'Over Here,' Athletes Gave to WWI Effort

March 28, 2018

By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half

In a nation at war, the needs of many outweigh the desires of a few.

Among the many noble sacrifices for the greater good was Michigan’s spring high school sports season of 1918.

The United States’ entry into “The Great War” (today commonly known as World War I) came on April 6, 1917, 2½ years after the war had begun. First elected President of the United States in 1912, Woodrow Wilson earned re-election in 1916 under a platform to keep the U.S. out of the war in Europe. The sinking of the British passenger ships Arabic and Lusitania in 1915 caused the death of 131 America citizens, but did not invoke entry into the conflict. However, continued aggressive German actions forced a reversal in policy.

“The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind,” stated Wilson in an April 2 special session of Congress, in requesting action to enter the war.

A huge baseball fan, President Wilson recognized the value of entertainment and athletics during a time of crisis. Major league baseball, America’s pastime, completed a full schedule in 1917. A former president at Princeton University, on May 21, 1917, Wilson addressed the value of school athletics in a letter to the New York Evening Post.

“I would be sincerely sorry to see the men and boys in our colleges and schools give up their athletic sports and I hope most sincerely that the normal courses of college sports will be continued so far as possible, not only to afford a diversion to the American people in the days to come when we shall no doubt have our share of mental depression, but as a real contribution to the national defense. Our young men must be made physically fit in order that later they may take the place of those who are now of military age and exhibit the vigor and alertness which we are proud to believe to be characteristic of our young men.”

Despite the highest of hopes, the requirements and realities of war deeply impacted life in the U.S. soon after.

In February of 1918, a proposal was circulated by Dr. John Remsen Bishop, principal of Detroit Eastern High School and president of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Association, to abolish spring athletics at Michigan high schools. Due to a labor shortage brought on by the war, the states, including Michigan, needed help on farms, harvesting crops from spring until late fall. The action might also affect the football season of 1918.

The Boys’ Working Reserve, a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, was organized in the spring of 1917 and designed to tap into an underutilized resource to help address that labor deficiency. “Its object was the organization of the boy-power of the nation for work on the farms during the school vacation months.”

While the idea was popular among schools around Detroit, due to the lack of public commentary from outstate school administration, it was expected that the proposal would meet at least some opposition when the M.I.A.A. gathered on Thursday, March 28 in Ann Arbor during a meeting of the state’s Schoolmasters Club.

Less than two weeks prior to the March meeting, Michigan Agricultural College made an announcement that would impact one aspect of the coming spring sports season.

“The department of athletics of the Michigan Agricultural College begs to inform the high schools of the state that plans for the annual interscholastic track meet, which was to have been conducted here in June, have been given up this year – not through any desire on the part of this department to discourage athletics, but because this is a time when we can and should devote our resources to better uses,” said coach Chester L. Brewer of the Aggies to the Lansing State Journal. “It would hardly be sound judgment for us to make our usual elaborate plans for this meet while our government is appealing to all of us to economize and exercise the utmost thrift. Neither is it wise policy to encourage unnecessary traveling upon the railroads, or to ask high schools of the state to make any expenditures other than those which are absolutely necessary.”

Earlier in the year, similar news had come from the University of Michigan.

In January of 1917, the University of Michigan had announced plans for an elaborate annual high school basketball invitational, designed to identify a Class A state champion. Billed as the “First Annual Interscholastic Basket Ball Tournament,” the March event hosted 38 teams. However, influenced by the war, a decision had been made not to run a second tournament in 1918. Instead, on March 27, Kalamazoo Central and Detroit Central, two of the state’s top teams, were invited to Ann Arbor for a hastily arranged contest at U-M’s Waterman Gymnasium. The schools had split a two-game series during the regular season. Kalamazoo won the season’s third matchup, and while not official, declared itself 1918 Michigan state champion.

Into this environment of patriotism and uncertainty, school administrators arrived in Ann Arbor for the Schoolmasters gathering. There, in the morning, the membership heard a presentation from H. W. Wells, assistant and first director of the Boys’ Working Reserve. “The heart of the nation, rather than the hearts of the nation, is beginning to beat. War is making us a unit,” said Wells, discussing the aim to recruit boys between the ages of 16 and 21 to help provide food for the allies in Europe and at home in the United States.

“Wells told of the need for the farmers to sow more wheat, and plant more corn,” reported the Ann Arbor News, “and in the same breath he told of great corn fields all over the country, where last year’s corn still lay unhusked, because of a lack of farm labor.”

It was estimated that 25 percent of the nation’s farm workforce was now active in the armed forces.

The proposition was brought to the M.I.A.A. by Lewis L. Forsythe, principal at Ann Arbor High School, who would soon establish himself as a guiding force in high school athletics. The proposal “was discussed thoroughly.”

“This session is usually a stormy one, because of contentions that arise over rulings that affect schools in different ways,” said Adrian superintendent Carl H. Griffey to the Adrian Daily Telegram, “but this meeting was a serious one in which all matters were related to our national welfare and passed by unanimous votes.”

So, one day after the conclusion of the abbreviated state basketball championship contest, the spring prep sports season in Michigan came to an abrupt halt. Michigan’s male high school students were asked to work to support the war effort.

“Chances are that they will remain there for the duration of the war,” stated the Lansing State Journal in response to the action. “At the meeting … it was talked of quitting football because of the need of the boys staying on the farms till the latter part of November. This is highly probable. If it is passed upon then Michigan high schools will have but one sport, basketball.

“Whether intra-mural sports will replace the representative teams is not known. This form of athletics demands the attention of a great number of teachers to tutor the different class organizations. The teachers are taxed to the limit at present and cannot give the time to sports. Organizing farm classes and Liberty bond teams is taking the teacher’s spare moments. … But still athletics are needed, as the war has demonstrated, and physical training should be instituted from the kindergarten to the university.“

“Those lads who leave for the farms the first of May,” wrote the Port Huron Times-Herald, “will be in better condition when they return home from the fields and cow lanes than they would (have) had they remained in the city until June batting the leather pill.”

The fate of the 1918 football season would not be known until late August.

In late June, the 29th Governor of Michigan, Albert E. Sleeper, thanked the estimated 8,000 students who had joined the ranks.

“To you soldiers of the soil I would say this, that I am as proud to address you as I would be to address any of the boys who are bearing arms for their country. You have proved that you are true patriots, for you have started out to do exactly what your country has asked you to do – the thing which you can do best for your country at this time.

“Every day, in the rush of official work, I think of you Reservists as you work on the farms, just as I think of our soldiers who are in training camps or ‘over there.’ And I am just as proud of you as I am of them. So are all the people of Michigan.”

It was estimated “the boys who last spring left their high school studies and as members of the United States Boys’ Reserve have helped the Michigan division to add $7,000,000 to the food production of the nation.”

In September, Byron J. Rivett, secretary of the M.I.A.A., announced that, based on a vote of member high schools, prep sports would be resumed in the fall. The Detroit News celebrated the news that “moleskins and pigskins will be in evidence and the grand old game will be a part of the autumn’s entertainment.”

In October, in Grand Rapids and Detroit and other cities across the state, officials gathered to honor those who served as part of the “Michigan Division of the Reserve” and to award bronze badges in recognition for their contribution to the war effort.

World War I officially ended on November 11 with the signing of the armistice. Armistice Day, today known as Veteran’s Day, was first celebrated in 1919. In total, an estimated 16 million were killed during the war.

“Four million ‘Doughboys’ had served in the United States Army with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Half of those participated overseas,” said Mitchell Yockelson in Prologue magazine, a publication of the National Archive. “Although the United States participated in the conflict for less than two years, it was a costly event. More than 100,000 Americans lost their lives during this period.”

More than 5,000 of those casualties had come from Michigan.


To the surprise of the world, a second war arrived in 1918. This one did not discriminate based on geographic or political borders. It would take more lives than World War I.

Globally, the Spanish Flu pandemic arrived in three waves, one in the spring, one in the fall of 1918, and a third arriving in the winter of 1919 and ending in the spring. It, too, would impact high school and college athletics in Michigan and beyond, as countless football games across the nation were cancelled in an attempt to help reduce the spread of the disease.

In the end, an estimated 675,000 would die in the United States from the virus. In Michigan, hundreds succumbed in October 1918 alone. In Detroit, between the beginning of October and the end of November, “there were 18,066 cases of influenza reported to Detroit’s Department of Health. Of these, 1,688 died from influenza or its complications.” Worldwide, an estimated 50 million were killed by the Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919.

Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.

PHOTOS: (Top) The U.S. Department of Labor recruited high school students to work on farms as soldiers went oversees to fight World War I. (Middle top) A Working Reserve badge. (Middle) Lewis L. Forsythe. (Below) Another recruitment poster for the Working Reserve shows a man plowing a field while war rages in the background. (Photos collected by Ron Pesch.)

Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

May 24, 2023

Kenna Bommarito remembers how many people were in East Lansing a year ago to support her and her Algonac softball teammates at the Division 3 Semifinals.

Bay & ThumbSo, she has an idea of how many people from the town would show up if both the softball and baseball teams were there this time around.

“I think everyone would be,” the junior pitcher said.

There’s a decent possibility that Bommarito’s theory could be tested. The Muskrats softball team is ranked No. 2 in Division 3, and Tuesday night clinched the first Blue Water Area Conference title in program history.

That came one night after the baseball team – ranked No. 1 in Division 3 – also won its first BWAC title. The BWAC was created in 2002, and Algonac was an original member.

“It’s amazing – this town loves it,” said senior baseball player Tyler Schultz. “We’ve got a small community, and everybody is tagging along. I remember last year, a couple of our final postseason games, that was the most people I’ve ever seen at a game. All of the sports here are starting to build up. We have athletes all around the school. I think as time goes on, I think each sport will get better and better.”

Bommarito’s imagined scenario nearly played out a year ago, as both teams made their deepest postseason run.

While the softball team was making its historic run to the Semifinal, the baseball team was making one of its own, advancing to the Quarterfinal for the first time in program history.

Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in.The baseball team’s movement toward this started with the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when the Muskrats won back-to-back District titles.

“We had a couple DI (college) players, and when you have those players come through, it generates excitement through the youth,” said Algonac baseball coach Scott Thaler, who took over the program in 2017. “It’s been a trickle-down effect from that initial first two years. That really set the bar. We’ve had some really good baseball players come through, and I have a great staff.”

Thaler had stressed back then that he wanted to build a program at Algonac and not have it be a flash in the pan. That certainly looks like it’s happening, and not just because his Muskrats are winning and sitting atop the state rankings.

Algonac – which has fewer than 500 students in the entire school – has junior varsity and freshman baseball teams. Thaler also said there are 25 eighth graders coming into the program next year.

“I think that when I was smaller in little league, we didn’t really have that where we went out on the field with the varsity players,” said junior pitcher Josh Kasner. “Now, that’s gotten a lot better. A lot of the smaller kids we see around town, they know who we are and about (the program).”

Of course, talent wasn’t enough to get there. Thaler needed to instill belief in his team in order to help the younger generation see what was possible.

“I was a (football assistant) coach under Scott Barnhart, and one of the things we preached to the kids back then is ‘To believe in the things you haven’t seen before,’” Thaler said. “That’s the mantra we brought to them last year, ‘Why not us?’ Just because it hasn’t happened before here doesn’t mean you can’t believe in that. We had to get them to believe.”

The Quarterfinal run provided proof beyond the belief for the Muskrats, and then the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association added to it all, naming Algonac the preseason No. 1 team in Division 3.

Luckily for Thaler, his team took it in stride.

The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield.“I mean, it was a great feeling, but part of me had some doubts,” Schultz said “We’ve got some younger kids on the team, and I thought that maybe they might look at that and might get complacent, but me and some of the other seniors have done a good job of keeping all of these guys looking forward. We’ve still got one goal, and that’s to finish (with a Finals title).”

While the softball team didn’t enter the season with a No. 1 ranking, the expectations were certainly there, as was a new target on its back.

But bigger than both was motivation following a walk-off loss to Millington in the Semifinal.

“I think it just shows us that in those big games with those types of teams, you can never say never,” said first-year softball coach Natalie Heim, who was an assistant on last year’s team. “You really have to bear down. That Millington team that beat us, they fought hard. But I definitely think it fuels us more to get back.”

The softball program’s rise may have seemed more sudden to those on the outside, but senior Ella Stephenson said it had been bubbling for a while.

“My sophomore year, we had some talent for sure,” she said. “We had a really good season, but not as good as junior and senior year. The class above me was really talented. But they kind of turned the program around in my eighth-grade year, and it kind of kept building from there.”

During Stephenson’s sophomore season, the Muskrats lost a tough District game against Richmond, which went on to win the Division 3 Finals title. Not only are the Blue Devils a common early postseason opponent for the Muskrats, they’re also a conference rival. As is Almont. And Croswell-Lexington. And … It’s a brutal conference.

The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo.So, much like the baseball team, even during the softball team’s historic 2022 season, winning the conference this spring proved to be tougher than making a deep postseason run.

That made Tuesday night’s sweep of North Branch to clinch the BWAC that much sweeter.

“Honestly, it’s a rush of just happiness,” Bommarito said. “We’re all so excited and just can’t believe we did it. We just played game-by-game today, and really took it one pitch, one out at a time.”

Not only has the BWAC prepared the Muskrats for the possibility of another deep postseason run, it helped keep them focused throughout the season.

“I think a lot of teams don’t have that luxury of facing the best competition during the season,” Heim said. “I think it keeps (the Muskrats) not looking too far ahead. We try to have that approach of one game at a time, one inning at a time, one pitch at a time. It helps with having goals that are a little tougher to achieve. Winning our league, it’s tough. It’s not an easy feat. Especially after last year’s success, it would have been easy to look ahead.”

Now, with league titles secured, both teams can focus on their ultimate goals and the postseason that is directly in front of them.

All with the hope that their similarities – on top of the league titles, both teams are 29-2 as of Wednesday, and both have a University of Michigan-bound player (Kasner and Stephenson) – continue through the third weekend of June with matching trips to East Lansing.

“That’d be unreal. That would be so cool,” Stephenson said. “We all have really good friendships on the baseball and softball teams. Our records are identical. We both won our conference. It’s just really cool. I’m really happy for their success, and ours, too.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Algonac pitcher Kenna Bommarito makes her move toward the plate during last season’s Division 3 Semifinal against Millington. (2) Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in. (3) The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield. (4) The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo. (Baseball photos and softball team photo courtesy of the Algonac athletic department.)