PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Sailors and soldiers will don flannel uniforms and play baseball by century-old rules to recreate the U.S. Army versus Navy games from World War I.
The U.S. Naval War College will recognize the centennial of America’s involvement in the war by planning Friday’s game in Newport, Rhode Island. Organizers say it’s a way to teach people more about the war, mark the anniversary and have a little fun.
War college students will play seven innings in historically accurate uniforms. Spitballs are allowed.
Navy Adm. William S. Sims organized a baseball league in Ireland in 1917. He wanted to overcome tensions between Americans and the locals, foster collaboration among allies and give service members something fun to do during off hours.
Major League Baseball players who were serving participated in the games. Herb Pennock and Casey Stengel played for the Navy, and Oscar Charleston, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson played for the Army. All are in the Hall of Fame.
Sims’ grandson, Nathaniel, is throwing the first pitch Friday. He recently donated artifacts from his grandfather’s naval career to the college.
Old baseball programs in the collection inspired David Kohnen to organize the game, in collaboration with the Naval History and Heritage Command. It’s the first of its kind for the college. Kohnen oversees the college’s John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research and the Naval War College Museum.
William Sims commanded U.S. naval forces in Europe. His headquarters initially was in Queenstown, Ireland, which is now Cobh.
When American service members began arriving there, many locals were suspicious of them, Kohnen said. Some of the Americans had Irish last names, but they were there supporting the British, whom the Irish had just rebelled against. The British viewed the same sailors as potential infiltrators for the Irish Republican Army, Kohnen said.
Other Americans had German last names.
“What Admiral Sims was trying to say is, ‘We’re not Irish, we’re not German. We’re nothing other than simply American, and baseball is the quintessential American game,’” Kohnen said. “He’s trying to demonstrate the unique American identity.”
The league grew beyond Ireland. Canadian, Japanese, Italian and French forces fielded teams too, Kohnen said. King George V watched the Navy triumph in the Army versus Navy World Series on July 4, 1918, in London. He even signed a baseball.
Nathaniel Sims, a Boston physician, said he didn’t understand the significance of the games when he donated the materials. He said he thought sailors and soldiers should be “out there at war.”
“It’s David’s contribution to recognize this was part of the diplomatic role of a senior military person, to make sure ethnic, political or any other tensions don’t sap the effectiveness of the war effort,” he said.
William Sims was president of the war college when he went to Europe.
“There’s no way we can understand World War I unless we first consider the history of it in all respects,” Kohnen said. “Baseball is part of the story of the American experience during the First World War.”
The Rhode Island World War I Centennial Commission plans to rededicate the field where the Friday game is being played, Cardines Field, in honor of Bernardo Cardines. Cardines was an Italian immigrant from Newport who fought and died in WWI.
The game is free and open to the public. Gates open at 4:30 p.m.