MYSTERY OF THE POLO GROUNDS-
By Bill Francis (a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum) This article was in the Memories and Dreams Magazine published by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Opening Day 2017. Thanks for sharing this Bill!!
“Monument to Eddie Grant graced the Giants’ home for decades before going missing after the team left for San Francisco.”
Big league third baseman Eddie Grant’s death took place almost 100 years ago, one of the thousands of United States casualties in the war to end all wars. Today, a missing plaque honoring his sacrifice remains one of the game’s most enduring unsolved mysteries.
Grant, nicknamed “Harvard Eddie” because he was one of the few ballplayers of the time who had attended college, spent 10 years in the majors, making his big league debut with the Cleveland Naps in 1905, then splitting the seasons between 1907 and 1915 with the Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants. Steadier with the glove than the bat, the Massachusetts native ended his career with a .249 batting average.
But it was his selfless character that distinguished Grant in the game of life. Prior to the start of the 1916 season, the Harvard graduate announced he was quitting the game in order to devote more time to his law practice, first in Boston and then in New York. And while he remained part of baseball, serving as a part-time scout with the Giants, the 34-year-old Grant, past the age when he might be drafted, responded when the United States joined its allies to fight in World War I in April 1917.
“I am going to try to be an officer,” Grant wrote to a friend while attending a military training camp in Plattsburgh, N.Y. “I don’t know how much of a success I shall make of it. I had determined from the start to be in this war if it came to us, and if I am not successful as an officer I shall enlist as a private, for I believe there is no greater duty that I owe for being that which I am – an American citizen.”
By April 1918, Grant had landed in France as a captain with Company H of the 307th Infantry Regiment in the 77th Division. But only a few months later, on October 22, 1918, newspapers across America announced that Grant had died in action two weeks earlier, on October 5, the first big league ballplayer to make the supreme sacrifice for his country in the Great War in Europe. A month after Grant’s death, the armistice was signed ending World War I.
According to reports, the 35-year-old Grant was killed by a shell while leading a unit to the aid of the famous “Lost Battalion,” a starving and exhausted group of American soldiers surrounded by German military for five days in the wilderness of France’s Argonne Forest. Capt. Grant was killed during one of the attempts to reach it.
“For four days and four nights his company was part of the command which was trying to get to Whittlesey [Major Charles Whittlesey, who was leading the ‘Lost Battalion’],” wrote Damon Runyon, the 1967 J.G. Taylor Spink Award honoree, who was reporting on the war. “On the morning of the day that relief was effected Eddie was so worn out he could scarcely move. Some of his brother officers noticed him sitting on a stump and a cup of coffee in front of him. Two or three times, they say, he tried to lift the cup, but he was so weak he couldn’t do it. Finally, with a terrific effort, he gulped down the coffee, when the command came to move.
“He stepped off at the head of his company as briskly as ever. On the way thr
ough the forest, fighting at every step, Grant came upon stretcher bearers carrying back the major commanding the battalion, who had been wounded. The major called to Grant: ‘Take command of the battalion!’ Eddie Grant was then one of the few officers left. The major had hardly spoken when a shell came through the trees, dropping two lieutenants in Grant’s company. Eddie shouted: ‘Everybody down!’ But without hunting cover for himself. He called for more stretcher bearers for the two lieutenants. He was calling and having his hands when a shell struck him. It was a direct hit.”
Upon hearing the tragic news regarding his former player, Giants manager and future Hall of Famer John McGraw said, “Grant was not a flashy player, but he was one of the gamest I ever knew. He always gave me the best he had and criticism only made him steadier. He never gave his managers any trouble, as he was a chap of fine habits. I could always depend on him. We haven’t any details of how he met he met his death, but I know that he was game to the end. He was a real hero – one of the first to volunteer as a soldier – and in his death I feel a distinct personal loss.”
Testimonials soon began appearing in print from witnesses of Grant’s heroic end.
“It was my sad fortune to be near where your son was killed only a few days ago, and when I saw him I could hardly believe it true,” wrote Lieut. Lloyd S. Nease of the Overseas Service to Grant’s father. “I personally looked after his burial, and had some sod put around his grave – the best I could do under the circumstances. He is buried in a beautiful place.
“I saw him only five minutes before the attack, and insisted that he go to hospital, as he was suffering from bronchitis and was very hoarse, but he refused, and said, ‘When we get relieved, we’ll go.’ His death was a great loss to the division.”
General Robert Alexander, the commander of the 77th Division, wrote of the last minutes of Grant’s life: “I remember Captain Grant very well. His personality was impressed upon me by the circumstances of his death. It was during one of the attacks delivered for the purpose of breaking through the hostile line in our front while Whittlesey’s command was cooped up. I was standing in the woods observing the operations when Captain Grant’s company went past me, headed for the front. It could not have been 10 minutes later that his body came back to the dressing station just in the rear of my position. He had been killed within a few minutes after his company became engaged. It was one of those losses unavoidable in war, but which nevertheless leave a very deep regret behind them.”
Grant was initially buried in the Argonne Forest, only a few feet from where he died. He would later by buried in France’s Meuse-Argonne American cemetery.
“It was my sad duty to bury the remains near the spot where he paid the supreme sacrifice for the great cause for which he came over here to France,” it read in a letter received by McGraw from Chaplain Henry D. Wacker, who presided at Grant’s funeral.
“Captain Grant was the most popular man in the 307th Infantry, well beloved by his men, who would follow him wherever he led the way. He had no fear of death, going where duty and honor called him. Now he lies near the spot where he poured out his life’s blood that liberty and justice may prevail.”
An article in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, shared similar sentiments.
“The men of Company H testify that they never went into action without their captain in the lead, and one of them – he used to be a traffic policeman on duty at the Polo Grounds in New York – says that to the onlooker there never was any difference between the Captain Grant who walked forward, smiling and unconcerned under shellfire, and the Eddie Grant of old, trotting out from the bench to third base.”
Within weeks of the news of Grant’s death, new reports told of a campaign to honor the fallen ballplayer with a memorial to be located at the Polo Grounds, the last place he called home as a big leaguer. By February 1919, the Edward L. Grant Memorial Association was formed, led by baseball executives, players, military officers and sportswriters, its purpose to erect a lasting and suitable edifice to the former infielder.
A year later, with the baseball world reeling from the sordid Black Sox scandal, it was announced in November 1920 that a monument, consisting of an on-the-field granite tablet five-feet-high with a bronze plaque that will inform future generations of baseball fans that Grant was killed in the Argonne Forest as well as list the years in which Grant played on the Phillies, Reds and Giants, would be erected in deep centerfield at the Polo Grounds.
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, between games of a Giants doubleheader against the visiting Phillies, the Grant monument was unveiled. With 30,000 watching from the Polo Grounds stands, a flag was removed by one of Grant’s sisters, Florence Grant Robinson, revealing the moment, its inscription highlighted by the line, “SOLDIER – SCHOLAR – ATHLETE.” Also joining in the tribute was a detachment of the British World War I veterans and three companies from nearby Fort Slocum.
“His sacrifice hit won the game,” said Thomas W. Slocum, vice president of the Harvard Club. After Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ tribute, Reverend Stanley Cleveland, chaplain of the 307th Regiment, 77th Division, made the prayer of dedication.
While Grant would receive minimal support for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the late 1930s and early 1940s, an April 1943 New York Times letter to the editor would make the case for his inclusion.
“The members of the Captain Edward L. Grant Post 1225, American Legion, named in honor of the former major league third baseman who lost his life in the first World War, believe that his name should be placed in baseball’s Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.,” wrote George E. Schaefer, a representative of American Legion Post named after Grant. “We do not base our claim on his ability as a player, but at the age of 37 he was one of the first to volunteer for service in the first World War, in which he served with distinction, and he was the only major league baseball player to be killed in action.
“Those immortalized in baseball’s Hall of Fame are a lasting inspiration to the youth of America, and we feel that now that we are in the second World War, no baseball player more rightly deserves this honor, nor would any other player be a greater inspiration to our younger generation.”
An odd twist to the Grant story took place when the bronze plaque, located in the shadows of Coogan’s Bluff at Polo Grounds, disappeared after the Giants played their final game in the venerable ballpark prior calling San Francisco home in 1958. After a 9-1 loss to the Pirates on September 29, 1957, The New York Times reported that soon after the contest’s final out, a number of fans from the announced crowd of 11,606 descended upon the field and began removing home plate, the pitcher’s rubber, two of the bases, the centerfield wall padding, handfuls of grass and sod, and telephones.
“The Eddie Grant plaque – dating to 1921, three years after the former Giant infielder died as a hero in World War I – was gradually loosened and slid from its place by three boys of about 15,” The New York Times continued. “Its prompt recovery by police outside the field was a relief both to the club and to the Society of the 307th Infantry, which plans to remove the entire monument to a suitable new site.”
The original Grant plaque has not been seen since. On Memorial Day 2006, a replica plaque was put up at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
“At the Hall of Fame, from time to time, we are asked about the location of notorious missing baseball artifacts, those that seem to be lost to history since whatever time have stamped their mark on the game,” said Hall of Fame Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections Erik Strohl. “For me, one of the most interesting missing artifacts is Eddie Grant’s memorial plaque from the old Polo Grounds. Not only was this plaque a famous and well-known piece from one of the most storied baseball stadiums in history, it had meaning beyond just the game on the field, a sort of nexus of baseball and American culture.
“Because of its connection to World War I and one of the most storied franchises of early baseball history, it holds a different place among the lore of missing baseball treasures. Plus, because of its size, it always seemed unlikely that such a piece could be lost as easily as a baseball. Perhaps someday this piece will resurface and bring to a close one of the more interesting baseball mysteries.”
Grant plaque text:
IN MEMORY OF
CAPT. EDWARD LESLIE GRANT
307TH INFANTRY – 77TH DIVISION
SOLDIER – SCHOLAR – ATHLETE
KILLED IN ACTION
OCTOBER 5, 1918
NEW YORK GIANTS
ERECTED BY FRIENDS IN BASEBALL
JOURNALISM AND THE SERVICE
GRANTLAND RICE poem called Captain Edward Leslie Grant
Far from the Game and the cheering of old,
A cross in the Argonne will tell you the story
Where each one may read on its rain-battered mold
A final box score that is written in glory.
The final box score of a Player who gave
The flag that he fought for, his ghost – and his grave.
Green be his couch where the white lilies lean.
Crimson the poppies that keep guard above him.
Gentle the darkness that gathers between
The Player at rest and the torn hearts that love him.
God give him refuge where Life’s flag is furled,
A dreamer gone back to the dust of the world.
Low be the lost winds of France that must creep
Over his rest in the Last Tavern lying.
God send Thy dreams where the Darkness is deep,
Father, Thy care when the wild storms are flying.
No monarch there – but the soul of a Man –
We speak for a Brother – for One of the Clan!