In the summer of 1890, the military history of Wisconsin turned — or perhaps spun like a curveball — on a baseball field in Ashland County.
That year, Robert Bruce McCoy LLB1891 considered dropping out of college to pursue a career on the diamond. He left UW–Madison to head to the far north to play for a semiprofessional team to see how far his athletic skills might take him.
At the end of the summer, they took him right back to Madison, to law school, and eventually to the legal and military career that made him one of the most decorated leaders of Wisconsin’s National Guard.
Born in Kenosha, McCoy grew up in Lafayette and Sparta, Wisconsin, where he showed himself to be a leader, particularly on his high school baseball team. He entered UW–Madison in 1887 and played for the Badgers while studying law. After his brief flirtation with pro ball, he became a lawyer and then, in 1897, a judge. And then he decided to trade uniforms, giving up his Badger red for khaki — and service in the Wisconsin National Guard.
McCoy performed active duty during the Spanish-American War and on the Mexican border. When the U.S. entered World War I, he was promoted to colonel and commanded the 128th Infantry Regiment in France, where he earned the Distinguished Service Medal for his leadership in combat.
Robert McCoy traded uniforms, giving up Badger red for khaki.
“During the Oise-Aisne offensive he skillfully handled the delicate maneuver of straightening and changing the front on the left bank of his brigade during the attack on Terny-Sorny and later during the Meuse-Argonne offensive,” reads his medal citation. “In the attack on the Kremhilde-Stellung he performed another tactical operation of high order in a flank movement which resulted in the taking of the town of Romagne.”
After the war, McCoy was promoted to major general and placed in command of the 32nd Infantry: Wisconsin’s famed Red Arrow Division. After he died in 1926, the state named its primary military training facility Fort McCoy in his honor.
And it’s all because he gave up baseball after that summer in Ashland.
Thank you, Ashland County, for Robert Bruce McCoy. When it comes to heroes, he was the real McCoy.