War Fever by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

In timely fashion, authors Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith investigate baseball, war culture, and the pandemic of 1918 in Boston during the late stages of World War I. This book uses three characters as the driving force of time in their work: an ascendant Babe Ruth, at the time on the Boston Red Sox, Karl Muck, the German-American composer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Charles Whittlesey, a graduate of Harvard Law and a member of the United States Army. The authors attempt to encapsulate the feeling of an era, and although the stories are intriguing, the narrative feels disjointed and the argument of the book unclear. I assume the main idea was to use the feelings of the citizens of Boston to portray a time and era of American history, yet, as their own research uncovers, any general feeling varied from person-to-person and time-to-time.

Roberts and Smith do have a skill for writing interestingly about their subjects. They bring their three main characters to life, using a bevy of research from New England newspapers and the National Archives. As a child growing up rooting for the Red Sox, I was more in tune with what happened after 1918 than what occurred during 1918. Most notably, Ruth was frequently griping about pay, coming to the realization that he was an unordinary star making ordinary money. He would occasionally threaten to go play for a shipyard team, a dual-purpose scheme to negotiate a higher salary and be exempt from the United States draft. While Ruth’s day-to-day shenanigans were noteworthy, the convoluted roles that Red Sox owner Harry Frazee and American League Commissioner Ban Johnson played during wartime was utterly fascinating and certainly a reminder of our current economic climate during the COVID-19 crisis.

Additionally, while familiar with the Japanese internment camps during World War II, I was less familiar with the German camps during World War I. Karl Muck, a respected composer who had worked closely with the Kaiser before the war, was targeted by mobs of people suspicious of Germans during the war. The Kaiser had an extensive network of people in America that were loyal to the old country, and some had even carried out attacks against American infrastructure during the war. Muck came into the line of fire after reportedly refusing to play the national anthem before one of his shows in Providence, Rhode Island. (He maintained he didn’t see the request, but even if he had, what role did a patriotic song like the Star-Spangled Banner have at the BSO, he wondered aloud.) Nationalism and patriotism were on full display for most citizens during this war, and such a slight was met with severe suspicion. From there, pressure was put on various agencies to look into Muck’s past, eventually highlighting a mistress and letters that showed sympathy toward the Kaiser and a relative disdain for American culture. With acts in place to mitigate German spies and foreign influences, Muck was sent south to an internment camp. Even though the evidence against the composer was marginal, “the temper of the nation is approaching the breaking point in tolerating anti-American utterances” and the arrest was necessary “if wholesale lynchings throughout the country ar to be prevented.”

Lastly, Whittlesey was an American who led an offensive against Germany on the Western Front in Germany. His troops were ordered to mount an offensive through a German line, and they succeeded by pushing through and breaking the German ranks. However, their flanks failed to secure the same outcome, and the Germans soon reformed lines, surrounding the unit on a blanket broadside of the valley and forcing them to defend their position. Their position was called “the pocket” and the accounts from Whittlesey and others portray nothing worse than a complete military disaster, surround on all sides with little maneuvering room and no immediate access to supply lines.

While the content is enchanting, and I felt immersed in each story, the authors failed to tie together the stories in a way that recreated an overall atmosphere of 1918 Boston. Beyond tropes such as attributing warlike terms to Ruth’s baseball achievements or using baseball terms for Muck’s detainment, there wasn’t much that homogenized the story other than time. Even the setting of Boston felt a little out of bounds – Ruth undoubtedly played much of his games here, but we must remember half were on the road. Much of the investigation and detainment of Muck takes place in other states, and the third story develops in Europe (although the author’s goal is to capture a phenomena in America.) In my opinion, the authors would have been better served using one of their characters as the star, and using the other two stories as a backdrop to the main story. The content of each would be enough to write whole books – while I do not feel slighted, because I learned a lot, I have a feeling there is a lot more meat on the bone to each narrative. Despite the drawbacks, the book illuminates several important parts of our New England history, and I encourage each reader to investigate the fates of the people in the stories above.

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Author: Rich Collins

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