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  • The Best Team Over There: The Untold Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Great War by Jim Leeke
  • Dave Bohmer
Jim Leeke. The Best Team Over There: The Untold Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Great War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021. 247 pp. Cloth, $29.95.

Jim Leeke, who has written numerous books on baseball and World War I, has undertaken a particularly challenging endeavor in attempting to examine the war experience of Grover Cleveland Alexander. First, Alexander left little record of his time during the war. Leeke had to piece it together from numerous other sources, including firsthand accounts and war records. In this regard, Leeke's accomplishments are impressive. He is able to document the pitcher's experiences from the time he was drafted in early 1918 through his decommission more than a year later. Included were his time spent training at Fort Funston in Kansas, the transfer via train to Fort Mills in New York, his Atlantic crossing to England, the channel crossing to France, and his transport near the front lines. There, Alexander's regiment finally completed its preparation before engaging in combat. Throughout his service, he lived in crowded quarters. By the time he was engaged in combat, there was, give or take, only a couple of weeks of fighting before the armistice. His regiment was then moved to different locations, mostly in Germany, to oversee the peace agreement. He was finally decommissioned in the first quarter of 1919, returning to the states and his ball club, the Cubs. The reader senses the drudgery of the overall experience, as well as the horrors of the limited combat.

Leeke's core conclusion is that Alexander's war experience caused post war trauma, which seriously impacted the remainder of his accomplished baseball career. Looking at his overall record, it is clear the pitcher experienced a performance decline after the war. It is also well known that Alexander developed a major problem with alcohol in the latter part of his career, an issue that continued after he retired. He was one of the important recipients of Major League Baseball's player relief plan to aid his impoverished state. Leeke strongly asserts that the war experience was the direct cause of Alexander's decline and downfall.

While that is certainly possible, there well could be other factors at play when Alexander returned from the war, including both his age and having experienced firsthand the influenza pandemic while in the service. First, his performance decline did not come until two years after his return from combat. While he struggled somewhat in 1919, that was likely due to his late start and lack of preseason preparation. By contrast, his 1920 performance was very similar to his prewar outcomes. By the 1921 season, however, Alexander was thirty-four years old, well on the downhill side of the age curve for a baseball [End Page 287] player. Further, the decision to use new baseballs on a regular basis in 1921, instead of playing with the same ball for most of the game—a ruling prompted by Ray Chapman's death in 1920—had a negative impact on pitching performances overall. From that point, Alexander's numbers clearly declined and never approximated his prewar output. Both age and the new rule appear to have been the likely contributors.

In a similar vein, while one cannot rule out the effect that combat had on Alexander, the pandemic's impact should not be overlooked. He was at Fort Funston shortly after the influenza broke out there initially. He was on crowded ships, trains and barracks, facing combat around the time the disease was most prevalent during the war. It is certainly possible that witnessing the horrific death of his fellow soldiers by disease, very common during World War I both at home and abroad, may well have weighed at least as heavily on Alexander in his later years as had his time in combat. More discussion of this would have been useful.

Leeke's book is well worth reading for anyone seeking to learn about Alexander's war experience. The impact that it had on his career after the war...