Frontier Story With a Curve
In the spring of 1944 Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall discovered that of the 280 or so major league players in the armed forces, most had never left their domestic bases, and many had not even completed basic training, a fact I learned when researching Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser. Boots, who had pitched for the Detroit Tigers and Brooklyn Dodgers was a member of the powerful Parris Island Marine Corps baseball team. When Boots was shipped overseas, he landed in Hawaii and spent the rest of his three-year hitch pitching in paradise, and it is easy to imagine a commander looking over the lists of recruits and replacements in an effort to stockpile good ballplayers for his camp team. There’s nothing like being one up on a rival commander!
This practice has a long history as I discovered not through any research, but through sheer luck. In going through old papers that my parents had saved, I came across an April 20, 1949 article from The Sunday Sun Magazine (Baltimore), entitled, “Frontier Story With A Curve.” Written by William E. Pyne, who had himself participated in D-Day as a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne, the article details Baltimorean Robert Garrett McComas who, as a teenager, left home in 1878 to join the cavalry. Temporarily assigned to a troop at Fort Sanders, Wyoming Territory, he had orders to report to an even more remote outpost. Those orders were canceled, however, when his commander discovered that McComas was an excellent pitcher.
According to Pyne, McComas volunteered to pitch for the troop team, “which had been a constant loser,” but that he won “in such handy fashion” that “even the hard-bitten sergeants guaranteed” that they would look out for the teenage private. McComas never lost a game during his four years at Fort Sanders and the sergeants did indeed look out for their star baseball player. He was never assigned to any patrols and even had his mount cared for. His commander saw to it that he had a position in the post dispensary, which increased his pay by $5.00 a month to $18.00 and when the dispensary cook was discharged, McComas said, “I got the job with another $5.00 increase.” Pyne wrote, “Mr. Mac thinks that perhaps this qualifies him as the prototype of the modern subsidized athlete.”
McComas, who had, after all, joined the cavalry for the adventure, finally talked his way onto one patrol, which turned out to be his last. With 15 Apache scouts riding in advance of the troop, all was quiet for a couple of hours until the soldiers heard the chilling sound of the Indian war whoop. It turned out to be the scouts, chasing down a number of rabbits that they had flushed, but the experience was enough to cure McComas of the desire for any more patrolling, and he contented himself with winning ballgames for the rest of his hitch.
“In those days, the catcher wore only a kid glove and a mask,” remarked the then 85 year-old McComas. “A batter was allowed nine balls before he was passed to first base. Only the high and low balls were called.”
Indeed, McComas was playing on the frontier when the game was in its developmental stage. To put his era into perspective, the year McComas joined the Army, i.e. 1878, was only two years after Custer’s defeat; it was the year that John Montgomery Ward made his major league debut with the Providence Grays; and it was 17 years before another Baltimorean, Babe Ruth, was even born.
We often think that the privileged baseball player is a modern concept, perhaps dating back only as far as World War II, but the story of Robert Garrett McComas illustrates that the practice goes back as far as the game itself. Even in 1878, if you could find a good pitcher, you took good care of him.