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.