The United States had been at war with Imperial Germany for more than a year by summer 1918, but momentous battles lay ahead. One-half million U.S. troops were overseas, with more regiments reaching France every day. By the armistice in November, the American Expeditionary Forces would total nearly 2 million men.
The Knights of Columbus Committee on War Activities raised more than $14 million to fund recreational centers, called huts, for doughboys at home and abroad. The committee also enrolled more than 2,000 Knights from many professions as uniformed officers — called secretaries — to supervise these huts and sent half of them overseas. Secretaries wore army officers’ uniforms affixed with a “KC” insignia, prompting the soldiers to call them “Caseys.”
When the doughboys in France weren’t training or fighting, they wanted recreation and reminders of home. Among other things, that meant baseball — which the Order delivered.
The Knights soon “realized the necessity of sending a man to France who had played the game and knew how to teach it,” read a comment in The New York Times, Aug. 28, 1919. “That man was Johnny Evers.”
Evers ranks among the game’s greatest stars — the second baseman in the Chicago Cubs’ fabled Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double-play combination.
A number of other baseball men followed him into K of C uniform, including Detroit Tigers manager Hughie Jennings; St. Louis Cardinals manager Jack Hendricks; and Bill Coughlin, former third baseman for the Tigers and Washington Senators.
John Joseph Evers was born July 21, 1881, in Troy, N.Y. After playing 12 seasons for the Cubs, he was part of the 1914 “miracle Braves” of Boston. The team had come from last place in late July and swept the World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics, who were led by legendary manager Connie Mack, also a K of C member. Evers won the Chalmers Award the same year as the National League’s most valuable player.
His career, which later earned him a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946, came to a sudden halt in 1918. He had gone to spring training with the Boston Red Sox, rooming with 23-year-old pitcher Babe Ruth, who would join the Knights the following year. Evers, then 36, expected to sign with Boston, only to find himself sitting in the stands on opening day.
Nicknamed “the Trojan” for his hometown and “the Crab” for his disposition on the field, Evers was eager to join the war effort, but an arm ailment prevented him from enlisting.
A member of Troy (N.Y.) Council 176, he pitched the Knights the idea of sending him “over there” as an athletic director.
“Believe me, I’m mighty glad the Knights of Columbus have accepted my offer,” Evers said in the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily News, June 5, 1918. “I feel as though I can do great work in France.”
Evers reached Paris Sept. 15, hours before a German bombing raid, and quickly got down to work.
“We are making a tour, riding in big motor vans or in anything going our way, from camp to camp, hospital base to hospital base,” Evers wrote in the Troy Times, Oct. 15, 1918. “And we have discovered that the fellows want to see us, to talk baseball, and to talk about back home, and so every morning I get up early and go visiting the boys in the hospitals.”
When Evers wasn’t visiting wounded doughboys, he arranged and umpired games between units.
“Evers is organizing ball teams in the different sectors, and in every way the Knights of Columbus work is meeting with grand success,” reported the November 1918 issue of The Columbiad, quoting an army chaplain in France.
The former second baseman even taught the game of baseball to French troops, known as les poilus (the unshaven). A French general named Paul Vidal, who was married to an American woman, admired how accurately baseball-loving doughboys could throw grenades and asked for Evers to teach at a military school at Besançon.
“I shall never have any other experiences as interesting as my work in France when I undertook to teach the poilus how to play baseball,” Evers later wrote in the March 1919 issue of Baseball Magazine.
On two separate occasions, totaling 23 days, Evers also spent time serving troops on the front lines. In a letter reprinted Nov. 21, 1918, in the Troy Times, a K of C secretary wrote, “I have seen Evers working under the heaviest of shellfire to supply cigarettes and other comforts to the boys at the front, and neither danger nor fatigue meant anything to him when there was work to be done for the fighting men.”
Future Hall of Famer (1945) Hughie Jennings, a Knight from Pennsylvania, enrolled as a K of C secretary in 1918. One of the major league’s great shortstops, Jennings had managed the Detroit Tigers since 1907 and would later become a trial lawyer in Scranton.
“There is no man in the national game who is better known or more popular than Jennings, and he will be a valuable addition to the Knights of Columbus staff abroad,” The New York Times reported Oct. 3.
Since fans had dubbed him “Ee-Yah” Jennings for his earsplitting yells on the diamond, sports artist Robert Ripley sketched enemy soldiers raising their hands in surrender as a shattering E-E-E-E YAH! rose from the opposite trench.
However, Jennings never left America. The war ended before his passport arrived. With baseball set to resume in 1919, he lacked enough time to sail to France and still return to the Tigers for spring training.
A fellow Pennsylvania native, who had played third base for the Tigers (1904-08) and previously for the Washington Senators (1901-04), did make it over to serve as a Casey. “I’ve arrived here safe and sound,” wrote Bill Coughlin from Paris, in a letter printed in the December 1918 issue of The Columbiad. “There is a feeling everywhere you go that the war will be over soon, which makes a fellow feel more like working than ever.”
A member of Scranton (Pa.) Council 280, Coughlin later worked in Germany, in charge of baseball for the Third Army. According to an article in the army newspaper Stars and Stripes, June 13, 1919, “It was his pet idea to start the umpire school, which provided efficient umps for the many leagues in the Army of Occupation.”
Jack Hendricks, a former MLB outfielder and manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, also arrived in France shortly after the armistice Nov. 11, 1918. He had enrolled later than Jennings but met no delays.
“I have been anxious for some time to do my bit on the other side,” Hendricks said in The New York Times, Nov. 5, 1918. “I feel like a youngster, although I have a son now in an officers’ training camp.”
The Knights still had valuable work to do, keeping up the morale of servicemen waiting to go home. Hendricks visited Chateau Thierry and met thousands of doughboys, among them a minor leaguer who had lost an eye and a leg to enemy shelling just hours before the armistice.
“I ran into boys from every town in which I used to manage a club,” he said in the Utica Herald-Dispatch, Dec. 21, 1918. “I was with Evers part of the time, and believe me, John was certainly popular abroad.”
Hendricks went on to manage the Cincinnati Reds from 1924-29 and, like Jennings, practiced law.
After returning home shortly before Christmas, Evers was joined by Hughie Jennings in addressing a K of C Board of Directors meeting in New York City Jan. 5, 1919.
Evers gave an account of his work to Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty, Supreme Chaplain P.J. McGivney — brother of the Order’s blessed founder — and others. He also recounted how a fellow secretary, Joseph P. Crowe of Binghamton, N.Y., lost his leg after being hit by an artillery shell while serving on the front.
By that time, Hendricks had returned to the United States as well, but several former big league ballplayers joined Coughlin in continuing the unglamorous work of Caseys in France and occupied Germany. Their hardy corps included Tommy Dowd, who had played for six teams from 1891-1901; Jack “Shad” Barry, who had played for seven teams (1899-1908); Pete Noonan, an infielder for the Athletics, Cubs and Cardinals; and Bill Friel, who played for the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Browns. American League umpire Jack Kerin also was a Casey.
Dowd reached Europe Jan. 11, 1919, becoming director of baseball for the Army of Occupation. By that time, immense quantities of baseball paraphernalia were being shipped weekly from K of C overseas headquarters in New York, and it is estimated that doughboys across Europe played some 5,000 ball games a day with outfits supplied by the Knights.
Barry arrived after a year in charge of K of C athletics at Camp Kearny, Calif. He and other Caseys supported the Inter-Allied Games in Paris the summer of 1919. Meanwhile, Noonan developed a strong ball team in Esch, Luxembourg.
Most of baseball’s Caseys came home with the last of the doughboys later in the year. Noonan was in Ireland when he learned that a late relative had bequeathed him half a million dollars. “So Pete, who went across to help the Doughboys, is coming back wealthy,” the Brooklyn Standard Union reported Aug. 14, 1919.
Friel stayed in France several months longer than the others, teaching baseball in schools and colleges. He also “apparently has found a little time to provide for his own happiness,” reported The Harrisburg Telegraph, Sept. 5, 1919. The Casey married a young Italian woman in Paris Aug. 7. He returned to America with his bride in January 1920, no doubt feeling richer than Noonan.
Moreover, the success that these men had on the ball field did not mean as much to them as did their service as Caseys.
Reflecting on his decision to serve as a K of C field secretary, Evers stated, “I was never more enthusiastic about anything in my life.”
It was with great pride that he later received a medal from the Order “in recognition of patriotic service as a secretary for the Knights of Columbus in their war activities.”
JIM LEEKE is a member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) and a writer and editor in Columbus, Ohio. His latest book is From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War (University of Nebraska Press, 2017).
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