The War in Europe dominated headlines in 1918. On a road trip to Washington to face the Senators, Cobb visited the War Department, where he took his mandatory army physical and applied for the Chemical Warfare Service. Spurred by patriotism and the memory of his grandfather’s service in the Civil War hero, Cobb felt compelled to get into the fight. A few days later, while Detroit was in New York to play the Yankees, Cobb received word that he had been accepted into the Chemical Warfare Service. He was to report in October.
The Chemical Warfare Service had been organized by General John J. Pershing in response to several deadly poison gas attacks on American troops by the Germans. The attacks had generated considerable outrage, and the creation of the CWS was front-page news. The CWS was created to perfect methods to withstand poison-gas attacks, but more importantly (and controversially), it was charged with developing poisonous gas weapons to be used against the Germans in Europe. Other baseball figures who would also serve in the CWS included Christy Mathewson, Branch Rickey, and George Sisler.
Following the end of the 1918 season and a few weeks at his home in Georgia, Ty arrived in New York and reported for duty on October 1. He was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army, and after a relatively short time in accelerated training, he and his unit sailed for France. The Army hoped that Cobb and the other sports figures in the CWS would be effective in training enlisted men in the area of chemical and biological warfare. But according to Cobb, he ended up training “the darnedest bunch of culls the World War I Army ever grouped in one outfit.”
The training exercises in France, though they took place far behind the front lines, were extremely dangerous. Cobb would march his troops into an airtight chamber, where they were to quickly assemble their gas masks when they received a signal that the poison was about to filter into the room. However, on one occasion something went terribly wrong.
During one exercise, Cobb and his troops either missed or were slow to react to the signal and many of them stumbled from the chamber having inhaled the poison into their lungs. For weeks Cobb suffered with a hacking cough while a “colorless discharge” drained from his chest. Others were not so lucky – they died after the exposure. Christy Mathewson, the great National League hurler who also served in the CWS, inhaled so much of the gas while in France that he later developed tuberculosis. He died from the disease seven years later, in 1925.
Cobb had been in France less than a month when the war ended suddenly on November 11. The Allies, bolstered by the influx of American troops, had deflected the last German offensives and hurtled the aggressors back into the Rhine. When the Hindenberg Line was breached by the Allies, the Germans collapsed in disarray. Within a few weeks, Cobb was onboard the largest ship in the world – the U.S.S. Leviathan – one of the first transport ships back to the United States. Cornered by newsmen in New York upon his arrival, Cobb spoke modestly of his brief foray as a soldier.
Greenberg was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956 in his 10th round on the ballot. In 1983 the Tigers retired his #5 jersey along with Charlie Gheringer’s #2 on June 12. The two were the first players to ever have their numbers retired by the Tigers.