The Great War was to be quick, exciting, and mobile. As such, high command saw little need to provide extra-curricular activities for its soldiers. In the early years of the war, these activities were largely organised at the grass-roots level, propelled forward by popular enthusiasm and private initiative. The game that Canadian soldiers overwhelmingly chose to play was baseball. This popular enthusiasm was so strong that by 1918, even the Ministry of War couldn’t resist and agreed to the establishment of official championships, leagues, and even a stadium. On Dominion Day of 1918, Prime Minister Borden, Lord Connaught—Governor General of Canada, and Sir Arthur Currie attended the baseball championship hosted in Tincques, near the border with Belgium, along with 70,000 others. This meteoric rise was allowed because, in the early years of the war, particularly around 1916, Baseball served as a mental salve for soldiers returning from the front line, uniting them and easing their minds amid extreme duress.
In contemporary Canada, dominated as it is by hockey, it may be hard to believe that, one-hundred years ago, baseball ruled the sports scene. Partly inspired by its popularity in the United States, especially following the American Civil War, baseball had become the most popular sport in Canada. Leagues were present in most large cities and even a nascent national league was gathering steam. As can be expected, when given free time, Canadian soldiers serving over-seas attempted to set up games to pass the time. The game was popular amongst soldiers because most people already knew the rules, it was easy to improvise, and it reminded soldiers of the games they had played back home, easing some of their homesickness.
Meanwhile, the game was popular with officers because—the thinking went—it instilled a sense of gamesmanship in soldiers, something viewed as important in the early years of what was supposed to be a gentlemanly war. Additionally, baseball lacked all of the negative effects that gambling, drinking, and wandering around brothels entailed. Sports in general also tended to increase a sense of unity between soldiers, while baseball specifically was viewed as a good means of teaching the value of sacrifice, discipline, and strategy. The fact that it also kept the men physically active was an appreciated bonus.
Certain equipment, like gloves, baseballs, and proper bats, were expensive to acquire at the front so several private organisations were set up to provide for the soldiers. Eventually, even the American Major League Baseball association sent equipment to the Canadians, eager to try and establish new markets abroad. While America’s pastime never caught on with the French or English, the Canadians found it an effective means of dealing with the stress of combat.
The effects of baseball on the troops can be seen on Private Clarence ‘Buster’ Booth, of the 24th Battalion. Following a harrowing experience at St. Eloi in 1916, he forebodingly noted in his diary, “Nerves start[sic] going bad.” Eleven days later he finally left the frontlines and three days later got to play baseball, losing two games against signallers and winning one against the 28th Battalion. With this brief bout of relaxation, Booth noted “Everything ok.”
Unfortunately for Booth, and many Canadians, baseball was little more than a salve for the extreme, soul-shattering stress of combat in the trenches. While these games temporarily assuaged Booth’s fraying nerves, they could not stop the process entirely and he was soon diagnosed with shellshock and pulled from the frontlines entirely. As a cook, he still watched the games, but no longer participated likely due to a sense of exclusion, for as he so tersely noted on October 2nd, 1916, “Saw My old [Battalion] only 30 left. all my chums gone.” Baseball teams organised at the front were always in the process of shrinking.
Baseball’s popularity amongst
soldiers and officers, combined with the endorsement of private interests at
the Homefront guaranteed it a healthy presence on the Western Front. Despite
all its positives, however, its ability to help maintain health and morale only
went so far. In some instances, rather than distracting the soldiers, the
notable absence of star players, or even whole teams, served as painful reminders
of the precariousness of life and the randomness of death at the Front.
 Craig Greenham, “On the Battlefront: Canadian Soldiers, an Imperial War, and America’s National Pastime,” American Review of Canadian Studies 42, no. 1 (March 2012): 36-37. https://doi.org/10.1080/02722011.2012.649928.
 Tim Cook, The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada Books, Inc, 2018), 287-290.
Cook, Tim. The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada Books, Inc, 2018.
Greenham, Craig. “On the Battlefront: Canadian Soldiers, an Imperial War, and America’s National Pastime.” American Review of Canadian Studies 42, no. 1 (March 2012): 34–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/02722011.2012.649928.
Duke of Connaught talking to baseball team. Canadian Corps Sports. July, 1918. July 1918. Photo. Library and Archives Canada. (DAPDCAP308581). http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3384458
Canadian War Records Office. Captain Robert Pearson of the Y.M.C.A., umpiring behind the plate at a baseball match held in the Canadian lines [graphic material] = Le capitaine Robert Pearson, de la Y.M.C.A., se fait l’arbitre d’une partie de base-ball amicale. September 1917. Photo. George Metcalf Archival Collection. (CWM 19920085-807). (Access Link)