I came across this image while researching something else and thought I would share. It comes from the July 1918 edition of The National Magazine. The children are refugees in a Venetian bomb shelter and their caretaker is a nun with the American Red Cross. They are looking up at an airplane during a bombardment. From the day Italy entered the war in May 1915 until the end, the Central Powers bombed Venice more than forty times. The damage to the city was as great as anything Italians would see during the Second World War, which is saying a lot. The editors described this as a “flashlight photograph,” by which they presumably meant it was taken in darkness with a flash bulb. Hence the title: “A Modern Rubens by Flashlight.” The Rubens reference may be to the Flemish master’s early seventeenth century “The Massacre of the Innocents.”
A few weeks back on Opening Day I mentioned that baseball once began much later than it does today. The Cubs and Cardinals began their 1918 seasons playing each other on April 16. Those on the field in St.Louis that day included Grover Cleveland Alexander, starting for the Cubs, and Rogers Hornsby, playing shortstop for the Cardinals. Alexander was an established star by this point and was slated to earn $8000 for the season; Hornsby, an up-and-comer in his third season with the Cardinals, would earn precisely half that after losing a bitter contract dispute to the Cardinals’ Branch Rickey. Throughout late 1917 and early 1918 baseball players were getting their draft notices from their local boards. In January 1918 Hornsby had appealed for a deferment to board officials back home in Fort Worth, Texas. Hornsby argued that his baseball salary was his family’s sole source of income. He received a Class 3 deferment and was thus free to play ball.
Owners understood that there was a manpower shortage and agreed to a 21 (not 25) player roster for the 1918 season. They also held an abbreviated spring training. Though Grover Cleveland Alexander turned thirty-one in February 1918 he was still eligible for the draft. In December 1917 the Philadelphia Phillies traded Alexander and batterymate Bill Killefer to the Cubs. The trade was partly about money but another, more cynical, reason may have been because Phillies management realized that both players were likely to be drafted into the A.E.F. sometime in 1918. The trade was a huge deal and made headlines across the country.
Alexander held out for a signing bonus but finally reported to the Cubs in mid-March. Meanwhile his draft board went about its work. The head clerk in Howard Country, Nebraska announced on April 12 that as of yet Alexander had not been called. There was great confusion, with some newspapers saying Alexander had been drafted and others saying he had not. Less than forty-eight hours later things had become clearer. Grover Cleveland Alexander had indeed been drafted into the Army and was to report to Camp Funston by the end of the month. Alexander asked to be allowed to join the Navy but his draft board would not have it.
The pitcher’s call-up finally came just as the Cubs were breaking training in mid-April. On April 16 Alexander and the Cubs were in St. Louis to begin their season against the Cardinals. That very day Killefer received notice from his own draft board in Michigan that he had been declared 1A: eligible for draft and service. The board had originally designated Killefer 4A but the government appealed that status and won. So there they were facing the Rogers Hornsby and the Cardinals at Robison Field. Alexander pitched well but not effectively enough to win. The Cardinals took the contest 4-2. He went 1-for 3 at the plate. Hornsby went 1-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI. Sure enough, Alexander would soon leave the Cubs to train at Camp Funston. He pitched two more games, winning both and ending his season, before it truly began, with three complete games and a 1.73 ERA.
New Yorkers stopped what they were doing in mid-April 1918 to remember the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It is important to remember that Lincoln’s death was still within living memory for many Americans; it had only occurred fifty-three years previously. With so many young men now in training camps and soon to be on their way to France, the Lincoln commemoration was muted. As the headline here shows, the Brooklyn Riding and Driving Club remembered both Washington and Lincoln at its 27th annual dinner on Saturday 13 April. Present for that event at the Montauk Club were officers from the British and French Armies. During a toast to men for the BRDC who had joined the AEF, one poilu reflected “The German [1918 spring] offensive is to be taken seriously but the real days of anxiety were the days of 1914. Now we know that you are rushing troops to our aid. Then it was a question of ‘to be; or not to be.”
Lincoln was being remembered throughout the city that weekend. In its April 14 edition the New York Times published recently discovered letters by Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but it could be that in presenting letters from both Lincoln and Lee the Times sought to balance regional sympathies. That day the Calvary M.E. Church in Harlem hosted Laura D. Prisk, who for the past several years was pushing to officially designate June 14 as Flag Day. (That came to pass in 1949.) There were many veterans from the Grand Army of the Republic on hand to see Mrs. Prisk and others talk about the ongoing war in Europe. Prisk proclaimed that “Much attention is being payed to the long-range gun of the Hun but the real long-range gun is that of America, reaching 3,000 miles to the battle line.” Prisk was in attendance again the next day when she laid a wreath and spoke at the Lincoln statue in Union Square. On hand were sailors from the USS Recruit, the depot established in Union Square the previous May to sell liberty bonds and spur enlistment.
About 10-12 years ago I was having coffee with someone from work when we somehow got on the topic of Classic Studies. I mentioned that in today’s world the study of Classical Antiquity and Literature has been de-emphasized, to our detriment. I included myself in the category of those whose knowledge about these fields is woefully inadequate. That now-long-ago conversation came back to me last night when a friend and I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear historian David Waldstreicher discuss the progress of his current project, a biography of African-American poet Phillis Wheatley. Dr. Waldstreicher specifically mentioned our current generation’s lack of Classical Education. That so few people–again, myself included–have read the works of Virgil, Herodotus and others prevents contemporary readers from fully understanding the works of poets such a Ms. Wheatley, who incorporated themes from ancient texts into her own work.
Dr. Waldstreicher said during his talk that for his biography of Wheatley he has had to educate himself in two areas about which he previously knew little, the Greek and Roman Classics & West African History. Wheatley herself had come from West Africa and later self-educated herself in the Classics. These experiences were pillars in her writing. It was impressive the way Professor Waldstreicher pulled all these threads together during his talk. In passing, he mentioned Jonathan Williams, Benjamin Franklin’s grand-nephew who was the first superintendent of West Point and who shortly after that worked on the forts at Governors Island. I spoke to Dr. Waldstreicher after his talk and mentioned these Williams’s connections. He seemed duly impressed.
Waldstreicher is a Distinguished Professor of History in the Graduate Center and an authority on slavery in the early years of the Republic. He did an extraordinary job explaining the fluidity of slavery in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century American society and how it differed from bondsmanship in the Caribbean and Brazil, and later in the United States. Apparently that his talk fell during National Poetry Month was a coincidence. If it was, it proved to be a fortunate one. The lecture gave the audience a great deal to think about, which was obvious in the number of questions asked during the Q&A period, which ran long. That’s the true sign that a speaker has engaged his audience well.
I would be remiss if I did not pause and write a few words on this, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I was less than a year old when he was killed in Memphis. Oddly however, the older I get the more events like this seem less like “history” and more like current events. Here in full-blown middle-age, my entire concept of time has evolved. When my father was alive he lived within a few hour’s drive from Memphis. I visited each summer I would usually borrow his car and take an overnight side trip to somewhere or other. More than once that place was Memphis. I visited the Lorraine Hotel, site of the King assassination and home today to the National Civil Rights Museum, more than once. Walking in the vicinity one could see the empty lots that were the results of the riots and, later, urban renewal. I have not been there now in many years, but I believe that gentrification is at last moving things along.
I remember when MLK Jr. Day became a holiday in the early 1980s. Again, at the time I thought his death was part of some ancient past, and yet the creation of the holiday was only fifteen years after the shooting. The evolution of the holiday itself has a convoluted history, one mired in national and even international events. A search of the New York Times digital archive from 1983 pulls up all kinds of articles about the unresolved issues of the Civil Rights Movement as well as commentary from TASS, the Soviet news agency, offering their cynical take on the drama of the holiday hanging in the balance. When King was assassinated the Tet Offensive was in its fifth week. Bobby Kennedy gave the eulogy for King and would himself be assassinated two months later. All that spring and summer there were riots and political upheaval across the United States, in Paris, Czechoslovakia, and Mexico City just before the Summer Olympics.
Viewed a certain way, King’s activities can be seen in the context of the World Wars. His assassination came just fifty years after Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points, and twenty-seven years after FDR announced the Four Freedoms in his January 1941 State of the Union address. King knew these things. It is not an accident that the Civil Rights Movement here in the U.S., and Independence Movements around the world, developed how and when they did. One can’t help but think of things like Ho Chi Minh at Versailles after the Armistice pleading his case for an independent Vietnam. King was reluctant to speak publicly against Lyndon Johnson because of all the president had done for Civil Rights, but in the year before his assassination King’s denunciations of the war in Southeast Asia became increasingly strident. In the library where I work, over the past fifteen years, a colleague and I have been ordering the King Papers as they have incrementally released. The historiography on the release of someone’s correspondence is itself a fascinating genre. History is a humbling thing and the deeper one goes the more one sees the relationships between what are very complicated events.
(image/White House Photo Office)