100 years ago, baseball star Hank Gowdy returned to Columbus from the war
By KEN GORDON | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: May 10, 2019
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Growing up, Pat Bonaventura had no idea that his Uncle Harry was a celebrity.
From the photos on the walls of Harry's house in Clintonville, he knew his great-uncle had played professional baseball and served in the Army. But Bonaventura knew him more as a good guy who would occasionally take him to Columbus Jets minor-league baseball games.
"He didn't talk a whole lot about the war or what he did," said Bonaventura, 75, an East Side resident. "To us, he was our uncle. He was no one famous. It wasn't until later that we realized he was a superstar."
One hundred years ago today, Harry Gowdy — commonly known as "Hank" — enjoyed a hero's homecoming from World War I, parading down High Street as part of the Army's 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division.
But that wasn't the first parade Columbus had thrown for Gowdy. That occurred in October 1914, when about 30,000 people celebrated their hometown boy as a World Series hero — the man who batted .545 to help the "Miracle" Boston Braves sweep the mighty Philadelphia Athletics.
It was later that Gowdy gained renown for being the first major-league ballplayer to volunteer for World War I and the only player to serve in both World War I and World War II, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
And yet, "It seemed like nobody ever heard of him," Bonaventura said. "How could he be from Columbus and so many people don't know anything about him?"
As Jim Tootle learned more about Gowdy, he wondered the same thing. Tootle, 75, is a Worthington resident and the author of "Baseball in Columbus." He hopes to write a book about Gowdy this year.
"It has been like peeling the onion," Tootle said of his research project. "What a fantastic story."
Gowdy was born in 1889 and graduated in 1908 from Columbus North High School. A strong-armed catcher, he first appeared in the Major Leagues in 1910 before sticking for good in 1914. That year, the Braves overcame a poor start — they were in last place in the National League halfway through the season — to unexpectedly make the World Series, where they were predicted to be cannon fodder for Philadelphia.
Gowdy was a star in the Series. He had six hits in 11 at bats and added five walks. His .545 average was a Series record at the time and remains tied for ninth today.
In 1917, America entered World War I, and Gowdy promptly enlisted. Tootle said many ballplayers at the time were hesitant to serve, particularly since Americans were well aware of the carnage in Europe.
"There were enormous casualty figures coming back and the (poison) gas and the terrible deaths," Tootle said. "But despite that, he volunteered."
In a September 1917 essay in Baseball Magazine, Gowdy explained his decision.
"I had no excuse as far as I could see, for not offering my services," he wrote. "I was of the proper age, well and strong. ... Somebody has got to fight and I don't see how I could consistently fail to do my share."
Gowdy and the Rainbow Division saw action in many of the worst battles of 1918.
After his return in 1919 and the May 10 parade, he rejoined the Braves. In 1923, Gowdy was traded to the New York Giants and played in two World Series with them, losing both. It was in the second of those Series, in 1924, that his error cost the Giants a possible championship. Gowdy dropped a foul pop in the decisive Game 7 when his foot got caught in his catcher's mask, which he had thrown off. The Washington Senators went on to score the winning run.
Rick Huhn, like Tootle a member of the Columbus chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, noted that despite the gaffe, the press did not vilify Gowdy.
"Gowdy was so popular and so beloved that they gave him more of a break," said Huhn, a Westerville resident who has written three books about baseball in Gowdy's era.
When Gowdy's playing career ended in 1930, he continued as a coach and scout. He was a coach with the Cincinnati Reds when World War II broke out.
In 1942, the 52-year-old Gowdy volunteered again for military service. Commissioned a captain, he was sent to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, where in 1925 the Army had named its baseball field Gowdy Field. Gowdy oversaw the Army's physical education program there.
After the war, he worked as youth director for the Columbus Jets, the forerunner to the Clippers. He had always returned home in the offseason, living quietly with his wife, Pauline. (They had no children).
In 1952, city officials named their youth recreation complex along the Olentangy River — where the local headquarters for Spectrum is today — "Gowdy Field."
Gowdy died in 1966 at age 76 and is buried in Union Cemetery.
Since then, his memory seems to have faded like the field that once bore his name.
In the mid-60s, Columbus stopped using Gowdy Field for games. It became a landfill before being cleaned up and developed. Today, signs at the site mention "Gowdy Field" as a tribute.
As Bonaventura learned more about his Uncle Harry, though, he felt Columbus needed more reminders of Gowdy's contributions. A longtime member of the Columbus Division of Fire — he retired in 2011 — Bonaventura in 2002 led the effort to rename the department's Station 25 on West 3rd Avenue "Gowdy Station."
Tootle said he hopes his upcoming book brings more attention to a hero of both the battlefield and ballfield.
"It's a wonderful story that needs to be told."
©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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