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Baseball Wins the War
Baseball has long been recognized as a reflection of American values. There is somehow more to it than the playing of a game for the entertainment of spectators. Many fans, myself included, were brought up with a feeling for baseball bordering on the religious. Sportswriters and baseball officials quite naturally do all they can to nourish this attitude, because it enhances their business and magnifies the importance of their work.
This unique role in American life was hard to maintain during World War II, but baseball managed it. Patriotic jingoism was the language of the day. No institution voiced it more loudly, nor identified itself with the war effort more closely, than did organized baseball. Trotting out capital letters in plenty, The Game gloried in its role as The National Pastime, one of the Institutions American Boys were Fighting to Preserve.
This stance contained an element of self-interest bordering on desperation. Baseball officials feared for their business. Frivolous activities were frowned upon during the war, and athletes not in military service were sometimes criticized as draft dodgers, though they were not. So baseball adopted a stern wartime visage, did its best to improve morale and inspire the populace, raised vast amounts of money in War Bond sales and war charity contributions, and made sure that the game got at least as much credit as it deserved. "Duty and Service and Baseball always have been synonymous," baseball's weekly newspaper, the Sporting News, proclaimed in a typically gushy wartime editorial.
On the home front, baseball's contributions began immediately after Pearl Harbor. Players and officials took 10 percent of their pay in War Bonds. Servicemen in uniform were allowed to attend games free in most cities. Fans actually threw foul balls back onto the field so they could be given to military posts for recreational use. In 1942, the St. Louis Browns admitted 39,000 servicemen without charge, and donated 912 baseballs that fans had returned.
More important were dozens of benefit games staged by major and minor league teams to raise money for War Bonds, the USO, the Red Cross, and the Army and Navy relief agencies. There were all kinds of wartime collection drives. Kitchen grease was collected and recycled—really to make soap, although the government, fearing that the truth would cause a run on soap supplies, maintained that grease was needed for explosives. The Louisville Colonels of the American Association collected 2,587 pounds of grease at a "Waste Fat Night." The Cincinnati Reds collected cigarettes instead of tickets at a "Smokes for Service Men" benefit game that included twenty vaudeville acts. At Shreveport, Louisiana, Mrs. George Roby contributed some scrap aluminum to gain admission to an "Aluminum Night" game and found, upon returning to her car, that other fans had contributed her aluminum hubcaps.
For three straight seasons, 1942 through 1944, each of the sixteen major league teams promoted one home game a year as a benefit for the Army and Navy relief funds, which aided the families of servicemen. The first one was held in early May of 1942 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Even the players, umpires, and sportswriters paid their way in; 42,822 tickets were sold, netting the Navy Relief Society more than $60,000. A military parade preceded the game, in which the Dodgers beat the Giants, 7 to 6, on a home run by Dolf Camilli.
At Yankee Stadium, $80,000 was raised at the Yankees' 1942 war charity game. To help attract fans, Walter Johnson, 54, threw seventeen pitches to Babe Ruth, 47, who hit two of them into the stands. In Detroit, the charity game raised $68,000, even though the opposition was the Browns. Altogether, the sixteen games netted $506,000 for war charities in 1942, $326,500 in 1943, and $328,500 in 1944.
A second All-Star game was staged in 1942 to benefit war charities. On July 6 at the Polo Grounds in New York, the American League, without a single Brownie in the lineup, beat the National League 3 to 1 in the regular All-Star game and earned the right to play the Service All-Stars the following night in Cleveland. The American League won that game 5 to 0, knocking out Bob Feller of the Navy in the second inning. Feller recalls a trickler by Tommy Henrich of the Yankees as the key hit. The two games raised $100,000 to buy baseball equipment for military recreation, $60,000 for the Army and Navy relief funds, and $60,000 in War Bonds and War Stamps. The Sporting News called the Cleveland game "a spectacle such as one sees only once in a lifetime."
"Rumbling tanks, jumping jeeps, drilling Marines, music from the famous Great Lakes Naval Station's band, parading the colors of the Army, Navy and Coast Guard, and 65,000 awed persons filling one of the nation's great stadia made an unforgettable spectacle," the story continued. "As though it were a contagion, one could feel the patriotic fervor of the entire 65,000; it sent needles shooting down one's spine, started honest tears trickling down the cheeks, and made one murmur to one's self: 'Thank God, I am an American!'"
During the All-Star break, there was talk of putting the 1942 World Series on tour so more money could be raised. The notion was dropped, but $363,000 from Series receipts was given to wartime charities. Together with money from the benefit games in each major league city, the two All-Star games, $259,000 from minor league benefit games, and receipts from various smaller affairs, organized baseball contributed $1,295,000 to war charities in 1942 alone. "Definitely," said the Sporting News, "the detractors of the game are in wild retreat."
In 1943, the charity games were upstaged by a spectacle conceived and promoted by Shirley Povich, who covered the Washington Senators for the Washington Post. Povich:
The war effort was total. Everybody was in a passion to win this war. Our heroes, so called, were in the armed services. What do we do on the home front? Well, hurray, everything we can. So we got the bright idea of having a game to sell War Bonds. We pegged it to the idea that if we could fill the park, we could buy a United States cruiser. That was the target—so many million dollars to buy a cruiser for the Navy.
I put in motion the idea that we could have a game between the Senators and the Navy All-Stars, most of whom were operating out of Norfolk and Newport News. Bob Feller pitched at Norfolk; Padgett was down there catching; Phil Rizzuto, Benny McCoy—they had all the big leaguers.
The Navy agreed to the game. Every admission would be a War Bond. If you bought a fifty-dollar bond, I think, you got a general admission seat. If you bought a thousand-dollar bond you got one box seat. I got a call from a man who said to me that he would like to have a box seat at the game. I said, "Well, good." He said, "How many seats in a box?" I said, "Well, some have eight seats, some ten, some twelve." He said, "Can I have twelve seats?" I said, "Yes, if you'll buy $12,000 worth of bonds." He said, "Tell me where I can get them." I said, "I'll have them delivered to you at the Mayflower Hotel." He said, "Fine, I'll be here and write a check." That was Del Webb. He later owned the Yankees, but then he was just a baseball fan who had come in from Phoenix, Arizona. Might have been the highest price ever paid to see a ball game.
I got Bing Crosby to come down and sing behind second base, and Kate Smith to come down and sing "God Bless America." Did I pay them? Absolutely not; not even expenses. It was no trouble getting them. Everybody responded to these things during the war; all you had to do was ask.
I got Al Schacht, the famous baseball clown, simulating a home run in slow motion. Al was the pitcher, and he went through a slow-motion act of pitching to nobody in particular at the plate, and then in slow motion, my God, it's been hit over the fence. Al turns around toward right field to watch this ball go over the fence. In pantomime, you see; he was a great actor. We didn't need anybody at the plate, Al put on such a show.
But at that moment, just as the ball seems to be sailing over the right field fence, Babe Ruth himself, unadvertised, appeared out of the dugout and circled the bases. The Babe himself. In uniform. A little showmanship, eh? I didn't know I was such a showman.
Povich's showmanship raised $2,125,375, the second largest athletic gate in history; only the Dempsey-Tunney fight had earned more. The date was May 24, 1943; Crosby sang "Dinah," "As Time Goes By," and "White Christmas." The Babe took the microphone and urged the fans to buy even more War Bonds. Sir Archibald Wavell, a British war hero, gave an inspiring speech. "I always thought the first World Series I played in was the most thrilling event I would ever take part in or see," said Rizzuto, the Yankee shortstop then playing for the Navy, "but the show in Washington outdid that." He singled home two runs and survived a rundown between third and home as the Navy edged the Senators, 4 to 3. The Navy pitcher was Broadway Charley Wagner, who had beaten the Senators five times the previous year for the Boston Red Sox.
Povich's innovation was embellished in New York. On June 8, 1943, at a luncheon in the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom sponsored by the New York and Brooklyn chapters of the Baseball Writers Association of America, former mayor Jimmy Walker auctioned off players from the three New York teams for a total of $123,850,000 in War Bond pledges. Dixie Walker of the Dodgers drew an $11,250,000 bid from the Brooklyn Club, a social organization. The Esso Marketeers bought Carl Hubbell of the Giants for $3,000,000, and the National Bronx Bank paid $3,500,000 for Joe Gordon of the Yankees. In addition to fulfilling the pledges, a sponsor had to buy bonds in line with his player's achievements during the remainder of the season. The amounts were $2,500 for each single, $5,000 for a double, $7,500 for a triple and $10,000 for a home run. Pitchers earned the allied cause $35,000 for each victory, $50,000 for a shutout.
On August 26, 1943, twenty-six players from the three New York teams played as the War Bond All-Stars against a team of Army baseball stars including Hank Greenberg of the Tigers, Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals, and Sid Hudson of the Senators. The game drew 38,000 fans to the Polo Grounds and sold a staggering $800,000,000 in War Bond pledges. The War Bond All-Stars won, 5 to 2. By September of 1943, the three New York baseball teams had participated in the sale of enough War Bonds to fill nearly a quarter of New York City's War Bond goal.
Baseball's contributions won allies where they were needed. In November of 1943, Senator Scott Lucas, Democrat of Illinois, rose to praise the game for its financial contributions to the war effort. Lucas said that since Pearl Harbor, organized baseball had turned in $3,128,698 to war charities, $2,289,702 in admission taxes, and, from the National League alone, a bit over $1 billion in War Bond sales. "My sincere hope is that nothing will be done by any agency of the government which will in any way disturb the continuation of this great American institution during the emergency," Lucas told his colleagues.
Altogether, the major leagues contributed $2,900,000 to war charities during World War II. Beyond Lucas's figures, no tabulation was kept of War Bond sales or of contributions from the minor leagues. The final benefit games were played in July of 1945. No All-Star game was played that summer because of travel restrictions; seven interleague war charity games were played instead. In Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, the local National and American league teams played each other. In Cleveland, the Indians played the Cincinnati Reds; in Washington, the Senators played the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bert Shepard, who had lost one leg in the war, pitched for Washington, and won. The games raised $245,000 for war relief funds.
In addition to the special events, War Bonds and War Stamps were sold at booths in baseball parks, and players addressed War Bond rallies. Brooklyn players hawked bonds through the stands one Easter; what Dodger fan could deny a personal request from Dixie Walker or Billy Herman? In April of 1943, Branch Rickey, general manager of the Dodgers and a steadfast churchman, agreed for once to attend a Sunday game. The occasion that prompted Rickey to violate the Sabbath was a U.S. Treasury Department ceremony honoring the Dodger Spring Offensive War Bond Campaign, which helped bring Brooklyn War Bond sales to $180,000,000, nearly double the borough's springtime quota.
Shortly after the 1942 World Series, won by the Cardinals, St. Louis sportscasters France Laux and Bob Lyle auctioned the glove of Terry Moore, Cardinal center fielder, for a $5,000 War Bond. The gloves of second baseman Jimmy Brown and pitcher Ernie White went for $1,000 War Bonds; baseballs autographed by the Cardinals raised as much as $550 each. A week later, Laux outdid himself at a street rally in Centralia, Illinois, hammering down various Cardinal artifacts for a total of $102,150 in bonds. An autographed baseball went for $7,699 and team pictures for $9,500; even a turkey, which by no means resembled a cardinal, drew $1,000.
At the Philadelphia Sports Writers Dinner in early 1943, Connie Mack's portrait was auctioned for $16,000 in Bonds. The crowd was whipped up by Jimmy Gorman, 18, a wounded Marine who described the manner in which he and his comrades had killed Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal. "When Jimmy hauled out a trophy of his Pacific adventure—a Japanese flag—the diners were stumped," Stan Baumgartner of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in the Sporting News. "They wanted to cheer Jimmy, but they wanted to hiss the Japanese flag and they did so with a venom that singed the decorations of the hall."
In September of 1943, the major leagues offered to send two teams on tour to entertain troops in the South Pacific. Players were to donate their time, and many volunteered; the squads were of all-star quality with players such as Bucky Walters and Johnny Vander Meer of the Cincinnati Reds, Bob Elliott of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, Bill Dickey and Charlie Keller of the New York Yankees, Tex Hughson and Bobby Doerr of the Boston Red Sox, Luke Appling of the Chicago White Sox, and Rudy York of the Detroit Tigers. The players were lectured by the Sporting News to put behind them any notion of a "vacation or a merry-making junket," and by Branch Rickey to make the games "blood and thunder affairs." After all preparations had been made, the War Department reversed itself and canceled the trip, pleading a shortage of ships and airplanes. A tour by boxers Joe Louis and Billy Conn also was canceled. Drew Pearson's "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column reported that the tours had been scrubbed by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who "felt that the troops would resent the sight of apparently healthy ballplayers not in service uniform; would not realize that each ballplayer of military age had been exempted from the draft because of some physical infirmity."
However, a number of players, managers, umpires, and sportswriters did entertain U.S. troops on tours sponsored by the USO. Following the 1944 World Series, twenty-nine baseball notables were divided into five groups, each of which toured a separate war zone; the trips lasted several months. Sportswriters served as masters of ceremonies for the players, managers, and umpires, who showed baseball movies, told anecdotes, and answered questions.
One soldier's enthusiasm led the Sporting News to overplay its hand. In late 1943, U.S. troops in the Aleutian Islands were visited by Stan Musial and Danny Litwhiler of the Cardinals, Dixie Walker of the Dodgers, Hank Borowy of the Yankees, and Frankie Frisch, manager of the Pirates. Pfc. Howard T. Kosbau, sports editor of the Sourdough Sentinel, a service newspaper serving that area, wrote that "the soldiers here would rather talk with big league ballplayers than with Betty Grable." Apparently confident that Kosbau's view was prevalent, the Sporting News offered $50 for the best letter from a serviceman answering this question:
"Which would you prefer—an earful of big leaguers' gab or an eyeful of Betty Grable's gams?"
The advertisement pictured Miss Grable on a blanket, wearing a bathing suit and high-heeled shoes. Swallowing its pride, the Sporting News announced six months later that the winner, Major Alfred C. Brown, stationed in North Africa, had polled the men in his unit; 90 percent of them voted for Miss Grable's legs. "Put yourself in our place!" wrote the major. "For over a year we've had nothing feminine to observe but Arab women, their bodies completely covered with dirty white robes, their heads and faces covered, with possibly just one eye peeping out. Compare this constant view to that of one squint of Betty's gams. Brother, let's exchange places!"
Essential industries at home needed help, too. With labor short on the apple farms of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, seven members of the Washington Senators, including Manager Ossie Bluege and star pitcher Dutch Leonard, spent a 1943 open date picking apples. Paul Florence, president of the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association, set aside an acre of land and told his players to plant a victory garden.
Excerpted from Even the Browns by William B. Mead. Copyright © 1982 William B. Mead. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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