In the World Series of 1918, the Military Flyover Was Done by Pigeons

Tweets before tweets: Soldiers' 'winged comrades' delivered inning-by-inning updates of the games.

A newspaper summary of the baseball pigeons, 1918 ( Boston Globe via Yoni Appelbaum)

The 1918 World Series , the Boston Red Sox versus the Chicago Cubs, was notable for several reasons. It was played, for one thing, as World War I raged, and was, as a result of a battle-shortened ball season, the only Series to be played entirely in September. It featured an up-and-coming young slugger named George Herman Ruth. It remains, despite this, the last Series ever to be played without the scoring of a single home run.

Red Sox fans—particularly those who were also soldiers, stationed 40 miles away from Boston at Camp Devens —were eager for news of the Series' games. And when you're eager for news, you generally want that news to be as up-to-the-minute as possible. But television, at that point, had yet to be commercialized. Same with radio. Newspapers were plentiful, but slow.

You know what communications method was fast and reliable, though? Pigeons. Homing pigeons that doubled as carrier pigeons.

A German camera pigeon from World War I (Wikimedia Commons)

In an article about the Sox-involving Series of 2013, the Wall Street Journal 's Brian Costa offers a reminder of the birds that acted , in their appropriately avian way, as precursors to Twitter's instant updates. "The last time the Boston Red Sox clinched a championship at Fenway Park," Costa notes, "they used carrier pigeons to deliver inning-by-inning updates to soldiers at a fort 40 miles away." Handlers attached updates to the legs of their little fliers, and the birds, in turn, flew "home" to Devens, delivering the updates. (The flight took about 40 minutes, generally, unless—as described in the Boston Daily Globe clip above—the animal took an accidental detour on the way back to the base.)

And yet. The pigeons' flight, it turns out, was more of a performance than a pressing necessity. It was, says Yoni Appelbaum , a historian and an Atlantic contributor, essentially a display of military capability: PR via pigeon. Homing pigeons may have been indispensable in the theater—acting as, like a 1918 Boston Daily Globe article put it, "the last resort when all other means of sending messages have failed." But Camp Devens was not a war zone. Far from it. As Appelbaum told me in an email:

Devens was, for all intents and purposes, a city. The population of the Camp peaked at more than 50,000, and more than 200,000 doughboys passed through its gates. It had its own post office, its own telegraph office, even its own telephone exchange. If officers wanted a score from Fenway, all they had to do was pick up the phone and ask.

So the Army wasn't sending dispatches to Devens by carrier pigeon because it needed winged couriers to reach some remote outpost in a timely fashion. This was a flyover, just like its modern-day equivalents, staged for the purposes of publicity.

Indeed. The World Series of 1918 coincided with the waning days of World War I. (The war would end, officially, on November 11, just over a month after the Series was played.) And stories of pigeonic valor—eager soldiers, trusty birds—seemed tailor-made for a war-weary public. "Few people appreciate the importance of this branch of the signal service," the Globe article would declare, going on to describe the birds' "intelligence, their courage, their wonderful strength and endurance." The story would note that war pigeons—"winged comrades" both "valued and faithful"—are "a vital factor in the war."

Which, if you substitute birds for military fliers of a more mechanical variety, isn't that different from stunts you might witness during our own war-weary age. "The first game of the 2013 World Series began with a military flyover," Appelbaum notes.

A formation of F/A-18 Hornets rumbled low over the Fenway Park, displaying for the assembled crowd the technological sophistication of the American military. The 1918 World Series was also played in Boston, after a war-shortened season. It, too, featured a military unit flying low over the stadium, to impress the crowd with the strength and sophistication of the military. Only in 1918, it wasn't fighter jets. It was pigeons.

Via Yoni Applebaum and the Wall Street Journal