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With personal interviews of players and owners and with over two decades of research in newspapers and archives, Bill Marshall tells of the players, the pennant races, and the officials who shaped one of the most memorable eras in sports and American history.
At the end of World War II, soldiers returning from overseas hungered to resume their love affair with baseball. Spectators still identified with players, whose salaries and off-season employment as postmen, plumbers, farmers, and insurance salesmen resembled their own. It was a time when kids played baseball on sandlots and in pastures, fans followed the game on the radio, and tickets were affordable. The outstanding play of Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Don Newcombe, Warren Spahn, and many others dominated the field. But perhaps no performance was more important than that of Jackie Robinson, whose entrance into the game broke the color barrier, won him the respect of millions of Americans, and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement.
Baseball's Pivotal Era, 1945-1951 also records the attempt to organize the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Mexican League's success in luring players south of the border that led to a series of lawsuits that almost undermined baseball's reserve clause and antitrust exemption. The result was spring training pay, uniform contracts, minimum salary levels, player representation, and a pension plan—the very issues that would divide players and owners almost fifty years later.
During these years, the game was led by A.B. "Happy" Chandler, a hand-shaking, speech-making, singing Kentucky politician. Most owners thought he would be easily manipulated, unlike baseball's first commissioner, the autocratic Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Instead, Chandler's style led one owner to complain that he was the "player's commissioner, the fan's commissioner, the press and radio commissioner, everybody's commissioner but the men who pay him."
|1||Winds of Change||3|
|2||"No One Is Qualified"||14|
|3||1945: Season of Hope||28|
|4||The Mexican Baseball Revolution||45|
|5||Murphy Money and More||64|
|6||1946: Season of Tumult||83|
|7||Durocher Finishes Last||101|
|8||Jackie Robinson's America||120|
|9||1947: Season of Fury||151|
|10||Miracle on Lake Erie||169|
|11||Ownership Has Its Privileges||185|
|12||1948: Indian Summer||210|
|14||A Stepchild in Peril, The Minors||250|
|15||1949: Pinstripes Prevail||270|
|16||"Who Were Those Guys?"||291|
|17||The Great Triumvirate and Other Stars||319|
|18||1950: Year of the Whiz Kids||351|
|20||1951: "The Shot Heard 'Round the World"||397|
|21||Baseball Then and Now||426|
Winds of Change
Coverage in America's major newspapers of the death of commissioner of baseball Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis on November 25, 1944, was subdued. Throughout 1944, almost all events of major interest were eclipsed by news of a war that had reached its apex. German armies were reeling, following the Allied D day invasion in June, and Japanese strength in the Pacific continued to wane under the onslaught of increased American military pressure.
Although the passing of Judge Landis did not go unnoticed, the implications of his death and the effects of the war itself on the game were not readily apparent to those who ran organized baseball. Whereas the game would assume its familiar trappings once the war ended, baseball, not unlike American society, would never be the same. The winds of change were already carrying the seeds that would alter baseball's physical, economic, and social makeup. Landis's death was the beginning of a new era.
This new era witnessed the return of hundreds of veterans hungry to recoup lost time and income. The period was marked by labor unrest and a serious challenge to the game's reserve system. Even more significant, black athletes were unshackled and allowed to compete in America's most visible arena, its national pastime. The era also ushered in a growth and prosperity never before equaled. Attendance records were shattered, and minor-league growth, for a few fleeting years, was unparalleled. For the first time, players began to assert some control over their own destinies. New minimum-salary guidelines were implemented, uniform contracts were created, a pension plan was initiated, and player representation was established. Moreover, the presence of television, a technology that forever changed American leisure-time habits, began to make itself felt. Finally, following World War II, baseball experienced one of the most colorful, exciting, and eventful periods in its history. The postwar era was nothing less than a watershed between the game we know today and the game as it had existed since the 1903 National Agreement was reached between the American and National Leagues.
The foundation of baseball's renaissance can be traced to Babe Ruth's popularization of the game in the 1920s and to Landis, whose twenty-four-year reign stabilized baseball. Hired by the owners in 1920 to sanitize baseball's tarnished image following the Black Sox scandal, Landis was the epitome of political and social conservatism. Appointed to the federal bench by Theodore Roosevelt, Landis became famous for trying communists, socialists, and "Wobblies" and for his attempt to extradite the Kaiser to the United States for having sunk the Lusitania. Landis was best known as the judge who fined the Standard Oil Company of Indiana more than $29 million for accepting rebates from the Chicago and Alton Railroad.
Landis first came to the owners' attention with his handling of the Federal League case in 1915. The case, which threatened baseball's reserve system, was settled out of court, in large part because of Landis's delay in issuing a decision. Had Landis ruled that baseball was akin to a trust, it would have thrown the game's structure into chaos. At the trial, it became obvious to the owners that the Judge was an ardent baseball fan.
By 1920, the three-man National Commission, which had supervised the game since 1903, was in disarray. Dissension among the owners prevented the reelection of chairman Garry Herrmann, and an impasse on the choice of his successor between American League and National League presidents Ban Johnson and Joseph Heydler could not be resolved. When the Black Sox scandal broke in the last week of the 1920 season, there was a public outcry that the game needed to appoint someone from outside its ranks who could run the game and restore its lost integrity. The desperate owners met on November 12 and, fearing for their investments, agreed to offer Judge Kenesaw Landis the post of High Commissioner of Baseball. They also decided that the commissioner should be the titular head of the game, stipulated that Landis's successor should be elected in the same manner, and determined that a new National Agreement should be drafted. After accepting the owners' offer of an annual salary of $50,000 for seven years, Landis told them that he would subtract his $7,500 federal salary from that figure each year. Seeing him as baseball's savior, the owners granted Landis great powers and thus set the tone of their relationship for the next twenty-five years.
Three major themes emerged from Judge Landis's commissionership--his aversion to gambling, his hatred of the farm system, and his desire to keep baseball out of the courts. First, he was determined to rid the game of any connection with gambling. When the trial of the eight Chicago White Sox players charged with throwing the 1919 World Series ended in acquittals for each, Landis quickly and arbitrarily banned the players from the game. No pardons were ever granted. Thus, baseball, in violation of the players' right to due process, prevented them from pursuing their livelihood. As baseball historian David Voight wrote, "Today, such a sentence would be preposterous." Landis, however, was consistent in his treatment of gambling associations throughout his tenure. He banished both player and owner alike for wagering on contests. A case in point was William Cox, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, who was charged with betting on his team and was forced by Landis to sell the franchise in 1943. Landis also prevented Bing Crosby and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and other celebrities from buying into teams, because they owned race horses or were affiliated with racing. In addition, in 1921 he told John McGraw and Charles Stoneham to rid themselves of their investments in a Cuban racetrack and casino venture, and in 1937 Landis banished future Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby from any affiliation with the game because of his well-known predilection for wagering on horses.
Judge Landis's support of independent ownership of minor-league teams and his hatred of the farm system led to several clashes with the creator of the farm system, St. Louis Cardinal general manager Branch Rickey. In 1938, Landis freed ninety-one players from the Cardinals system, charging the club with hiding players and preventing them from playing at higher classifications. Those released included Pete Reiser, who became the 1941 National League batting champion with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Similarly, he freed 106 Detroit Tiger farmhands in 1940. Landis was also hard on Cleveland. In 1936, he freed Tommy Henrich from the Cleveland organization after uncovering a series of agreements that allowed the team to circumvent the option system. In 1940, Henrich hit .307 for the Yankees, and Cleveland lost the American League pennant by one game. Cleveland was also fined $500 by Landis in 1944 for tampering with then-high-school player Richie Ashburn, another player destined for the Hall of Fame.
In direct contrast was overnight sensation Bob Feller--an eighteen-year-old pitcher put on the Cleveland roster in 1936 in violation of the major-minor-league agreement that prevented major-league teams from directly signing amateur players. Had Landis ruled that Feller was a free agent, a huge bidding war would have ensued. Instead, Cleveland was fined $7,500 and was allowed to retain a player who would become one of the greatest pitchers in the game's history. The real reason behind Landis's decision in the Feller case involved the Landis principle of keeping baseball out of the courts. Both Feller and his father, through whom he had signed originally, wanted the pitcher to remain with the Indians. According to Feller, it was his father's threat to sue Landis in civil court if the Judge nullified his contract with Cleveland that affected the commissioner's decision. "The Judge was no dummy," recalled Feller. "He let me play with Cleveland."
Finally, Landis was protected from court action by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's decision in the 1922 Federal League suit, in which the court ruled that baseball's involvement in interstate commerce was incidental and thus that the game was not subject to antitrust regulation. In addition, the Holmes decision buttressed baseball's claim that it was more a sport than a business. The major court test to Landis's authority came in 1931 when St. Louis Browns' owner Phil Ball challenged the commissioner in federal court over a decision that freed one of his players. When the lower court ruled in favor of Landis, Ball threatened to take the case to the Supreme Court. Repeating a tactic he had used against the owners in his 1927 dispute with Ban Johnson, Landis threatened to resign unless the owners stopped Ball from pursuing further legal action. True to form, the ploy worked, as the owners derailed Ball's efforts.
World War II also posed a major threat to baseball. Landis, who referred to Franklin Roosevelt as "that bastard in the White House," swallowed his pride and sent a note to the president following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In it he requested guidance on whether baseball should be suspended or whether the nation would be best served by the game's continuation. Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, was called to the White House, where he argued persuasively for maintaining the game on the assumption that it would provide a much-needed diversion for war-weary workers. Convinced by Griffith's words, Roosevelt sent his so-called Green Light letter in reply. Although he disclaimed that the letter contained an official point of view, the president noted that he honestly felt "that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going."
In spite of the fact that Landis, Griffith, and Roosevelt preserved baseball during World War II, the game struggled to maintain any semblance of its former identity. One after another, some of its best-known players were inducted into the armed services. Hank Greenberg, at age thirty, was the first player called by the newly instituted draft, in October 1940. On December 6, 1941, Congress passed a law exempting all men over twenty-eight from the draft, and Greenberg appeared in newspaper photographs the next day "tying a civilian tie, turning in his equipment, shaking hands with his barracks buddies, [and] tossing a final salute to the guard at the gate." The next day, December 7, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, and Greenberg, determined to forget baseball for the duration, reenlisted to become the first player to enter the war. He was followed by Bob Feller, who joined the Naval Physical Training Division two days later as a chief petty officer.
Other ballplayers soon followed--even such stars as Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams enlisted after the 1942 season. More than a thousand men who played major-league baseball during the period 1931-46 served in the armed forces during the war. By the spring of 1945, only 18 percent (26/144) of those major leaguers who were in their team's starting lineups in 1941 were still there, and no team possessed more than four of its 1941 starters. In 1944, Landis's last year as commissioner, most teams competed with a motley group of old veterans, 4-F players, and youngsters. The war also prolonged the careers of several major-league veterans, as a total of sixty-one players aged thirty-five years or older appeared on team rosters. Many players represented household names out of the 1930s, including Paul and Lloyd Waner, Stan Hack, Jimmy Foxx, Thornton Lee, Paul Derringer, Ernie Lombardi, Jim Turner, Claude Passeau, Chuck Klein, Mel Ott, Joe Kuhel, Whitlow Wyatt, Al Lopez, Rip Sewell, Billy Jurges, and Joe Cronin. At the other end of the spectrum was a group of predraft youngsters--men who would someday make their own mark on the game -- including Art Houtteman, Billy Pierce, Carl Scheib, Cass Michaels, Ed Yost, Herm Wehmeier, Ralph Branca, Tommy Brown, Granny Hamner, and the youngest player to play major-league baseball in the twentieth century, Cincinnati's fifteen-year-old Joe Nuxhall.
Baseball's 4-F classification players, those exempted from the draft, in large measure carried the game during the war. They were players whose physical disabilities made them unacceptable for military service. Any number of maladies would suffice. The Dodger's Curt Davis suffered from an ulcer and often pitched in pain. Catcher Paul Richards, shortstop Marty Marion, and outfielder Danny Litwhiler had trick knees. Relief pitcher Ted Wilks suffered from a chronic stomach disorder, and the ace of the Giants' pitching staff, Bill Voiselle, was hard of hearing. Pitchers Hal Newhouser and Russ Christopher both had heart ailments that kept them out of the service. Newhouser's faulty heart certainly did not prevent him from dominating the American League in 1944 with a 29 and 9 record. Other 4-F players returned from the service before their normal tours of duty were completed. Red Schoendienst was discharged because of a vision problem, and St. Louis Browns' catcher Frank Mancuso ended his military career as a paratrooper when he was badly injured during a jump.
Many of the athletes were recruited by the services themselves. As William Meade wrote in Even the Browns, "America's best baseball teams during the war may not have been in the major leagues at all, but rather in the Army or Navy." Even before the war began, the Navy had signed up boxer Gene Tunney to organize a physical fitness program. After the outbreak of hostilities, he assisted the Navy in forming a baseball team at its base in Norfolk, Virginia, that included such players as Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Dom DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Fred Hutchinson, and Eddie Robinson. The Navy also commissioned catcher Mickey Cochrane to coach its Great Lakes team. With stars such as Billy Herman, Johnny Mize, Gene Woodling, Walker Cooper, and Schoolboy Rowe, the team was 163 and 26 in the period 1942-44. Conversely, the Army dispersed the athletes it signed up and did not begin to bring them together until 1944, when an Army-Navy series was initiated in Honolulu. In both services, most of the men put in full days, supervising calisthenics and other recreation programs.
Although many major-league baseball players received special treatment in the service, none of the game's major stars requested special consideration. Joe DiMaggio, the darling of New York, was originally placed in the class C section of the draft--a classification reserved for married men with children--and did not enlist in the Army until February 1943. Initially assigned to a Special Services unit in California, he was sent to Hawaii to play with the Seventh Army Air Force team, which hoped to contend for the Far Eastern Service title. Plagued by marital problems and a duodenal ulcer, DiMaggio was reassigned in September 1944 to an air transport command responsible for ferrying wounded soldiers between Hawaii and the mainland. Late in 1944, DiMaggio was reassigned again--this time to a physical training section at Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he spent the remainder of the war.
For Ted Williams, the war provided another quest--the art of flying. Not unlike hitting or fishing, flying was an activity that took concentration, could be analyzed and dissected, required excellent eye-to-hand coordination, and still retained enough unknown variables to make it a constant challenge. Classified III-A in 1943 because he was supporting his divorced mother, Williams soon tired of a negative press questioning his patriotism and signed up for Naval Aviation School with Johnny Pesky and Johnny Sain. Williams took to flying quite easily and eventually became a flight instructor, flying Navy SNJs (North American Texan Trainers) out of Pensacola, Florida. In 1945, when the war ended, his combat orders were canceled as he was en route to the Pacific theater. The bulk of his ball playing in the service came after the conflict had ended.
After initially receiving choice assignments, Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller both requested combat duty. In 1943 Captain Greenberg was assigned to the first group of B-29s sent overseas, where he spent time in India and China. In one incident, Greenberg was blown off his feet by a bomb explosion as he raced along a runway to assist the crew of a stricken B-29. "Some of them were pretty banged up but no one was killed," Greenberg told reporter Arthur Daley of the New York Times. "That was one occasion," he continued, "when I didn't wonder whether or not I'd be able to return to baseball. I was quite satisfied to be alive."
After six months working with the physical fitness program, Bob Feller attended gunnery school and was then put in charge of an antiaircraft battery on the USS Alabama, a 35,000-ton battleship. While aboard ship, Feller usually worked out below decks to keep in shape and was occasionally able to do some throwing and running when he could get to an aircraft hangar ashore. While the Alabama was based in the Pacific on the New Hebrides, Feller formed a team on the ship, outfitted it with equipment sent by the Indians, and supervised the building of a couple of ballfields. In 1944, the Alabama provided support for Allied landings on several island chains. The most intense activity experienced by Feller's battery came during the battle for Saipan on the day called "the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot"--a period that saw Japanese forces lose more than a hundred aircraft. Although the Alabama dodged several near misses from torpedoes, bombs, and Kamikaze pilots, whom Feller likened to "blind maddened bulls," the ship came through unscathed. On January 14,1945, a war-weary but pleased Bob Feller returned home.
St. Louis star Stan Musial escaped being drafted until late 1944 and as a result was able to lead the Cardinals to two straight National League pennants in 1943 and 1944. Musial's deferment was based on his need to support both his parents and his immediate family. Moreover, he was fortunate to be in a local Pennsylvania draft pool that was well stocked with men of draft age. Beginning in 1945, he served a fourteen-month hitch in the Navy and was assigned to a ship repair unit in Hawaii, where he played three or four times a week with players such as Billy Herman, Bob Lemon, and Cookie Lavagetto. Musial was pleased that he joined the navy instead of heeding Pete Reiser's advice to join the army's great Fort Riley, Kansas, team. Not long after, recalled Musial, many of the army players "like Harry Walker, Murry Dickson, Al Brazle, and Peter Reiser ... ended up in the Battle of the Bulge."
In 1943, St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Harry Walker played in the All-Star game and the World Series. Exactly one year later, he and teammate Al Brazle were with General George Patton's Third Army in Europe. Although stricken with spinal meningitis while at Fort Riley, a disease that sent most GIs home, Walker was retained by the Army because he was a ballplayer and his discharge might cause the Army bad publicity. After seeing action during the Battle of the Bulge, Private First Class Walker's reconnaissance unit plunged deep into Bavaria and found itself in combat, defending a bridge. "I shot maybe about fifteen before we got out of that thing--with a machine gun. They thought we were Germans at first ... then I saw the gun. [When] I asked him to drop his gun, he threw it up in my face." Walker also recalled the internment camps. "We saw people slaughtered like animals. We buried them by the hundreds.... We do not know what suffering is like." Even in the field, Walker could not escape his baseball past. General Emil Reinhardt asked him to form a baseball team to compete on weekends for the entertainment of the troops. Arguing that the team would have to travel over torn-up bridges and roads with the possibility of snipers still in the woods, Walker demanded air travel. When "I told him that," remembered Walker, "it like to have floored him." The Cardinal outfielder got his aircraft--first a B-25 and then a B-17 named Bottoms Up. He put together a very competitive team that included teammate Al Brazle, Ken Heintzelman of the Phillies, and the Dodgers' Rex Barney.
The vast majority of professional ballplayers who saw action were minor leaguers--several of whom were destined to become major-league players. For instance, eighteen-year-old Yogi Berra, property of the New York Yankees, served on a converted LCT (landing craft, tank) fitted with rocket launchers and participated in both the D day and Mediterranean landings in southern France. He was sent home with a hand wound. Another future Yankee catcher, Ralph Houk, was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. One of the most courageous actions of the war involved Bill Reeder, a young Shreveport, Louisiana, pitcher who had a trial with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1949. When Reeder's infantry unit was pinned down by mortar attacks on the island of Okinawa, Reeder heaved several grenades toward the mortar position while under constant fire from the enemy. After several tosses, the position was silenced. When the distance was paced off between Reeder's "pitching mound" and the mortar position, much to everyone's amazement it was discovered to be more than 300 feet. Asked about his exploit, Reeder replied, "Way I look at it, it is better to have a dead arm on a live body than the other way around."
Another unsung baseball campaigner was southpaw pitcher Warren Spahn of the Boston Braves. Up for only a few games with the Braves in 1942, Staff Sergeant Spahn saw action with the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion in the Ardennes, Alsace, the Rhineland, and in Central Europe. The future Hall-of-Fame star was also at the Remagen bridgehead, where his unit worked feverishly for six days under constant fire to keep this key entrance into Germany under repair. On March 17, 1945, Spahn went to the center of the bridge to confer with some officers. Only moments after he walked off the span, the bridge took a direct hit at the exact spot where the conference had taken place. Spahn and his men turned around just in time to see the men with whom he had been speaking, along with a section of the bridge, plunge into the swiftly flowing Rhine River. A few months later Spahn became one of the few professional baseball players to receive a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant.
Minor-league player and former college basketball star Frank Baumholtz almost spurned baseball to become a physician when he returned from the service in 1945. As a child, Baumholtz often buried himself in medical books. While serving as a gunnery officer aboard a series of naval vessels in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, Baumholtz carried a medical kit with him and was often called on to attend injured sailors. In one instance, while aboard a cargo ship in the Atlantic, the outfielder was asked to stitch up a sailor who had been badly cut in a fight. When the sailor returned to New York, physicians were amazed by Baumholtz's handiwork. In another instance, while his ship was under attack from Kamikazes off Okinawa, Baumholtz was asked to assist the ship's doctor in reconstructing a sailor's hand injured by a twenty-millimeter gun fragment. The fear generated by the Kamikaze attacks remained with Baumholtz long after the war. He witnessed a Kamikaze as it plunged through the smokestack of a big battleship anchored off Okinawa. "It was a horrible, horrible thing," he recalled.
Baseball executives also were not exempt from the war. Private First Class Bill Veeck, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, ran his team in absentia while serving with an antiaircraft outfit on Bougainville in the South Pacific. Veeck was trained as an ammunition passer, gunner, and searchlight operator. He noted, "Our battery did get a couple of Jap bombers. They provided the most thrilling moments I can remember. Whenever our lights would catch one of them in the sky at night, the boys would all gather around and cheer themselves hoarse ... yelling, `Get that Imperial son of a so-and-so.'" In November 1944 Veeck returned to the States, suffering from an ankle that collapsed because of an old football injury and from jungle rot--conditions that eventually resulted in the loss of both legs.
For some minor-league ballplayers, the war permanently changed their careers. August Donatelli was a shortstop who played at Penn State and in the Class D Kitty League before the war. During March of 1944 he was a tail gunner on a B-17 that was shot down during the first daylight raid over Berlin. Suffering from a broken leg as the result of his fall, Donatelli was interned in two different prisoner of war camps. He was beaten, suffered a broken toe, and was taken on a forced march to evade the oncoming Russian Army. He escaped and spent several days hiding in hay lofts before he was recaptured. At his last prison camp, Donatelli was forced to bury Russian dead and was present when Russian tanks came and "crushed the camp all to hell." When liberated, the once-healthy ballplayer weighed only 130 pounds. With all aspirations of a baseball career gone, Donatelli used his entitlements under the GI Bill to become an umpire--a profession that later allowed him to reach the National League.
By the beginning of 1945, with many of its young men at war, the game's status was cloudy at best. As if the world was not already turned upside down, the St. Louis Browns appeared in the World Series--the franchise's first and only time. Most of the game's identifiable stars were in uniform, as were hundreds of minor leaguers. Others, such as pitcher Mel Harder of the Cleveland Indians, who also worked at the Ohio Rubber Company, were forced to split their time between baseball and laboring in war plants. The game, which was now being played by youngsters, old-timers, and 4-F players, had slipped badly in quality. Permission to continue play hinged largely on an informal letter from a sympathetic president. Finally, baseball's savior and spiritual leader, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was dead. At a critical time, baseball was leaderless.