Captain Edward Leslie Grant. Does the name ring a bell? You might recognize it because he was briefly an infielder for the New York Baseball Giants a hundred years ago, or from the few public places still named in his honor: a stretch of highway up in the Bronx just north of Yankee Stadium that becomes University Avenue, a couple of American Legion posts, and a multi-purpose athletic field at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts, which Grant attended for a year before enrolling in Harvard. Thereafter he was known as "Harvard Eddie," and amused his teammates by foregoing the more common fly ball-catching vernacular, "I got it," shouting instead, "I have it!" Grant was the first former major league player to enlist voluntarily in the army during World War I, serving in the 77th Division of the 307th Infantry Regiment, known as the Statue of Liberty Division. He was teammates on the Giants with another genuine hero killed as a consequence of his wartime service, my beloved Christy Mathewson, whose name I always slip into the conversation every chance I get, but Grant holds the sad distinction of being the first major league player to be killed in action during The Great War. He was thirty-five years old.
Last Saturday I attended the Mets game against the Brewers at Citifield by invitation of my friend Barry Deutsch, who was visiting from Florida, and I was stunned and thrilled to see a beautifully put-together video tribute to Captain Grant played on the scoreboard. It artfully encapsulated just why Grant deserves the reverence I and many others still hold for him, not so much for his baseball exploits, which were mostly unspectacular, but for his unparalleled heroism as an officer in the U.S. army during World War I, and in particular for his courageously unselfish effort to rescue Charles Whittlesey, his law school classmate and friend, from certain death in the horrific Battle of the Argonne Forest during the last, worst offensive of the war. Nearly three hundred thousand soldiers were killed in that gruesome month-long battle: more than 100,000 Americans, 70,000 Frenchmen, and 100,000 Germans died there together. Whittlesey was part of the the storied "Lost Battalion" along with Alvin York, memorialized in a film starring Gary Cooper. When Grant went looking for his pal who was trapped in the forest, surrounded on all sides by German artillery, he was killed by an exploding shell - but only after a young lieutenant standing right next to him was killed seconds earlier and Grant rallied long enough to call for stretchers for the other nearby wounded soldiers even as he suffered the fatal injury from the blast that then killed him. He was buried at the American Cemetery in Romagne, France with full military honors, and a plaque was installed at the Polo Grounds as a permanent tribute to him so that each Memorial Day when Giants players would lay wreaths at the base of the monument to which the plaque was affixed, fans at the Polo Grounds would be reminded of Grant's heroism and sacrifice. When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, the plaque was forcibly removed from the monument in the mêlée of fans overtaking the field after the last out of the last home game. It disappeared and has never been recovered. The ceremony honoring Captain Grant each Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day for the wreath-laying and flower-adorning aspects of its genesis following the Civil War) sadly became a relic of another era, a forgotten tribute to a man who was a true hero in every sense of the word.
The Giants did the right thing by installing a replica plaque at AT&T Park in San Francisco, but it's in a completely inconspicuous area on a wall between the press entrance and a parking lot where there's not a lot of foot traffic and it's not easy to spot unless you're looking for it. I'd love to see the replacement plaque moved to a more visible place where fans passing by can see it and stop to contemplate the heroism of this journeyman baseball player who truly laid down his life for his fellow soldiers. I'd also love to see the Mets re-institute the annual wreath-laying ceremony whenever they're home on Memorial Day, as they are today, and keep Captain Grant's name alive for baseball fans until there is no more war, no more reason to celebrate those who have died while killing other humans in the name of "freedom" or whatever bromide satisfies our grindingly endless American bloodlust. The United States has now been at war, with very few breaks, since the mid-1800s, either with ourselves or with foreign nations and agencies. When will we ever learn? When will we ever stop? Until we do one or both of those things, the ultimate sacrifices of brave women and men like Captain Grant will not be forgotten and will inspire me to keep fighting, somewhat paradoxically, for peace on earth and good will to all.
In remembrance of him and many others, happy Memorial Day to all, and to all, a good fight.