It’s root, root, root for the Veterans! A look at baseball’s role in early VA history - VA History Office
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It’s root, root, root for the Veterans! A look at baseball’s role in early VA history

Nurse at bat, 1925 Northampton VAMC.
Nurse at bat, 1925 Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC).

Throughout the history of Veterans health care, sports have always served as a means of rehabilitation and healing. While many sports and recreational activities have been incorporated into the fabric of Veterans hospitals, one sport stands out for its popularity and impact on Veterans - baseball.

On Opening Day, it is only fitting to reflect on the history and impact baseball has had on Veterans healing, while also revealing the role Veterans played in its expansion to become America’s pastime.

While baseball was a mostly regional sport in the 1850s, the Civil War propelled its progression into a national sport when both Union and Confederate soldiers began picking up and playing games in camps, during times of rest in between battles, and even in prisoner of war camps.

Veterans playing a game of baseball on hospital grounds, Northampton VA Medical Center (VAMC), circa 1925.
Veterans playing a game of baseball on hospital grounds, Northampton VAMC, circa 1925. 

As baseball’s popularity spread, military doctors encouraged the sport and believed the game provided physical and mental health benefits, boosted morale while providing a sense of comradery and teamwork.[1] After the war, this reasoning followed directly into the planning of the new National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers homes that were built  beginning in 1865.

These Soldiers Homes, the forerunner of today’s Veterans Health Administration, provided not only medical care to Veterans, but also served as domiciliary residences where they could live in a domestic setting and retain some aspects of their military life while enjoying recreation and amusements including baseball. Soldiers Homes also served as ideal locations for baseball diamonds as most were located in rural areas with large amounts of space that could be dedicated to playing.

Baseball spectator grandstand, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Marion, Indiana, 1916.
Baseball spectator grandstand, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Marion, Indiana, 1916. 

Funding for the construction of baseball diamonds started in the 1870s at the homes’ Eastern, Central, and Western branches among others, as baseball remained as popular with Veterans as it had been during the War.”.[2] Baseball became such a popular activity at the Homes that one report noted dinner hours at the dining hall at the Central Branch in Dayton, Ohio, needed to be adjusted to fit around baseball games that were held on Saturday afternoons.[3]

In addition to serving as an amusement, baseball at the Soldiers Homes contain the roots of occupational and recreational therapy at VA, long before those were recognized as therapies and professions within the medical community. Providing physical, social, and mental benefits for Veterans, a report from the 1870s notes that recreational activities like baseball, “tend to drive away dull care and keep the men in a pleasant and cheerful state of mind…contented and comparatively happy.”[4]

Coinciding with baseball’s rise in popularity around the country, baseball expanded its reach at Soldier’s Homes as well at the turn of the century. Grandstands were built at nearly every location to accommodate both Veterans and the general public, as spectators from nearby towns came to watch games played between the Veterans teams and other local and traveling teams.

The Dayton “Old Soldiers” began playing other local area teams beginning in 1897, as other Veteran teams emerged throughout the country under team names such as the “Veteran Hospital Baseball Club,” “Vets,” or the “Hospital Club.”[5] Local newspapers began regular reporting on season activities, scores, and game recaps. In Leavenworth, Kansas, the “Soldiers Homes Team” was reported as “One of the fastest growing semi-pro aggregations in this part of the country”[6]

Veterans Hospital Team, 1928 Northampton VAMC.
Veterans hospital team, 1928 Northampton VAMC.

Baseball remained a staple at Veterans hospitals well into the 20th century as baseball facilities across the network of Soldiers Homes, Veterans Bureau hospitals, and Veterans Administration hospitals were constructed, improved, and expanded. At its height, up to 60 games per year were played at some of the Homes and hospitals. [7]

In later years, baseball eventually became an integral part of the VA’s Adaptive Sports Program, as it joined a host of other rehabilitative recreation activities including golf, basketball, soccer, and even fishing. What started out as Civil War Veterans playing games between each other, evolved into to something larger as baseball became a valued asset of the Soldiers Homes and hospitals and helped baseball evolve into the national pastime that it is today.

Veterans Hospital Team, “Three Crowns Baseball” Des Moines Tribune August 27, 1930.
Veterans hospital team, “Three Crowns Baseball” Des Moines Tribune August 27, 1930.

By Katie Delacenserie, Historian, Veterans Health Administration

Note: This story was first posted on the VA Insider agency internal platform in April 2021.

[1] “Cricket in Camp” New York Clipper, May 9, 1863.

[2] National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Annual Report 1875.

[3] “Soldiers are Good Fans” Dayton Herald, April 9, 1910.

[4]  National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Annual Report 1875.

[5] “City Briefs” Leavenworth Evening Standard, July 26, 1900.; “First Season a Win for Soldiers” Lewiston Daily Sun, June 4, 1928; “Play Ball.” Out of the Box. Wright State University Archives. April 4, 2012. https://www.libraries.wright.edu/community/outofthebox/2012/04/04/play-ball/. Accessed March 22, 2021.

[6] “Opening of Home Season Postponed” Leavenworth Times, April 3, 1912.

[7] National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Annual Report 1926.

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