By Martin Tuohy, Archivist, and Dan Smaczny, Contract Curator, National Museum of the American Sailor
Every April, hope springs eternal on baseball’s opening day. The American entrance into World War I on April 6, 1917, however, plunged the baseball season into a national emergency. In Chicago, the Cubs baseball team – and the U.S. Navy – responded with fervent patriotism.
On April 12, 1917, six days after U.S. entry into the war, the Navy sent sailors from U.S. Naval Training Station, Great Lakes to Weeghman Park,
Chicago’s North Side Major League ball park, to recruit young men to join the U.S. Navy. Now known as Wrigley Field, Weeghman Park opened in April 1914. The ball park’s location was ideal: young men attending the Cubs opening game could see athletic sailors and then enlist in the Navy after the game by riding the electric trains northward to Great Lakes. Showing pride in Navy tradition, the Great Lakes sailors brought onto the Cubs’ ball field the Navy’s universal good-luck mascot– a goat. A goat for the Cubs?!?
For centuries, goats were favored animals of sailors. While at sea, a goat aboard a ship would eat food scraps and provide milk for sailors. Goats could also produce more goats aboard a ship. Small, nimble-footed, easy to control and wash, goats also provided a source of amusement – and fresh meat – for Navy sailors who might not see land for weeks or months. Even after the Navy modernized to steam-powered, steel-hulled ships during the 1880s and 1890s, sailors brought their goats as good-luck mascots aboard Navy ships.
Baseball, though, rivaled goats for Navy sailors’ enthusiasm. Sailors formed teams aboard ship and competed in squadron and fleet leagues. Commanding officers found their commands judged by the quality of their baseball teams. By April 1917, baseball was a regular athletic training exercise at naval training stations, including Great Lakes. At Great Lakes, Commander John Kaufman, a surgeon, served dual roles as chief medical officer and athletic director. Kaufman recruited former White Sox player Chief Yeoman Felix “Phil” Chouinard, later Ensign, to manage Great Lakes recruits in boot camp and play on the team as well.
Great Lakes sports teams, dubbed “the Bluejackets” for the sailors’ blue dress blue uniforms, quickly gained national attention. Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox, commented six weeks after the Great Lakes sailors’ appearance at the Cubs 1917 home opener, “The Great Lakes Naval Training Station should turn out a world-championship baseball team if my observations and conclusions this season are not widely incorrect. Here’s the reason. Baseball is a benefit to military training, and military training is a benefit to baseball.”
The following year, the Chicago Cubs again invited the Great Lakes Bluejackets to parade and drill for Cubs fans before the home opener at Weeghman Park.
By April 1918, the Navy had enrolled professional baseball players as recruits in boot camp at Great Lakes, including future Chicago Bears players Paddy Driscoll and George Halas and Chicago White Sox star pitcher Red Faber. Fulfilling Charles Comiskey’s prediction from the previous summer, the Great Lakes team became the U.S. Navy’s baseball champions on August 5, 1918, by beating the Atlantic Fleet team at Weeghman Park, 11-6.
Did the Great Lakes Bluejackets’ good-luck goat return to the Cubs’ 1918 home opener? The surviving photographs show only the sailors drilling. Back at Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, though, the Navy’s goats continued to bring the sailors good luck. For the Cubs, their luck arrived in November 2016 when they won the World Series and William Sianis’ “Billy Goat Curse” that started in 1945 was finally broken.
Visit the National Museum of the American Sailor to learn more about the U.S. Navy’s connection to baseball in our special exhibition When Baseball Went To War opening in May 2017.