A Hero’s Life – Baseball’s First Casualty of War, Eddie Grant

Battlefield cemeteries all have the same heartbreaking landscape.

Rows of clean, white headstones fan out like an endless string of piano keys, and each key has its own resonance – tapping out the story of an honorable life ended abruptly. Collectively, they echo with a tragic but noble hymn, filled with all of the things that happen in wartime – unthinkable carnage, remarkable heroism and loyalty, and the kind of horrible clarity that only comes when the fleeting nature of life and the hard permanence of death occupy the same razor-thin edge.

One such headstone marking one such honorable life sets on a perfectly placid bit of green just outside the small town of Romagne in Southern France. The present-day tranquility of the spot belies the chaotic, ear-splitting violence that took place there nearly a century before, just as the simple engraving on the stone fails to capture the extraordinary breadth of the life it is meant to honor – Edward L. Grant, Capt. 307 Inf. 77 Div, New York, Oct. 9, 1918.

There’s no mention of his rich tapestry with threads that ran from Harvard Law School to Major League Baseball to a storybook marriage marred by sadness and, finally, to one moment of profound bravery half a world away from everything he knew.

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As a native New Englander, Eddie Grant had likely been inching his way toward Harvard since he was a child. When he matured into a young man with an appetite for education and the refinement necessary for Ivy League acceptance, he reached Cambridge and the exponentially widening opportunities that Harvard admission provided.

But he was an atypical Crimson student, because his professional blueprint not only included plans to become a lawyer – very Harvard-esque – but also to reach the big leagues as a professional baseball player – decidedly un-Harvard like. Simply put, Grant wanted his high-brow professional cake with a bit of decadence and whimsy as icing. Not only that, he wished to devour the entire thing, all at once.

On August 4, 1905, he got the chance to do so.

Playing for a semipro team in nearby Lynn during his summer break from Cambridge, he was – as they say in entertainment and athletic lexicons – discovered.

The Cleveland Naps were in Boston to play the Americans – the Red Sox moniker was still three years away – but were short a player due to a nasty spate of injuries. They needed a capable body, and they needed him quickly and cheaply.

So, they went on a hastily arranged talent search. Call it serendipity or plain old blind luck, but Eddie Grant just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Naps arrived in Lynn with their collective hat out.

He played in two games for Cleveland and collected three hits in his Major League debut before the team’s regular second baseman, Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie, returned to the lineup. When the circus left town, Grant stayed behind and watched the colorful caravan of itchy wool uniforms, tobacco-stained bats, and profane characters fade into the distance.

That brief taste of decadent and whimsical frosting was not nearly enough. So, Grant returned to school with the full intent of collecting his degree as quickly as possible before running away to rejoin the circus.

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By 1907, he had his Harvard diploma in hand and a big league jersey draped over his shoulders. In fact, Grant led a double life of sorts, spending his spring and summer with the Philadelphia Phillies and the fall and winter back in Cambridge working his way through Harvard’s rigorous but prestigious law school.

In an age when most Major Leaguers played to escape agrarian or industrial misery, he was an anomaly – a ballplayer with life options. While his fellow big league peers grimly held onto their jobs to keep from falling off the edge of the world, Grant played for sheer personal enrichment, knowing he would have a law practice waiting for him as soon as he was done with the game.

He played hard and, befitting his Ivy League pedigree, with intelligence. He just didn’t play with quite enough skill to distinguish himself. Still, he was good enough to be ordinary and – considering the milieu – that was an achievement in and of itself.

And there were scattered pockets when he shined. In one spectacular afternoon in New York, he had seven straight hits against Hall Fame pitchers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard. On other afternoons, he placed bunts down with such dexterity that it was as if he put them on the turf by hand. In fact, he was proficient enough at the task to be among the league leaders in sacrifices two of the three years he started for Philadelphia.

However, his greatest moment in the game had nothing to do with the sport itself.

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Baseball brought him to Philadelphia. And because it did, he walked into a random drugstore on errands in 1910 and met a pretty Sunday school teacher named Irene Soest.

As it turned out, that meeting – bursting with serendipity – blossomed into the great love each hoped would find its way into their lives. In fact, the connection proved to be so deep that the courtship lasted less than a year.

On February 28, 1911, they were married in the same church where Irene taught.

Subsequently, Eddie immersed himself into married life. As part of their future plans, he decided to leave baseball after the 1911 season and concentrate on his legal career. After all, a ballplayer’s meager salary would not provide for the kind of life he thought his beautiful bride deserved. Besides, professional baseball required a nomadic lifestyle. Away games involved travel, not to mention the uprooting imposed by trades.

In fact, Grant had been traded from Philadelphia to Cincinnati that offseason, just as the courtship of his future wife transformed into an engagement. And his year with the Reds went poorly, as he hit just .223 and the team limped to sixth.

He had had enough of the baseball circus and now wanted to spend as much time with Irene as he could.

However, Irene’s physiology held a tragic secret. She had suffered a serious case of typhoid as a child but seemingly recovered fully. Outwardly, she looked fine – vivacious and healthy – but, internally, she wasn’t. Her heart had been significantly damaged by the disease.

And one morning in November, 1911, that dormant condition reached an awful conclusion. She felt severe chest pain and suddenly – shockingly – died in Eddie’s arms before he could get help.

The wondrous journey – their magnificent union – was supposed to last for decades. That it ended so abruptly and horribly devastated Grant. It was as if they had been on a beautiful train ride intended to glide along indefinitely. But he had stepped off – just for an instant – to stretch his legs, and the train had pulled away without him, taking Irene with it. So, he was left standing, dazed and heartbroken, on an abandoned platform with no hope of that train ever coming back.

Without Irene, he scrapped the plan to leave the game. A nomadic life would do until he could piece together an alternate future. It would also allow some time for his head to comprehend and his heart to heal. The former took an arduous path, but relief from the latter never happened.

After all, that train was gone forever.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

After Irene’s death, Grant drifted. His baseball career stalled in Cincinnati. By June of the 1913 season, his batting average ebbed to a career-low .213.

He already had a foot out the door when John McGraw and the New York Giants – a perennial National League powerhouse – saved his baseball life. The Giants made a trade for him and provided a novel opportunity – a chance to play for a legitimate championship contender.

Although he rarely did play for his new team – utilized mostly as a pinch-hitter and a substitute on the bases, the real motive behind the trade became apparent. McGraw valued Grant’s knowledge of the game so much that the man they called “Harvard Eddie” acted as a de facto bench coach, providing the Giants’ legendary manager with strategic insight during games.

Grant’s time with McGraw and the New Yorkers seemed to steady his ship. Being around and contributing to a winning team restored some of his vitality and determination. So, when the time came for him to leave the game after the 1915 season, he walked away with few regrets.

His legal career beckoned and the blueprint for his post-baseball life unfurled with promise.

Then, war came for America, and everything changed.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Since 1914, the Great War had screamed through Europe at a terrifying rate.

However, the United States had clung doggedly to neutrality. The staggering conflict across the Atlantic was largely born of interlocking treaties and the military obligations that bound various forces in the region to flash its arms as protection for its allies.

Without such ironclad obligation, America was free to steer clear of the inferno burning everything in its path halfway across the globe.

However, in 1917, the flames finally reached across the ocean and the U.S. felt compelled to pick a side and start sending men and machines into the fray.

Although he was 33 and not subject to any mandatory enlistment, Grant volunteered immediately. Whatever part of him that died when he lost Irene had not touched his idealism. The grand, romantic notion of shouldering a gun and fighting for his country and the principle of democracy was ultimately irresistible to him.

So, he trained to be an officer and was dispatched to the front as a Captain in the 307th Infantry out of New York.

What he likely wasn’t ready for – what few of them were ready for – was the brutality of the conflict. This war was conducted in that appalling place where military strategy had not yet caught up to the destructive technology of the weapons. So, commanders insisted on deploying men and structuring plans of attack based on the way enemies used to fight rather than their present capacity for wholesale slaughter.

Still, soldiers kept summoning the courage to attempt the impossible. They charged directly at fortified machine gun nests. They held steady in muddy trenches as artillery shells rained all around them. And they climbed up rickety ladders to desolate fields of barbed wire, fallen men, and enemy snipers.

Mostly, they died – by the hundreds or the thousands on single bloody mornings and afternoons. But they somehow found the resolve – whether motivated by the greater cause or the unbreakable connection to their brothers in arms – to keep doing what they were told despite the dreadful odds.

Such was the case when Grant heard that a battalion led by one of his former law school classmates and a close friend, Major Charles Whittlesey, had been cornered behind enemy lines.

Whittlesey’s battalion made an advance into the Argonne Forest in Southern France against ferocious German fire.  Unfortunately, they advanced too far, too quickly and outdistanced their support on both flanks. The Germans pinched in around them – taking the high ground – and made a relentless assault. Cut off from support and trapped by enemy fire, Whittlesey and his men were picked off mercilessly as they scrambled for cover.

Grant, who was leading Company H after all of his senior officers were either wounded or killed in battle, received orders to find and free the trapped battalion. Although he was utterly exhausted from days of marching and fighting and could barely bring his morning coffee to his lips, he never wavered in readying himself and his men for the perilous rescue mission.

With lives to be saved, Eddie Grant willingly ran headlong into the abyss.

As he mounted a charge towards the German encirclement, an enemy artillery shell came whistling through the trees and exploded nearby. A fragment of shrapnel tore through his side, killing him instantly.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

At the time of his death, there were many tributes paid and much fanfare made of his sacrifice. In 1921, the New York Giants honored Grant by placing a plaque in remembrance at the Polo Grounds, the team’s venerable home field. After the franchise left Gotham for California after the 1957 season, Grant’s plaque stayed behind. Just as it happened so many years before, Eddie Grant – or at least his bronze-plated surrogate – had to watch the circus leave town without him.

Although there were tales of theft and vandalism that persisted for decades after the Polo Grounds were demolished and its remnants scattered to the winds, the plaque eventually resurfaced in 1999 as part of a private collection – still separated from a Major League home.

Perhaps as recompense for years of neglect, Grant’s old team, the Giants, subsequently put up a replica plaque in the team’s new stadium in San Francisco in 2006. So, Eddie Grant was finally able to rejoin his beloved circus a final time.

However, as fans stream into the ballpark to watch multi-millionaires in rented uniforms cavort on a pristine field for a billion dollar industry, few likely notice or care about the modest wall-hanging honoring a player from long ago who fought and fell in a faraway war – a war now only vaguely referenced in yellowing books in the quietest aisles of the library.

Unfortunately, time has a way of dulling the edges of memory. Cobwebs form, shadows are cast, and ruminations are lost to time.

Still, when Americans take a moment to remember and honor those who have served and fallen for this country, it would be nice to know that Captain Edward Leslie Grant hasn’t been lost to the shadows of history and that heroism no matter how much it has aged is still worthy of our collective acknowledgement and respect.

After all, a hero’s memory shouldn’t have an expiration date.

Sources:

Coyne, Kevin, “Ultimate Sacrifice,” Smithsonian Magazine, October, 2004.
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/granted01.shtml
http://www.longwood.k12.ny.us/history/upton/lost.htm
http://www.baseballreliquary.org/EddieGrantPlaque.htm

Photos:
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