War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War

War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War by Randy Roberts, and Johnny Smith. Basic Books, 352 pages, $30. Review by R. Zachary Sanzone, Spitball Magazine.

Irony came to mind when the good people at Basic Books told me that the shipping of my review copy of War Fever would be delayed because of the Coronavirus. Here I am quarantined at home in Boston because of a worldwide pandemic waiting for a book that details the Spanish flu’s effect on Boston in 1918. The delay was well worth the wait, as I read War Fever with great interest from cover to cover in a weekend. I even stayed up well past midnight to savor the last words on the last page of a book that taught me much about America during World War I.

War Fever, written by historians Randy Roberts of Purdue University, and Johnny Smith of Georgia Tech, focuses on three subjects: Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor and German native Karl Muck, Harvard grad turned World War I hero Charles Whittlesey, and a man that needs no introduction, the Boston Red Sox’s Babe Ruth. Roberts and Smith’s book uses these three subjects to discuss the historic events set primarily in Boston during World War I with the Spanish Influenza lurking between the inked words on each page.

Muck, a native of Darmstadt, Germany, was the brilliant and demanding conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He became the focus of attention in October of 1917 when it was alleged that he refused a request to play the National Anthem at Infantry Hall in Providence, Rhode Island. The truth of the matter was that Muck never saw the request until he was traveling back to Boston later that night. Still, Muck was fully aware of the consequences of this oversight and moreover, the anti-German sentiment that was growing exponentially as America creped closer to war with Germany. Muck’s story, told with sharp detail, dramatically unfolds as he is later sent to a German internment camp in Georgia where he stays for the duration of the war and then some. Muck was one of many Germans living in the United States, whose questionable American loyalties were scrutinized, which often led to being accused of espionage (habitually without ample evidence). What makes Muck’s story so engaging is how well Roberts and Smith use him as a conduit to discuss anti-German sentiment in America during World War I. Most historical propaganda in general is fueled by false pretenses, with enough truthful detail from events of the time sprinkled in to give it an aura of legitimacy. The sinking of the Lusitania, along with Germany’s failed efforts to persuade Japan and Mexico to attack the United Stated to distract them from entering the war, were events that shrouded over the wobbly particulars contributing to anti-German feeling in America.

Roberts and Smith also tell the remarkable story of Charles Whittlesey, a Harvard Law graduate who saw joining the army as his duty. Roberts and Smith use Whittlesey as a context in which they discuss American patriotism, and how dangerous it could be for anyone, American or otherwise, to not willingly demonstrate their devotion to America and the war effort, a threat powered by American Nationalism. Whittlesey rose to the rank of major during the war, commanded troops in the field, and eventually received the Medal of Honor for heroism. A man of few words who rarely discussed anything personal, Whittlesey became a primary example of the kind of modesty and humility Americans yearned for in a hero. Whittlesey’s cool under fire in combat, combined with his steadfast refusal to take any credit for himself—he often directed full credit towards his men—was the essence of what many Americans saw as the exact principles for which they were fighting. While the book was a tad heavy on the details of World War I combat, it was necessary and useful to understand the gravity of the actions Whittlesey undertook for which he was awarded the medal.

Last but not least, Roberts and Smith’s portrayal of Babe Ruth, Boston’s hero, was told with vibrancy for which Ruth was known. The authors’ portrayal of The Babe was one of the most balanced and objective I have ever seen in literature, which affords readers the opportunity to judge for themselves what kind of man he was. Some may see only a drunken philanderer who was abandoned by his parents at the age of eight, while other may see a man who helped unite the country during a time of uncertainty. In addition to talking about about Boston baseball, Roberts and Smith also use Ruth to discuss the pressing issue of essential verses non-essential workers in America. The war presented a challenge to baseball team owners who watched with dismay as their players drafted into the military or were pressed to find an essential job, taking with them their chances for a World Series Championship. The parts of the book that focus on Ruth give readers an idea of what was transpiring in America during World War I as its poorly trained boys shipped off to combat, and had to learn how to fight literally through trial-by-fire in the trenches of Europe. In addition to their rifles, ammunition, and bayonets, soldiers also carried with them traces of the Spanish flu that would decimate tens of millions throughout the world. While Roberts and Smith do not devote a tremendous amount of time to the Spanish Influenza, they touch upon it with enough detail to give readers a strong idea of how deadly it was, and how swiftly and tragically it spread throughout Boston. Roberts and Smith’s account of the way the flu catastrophically hit Boston is perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me.

It is challenging for most authors to write a book as pure as War Fever. All too often history books fall victim to stuffy details that many would find intriguing if the author had taken the time to write with more care and thoroughness. Roberts and Smith wrote War Fever with a combination of knowledge and reflection that even someone like Karl Muck, an intense perfectionist, would have found suitable. Roberts and Smith succeed as well-endowed artisans of their craft, which is further complimented by their ability to write in a way that permits readers to almost flawlessly identify and connect the principle ideas of the era to today’s events. This idea is not solely in reference to the current Coronavirus pandemic, but also to the sometimes genuine and sometimes questionable patriotism that Americans today display, either out of pride or personal gain. Roberts and Smith show how little has changed between 1918 and today, whether it is leaders who weaponizes nationalism, citizens who hide their own insecurities behind a false sense of patriotism, or ordinary Americans yearning for a hero like Charles Whittlesey or Babe Ruth to show them a true example of what it means to be a hero.

I borrow a quote from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row to identify the strongest accolade of War Fever, “Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing.” It is in War Fever that readers may see a villain in the form of a German composer, a drunkard in the form of a hard-hitting ballplayer, and a stuffed shirt in the form of a lawyer turned soldier. Nevertheless, the objective treatment of the subject matter that the authors of War Fever gives readers encourages them to “look through another peephole” and see a musician intensely proud of his homeland, an athlete basking in attention his parents never gave him, and a lawyer who only wanted to selflessly serve his country.