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Baseball’s first big leaguer enlists

By Staff | May 9, 2018

PHOTO PROVIDED This group of former big league stars who enlisted in the Navy and played on the all-star Navy team in 1917 was taken at the Harvard baseball field where the men practiced. They are (left-right): Herb Pennock, Red Sox; George 'Chippie' Gaw, Buffalo; Lawton Witt, Athletics; Arthur Rico, Boston Braves; Lawton Witt, Philadelphia Athletics; and Loren Bader, Tom Corkery, Mike McNalley, Del Gainer and Leo Callahan of the Red Sox. Seated are Earnest Shore and Jack Barry, manager.

Baseball mania seems to strike this time of year. When it was said that “In spring, young men’s fancies turn to love,” an added sentiment might have more accurately identified the fancy as baseball.

Baseball was mentioned much during WWI. A writer at the time, conveyed to those who would read his book, not to think the war was a succession of horrors. He said that, “It must be realized that there were weeks between these ‘horrors’ and discomforts,” and continued on to chronicle them.

“A man is in the trench under fire, say, two days, and sent back four, or perhaps four days and sent back eight. Usually a brigade is in the “fire sector” 32 days. Then it is sent back to the rest billets for an equal time. Here the men are in practically no danger – perhaps an occasional shell. They are together in jolly comradeship, having lots of amusements – football, baseball – plenty to do. They are well fed, well equipped, well amused,” he wrote.

Locals identified in previous Luminary articles in this series cited soldiers of noted baseball talents such as Raymond Confer of Muncy, and Raymond Fought of Hughesville.

A 1917 article in pages of the Hughesville Mail shared activities of several baseball stars during wartime. It said, “Baseball changed for every league and player when the US declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. The prospect of the draft and military service hung over the heads of all healthy, unmarried males.”

One such player was Arthur Ramon Rico who joined his hometown league, the Boston Braves. Lauded as a great catcher, he was also prominent on football and shot-put teams.

In addition to Rico, players making up the newly formed all-star Navy team in 1917 were Herb Pennock, Loren Bader, Tom Corkery, Mike McNalley, Del Gainer and Leo Callahan of the Red Sox, George ‘Chippie’ Gaw of Buffalo, and Lawton Witt of the Philadelphia Athletics.?

In early June 1917, while playing in Springfield, Missouri, Rico registered with the National Guard and was the first major leaguer to enlist. By the end of the year’s ball season, the war’s toll on big league clubs had rapidly grown. In December Rico was a seaman in the Naval Reserves at Charleston Navy Yards.

By spring 1918, Rico and others signed up on the Navy’s first district’s baseball team but by mid June was disbanded. Listed as the culprit was ‘resentment’ among fellow servicemen and civilians snipping about ball players safely serving stateside. Rico then reported for duty on the USS Georgia.

Back home in early January 1919, Rico became ill. Abdominal surgery found peritonitis from a ruptured appendix from which the 23 year-old did not recover. Dubbed the ‘schoolboy catcher,’ Rico died in his native Boston.

One of his eight honorary pallbearers was from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Herbert Pennock, a fellow member of the famed Navy ball team, was best known for his time with the New York Yankees from the late 1920’s to the early 1920’s. The latter, originally with the Red Sox, was primarily a pitcher and following his death in 1948; was the same year, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.