Check out Gary Cieradkowski’s Infinite Baseball Card story about Eddie Grant, New York Giants third baseman and World War I hero. This made me think of Negro leaguers in World War I, specifically whether any were known to have died while in serving in the military during the war. There are two such men, one of them already known to historians, the other a new discovery, I think.
•Until now, the only African-American ballplayer known to have died in World War I was Pearl Franklyn “Specks” Webster, a well-regarded, speedy catcher and outfielder for a number of teams in the 1910s. The Brooklyn Eagle called him “a fine fielder, a clever batsman and a great base stealer;” he once stole second, third, and home in the same inning. He was drafted into the 807th Pioneer Infantry and served as a corporal in France. He survived the fighting, only to succumb to the Spanish influenza pandemic on November 16, 1918—only five days after Armistice Day. The direct cause of Webster’s death was pneumonia—like most victims of the pandemic, he actually died of an opportunistic secondary infection of bacterial pneumonia after the influenza virus had weakened the linings of his lungs and bronchial passages.
(Pearl Webster should not be confused with William Webster, another catcher who played for some of the same teams around the same time and was also sometimes called “Specks.”)
•But there was another black baseball player who died while in the service during the war. Norman Triplett was one of three brothers born in La Mott, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, all of whom played amateur and semipro baseball for the local La Mott Stars in the 1910s. Norman Triplett was best known as a pitcher, but when Ed Bolden’s newly ambitious Hilldale Club picked him up in late June, he seems to have served mostly as a center fielder. He appeared in two games against top black teams, once against the Cuban Stars and once against the Pennsylvania Red Caps, batting 2 for 7. By the end of July he was back pitching with the La Mott Stars.
And by August, 1918, he was a private, first class, in the 803rd Pioneer Infantry in France. It was there that he died about three weeks before the Armistice, on October 20, 1918. He was actually buried there, but his body was brought back to the United States in 1921 and re-interred in the Fairview Colored Cemetery near Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, in a special La Mott section. Frustratingly, I have been unable to find out exactly how he died, whether he was killed in action or died from some other cause (such as influenza). Maybe somebody out there can help.
One of Norman’s brothers, Wallace, later became a close business associate of Ed Bolden. The other, Mahlon Triplett, like Bolden a longtime postal clerk, had a son named Wally Triplett, who became the first African American football player to start for Penn State, and then in 1949 was drafted by the Detroit Lions, the first draft in which black players were taken. (Several African Americans, beginning with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, had been signed as undrafted free agents since the NFL began to reintegrate in 1946.).
A couple of other guys should be mentioned here:
1) Ted Kimbro, who like his frequent teammate Pearl Webster died of influenza in 1918. According to James Riley, he contracted the flu while in the service, but died shortly after being discharged. Riley calls him “Arthur (Jess, Ted) Kimbro,” but he was definitely Ted Kimbro, as attested by census entries and his World War I card:
Ted’s older brother, as it happens, was named Arthur James Kimbro. Both were born in St. Louis in the 1890s, though the family soon moved to Oklahoma, where they grew up. I don’t know whether he was also a ballplayer, but it’s pretty certain that only one Kimbro appeared for “major league” black teams in the 1910s, and it was Ted.
I’ve only seen the name “Jess Kimbro” connected to the ballplayer once, in the Chicago Defender (August 9, 1919). It could be that he was nicknamed “Jess”—but it’s also true that one Jesse L. Kimbrough, a lieutenant in the black 365th Infantry Regiment at Camp Grant, Rockford, Illinois, had been mentioned several times in the Defender’s columns during the war, and it’s possible the ballplayer was mistakenly confused with him. Kimbrough was from Los Angeles, where he was one of the earliest black officers in the Los Angeles Police Department, and he was a ballplayer—in fact, he organized the LAPD’s first black baseball team and played catcher for it. In his retirement he penned a semiautobiographical novel about his experiences as a cop, called Defender of Angels, and a World War I novel, Brown Doughboy.
2) The lefthanded curveballer Anthony Mahoney. He wasn’t killed in the war, but he was victim of a poison gas attack while in the trenches, and apparently never fully recovered. He returned from the war and pitched for the Indianapolis A.B.C.’s and Baltimore Black Sox in the early 1920s before falling into a lengthy illness in 1924, and died at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., on September 25, 1924.