Batter Up: World War I Amputees Play Ball

One-armed baseball team, Walter Reed Hospital. June 20, 1919. 165-WW-255A-20

Long before Pete Gray or Jim Abbott stepped up to the plate, veterans of World War I recovering at military hospitals throughout the United States formed amputee baseball teams. Elbert K. Fretwell, Director of Recreation in Hospitals in the Department of Military Relief with the American Red Cross, insisted that the best recreation for recovering soldiers was their traditional activities modified for everyone to be able to enjoy, and the soldiers seemed to agree. One player at Fort Des Moines exclaimed, “Gee, I’m glad I can still swat the old pill!”¹

One-armed baseball team, Walter Reed Hospital. “Out at Second.” 165-WW-255A-22

The Department of Military Relief organized field days, where veterans from different hospitals competed. Fretwell wrote, “At Fort McHenry and Walter Reed, the one-armed baseball teams defeated their opponents — two-armed teams that played with one arm tied behind their backs. At Fort Des Moines Field Day, June 17, there was a hot game between the one-armed and the one-legged team.”²


As we tune in to the Invictus Games, Fretwell’s comments resonate:

It is an expression of the desire of the American people to provide everything that is practicable in the way of reconstructive recreation for our sick and wounded soldiers, sailors, and marines — our own men who for their Country stood ready to give if necessary their last full measure of devotion.³

NARA is currently completing a large-scale project to digitize photographs and films from World War I, including these photographs from 165-WW, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918. Check back soon for updates on this project.


1. Fretwell, Elbert K. “Recreation in Hospitals.” Carry On: A Magazine on the Reconstruction of Disabled Soldiers and Sailors. June 1918-July 1919.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

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