Wartime baseball: Time out of time
An echo from the past
Dodgers’ Pete Reiser inducted into the Army
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Today I have something different and — fair warning — quite long! Hope you enjoy it. I’ll be back with normal Giants-related content tomorrow and Friday]
When I was young, I conceived a notion — promulgated in the books I read or the stories my Dad told — of baseball in “the war years” as some sort of anti-time. The baseball equivalent of Superman’s Bizarro World — where everything flipped upside down and inside out, but also a kind of joke episode that you needn’t take too seriously. “Except the war years…” was a phrase you’d often read in old baseball books. Joe DiMaggio went the World Series an astonishing 10 times in a 13 year period… “except the war years.” Ted Williams led the American League in OBP seven straight seasons … “except the war years.” Googling the phrase even now, I quickly hit upon a story in the Columbus Monthly from just six years ago about Tommy Henrich’s Steakhouse that included this introductory sentence:
Tommy [Henrich] was a baseball player who spent his whole career, from 1937 to 1950 (except the war years), with the Yankees.
Wartime baseball was quite literally an exception to the long timeline of baseball history — a time out of time, when the game was played by old men and teenagers and one-armed Pete Gray. It was a period where things happened but nothing really mattered that much, nothing counted — it was a negation of baseball history that one needn’t investigate too carefully.
For, I think, obvious reasons though, I’ve been interested in learning more about the war years lately — in this, possibly the strangest year of baseball since. And I’ve come to appreciate that these strange years were both more and less than I’d long imagined them. It wasn’t all Pete Grays and it was certainly not a period that existed outside of time. It was very much a story of its era.
Wilson Sporting Goods advertisement, 1942
As Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his “date that will live in infamy” speech over the wireless, the vast majority of baseball owners, executives, and press had just wrapped up the National Association convention in Jacksonville, FL (where the major and minor league representatives continued to argue over the legal meaning of “optional assignments” — did they revert control of the player back to his minor league owners?) and were headed up to Chicago for the annual Winter Meetings. There trade talks would stoke the hot stove and set the tone for baseball in 1942 (the big story of the meetings: had Branch Rickey backed out of an agreement to send St. Louis slugger Johnny Mize to the Dodgers for a counter-offer from the rival Giants).
The war in Europe had already been going on for three years and the Pacific Coast League had become accustomed to blackouts that prevented the occasional night game from taking place. But the assumption on the part of National and American League executives that major league ball need not concern itself overmuch with the war was brought to an abrupt halt with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Instantly, the industry was abuzz with questions. Would blackouts be enforced that ended all night games (teams were allowed 7 games under the lights per year)? Would their star players be drafted? And the biggie — would baseball even be allowed to continue at all?
The latter question wasn’t an idle one for the executives of the time. Many of them were veterans themselves of World War I, and remembered well that the 1918 season had been shut down early by the War Department — a fact I had never in my life heard before! Secretary of War Newton Baker first politely implied that all baseball leagues (major and minor) should end their seasons in preparation for the wartime draft that Fall. When that resulted in no action he delivered a federal order in August: all baseball leagues must cease activity before Labor Day (Sept. 3). The fate of the 1918 World Series (in which Babe Ruth would set a record for pitching consecutive shutout innings that would survive four decades) wasn’t decided until August 24, when Baker determined he would allow it. The six game series finished on September 11 and players prepared themselves to serve. Though American involvement in that war would be short-lived, the 1919 season was affected to, as doughboys straggled back to the States in the spring, and rosters weren’t ready to take the field until late April. Both seasons ended up with 140 or fewer games played.
All these memories must have flooded the minds of baseball executives as they began to prepare for the 1942 season. The question of whether baseball would continue at all was soon answered by President Roosevelt, who sent Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis his famous “Green Light” letter, declaring baseball too important to the morale of the public to be halted. “I honestly feel that it would be best for the Country if baseball kept going.” FDR wrote.
1942 Fan Poll in The Sporting News on whether players should receive draft deferments?
But the question of whether baseball should keep going hung in the cultural air. You could feel it in constant polls that publications like The Sporting News would issue — to both fans and servicemen — asking whether baseball should continue (the answer was always a suspiciously high percentage of YES votes).
And the fans voiced their approval!
Baseball also went into overdrive contributing to the war effort. A second All Star Game was added with all revenues from both games going to the War Effort. All teams were quickly required to hold at least one game per season in which the entire gate was donated to the War Department. In addition, most teams adopted policies allowing men in uniform in for free — the Pacific Coast League moved first and the New York Yankees quickly set the example in the majors. Some industry folks guessed the war might even contribute to baseball’s long-term issues at the ticket counter, as war time prohibitions against recreational drives (through rubber and gasoline rationing) could lead people back to the pleasures of the ballpark. And perhaps there was something to this as major league attendance first held steady and then begin to climb throughout the war. In 1945, Major League Baseball set an all time attendance record (10,841,123) and saw multiple teams pass the 1,000,000 mark for the first time since 1930.
By 1943, baseball was asked to help the war effort by restricting their travel miles — the nation’s railroad system needed its capacity reserved for transporting men and munitions. Schedules were reworked in ‘43 to cut down on multiple trips and exhibition games, reportedly cutting over 45,000 rail miles. Six, seven, and even eight game series became a normal part of the schedule. As part of this effort teams canceled spring training in Florida and instead scrambled to find training sites in their home cities — some not finding suitable sights until players had already begun to report to camp. Not everybody was on board with this nod to the war effort. The front page headline for the April 1, 1943 The Sporting News read: “Sunny Florida, With No Travel Freeze, Simmers Over Northern Camps.” Florida state officials were particularly disgruntled that the federal government had allowed circuses to continue traveling by rail — a sore spot as the Barnum and Bailey Circus had that very year abandoned its longtime winter home in Sarasota, FL.
Still, baseball continued to have its critics suggesting that playing ball didn’t exactly put the “essential” in essential work designations. With each passing year the anxiety lingered that baseball would lose this distinction from the federal government. At one point in 1943, a palpably irritated Branch Rickey was quoted as saying the game need not defend itself against critics. President Roosevelt had declared it essential to public morale and as such “it doesn’t have to be shamedfaced or apologetic about the way it conducts its business.” But no doubt, shame and apologies would continue to be an aspect of wartime baseball — if seldom spoken. Warren Giles, who had served in France in WWI, sent a letter to each of his Cincinnati Reds players encouraging them to enlist. “We want no draft dodgers on our team,” Giles blustered. Larry MacPhail, another WWI veteran, left his executive role with the Dodgers and took up a post as Assistant to the Undersecretary of War. He would see a wartorn Europe a second time in the coming years.
But for most executives and managers the question was: who I am going to lose? How do I make a lineup? Washington Senators Manager Bucky Harris was hard hit right out of the gate, as the two best players on his (already poor) team — Shortstop Cecil Travis and OF Buddy Lewis — were two of the very first players drafted and inducted. Cleveland quickly learned that their 22-year-old ace Bob Feller had driven to Chicago and enlisted immediately upon hearing the news from Pearl Harbor.
Tigers star Hank Greenberg in uniform, 1941
Detroit had been anticipating the return of star slugger Hank Greenberg. The “Hammering Hebrew,” the greatest Jewish star athlete of his era (and if you haven’t seen “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” you should absolutely track it down) had registered for the peacetime draft in October of 1940, just a week after playing on the losing side of the World Series. Greenberg who had caused something of a sensation in the middle of the 1934 pennant race by spending Yom Kippur at temple, rather than at the ballpark, felt the need to send a strong, early signal about the threat posed by Nazi Germany. After his draft board classified him as 4-F (disqualified for medical reasons) due to flat feet, Greenberg insisted they reassess him and in May of 1941 he left the Tigers for the service. That December, the 30-year old Greenberg was honorably discharged (as was the Army’s custom for men in their late 20s). When news of Pearl Harbor hit just two days later, however, Greenberg reenlisted.
“This doubtless means I am finished with baseball, and it would be silly for me say I do not leave it without a pang” Greenberg would say.
But he honored a higher calling. The first major league player to join the military, Greenberg would also end up serving the longest. In all Greenberg would serve most of five seasons in the military. He was wrong though. He wasn’t quite finished with the game yet.
Throughout baseball managers and executives scrambled to learn the classification of their players. “3-A” was the classification designated for “Family Men” — men who were the sole source of support for their families. Many major leaguers (and their managers) assumed that fathers of young children would be safe from the draft. Those who were married without children, however, were another matter. Giants Manager Mel Ott bemoaned: “take our situation, for example. We have ten players who, though married, have no children… Suppose the draft people called these ten? Where would we be?”
Throughout the winter of 1941, The Sporting News was filled with front page stories of players who were being “reclassified” from 3-A to 1-A (ready to serve). The Yankees “Old Reliable” Tommy Henrich was reclassified in February, 1942, and would be inducted into the service in September of that year — just as the Yankees were in their stretch run. New York quickly grabbed OF Roy Cullenbine, who would be a star for several teams during the war, off the waiver wire. But coincidentally or not, the Yankees didn’t have their old magic without Henrich and would lose a World Series that Fall for the first time since 1926 — breaking a streak of eight straight winning appearances in the Fall Classic. Across town, the Dodgers rather unbelievably feared that their 36 year old Manager Leo Durocher would be snatched away by the draft — “the Lip is as Good as Lost” read the headlines.
The Red Sox had high hopes that rookie Johnny Pesky would be an impact player for them up the middle. They were right — he was third in the league in MVP voting as a rookie in 1942. But he, too, was reclassified in April and would be gone for the next three years. That same winter the Red Sox were struck with the bombshell that Ted Williams had been reclassified to 1-A, as his draft board in Minneapolis rejected the the argument that he was his Mother’s sole source of support. That story dominated baseball news throughout the winter, but in late February the Sox were told that President Roosevelt himself asked the Selective Service to change Williams’ classification back to 3-A, as drafting him would cause an undue burden.
The head of the Minneapolis Draft Board declared publicly that Williams himself had appealed to the President to “dodge” the draft, and the story caused enough negative blowback that Williams feared his reception from the crowds when he took the field that year. In the event the public was supportive, but perhaps Williams’ worry over public perception led to his decision to volunteer that May for the Navy’s pilot training program. He would head to pilot school that winter and famously served as John Glenn’s favorite wingman under withering combat conditions during the War.
Joe DiMaggio takes his first swings in 1943 — for an army base camp team.
Though 1942 would be one last halcyon summer in the sun, by 1943 the stars of the game were leaving en masse. Of the top five players in the game in 1940-41 (by Fangraphs’ WAR standards), the top four (Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Johnny Mize) were all in the military by the beginning of 1943. Ten of the top 15 would miss two or more years. Dolph Camilli, the fifth most productive player, was too old for service, but he left the game to work at a munitions factory. Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez also gave up baseball to work munitions, living with his family in an abandoned country club in Lexington, Massachusetts while working at the Lynn, MA war factory.
By the beginning of 1943, 250 active players had joined the military — an average of more than 15 players per club. Most did little more than play ball — physical education instructor, it was called — and serve as the faces of recruitment or helping build morale among the troops. Some questioned whether players stationed at US bases should be allowed to return to their teams on short furloughs? (they never were).
While the Negro Leagues are more difficult to parse out (and there’s a historical book that begs to be written), the Negro League Baseball Museum documents 119 players from the Negro Leagues served in the military, including greats like Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Buck O’Neil, Leon Day, and, of course, Jackie Robinson who would successfully fight an Army Court Martial for refusing to move to the back of a military bus while in training camp in Texas.
The Sporting News began a feature in April of 1942 called “In the Service” that reported on baseball games and activities throughout the various wartime camps. The feature would be in every TSN issue for the course of the War. Two great powers of camp ball were the Naval bases at Great Lakes (Illinois) and Newport News (Virginia). The Great Lakes base team, managed by former Tiger great Mickey Cochrane, featured as many as 16 major leaguers on their team, including that coveted slugger Johnny Mize (who was traded to the Giants in 1942 but spent most of the next three years in the Navy instead).
The Newport team was led, throughout 1942, by the strong arm of Hall of Famer Bob Feller. But Feller was interested in more than just PR work and he put in for gunnery training. He would see action in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the War as a Gunnery Captain on the USS Alabama.
The newleyweds, Robert Feller and Virginia Winther, 1942.
Before setting sail, however, Feller would marry, and during the course of an interview for the New York Daily Mirror with his new bride, he made an astonishing prediction. “I’ve got it figured out that the war will end in the spring of 1945,” Feller said. He figured the need for convoy ships would end before the army finished cleaning up the theater, so he thought might be back in uniform by June, 1945. “I’ll be 26 by then and can pitch another ten years.” Feller was amazingly close on all counts. The War in Europe ended in early June, 1945, and he made his return to the American League on August 24 of that year. He would then pitch 11 more years, retiring in 1956.
The Game Left Behind
In all, 500 Major League players and more than 2,000 minor league players left to join the military, according to the American Veterans Center. And the quality of the game no doubt suffered.
As with nearly everything in baseball, you can find traces of the quality of MLB’s wartime product in the statistical record. Snuffy Stirnweiss, a 25-year-old SS, managed to avoid service and in 1943 the Yankees called him up to join a roster that had lost over 16 players, including DiMaggio, Henrich, Charlie Keller, Phil Rizzuto, and eventually Joe Gordon. The 24-year-old Stirnweiss stepped in and looked like a Hall of Famer himself — for two years. Stirnweiss posted back to back 9 WAR seasons in ‘44 and ‘45 — virtually DiMaggio-esque production. He led the AL in runs, hits, triples and stolen bases in both years. In 1946, with regulars returning to action, Snuffy’s OPS would drop more than 200 points, and over the course of his seven remaining years in the majors he would accumulate a total of just 8.5 fWAR. After stealing 55 bases in 1944 and 33 more in 1945, he would steal no more than 5 bases in a year between 1947 and 1952.
Another star of the war years was the veteran Augie Galan. The Cubs OF had been an excellent player in the 30s, but his star had faded drastically by the end of the decade. By 1941, he was just a .218 hitter and posted an 80 OPS+. Too old for military service, he played through the war and saw a huge revival in fortunes from 1943-45, thanks to the depleted level of pitching. Galan suddenly became a .300 hitter again, and he posted walk totals over 100 each year from 1943-45 (the only three years of his long career that he did so), helping him accumulate over 17 WAR in the three years, he best stretch of his career.
Older players like Galan, Dixie Walker, or Mel Ott made up the bulk of wartime rosters. But 1944-45 were also the years that gave rise to the Bizarro World tales of teams’ search for manpower. George “Three Star” Hennessey had had an exceptionally short-lived major league career prior to the war. Pitching in just five games for the woebegone St. Louis Browns, his career had apparently ended with a 10.29 ERA. But with the need for players — any players — growing during the War, Hennessey struck a fascinating bargain. While working the night shift as a mechanic at a Philadelphia-area airplane factory, he approached Phillies’ manager Bucky Harris with an offer to pitch for the Phils during homestands. His shift ended at 4 am, which Hennessey figured gave him time to get 8 quick hours of shuteye and and still make it to Shibe Park in time for 1 pm start times. He’d end up throwing 5 more games in ‘43, including his only career start, and posting a 2.45 ERA. Hennessey would finish up his odd career with two games for the pennant winning Cubs in 1945.
The war also provided opportunities for players who had been stuck for years in the minors. Many of them disappeared again shortly after the war, but RHP Jim Konstanty was an exception. Konstanty was finally promoted from AAA Syracuse in 1944 at the advanced age of 27. After serving in the Navy in 1945, he’d return in 1946 and appear in 10 games for Boston before being sold back to the International League. It wasn’t until 1948, at the age of 31 that Konstanty would return to the majors and stick, with one of the more shocking late act careers in baseball history. Somewhere in his travels, Konstanty had mastered a palmball and that pitch, along with innovative usage as the first real “relief ace” launched him to the 1950 National League MVP, and ultimately an 11 year career.
Another source of players hinted at greater changes to come for the game. The June 3, 1943 cover of TSN noted a growing “Spanish flavor” in the game as players like Adolfo Luque (originally from Cuba), Jesse Sandoval Flores (Mexico), and Alejandro Carrasquiel (Venezuela) began populating team rosters. The growing Hispanic presence in the game presaged the era of integration to come.
June 3, 1943 cover illustration (detail) for The Sporting News
Minor League Debacle
If the War made life difficult for major league teams, it was an existential threat to owners of minor league teams. In 1940 there were 44 different Minor Leagues in the United States — fielding a total of 306 teams. With the 1942 mobilization, the first ten leagues disappeared. Unlike major leaguers, most minor league players were young and often unmarried, and most were immediately classified 1-A. By 1943, only ten of the 44 leagues remained in existence.
For the next two years Minor League Baseball teetered on the brink, with only 70 teams playing ball in ten leagues across the country. Many, including visionaries Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey, worried that the failure of the minors would irreparably damage the future of major league baseball. Rickey prophetically declared that if the minors did not come back in full once the war was over “baseball must take heed, or football will become our national sport.”
As it turned out, recovery would come quick after the war, but it was ultimately illusory.
Illustration in The Sporting News, October 26, 1944
When the war began to wind down, baseball was suddenly was faced with a new and opposite problem. The Preference Act proclaimed that returning servicemen being demobilized receive the same job they had had before the war, “or an equivalent” upon returning to civilian life. The National Defense List included 4,000 military personnel who claimed baseball as a profession by 1945. Suddenly managers who had struggled to fill a lineup were worried about juggling pitching staffs with 14 arms.
The result was the minor leagues would come roaring back to life. In 1946, minor league ball was once again played in 43 leagues around the County, with most of the pre-War confederations coming back into existence. And by 1949, there were an amazing 59 minor leagues in existence. Post-War economic realities would set in, however, and through the first half of the 1950s that number was whittled in half. By 1962 there were fewer than 20 minor leagues and a great fear that minor league baseball would no longer be economically viable. This was the point at which the modern Professional Baseball Agreement came into existence, with major league baseball gaining full control over the players and the modern affiliate structure we recognize came into being.
The Teams Who Made it Through
But though the major league game was affected by the loss of its stars and regulars, the suffering wasn’t felt by every team equally. Some teams were left relatively unscathed. And the occasional young star would play through the war — like player/manager Lou Boudreau in Cleveland, who lost no time to the war, despite being just 22 in 1941. The vagaries of draft board classifications often made the difference between which teams were strong competitors and which straggled to second division finishes.
The Yankees lost stars DiMaggio, Henrich, and Rizzuto after the ‘42 season, but with Joe Gorden and Charlie Keller still on board they continued their dominance of the AL for one more year, returning to the World Series in 1943 and avenging their loss in a repeat appearnace with the Cardinals.
Easily the greatest beneficiary of the assymetrical losses of the era were those St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis wasn’t immune from the draft — after the ‘42 Championship season they lost their sensational rookie pitcher Johnny Beazley, who posted 21 wins, a 2.15 ERA, and received some down-ballot MVP votes. And star OF (and, regrettably, one of the most virulently racist players of the era) Enos Slaughter was gone from ‘42-45. But SS Marty Marion never was called to service (he would be MVP in 1944). Nor either of the Cooper brothers, Mort or Walker (both deemed too old to serve). Steady 3b Whitey Kurowksi stayed in St. Louis through the war. And most importantly, their young superstar Stan Musial missed just one year to the war. Musial was a 21 year old rookie sensation in 1942, when the Cards won 44 of their final 53 games on their way to a surprise World Series championship. The next year he was even better: leading the league in hits, doubles, triples, average, OBP, and SLG and winning his first MVP (though the Cards would lose their rematch with the Yankees).
As they came to spring training in 1944, the Cards wondered aloud “who could beat us.” The lineup returned 7 of the 8 starters from their World Series team of 1943, an almost unprecedented continuity for the time. Early on, however, they got the news they had long dreaded — despite being a young father, Stan Musial had been reclassified to 1-A status. With a fairly high draft number however, Cards President Sam Breadon thought it a good chance that Musial wouldn’t be called for several months still.
He would be proved right, but the ever-present possibility that Musial or one of his teammates would suddenly be gone in season hung over manager Joe Cronin’s head and weighed on his mind. In June, Cronin noted the importance of adding to their already impressive lead, as he thought Musial would likely be called up that month and the entire starting infield were playing “on borrowed time.” In the end Stan — and all of his teammates — would spend the entire summer in St. Louis, all the way through the World Series, which they won again, this time in six over the cross-town St. Louis Browns.
The Browns, who got a career year from 32 year old pitcher Nels Potter and a powerful performance from the soon-to-be-a-star 23-year-old SS Vern Stephens, finally made their one and only appearance in the World Series in 1944. Sadly, Pete Gray, the 30-year-old one-armed OF who came to define “war time baseball” would not join the Browns until the 1945 season by which time they had sunk back down the standings to a, still respectable, 3rd place.
Another team that benefited from the vagaries of draft boards was the Detroit Tigers. They were able to hold on to star pitchers Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout throughout the war, as both were classified 4-F (though sound enough to dazzle on the mound). While there are several players from the war years who arguably have cases for the Hall of Fame based on the years they lost — Jay Jaffe has made cases for the Yankees’ Henrich, and both Cecil Travis and Buddy Lewis from Washington, I might argue for Charlie Keller as well — surely no player other than Hal Newhouser was elected to the Hall of Fame largely because they DIDN’T serve in the War.
Newhouser had been with the Tigers since 1939, showing flashes of talent, but never putting together a consistent season. He brought a career record of 34-52 and an ERA+ of just 112 to the start of the 1944 season. And then… he simply destroyed the war-denuded league. He went 54-18 with a 176 ERA+ (2.01 ERA) in ‘44-45, winning the American League MVP in both years. Newhouser credited control over his temper, as well as a newly developed wipeout slider, for his success in 1944. And while those were no doubt elements of his dominance, surely the depleted levels of competition he faced played a large role as well. He continued to shove in 1946, leading the league in Wins for the third straight year, and posting 1.94 ERA. He finished second in the MVP that year. It was an amazing three-year run. And that was more or less it. For the final nine seasons of his career, Newhouser was a solidly above average pitcher, but little more than that, going 93-71 with a 120 ERA+ from 1947-1955.
The Two “World Series” of 1945
Even with the efforts of Newhouser and Trout the Tigers fell short of a pennant in 1944. With little on the offensive side, they felt they might still have won it all if they’d had just one more arm to help out. So the news prior to 1945 that starter Al Benton was receiving a medical discharge was cause for celebration. The 34-year-old Benton would give the ‘45 Tigers nearly 200 innings of 2.02 ERA work, and Newhouser and Trout had the support they needed. Even bigger news came in June when it was learned that — at long last — slugger Hank Greenberg would be returning from over four years of active service. Greenberg came back with his pre-War vigor intact, hitting .311 with a .948 OPS over the final three months of the season to help push the Tigers to a World Series victory. The great star hadn’t quite been done with baseball after all. The following year, the 35-year-old Greenberg would lead the American League in HR (44) and RBI (127) in his final year of greatness. Sadly, the Tigers responded by selling the star to Pittsburgh that winter, a move that reportedly broke the Hall of Famers giant heart.
The fact that it was Greenberg’s team that took baseball’s center stage in the autumn of 1945, was perhaps the most satisfying conclusion to the war years. The game’s one great Jewish star, who had led the call to fight Nazi Germany, saw his moment of triumph on the baseball field just six months after the Army he served in had liberated Dachau in April.
But there was another “World Series” that autumn that was perhaps more important to the game’s future.
After the surrender of Germany, the Americans kept their (exhausted, restless, traumatized, homesick) soldiers occupied by organizing baseball games throughout Europe. The sport was incredibly popular among GIs and large informal leagues were quickly established, with teams formed from different divisions in the theatre. In Germany, teams played their games in the Hitler Youth Stadium in Nuremberg, the scene of so many Nazi era rallies, where Hitler Youth were indoctrinated and Leni Riefenstahl created the essential aesthetics of fascism.
And there a small bit of transformative history took place when the 71st Division team, the champions of the German-based teams arranged to play a best of five “World Series” against the France-based champs. The German team, helmed by Harry “The Hat” Walker and was well stocked with major and minor league players, including their star pitcher, the Reds’ Ewell Blackwell. As such they were the heavy favorites over a French Division team that included just a journeyman player or two. But the French champs had an ace up its sleeve — two of them actually — in two powerful veterans of the Negro Leagues, OF Willard Brown and RHP/Infielder Leon Day.
Crowds estimated as high as 50,000 piled into the Hitler Youth Stadium (with the swastikas painted out) to watch an extraordinary bit of pre-integration baseball. The series would go the full five games (moving to Rheims, France for the 3rd and 4th). In the climactic fifth game, Day entered as PR, stole 2b and 3b, and dashed home on a shallow fly ball to tie the game 1-1 in the 7th. “Home Run” Brown then brought home the winning run with a long double in the 8th. The underdogs had pulled off a massive upset, and untold tens of thousands of service men had seen a glimpse of baseball’s future. Day, a star player for the Newark Eagles, was too old to join the majors by the time Jackie Robinson integrated the game. Brown would play just one season (for the St. Louis Browns) and hit exactly one HR in his career but it would go down in history — the first HR hit by an African American player in AL history.
From the dislocations of 2020, those War Years which have always felt so alien to me, suddenly have an odd sort of familiarity. While in no way comparing the historical contexts, the horrors that those who served in the War faced, or the anxieties of those left behind, there are echos to hear. The feeling of constant uncertainty — the sand shifting day to day beneath one’s feet; the expectations that were constantly modified by reality, things made up as they went along; managers and players not knowing which of their teammates might be there the next time the took the field, and fans following the drama in the news media — this was the world of wartime baseball, a constant state of uncertainty that matched the world around it.
Though the importance of the War Years in baseball’s history is most often dismissed, its odd asymmetries linger in familiar records. By 1946, the beloved star Musial had played five seasons, nearly all during the war. He’d hit .350, won two batting titles, two MVPs and collected the first 812 hits of his career. And he’d led St. Louis to what to this day was a halcyon period for their franchise. When the Giants won three World Series between 2010-2014, it was noted that they were the first NL Franchise to achieve that level of success since the 1942-46 Cardinals. No asterisks suggested or needed. As Rickey said, they had no need to be shamefaced or apologetic about it.
Mel Ott had been named the Giants Player/Manager just two days before Pearl Harbor. He was 32 and already a 16 year veteran, and while still powerful, he was looking forward to transitioning his position to younger players. But as the War reduced his roster, Mel kept on lining up in RF for the course of the War, adding a final 65 HRs to his career tally between 43-45 (and one more in a break appearance in 1946), allowing him to become the first NL player to cross the 500 barrier and setting an NL record that was renowned and beloved by the time Willie Mays broke it in 1966.
A very different member of the “old men” who stayed home was Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who still ruled the game at War’s beginning but didn’t live to see its end. Landis died in November of 1944. With him died the single greatest force holding baseball to its segregationist past. Negro League vets fighting proudly for the Country in the War — and playing ball on fields of War with their white counterparts — had a reckoning coming and people within the game knew it. The future was coming and with it a wave of African America stars of the 1950s who would become some of the greatest players the game ever saw. The “time out of time” was over and from its ashes would be born a beautiful new era.