When Major League Baseball Went To War

January 18, 2021 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIBaseballSportsMajor League Baseball

When Major League Baseball Went To War

Baseball adapted to the challenges of wartime and contributed to the final victory in World War II.

Here's What You Need to Know: Baseball and its players, at home and abroad, helped to fight and win the war.

In December 1941, after four decades of play in the same sixteen eastern and midwestern cities, major league baseball was finally coming to the west coast. Saint Louis Browns owner Donald Barnes had a surefire plan: he would relocate his financially struggling team to Los Angeles and take over the local franchise rights and ballpark currently held by Chicago Cubs owner Phil Wrigley for a one-time fee of $1 million. The move would help everyone—Barnes, Wrigley, the St. Louis Cardinals (who would no longer have to share a stadium with the Browns), and major league baseball itself, which in one fell swoop would extend its reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific. At long last, baseball would truly be a transcontinental business.

Barnes intended to present his plan, complete with an intricate new schedule designed to limit cross-country train trips for opposing teams to two apiece during the season, at the annual meeting of the sixteen major league owners in Chicago on December 8. While waiting, Barnes decided to attend a professional football game between the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park. He was sitting in the stands with club general manager William DeWitt on Sunday, December 7, when the first news flash came across the radio that Japanese warplanes had bombed Pearl Harbor. In that instant, everything changed. There would be no baseball on the West Coast in 1942, and Barnes, DeWitt, and the rest of the major league owners, executives and players instead would find themselves struggling to adapt their sport—and their lives—to the unprecedented needs of a country that suddenly found itself at war.

In the massive confusion following the attack at Pearl Harbor, there was good reason to believe that the upcoming baseball season would be cancelled altogether. Many big- league players, like the rest of their outraged fellow-countrymen, were already flocking to enlistment offices across the nation. One of the first to go was 23-year-old Bob Feller, the fireballing pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Feller, who had won 25 games for the Indians in 1941, had been en route to Chicago from his father’s farm in Iowa to attend the winter meeting when he heard the terrible news come over the radio. Although he had previously been classified 2-C (farmer) by his local draft board, Feller did not feel that it was right to retain his off-season exemption. Instead, he drove directly to the federal courthouse in Chicago, where he was sworn into the Navy by former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney, who was serving as a lieutenant commander in charge of the Navy’s physical fitness program. The swearing-in ceremony was carried live on the radio throughout the country and filmed for use in motion picture newsreels. Feller shrugged off any praise for his quick enlistment. “We needed heroes,” he remembered later. “I thought I could help.”

Another American League superstar also acted quickly to enter the service. Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg had already been drafted in a special peacetime draft the previous May. Exchanging his $55,000-a-year salary for the $21-a-month stipend of an Army private, Greenberg was discharged two days before Pearl Harbor (all draftees over the age of 28—Greenberg was 30—only had to serve 180-day tours of duty). Not waiting to hear again from his draft board, the home run-hitting outfielder immediately reenlisted at his last rank of sergeant. “We are in trouble and there is only one thing for me to do—return to the service,” Greenberg said at the time. “All of us are confronted with a terrible task—the defense of our country and the fight of our lives.” Being Jewish, the war would have particular significance for Greenberg, although no one yet knew how heinous Nazi atrocities against Greenberg’s fellow Jews in Europe would prove to be.

Perhaps fittingly, the first major league player drafted after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act of 1940 was Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy. Nicknamed “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy for the abbreviated way he was usually listed in the morning box scores, Mulcahy would eventually spend five years in the Army—unlike Greenberg, he was too young to receive an early discharge. The lowly Phillies put a photo of Mulcahy, wreathed by a “V for Victory” arrangement of bats, on the cover of their 1942 team yearbook. They had already shown how much they missed his pitching prowess by finishing 57 games out of first place in 1941, after finishing a mere 50 games out of first the year before. Mulcahy, too, downplayed his sacrifice. “I might have got hit with a line drive if I spent six more months with the Phillies,” he joked. Given the Phillies’ congenital ineptitude, that might have been more of a danger than it seemed at the time.

Baseball officials were unsure, at first, how to proceed with the season. National League president Ford Frick sent President Roosevelt a telegram pledging that “individually and collectively, we are yours to command.” And baseball’s unofficial Bible, the Sporting News, editorialized in its first post-Pearl Harbor edition that the sport was ready to close down, if need be, for the duration of the war. But FDR, heeding the hardly disinterested advice of his close friend Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, sent a letter to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in January 1942, clarifying the government’s position on the immediate future of the game. “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” the president wrote. “There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.” American League president Will Harridge eagerly accepted the morale-boosting mission. “Baseball,” he said, “may be approaching the finest opportunity for service to our country that the game has ever had, providing a recreational outlet for millions of fans who will working harder than ever to help achieve our common cause of victory.”

“No Nation Which has had as Intimate Contact with Baseball as the Japanese Could have Committed the Infamous Deed of the Early Morning of December 7, 1941″

Roosevelt’s so-called “green light” letter did not exempt players from fulfilling their military obligations, and during spring training in 1942 there were a few ostentatious hints of things to come. In Miami Beach, the luckless Phillies were put through a series of short-order drills by visiting Army officers, and the players dutifully shouldered their bats like rifles to march in step prior to an exhibition game with the Boston Braves. The drills were the brainchild of Philadelphia manager Hans Lobert, who recalled a similar stunt during his playing days in World War I. Farther west, in Pasadena, Calif., Chicago White Sox pitchers warmed up for games by chucking fastballs through a cardboard caricature of a leering, bucktoothed Japanese soldier. Meanwhile, the Sporting News urged that major league baseball somehow “withdraw from Japan the gift of baseball which we made to that misguided and ill-begotten country.” While acknowledging that the sport was wildly popular in Japan, the magazine conjectured that the true meaning of baseball had never really caught on in the island nation. “They may have acquired a little skill at the game, but the soul of our National Game never touched them,” publisher J.G. Taylor Spink wrote dismissively. “No nation which has had as intimate contact with baseball as the Japanese could have committed the infamous deed of the early morning of December 7, 1941, if the spirit of the game ever had penetrated their yellow hides.” Japan, for its part, outlawed baseball as an insidious American influence on its time-honored culture.

Despite such outward trappings as a newly stitched flag insignia on all players’ uniforms and the required playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before all home games, the 1942 baseball season was not greatly affected by the onset of the war. Few major league players were called up that first year, and the overall quality of play did not suffer noticeably. While the United States Navy was decisively defeating the Japanese at the naval battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, and American marines were landing on the island stronghold of Guadalcanal, baseball went about its morale-boosting business. The New York Yankees, as expected, repeated as American League champions, while the St. Louis Cardinals, with the help a well-stocked minor league farm system directed by general manager Branch Rickey, surprised the defending champion Brooklyn Dodgers to win the National League pennant by two games. In the ensuing World Series, which the British Broadcasting System beamed to American servicemen stationed in Ireland and England, the upstart Cardinals spotted the Yankees the first game of the Series, then swept the next four games in a row, including two complete-game victories by rookie righthander Johnny Beazley from Nashville, Tennessee. Another prized rookie, Stan Musial, batted .315 for the Cardinals in 1942, the start of a storied Hall of Fame career for the Donora, Pennsylvania, native.