This Never Happened:The Mystery Behind the Death of Christy Mathewson
History tells us that baseball legends Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb volunteered as Captains in the World War I Chemical Warfare Service. After the 1918 baseball season ended, both shipped out for France where they were exposed to poison gas during a training exercise. Mathewson got by far the worst of it, and died just a few years later, in 1925, of tuberculosis that was brought on by his exposure.
History has it wrong.
The year was 1918. The country was at war, and Baseball was under pressure to support the war effort. The year before, teams had begun various activities, including players performing close-order drills, often using bats as their rifles, to demonstrate the patriotism of the National Pasttime. By the summer of 1918, however, that was not enough. More men were needed for military service than were volunteering. So in June of that year. Secretary of War Newton Baker instituted a draft. But he granted an exemption to major league baseball players.
It took about a month for that exemption to become politically untenable. Why, the public wondered, should these able-bodied athletes not be expected to serve like everyone else? In July, Secretary Baker withdrew the exemption. From that point forward, players were offered the choice of taking jobs in war-related industries or joining the military. Many opted for the first of these, and of those a large number ended up being employed primarily to play in the then-extensive industrial baseball leagues. Many others joined the service.
The Army faced a particular challenge in recruiting soldiers to serve in the newly created Chemical Warfare Service, popularly known as the Gas and Flame Division. So dire was the need, that the commanding general of the service, William Sibert, called together the most influential Washington journalists of the day to announce his plan to enroll prominent baseball players and other athletes in the unit to serve as role models to improve recruitment. Working through Percy Haughton, the retired head football coach at Harvard University who had recently become part owner of the Boston Braves baseball team, and Branch Rickey, who was in between front-office jobs in St. Louis, both of whom he appointed to the rank of Major, Sibert recruited both Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson to the Chemical Warfare Service. According to the delivered history, both joined up in the fall of 1918, were assigned the rank of Captain, and shipped off to France for training. It was during that training, we are told, that the exposure to poison gas occurred. But some recently rediscovered military papers suggest the true story is quite different.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in writing long-form fiction. Time after time, I would come up with a great title or a great first line or a great plot, only to see the project fizzle by about page three. I had about given up.
Then, one night in 2018, I was zoning out in front of a rerun of an old episode of Antiques Roadshow on PBS when an assortment of military papers from a WWI National Guard camp in Georgia appeared. Those papers seemed to place a group of exceptionally prominent baseball players, most of whom would be inducted into the Hall of Fame beginning with its inception almost two decades later, together in this training facility. As someone with a longstanding interest in propaganda and strategic communication, that got my attention. Still, it wasn't until a few days later that I fully realized the significance of the papers. Those players weren't supposed to be there. Because those who were still active in the game were also showing up in official box scores. They were somehow appearing in Major League games and training in Georgia, both at the very same time. And two of them, Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb, were said not to have joined the military until three or four months later, both at more advanced ranks than were indicated.
The more I looked into this, the stranger it became. And the stranger it became, the more I wanted to look into it. The quest took me to Augusta and to Cooperstown, it carried me to some obscure corners of the Internet, and it introduced me to many new friends, as I tried to imagine how all of these competing facts could coexist with one another. In the end, I must confess, the resulting novel, This Never Happened, all but wrote itself.
It has been my good fortune to benefit from the work of two especially talented illustrators in the production of This Never Happened. The renderings of the several documents that drive the story are the work of John Payne, a friend and Baltimore artist known for his lifelike illustrations. The cover design for the book is the work of another gifted artist, one especially known for his baseball-related illustrations, Gary Cieradkowski.
Gary has written a lengthy blog post about how he developed the cover design for This Never Happened. It offers some thoughtful insight into his approach to the book, and a fascinating window on his design philosophy in general.
Cooperstown: The Collection
More Great Baseball Novels Are on the Way
Like many readers, I spent much of 2020-2021 locked down at home. I used the time to write three more baseball novels, and to start a fourth. And what began as a serendipitous encounter with a couple of intriguing old WWI documents has resulted in an emerging series of interrelated stories that explore the deepest and darkest recesses of the National Pasttime that you, or at least I, can imagine.
Okay, so you've already read This Never Happened, and you, like Adam Wallace, think you know the whole story? All I can say is this: Like Adam, you might be surprised. So be ready to follow Adam's further adventures, to meet some new and interesting characters, to see Cooperstown (site of much of the action) from some new perspectives, and to come face-to-face with a sophisticated and truly evil villain. I'd love to tell you more, but none of these books has a publisher yet, so please join me in being patient. This may take a while. In the meantime, sign up for my Mailing List at the bottom of the Home Page and you'll be among the first to know.
Thank you so much.