This article was written by Terry Bohn
Adam DeBus was one of many “cup of coffee” major leaguers, spending about six weeks with the 1917 Pittsburgh Pirates. By all accounts he was a marginal player, having played only 2½ previous seasons of professional baseball at the Class C level. His opportunity in the big leagues was probably due more to wartime manpower shortages than to any promise or potential shown by the light-hitting infielder. However, DeBus left his small mark on the game. He was one of the men responsible for introducing baseball to the people of France while serving in the US Army during and after World War I.1
Whether serving in the United States or overseas, thousands of doughboys, as the American servicemen were called then, played baseball. DeBus enlisted in the Army on April 29, 1918, and at first remained stateside, playing baseball throughout that summer for the Camp Grant team in Rockford, Illinois. After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, he was shipped to France as part of the postwar occupation force. There, DeBus was the captain of the Blackhawks, a team that won the championship of the Inter-Allied games in July 1919. The Americans defeated a Canadian team (the only other Allied country to field a baseball team) three out of four games. Shortly thereafter, DeBus was shipped home and discharged from the Army.
Few French had ever seen a baseball game before, and those in attendance at Pershing Stadium in Paris looked on the game played by the American soldiers as a curiosity. Attempts to teach the game to the French proved futile. The Americans commented that the French caught the ball “girl fashion” and, although they were fast runners, could not throw overhand (the American doughboys’ proficiency at throwing hand grenades was credited to their experience playing baseball in their youth.)2 An officer in the Chemical Warfare Service who knew a thing or two about baseball, Captain Christy Mathewson , was quoted as saying, “The French will never take up baseball in a hundred years.”3
The United States was determined to introduce baseball to France, and through a program sponsored by the YMCA sent Bill Friel, a former big leaguer with the St. Louis Browns, overseas to head up the effort. Friel quickly realized that the best strategy was not to try to teach baseball to French men, but to focus on the youth of the country. When boys were given baseballs, at first they started kicking them, much as they would a soccer ball. But within a short time it was reported, “(M)any of the youngsters have taken up the game, and there are several amateur baseball nines playing the game in Paris.”4 Even so, optimism about long-term success was guarded. The same newspaper article went on the say, “If baseball ever does gain a foothold in France, its popularity will not be apparent in this generation.”
Adam Joseph DeBus, Jr. was born on October 7, 1892, in Chicago. His parents, Adam Sr. and Josephine (Thein), emigrated from Bavaria, Germany, in 1878 and 1882, respectively. The senior DeBus worked as a cook in Chicago. Adam Jr. was an only child and grew up speaking German exclusively in the DeBus household.
DeBus got his start playing with an amateur Knights of Columbus team in Chicago, and by 1913 was playing for a “fast” semipro team called the Magnets. He made his professional debut in 1914 with Green Bay of the Class C Wisconsin-Illinois League. He hit .234 in 108 games, all at shortstop. After the season he signed a Green Bay contract for 1915, but over the winter the league disbanded. Efforts to establish a six-team Wisconsin-Michigan League in 1915, which was to include the Green Bay club, failed.
DeBus was rumored to have played with the Buffalo Federal League team in 1915, but instead joined a semipro club in Racine, Wisconsin. The next year he was back in Organized Ball, starting the 1916 season with Fort William, Ontario, in the Northern League. After the club disbanded early in the season, DeBus was snatched up by the Fargo-Moorhead Graingrowers of the same league for the balance of the season. DeBus, the team’s regular shortstop, had a strong season, batting .284 in 100 games.
He re-signed with Fargo-Moorhead for 1917, but due to the war the league disbanded in early July. No individual records were ever published for that season, but a review of box scores indicated that DeBus played in 50 games for Fargo and batted .335. Among his 63 hits (in 188 at-bats) were 19 doubles, three triples and seven home runs. On July 3 he was purchased by St. Louis of the National League on the recommendation of scout Eddie Herr, who “has been watching DeBus all season.”5 He returned home to Chicago for a few days, but before reporting to the Cardinals he was released and claimed off waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization on July 11.
DeBus made his major-league debut in the second game of a doubleheader on July 14, 1917, against the Brooklyn Robins in Ebbets Field. He went hitless against pitcher Rube Marquard. He collected his first major-league hit three days later against the Boston Braves. On July 18 the Boston Herald wrote, “This Adam DeBus lad, who plays third base for the Pirates, has the earmarks of a comer. …” On July 20 the Pittsburgh Press wrote that DeBus was a “better than ordinary hitter” and that he could “field with the best of them.” In August it was reported that Pittsburgh manager Hugo Bezdek was pleased with the services of DeBus.6 On August 22, he played in what was at the time the longest game in National League history, a 22-inning Pirate loss to Brooklyn.
DeBus’s final major-league appearance came on September 1, 1917, against the St. Louis Cardinals. For the season with the Pirates, he batted .229 in 38 games with nine runs scored, 30 hits, five doubles, four triples, and no home runs. He had seven runs batted in, and two stolen bases. He played 21 games at shortstop and 18 games at third base, committing 19 errors in 182 total chances for an .890 fielding percentage. The defensive shortcomings of the normally sure-fielding infielder were alluded to by Baseball Magazine in its September, 1917 issue: “So far, young Mr. DeBus is hitting well and fielding nervously.”
DeBus was one of several players given a trial by Pittsburgh at shortstop as the aging Honus Wagner was being moved to first base. Despite his initial success in impressing his manager, by the end of the season the Pittsburgh Press wrote that DeBus “[had] probably donned a Pirate uniform for the last time.”7 On November 11 the Pirates released DeBus to Birmingham of the Southern Association. However, expecting to be drafted at any time, he enlisted in the Army (Many Americans of German ancestry, like DeBus, were quick to enlist as a means of demonstrating their loyalty.)
By the tine DeBus was discharged in August 1919, most of the ballplayers returning from military service had rejoined their teams. Most professional teams had their rosters in place by this point of the season, and no team in Organized Baseball made an offer to DeBus. He returned to his parents’ home in Chicago and began working as a dispatcher with an electrical company.
DeBus continued to play baseball, hooking up with one of the top semipro teams in Chicago, the Pyotts. In 1920 the Pyotts played a game against the Staleys of Decatur, Illinois. DeBus was the Pyotts’ shortstop and his counterpart on the Staleys was one George Halas, who would go on to have some success coaching another sport. In a later game, also against the Staleys, DeBus faced future Hall of Fame pitcher Iron Man McGinnity. The Pyotts also regularly played against some of the top Negro teams in Chicago including the Lelands and Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants.
DeBus was a member of the Old Timers Baseball Association of Chicago, and in 1924 a day was named in honor of “Adam DeBus, who captained the team that won the army championship in France, receiving the medals from General Pershing.”8 Another newspaper story at the same time said, “Mr. Adam DeBus, the Chicago baseball player who introduced the game into France, and was honored by General Pershing, will take a prominent part.”9
DeBus continued to play for the Pyotts until at least 1925, and there is a report of him playing for a team in Beloit, Wisconsin, as late as 1927. By this time he was well over 40 years old, and reduced speed and quickness necessitated a move to the outfield from his familiar shortstop position. By 1930 DeBus was still employed in the electrical field, now an office worker in an automobile company. He was single and living with his parents in Chicago, but had retired from baseball
By 1940 Adam’s parents had died. He was living at the YMCA in Chicago, working as a file clerk with a tool and die manufacturer. Two years later, was back in the electrical field, working for Stewart-Warner, a manufacturer of electrical automotive parts. On June 19, 1942, now nearly 50 years old, Adam married Florence McDonough in Chicago. In 1951 he was the guest of honor at the Knights of Columbus Old Timers Sports dinner in Chicago.
Adam and Florence continued to live in Chicago until he died on May 13, 1977, at the age of 84. He was buried in St. Boniface Cemetery in Chicago. Florence died in 1993.
1 Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, July 18, 1924.
2 New York Times, July 22, 1917.
3 Pawtucket (Rhode Island) Times, February 19, 1919.
4 Baltimore American, June 6, 1919.
5 Fargo (North Dakota) Forum & Daily Republican, July 3, 1917.
6 Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, August 8, 1917.
7 Pittsburgh Press, October 7, 1917.
8 Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, July 18, 1924.
9 Chicago Suburbanite Economist, June 24, 1924.