World War I touched every American life, from my great-great-grandfather to larger-than-life sports legends like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. I’m humbled to be descended from a man who — though he didn’t serve — stepped up to the plate when he was called. 

The United States entered World War I in 1917 and faced an issue: People stopped volunteering. So in 1918, at the height of World War I, the U.S. hit the American people with a curveball. They expanded the draft from all males ages 21-30 to 21-45. 

Using, I discovered that my great-great-grandfather, Ralph Palmer, wasn’t drafted in 1917. At 31, he narrowly missed the 21-30 cut. But when the U.S. expanded the range, Ralph filled out a draft card in 1918. The U.S. Military never called Ralph Palmer’s number, probably to the relief of his young family. He and his wife, Tillie, had two kids under age ten, one being my great-grandfather. Though Ralph didn’t get called to war, his draft card is a genealogical gold mine. 

Ralph Palmer’s — my great-great-grandfather — WWI Draft Card

It looks like I fell far from the Palmer tree. Ralph wrote that he was short (he was 5’5”), had brown eyes and dark brown hair; I am 6’1”, have green eyes, and light-brown hair.

I love sports and autographs, so his signature sparked an idea… Did baseball legends playing ball in the 1910s fill out draft cards? They sure did. 

Babe Ruth, born George Herman Ruth, arguably the greatest baseball player of all time, was just 23 when the U.S. entered WWI. He was playing his 4th season for the Boston Red Sox. On his draft card, he wrote just that: What is your present trade, occupation, or office? “Base Ball”. He listed his place of employment as Fenway Park! That sounds like a pretty sweet office to me. 

George Herman “Babe” Ruth’s WWI Draft Card
Close up of Babe Ruth’s Signature on his WWI Draft Card

Another top-five all-time professional baseball player, Ty Cobb, was in the middle of his 13th season in Detroit when the U.S. called for men. He called himself a “ball player” and he sure was, posting an unbreakable all-time career batting average of .357 that still stands today. 

Ty Cobb’s WWI Draft Card

Jack Palmer has done genealogy research since he was ten years old and loves writing about it for family, friends, and anybody else who might enjoy research stories and advice. He graduated from Duke University in May 2023, majoring in History and Psychology, and is the author of Helen & Frank: A Biography, a biography about his great-grandparents.

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