The season was over. Owner Jim Dunn saw it this way:  “I think we would have won it but for losses sustained because of war. We must not forget that such things as pennants and world’s series are trivial when compared to what is going on across the Atlantic.”

The Plain Dealer ran this headline on Sept. 1: “Tribe Sends Big Squad to Colors: Indians Soon Will Have Sixteen Stars on Service Flag.” American League President Ban Johnson boasted about the Cleveland ball club’s contributions to the war effort, stating that they had an “enviable record.”

After the war ended, players were excited to get back to civilian life. Before Bill Wamby put his cleats on, he mentioned that “I think I will go over to the naval reserves’ headquarters tomorrow for I want to see Chapman and Billings salute me.”

By January 1919, plans were being made for the coming season. Dunn let The Plain Dealer know that all eight players who went overseas will be given an opportunity to win back their spot on the team. “I don’t care when they come back…Not one of them who has done his bit will be turned loose until we know positively that he cannot deliver.”

It is important to remember the service of our Veterans. The Cleveland Indians have been fortunate to have had upstanding gentleman who have served their country during times of war.

–Team curator/historian Jeremy Feador

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