The Gas and Flame Men by Jim Leeke: 3.5***

It’s just a few days before the start of the 2024 baseball season, and if you are like me, you enjoy reading a book about the National Pastime. Unfortunately, so many of these books deal with five or six teams, You know who they are: Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Giants, and Red Sox. They predominate the bookstores and media reviews. So when this book crossed my desk, I was intrigued. A story about baseball, and World War I, a story about members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, who served in Europe, and not just in Europe, or part of the chemical warfare service. This is a something you don’t usually read about. It’s a good story. And it details the history of seven baseball players or executives who served in the AEF. Granted there many other people who served in the war in that branch of the army, but Jim Leek is a baseball historian. A member of the beloved baseball research group known as SABR he specializes in digging deep into many aspects of the game and its players that have gone either unnoticed or forgotten. And he hit upon a winning formula here as we learn about these players, but also about chemical warfare and history.

If you’re looking for scintillating prose, you’re not going to get it in this book, but instead, you’re going to get very good information about people such as Eppa Rixey, who was a chemistry major in college before he began his professional career, and who eventually became part of the chemical warfare service. You read about the attempts to get Christy Mathewson to represent the YMCA in France to lift the spirits of the troops, Instead, he eventually goes over to France and is a member of this chemical warfare service, as a matter fact, is one of the people who trained our troops to how to survive chemical warfare. Also, there is Thai Cobb, who is happy to be drafted and wanted to go to Europe to fight. Baseball executive Branch Rickey is also part of the contingent, as is former baseball manager and broadcaster Gabby Street. It’s an interesting book filled with facts about the war, information on the chemical warfare service that I had no idea about until I read this book, and some fascinating insights as to these ballplayers and others, The book may not be about those well publicized, baseball teams that saturate the market, but instead, you read about real human beings, who lived in a different time, and when the time came to serve their country, they were there on the front lines in Europe, in one of the most dangerous jobs you could undertake.

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