By Glen Sparks
The Fighting 42nd marched into northeastern France in March of 1918. U.S. soldiers from the Rainbow Division settled into those terrible trenches. Hank Gowdy was among the doughboys.
Gowdy, born Aug. 24, 1889, in Columbus, Ohio, signed up to serve in the Ohio National Guard on this date in 1917, the first Major Leaguer to do so. A catcher and first baseman with the Boston Braves, Gowdy already was in his eighth season and had been one of the heroes of the 1914 World Series against the Philadelphia A’s.
The right-handed batter went 6-11 in the Series as Boston swept Philly. He hit three doubles, a triple and a home run. He also drove in three runs and just missed hitting for the cycle in Game 1. (Gowdy hit his home run in Game 3. No one has ever hit for the cycle in a World Series game.)
Gowdy came up with the Giants in late 1910 as a 20-year-old and recorded three hits in 14 at-bats. Early in the 1911 season, the Giants traded him, along with Al Bridwell, to the Braves for Buck Herzog. Over the next few years, Gowdy split time between the minors and the big leagues, trying to improve his hitting as well as his catching skills.
In that pennant-winning season of 1914, Gowdy finally saw significant time with the big club. He only hit .243, but he got into 128 games for a Boston team that finished 94-59, 10 ½ games over the second-place Giants.
Following his big World Series, Gowdy settled in with the Braves as the team’s starting catcher for the next few years. He batted .247 in 1915 and .252 in 1916.
The Great War had broken out in the summer of 1914, shortly after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28. By the end of summer, just about every country in Europe had taken up arms. Later, the war spilled into Asia and Africa. Much of the world turned into a bloody mess.
The United States stood on the sidelines even after a German U-boat blasted a torpedo into the RMS Lusitania, a British liner, on May 7, 1915. The explosion killed nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. German U-boats continued to sink U.S. merchant ships, and Congress declared war on April 6, 1917.
Enemy cannon hit Gowdy and the Rainbow Division hard. Artillery shells pounded the soldiers. Inside the trenches, war was horrific. Besides enemy fire, the men battled dysentery, trench foot and other diseases. The Rainbow Division suffered thousands of casualties.
An article in baseball-almanec.com reports on Gowdy the ballplayer as well as the soldier. Col. B.W. Hough, commander of the 166th, said, “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.”
Gowdy missed much of the 1917 season and the entire 1918 campaign due to the war. He arrived back in the United States as a hero and went back to baseball. For the next few years, he continued to catch for the Braves, batting .317 in 1922.
The Giants re-acquired Gowdy in 1923. New York Manager John McGraw used his veteran player wisely as a part-timer. Gowdy hit 328 in ’23 (122 at-bats), .325 in 1924 (191 at-bats) and .325 in 1925 (114 at-bats).
Despite those high batting averages, the Giants released Gowdy, who promptly reported to the minors. Gowdy finally made it back to the big leagues as a player-coach for the Braves in 1929. He batted .438 (7-16). In 1930, as a 40-year-old, he went 5 for 25 (.200) and called it quits as a player, a .270 career hitter. Gowdy later coached for the Giants and the Cincinnati Reds.
The old soldier didn’t leave his Army days behind in the trenches of World War I, either. When the United States entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, Hank Gowdy declared himself fit for duty. The Army commissioned him as Maj. Gowdy. The former ballplayer served faithfully as chief athletic officer at Ft. Benning, Ga. Even today, soldiers can play baseball on Hank Gowdy Field at Ft. Benning.
(Gowdy died Aug. 1, 1966, age 76, in Ohio.)