Display on WWI-era sports figures installed in Museum and Memorial


James Naismith, Bella Reay and Spottswood "Spot" Poles aren't necessarily household names in 2023. But they were each influential in their respective sports (basketball, soccer and baseball), and they each served in some way in World War I.

Born in Canada in 1861, James Naismith was an accomplished athlete and gifted teacher with degrees in physical education, theology and medicine. Naismith believed in the importance of developing both a healthy body and spirit, inspiring him to invent a game “fair for all players, and free of rough play” – basketball. When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, he went to work as a volunteer chaplain for the Y.M.C.A.

Bella Reay worked in the British munitions factories during WWI, where many of her fellow women workers formed soccer teams. Reay played as center forward for the Blyth Spartans, a soccer team based out of Northumberland, England. Between 1917 and 1918, Reay scored an impressive 133 goals in 30 matches, averaging over four goals per match. At the time, most soccer matches averaged just over three goals.

Born in Winchester, Virginia on Dec. 9, 1887, Spottswood Poles fell in love with baseball at an early age. By 1914, he'd achieved a career high batting average of .487, nearly double the .251 national average at the time. When the U.S. entered WWI, Poles took a hiatus from baseball to join the military, serving with the 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division – known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He earned five battlefield star decorations and a Purple Heart.

Want to learn more? Full biographies and photos are on view in the main corridor of the National WWI Museum and Memorial. Plan your visit today.

Three vintage photographs, left to right: A woman in a green-striped jersey standing in a field with her right foot on a soccer ball. A black man in a baseball uniform swinging a bat. A white man with a mustache in a suit holding a basketball.