By Paul Post
Rare, early 20th century athletic gear, photos, sculptures and trophies are part of an exhibit that celebrates the role of sports in the New York Army National Guard.
“For the Development of First-Class Fighting Men: Sports and the New York National Guard, 1890-1950” is showing at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Visitors are treated to a display of antique memorabilia, such as an old-time baseball catcher’s chest protector and mask, a well-worn first baseman’s mitt and baseballs autographed by championship team members. However, a variety of sports are represented, including basketball, boxing and polo.
One of the most unique pieces is an old photo showing the 1879 New York City tug of war champions representing Company B, 7th Regiment.
“All of these objects are in our collection,” said Chris Morton, museum curator. “Nothing is on loan. A lot of these items came from armories throughout New York state. As old armories were decommissioned, these items were saved and documented.”
Beginning in the 1890s, sports became almost as much a part of the Guard’s routine as military training because of the camaraderie, conditioning and teamwork they developed. As America shifted from a rural to a more urban country, sports were seen as a way to keep men physically and mentally fit.
In his opening remarks at the 1899 convention of the National Guard Association of New York, Colonel Henry Chauncey lamented “the narrow chest, round shoulders and trailing feet” of today’s soldiers, noting how their jobs in “stores or counting houses … have rendered them generally unfit material from which to make soldiers.”
Chauncey believed that “properly regulated athletic exercises” incorporated into routine training can “change this material into active, athletic being, which a 20th century soldier must be.”
The exhibit’s title is taken from a remark made by Major General Robert Lee Bullard, commander of the 1st Infantry Division in World War I.
“Athletics,” he said, “are the best stimulants for enlistment and for the development of first-class fighting men.”
Regiments throughout the state formed organized teams that competed against each other, with bragging rights and beautiful trophies at stake. A silver basketball trophy, for example, was held by the reigning championship team for a full year, similar to hockey’s Stanley Cup, with the name of each year’s winner inscribed below.
The baseball display case includes a program from a June 6, 1914, game played between the famed 7th “Silk Stocking” Regiment of New York City and a team of West Point Cadets that included future General Omar Bradley, who gained fame during World War II as commander of all U.S. ground forces invading Germany from the west. The inside of the program has a scorecard. On the back are tiny cartoon-like sketches of several players. One shows Bradley, an outfielder, diving headlong to catch a ball with the caption: “Bradley Takes a Fly.”
A 1916 action photo shows men taking part in a 23rd Regiment Officers Baseball Game in Texas, where they were sent to support the Mexican Expedition. Baseball was a welcome diversion from their regular military duties.
The 8th Coast Artillery Corps team is also shown. During World War I, these men were stationed at Fort H.G. Wright, off the eastern tip of Long Island to protect the entrance to Long Island Sound.
National Guard soldiers played baseball year-round, including indoors at spacious new armories, using an oversized ball similar to a modern softball.
“These armories were so big they could hold baseball, track and field, boxing and polo,” Morton said.
A handsome “Spalding Trophy” was awarded to winners of the Army Indoor Baseball League, played during the winter of 1914-15. There’s also a 1931-32 Indoor Baseball “Howitzers Champions” trophy.
Another picture shows the Company C, 3rd Regiment 1910 Indoor Baseball Team from Syracuse that played inside an armory, built in 1907, which had a 160-by-150-foot drill hall and balcony capable of holding 500 spectators.
A boxing display case shows a pair of early gloves and a program taken from Jan. 20, 1919, match between Canadian and U.S. Army soldiers that occupied Germany after World War I. Members of the U.S. Army’s 42nd “Rainbow” Division won each weight class against the 2nd Canadian Division, in a card held at the Kur Theatre in Neuenahr, Germany.
During a recent visit to the museum, New York State American Legion Commander Frank J. Peters was especially taken with a sculpture called “Two Boxers” that reminded him of contests held aboard the carrier USS Independence while he was in the Navy.
“They had a ring set up on deck,” he said. “Nobody got hurt, but I think one of those guys went down rather quickly. It wasn’t for me.”
The 1895 bronze, by Pierre-Eugene-Emile Hebert (1828-93) was presented to the 7th Regiment, in 1897, by Richard Halsted, a wealthy New York City stock broker and art collector that had purchased the sculpture from Tiffany & Company.
One pugilist is shown lunging at the other with a strong left jab. Neither one is wearing boxing gloves. “That isn’t the way it was in the Navy,” Peters said. “It wasn’t bare knuckles.”
The piece is especially appropriate to Saratoga Springs because John Morrissey was a champion bare-knuckle prize fighter before introducing thoroughbred racing to Saratoga in 1863.
There’s no doubt that one of New York’s most famous soldiers, President Theodore Roosevelt, would thoroughly enjoy the museum’s new exhibit. After gaining fame as a “Rough Rider” during the Spanish-American War, in 1899 he gave a speech in Chicago extolling the benefits of “The Strenuous Life.”
“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph,” Roosevelt said.
Inspired by his persona and words, many early 20th century men, including National Guard members, took up sports as a way to follow his example.
The exhibit also shows how crude early athletic equipment was, lacking much of the protection afforded by modern-day gear.
“Everyone can relate to an old pair of sneakers from their youth,” Morton said. “That’s what makes this exhibit so interesting.”
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. For more information call (518) 581-5101 or visit http://dmna.ny.gov/historic.
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.