On this date 115 years ago, while on a road trip to Boston, the shorthanded Cleveland Indians signed a local kid to play infield. His name was Edward Leslie Grant. Although his family called him Les, he became "Eddie Grant" to fans just as baseball was taking its place as the national pastime. The sportswriters also gave him their own names: "Harvard Eddie" or, sometimes, "Lawyer Grant."
By Armistice Day in 1918, the entire nation would call him something else: a fallen war hero.
All that was in the future, however. On Aug. 4, 1905, Eddie Grant broke into the big leagues by going 3 for 4 while playing second base for Cleveland, which wasn't actually the "Indians" yet (and probably won't be for much longer). The team was then named the Naps, although whatever they were called Cleveland's brass initially thought they'd found a gem in young Eddie. But when the rookie struck out four times the next day, he was released.
Eddie Grant wasn't done with baseball, however, nor baseball with him. The young man kept working on his game, and by 1907 he was back in the majors to stay, this time in the National League, playing for Philadelphia. Grant played four seasons for the Phillies, three for Cincinnati, before going to the powerhouse New York Giants, then managed by the legendary John McGraw, where he had a cameo in the 1913 World Series.
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Edward Grant was born in 1883, in the small Massachusetts city of Franklin, the first American municipality named after Benjamin Franklin, and he went to Harvard where he studied history and law while excelling in baseball and basketball. He played semi-pro baseball one summer, as many college athletes did at the time, which cost him his college eligibility, but he stayed in school and graduated in 1905, three months before his major league debut.
Eddie Grant wasn't a star, but he was a selfless and smart player who helped his team win in myriad ways. He lacked power, which was the norm in the "dead ball" era when home runs were rare. Eddie only hit around .250, but he was both a deft bunter and a skilled third baseman at defending the bunt.
Grant was cerebral off the field as well. While his teammates spent their nights on the road in saloons, Eddie would attend the opera. They played poker on the train; he smoked a pipe and devoured books. Some were law books. In the off-season of 1908-1909 he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. His education carried over onto the baseball diamond too. Eddie never called for a fly ball by yelling, "I got it!" The college grad used the grammatically correct "I have it!"
He wasn't a stuffed shirt, however. When heckled at an exhibition game in Texas, he gave as good as he got. "My grandfather, General Grant, was a little rough on you down here when they got him riled," he responded. Although he was unrelated to Ulysses S. Grant, the conqueror of the South, it shut up the crowd.
Being a bookworm was more exotic in that era than it would be today: Most of the sportswriters at the time who dubbed him "Harvard Eddie" or "Attorney Grant" hadn't been to college themselves. Yet, every era has responsible athletes, as well as those who could never be mistaken for intellectuals. To put it in contemporary terms, Eddie Grant wasn't the kind of guy who would expose his teammates to a deadly virus during a pandemic by slipping off to casinos or strip joints -- or wherever it is that today's baseball and basketball players are getting infected.
After the 1913 World Series, in which he played sparingly, Eddie stuck it out for two more years under John McGraw before retiring after the 1915 season. He was practicing law in Boston when the United States entered "the war to end all wars," and Grant was commissioned as a captain in the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division. A year later, he was in France fighting in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Although it was unusual for a man in his mid-30s to volunteer, it wasn't unusual for Americans who were successful in life to answer President Wilson's call to arms. At basic training, Eddie Grant was in camp with Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and several other Harvard grads, including two commissioned as majors, DeLancey Jay and Charles Whittlesey, Grant's closest friend from law school.
By April 1918, these men were in France. Grant captained a company in the so-called Statue of Liberty Division from New York City. "I want also to impress upon you that I am not the least bit pessimistic about this," he wrote to his sister Florence. "Why, the Germans won't be able to win a game from us. We would knock old Hindenburg out of the box in the first inning."
But bravery in the face of danger and a strong sense of duty are no guarantees in combat, or in life. One day on the front lines, Eddie surprised Maj. Jay by showing him a photograph he carried in his diary. "This is a picture of my wife," he said softly, surprising Jay, who'd never heard about any Mrs. Eddie Grant.
Her name was Irene Soest. Eddie had met her during the 1910 season in a Philadelphia drug store. He's wooed her, convinced her mother that not all ballplayers were ruffians, and married her at the city's Epiphany Chapel on the last day of February 1911. Less than nine month later, he was getting ready to take Irene to the Harvard-Yale football game when she became suddenly ill. Irene would die in his arms, a victim of a heart weakened by childhood typhoid fever.
"The happiest moment was when I put the ring upon her finger," he wrote in that leather-bound diary. "She was to be mine for all time -- not only in this life but in the life to come. And then after signing a book and receiving happy wishes we were ready to start on our life together -- all too short it was to be."
In the waning days of the war, as the warring sides were discussing peace terms outside Paris, the western front was still a killing zone. Responding to reckless orders to attack, Maj. Whittlesey led some 700 Americans into a ravine in the Argonne Forest where they were quickly surrounded and pinned down by enemy troops. News of their plight made the newspapers back home, where they were dubbed "The Lost Battalion." Actually, Whittlesey's men were from three units, and comprised less than a full battalion. Moreover, they weren't lost, they were cut off. Both the Germans and the Allies knew where they were.
From Gen. John J. Pershing himself, the word went out: Reinforce those boys and bring them out. One of the officers who responded to his friend's plight was Grant, although as everyone noted at the time, Eddie would have gone after the pinned down Americans no matter who was leading them. As he marched toward the sound of the guns, Capt. Grant encountered his friend Maj. Jay, who'd been wounded and was being carried to the rear on a stretcher. Jay told Eddie to take command of the unit. Moments later, Grant was killed by a German artillery barrage. It was Oct. 5, 1918, two days before what was left of the Lost Battalion was rescued. According to Lt. Lloyd Nease, Grant's comrades "came in looking down-hearted, and you could hear them speaking to one another, ‘The best man in the entire regiment is gone.'"
"When that shell burst and killed that boy," added Whittlesey, "America lost one of the finest types of manhood I have ever known."
Whittlesey returned to the United States a war hero, a Medal of Honor recipient, but he never got over the guilt he felt and lived only another three years. Both he and Grant were household names in this country. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis predicted that Grant's "memory will live as long as our game may last." When the Hall of Fame opened, those who remembered Eddie Grant pushed for his inclusion.
It wasn't to be. Nor was Landis' prediction: Eddie Grant is largely forgotten now, even by avid baseball fans. This may have seemed inconceivable in 1921 as New York fans stood in the Polo Grounds as the band played "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and Grant's sisters unveiled a granite monument to him with the inscription "Soldier, Scholar, Athlete" on a bronze plaque. That monument was placed in centerfield -- it was on the playing field for four decades and can be seen in wide angle shots of Willie Mays' famous catch in the 1954 World Series.
When the Giants left New York, fans came out on the field for the last game and took bases, sod, and anything not nailed down for souvenirs. The New York Times reported that the plaque was recovered later that day, but in truth it's never been seen again. The Giants' owners promised to replace it when the team set up operations in San Francisco, but they never did until embarrassed by a brilliant 2004 article in Smithsonian magazine about Eddie Grant. New owners finally put up a commemorative plaque in 2006, and then won three World Series titles in six years. Superstitious fans, noting that the Giants had not previously won a championship since arriving in California, theorized that the "curse of Captain Eddie" had been lifted. Me, I think a certain lefthanded pitching ace had more to do with it, but there are serious points here to consider about America's national memory. It would have seemed inconceivable, for instance, to those who were present when Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address while unveiling a statue of Abraham Lincoln and a freed slave that "progressive" Americans would demand -- in the name of black people – that the thing be torn down.
But sensibilities change, as they must. Moreover, the luster of bygone heroes fades for an even more basic law of nature: The passage of time erodes our collective memories as surely as wind and rain wear away the names and testimonials on old gravestones. When we proclaim confidently that the great deeds of heroes we were privileged to know or see will always be remembered, we are expressing a hope, not a reality, and one we know to be simultaneously sincere and unrealistic.
"Eddie Grant has played his last game of baseball," Baseball Magazine announced in 1918. "Somewhere in France his grave is topped with a simple wooden cross, the last eloquent tribute to the soldier dead. But the memory of a brave man and a gallant gentleman will adorn the annals of sport long after the wooden cross has crumbled beneath the winds and ruins of that France he died to save."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.