Season of '42: Joe D., Teddy Ballgame, and Baseball's Fight to Survive a Turbulent First Year of Warby Jack Cavanaugh
Big league baseball would seem to have been a hard sell in 1942. World War II was not going well for the United States in the Pacific and not much better in Europe. Moreover, the country was in drastically short supply of ships, planes, submarines, torpedoes, and other war materials, and Uncle Sam needed men, millions of them, including those from twenty-one through… See more details below
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Big league baseball would seem to have been a hard sell in 1942. World War II was not going well for the United States in the Pacific and not much better in Europe. Moreover, the country was in drastically short supply of ships, planes, submarines, torpedoes, and other war materials, and Uncle Sam needed men, millions of them, including those from twenty-one through thirty-five years of age who had been ordered to register for the draft, the age range of most big league baseball players.
But after a “green light” from President Roosevelt, major league baseball played on in 1942 as it would throughout the war. It turned out to be an extraordinary season, too, spiced by a brash, young, and swift St. Louis Cardinal team that stunned the baseball world by winning the World Series. The 1942 season would be overshadowed by war, though, with many people wondering whether it was really all right for four hundred seemingly healthy and athletic men to play a child’s game and earn far more money than the thousands of young Americans whose lives were at risk as they fought the Germans and Japanese abroad.
In Season of ’42, veteran sportswriter Jack Cavanaugh takes a look at this historic baseball season, how it was shaped and affected by the war and what, ultimately, it meant to America.
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SEASON OF '42Joe D, Teddy Ballgame, and Baseball's Fight to Survive a Turbulent First Year of War
By JACK CAVANAUGH
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2012 Jack Cavanaugh
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOPENING DAY AND MORE BAD WAR NEWS
AMERICANS AWOKE ON Tuesday, April 14, 1942, to newspaper headlines reporting that Japanese planes were continuing to bomb what the New York Times called the "last stranglehold" of U.S. forces on the island of Corregidor in the Philippines and that an unescorted French passenger liner had been sunk off the East Coast by a German submarine, but that all 290 people aboard had been rescued and brought to Charleston, South Carolina. It was the kind of news that most people in the United States, then a country of 135 million people—compared to more than 300 million by early in the second decade of the 21st century—had become accustomed to almost every morning, though even bleaker news had begun to reach relatives of American servicemen who had been killed in action or lost at sea as the result of submarine attacks against unarmed and unescorted freighters and tankers. It would be months before the well-known radio commentator Gabriel Heatter would often begin his popular evening network newscast with what would become his signature opening, "There's good news tonight." Certainly there was nothing to cheer about in early 1942. Nevertheless, many Americans were being inspired by a song written shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and recorded by the popular band leader Sammy Kaye entitled "Let's Remember Pearl Harbor":
Let's remember Pearl Harbor
As we go to meet the foe,
Let's remember Pearl Harbor
As we did the Alamo,
We shall always remember
How they died for liberty,
Let's remember Pearl Harbor
And go on to victory.
The rousing song, sung by a chorale backed by the Kaye orchestra and played often on the radio and on jukeboxes, resonated and served as a rallying cry for Americans. During 1942, another patriotic song, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," which had stemmed from the encouraging words of a navy chaplain to crew members of the cruiser New Orleans during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, became both popular and inspirational. Subsequently, most wartime songs related to the painful separation of GIs and their wives or girlfriends, such as "I Walk Alone," popularized mainly by Dinah Shore; the equally tender "I'll Be Seeing You," made popular by Bing Crosby; and the lighthearted ditty, "Don't Sit under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me," whose lyrics depicted a GI's request to a girl back home not to transfer her affections to someone else while he was away.
* * *
One of the few semblances of normality during America's first wartime year was big league baseball, thanks largely to President Roosevelt, who was in the second year of his unprecedented third term in office. To many it was incongruous that so many people were fixating so much attention on men of draft age lucky enough to be playing America's so-called national pastime. But they were unsure as to whether there would be future seasons if the war dragged on, which it gave every sign of doing so in early 1942. Even some people with a vested interest in baseball had misgivings about healthy young men playing the game for a living while thousands of others their ages were risking their lives at war. Among them was the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Warren Giles, an army artillery captain during World War I, who, in a letter to the team's players in January 1942, said he'd rather have the team finish last than have any players shirk military service:
I urge every player on the Cincinnati club to take personal stock of his personal situation, analyze it carefully, and ask himself this question: can I stand at the bar of public opinion in wartime and conscientiously justify good and sufficient reasons for not being in government service. If you cannot answer that question in the affirmative, look me straight in the eye and justify in your own heart and mind that you have justifiable reasons that you should not be playing on a professional baseball team during wartime.
Whether any of the Reds took Giles's advice and were able to justify not being in the service in 1942 was never determined. At any rate, the Reds, like almost every major league team, did not lose any starting players from its 1941 team, although several players, including Johnny Vander Meer and infielder Bert Haas, would eventually be drafted or enlist in the armed forces in 1943. Meanwhile, spring training for the sixteen major league teams in advance of the first wartime baseball season was uneventful but tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety and apprehension. No one knew what to expect from the fans, nor did anyone know that the spring of 1942 would be the last time the teams would train in warm-weather climates until 1946.
Major league baseball in 1942, as in the immediate years before, was a far cry from what it is today. Most significantly, perhaps, it was still an all-white game played mostly in the afternoon by players wearing flannel uniforms, with pants that ended at the knees and not at the shoe tops. Batting helmets were still more than a decade away, while batting gloves and arm and leg shields for hitters were even more distant. Most games ended in fewer than two hours, about an hour faster than games in the 21st century, mainly because most pitchers went the distance, batters rarely stepped out of the batter's box to adjust nonexistent batting gloves or to kick dirt from their spikes, and there were no commercial delays during innings, because television broadcasts of games were almost ten years in the future. Adoption of the designated hitter by the American League in 1973, wherein a batter who did not play in the field batted for the pitcher, also prolonged games, because it tended to produce more hits.
While every team had several "relief" pitchers, none of them were called "middle relievers" or "closers," terms and specializations that didn't exist until the 1970s. Neither did the "slider," a pitch that veers sharply away from a batter but did not become popular until about two decades later. It also was a time when infielders and outfielders tossed their gloves on the outfield grass when their teams changed sides to go to bat rather than carry them into dugouts. Occasionally, gloves lying on the field proved to be hindrances or helpmates. That was the case in a game at Yankee Stadium in 1943, when a batted ball seemingly destined for a single hit the glove of Yankee first baseman Nick Etten on the grass in short right field and rebounded to the second baseman, who threw the Yankee hitter out. That led Joe Trimble, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News, to write that Etten's glove could be more productive when his right hand (Etten was left handed) wasn't in it. Etten did not see the humor in Trimble's prose and let him know it in uncertain terms the next day when the story appeared in the newspaper. Another difference: Broken bats, so common today, were a rarity, with some players using the same bats—which tended to be bigger and heavier—for weeks at a time, if not longer. And of course all games were played outdoors on natural grass.
If major league baseball had hardly changed at all, neither had seventy-eight-year-old Connie Mack, a big league catcher from 1886 until 1896, who was in his forty-second year as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics after having been the playing manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1894 to 1896. By the time Mack, whose real name was Cornelius McGillicuddy, retired in 1950, he had won nine pennants and five World Series and managed 7,775 games, a record that most likely will never be broken. How did Mack manage to last so long as the A's manager? Simple: He was a co-owner of the team from its founding in 1901 until 1936, when he became its sole owner. Thus the only one who could have fired him earlier, particularly during its perennially bad years in the 1930s and 1940s, was Mack himself, and he chose not to do so until 1954, when he was eighty-seven years old and relying heavily on his coaches to help run the team.
Besides being baseball's only owner-manager in 1942, Mack was the only manager at the time who always wore a suit, tie, and usually a straw hat during games while waving his trademark scorecard. The only other manager in modern times who managed in street clothes was Burt Shotton, a former big league outfielder. In 1947, Shotton, then sixty-two and who had not managed since 1934, was persuaded by Branch Rickey, then the Dodgers president and general manager, to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers on an interim basis after Leo Durocher was suspended for one year for associating with what Baseball Commissioner Albert (Happy) Chandler considered undesirables. Shotton proceeded to lead the Dodgers to their first pennant since 1941 and stayed on as the Dodger manager for three more years after Durocher became manager of the New York Giants when he was reinstated in 1948. As it developed, both Mack and Shotton ended their managerial careers on the same day—October 1, 1950. From then until the second decade of the 21st century, no other manager has worn street clothes during a game.
* * *
Because big league baseball was restricted to white players, not much attention was paid to the appearance of two young black players at the Chicago White Sox training site in Pasadena, California, on March 18, 1942. At their requests, the players, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a recent graduate of UCLA, where he had been a star four-sport athlete best known for his exploits as a football halfback, and Nate Moreland, a pitcher in baseball's Negro Leagues, were given a tryout by the White Sox. Even though he had been slowed by a charley horse, Robinson, in particular, was highly impressive. "I'd hate to see him on two good legs," said White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes, who had spent twenty-two years as a big league shortstop. "He's worth $50,000 of anybody's money." Impressive as both Robinson and Moreland were, the White Sox passed on them, and shortly thereafter Robinson joined the army, where he became a lieutenant, and then five years later the first black major league player. (Some baseball historians point out that Fleet Walker, a black catcher, spent the 1884 season with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the old American Association, which was then regarded as a major league. A number of dark-skinned Cuban players also had played in the major leagues during the 1930s and would during the 1940s, an exception that many people found odd.) Before signing with the Dodgers in 1946 and being assigned to their Triple-A Montreal farm team, Robinson also would get short shrift during a tryout in April 1945 with two other outstanding Negro Leagues players, Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes and Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars, at Fenway Park in Boston. That tryout was arranged by Wendell Smith, the well-known sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a prominent African-American newspaper, and H. Y. Muchnick, a white member of the Boston City Council, who had threatened to oppose the issuance of licenses for Sunday baseball in Boston unless black players were given an opportunity to play with the Red Sox. Robinson, Williams, and Jethroe all did very well during the tryouts, which were run by Red Sox manager Joe Cronin and his coaches. After the workout, Cronin said he was impressed by all of them but did not say whether he was interested in signing Robinson, Jethroe, or Williams, which of course the Red Sox did not and obviously had no intention of doing no matter how well they did. As it developed, the Red Sox would be the last major league team to integrate when they signed twenty-five-year-old infielder Pumpsie Green in 1959, twelve years after Robinson broke the "color barrier" with Brooklyn and nine years after the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association had signed Chuck Cooper as their first black player, followed by the great center, Bill Russell, in 1956. (Earl Lloyd actually became the first black player to appear in an NBA game with the Washington Capitols during the 1950–51 season.) By the time Green joined the Red Sox, Robinson had already retired. So had Jethroe, who was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1950 with the Boston Braves, with whom he played through 1952 and led the league in stolen bases his first two seasons. Green would spend four seasons with the Red Sox and then seventeen games with the New York Yankees and finish with a .246 career batting average. By contrast, Jackie Robinson wound up with a .307 average during his ten-year major league career, and, of course, was later inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In August 1942, Bill Benswanger, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, said he had authorized Wendell Smith to pick some Negro League players whom the Pirates might consider. Smith did, selecting the great catcher Josh Gibson, often called "the black Babe Ruth," and outfielder Sammy Bankhead of the Homestead Grays, which played in Homestead, Pennsylvania, as well as shortstop Willie Wells and pitcher Leon Day of the Newark Eagles. The Pirates said the tryouts probably would take place at the end of the 1942 season, but apparently they never did happen. Day, one of the best Negro League pitchers of all time, never did make it to the major leagues but did make it to Omaha Beach in France during the Allies' D-Day invasion, when he was a member of the 818th U.S. Army Battalion.
* * *
On a mild sixty-degree spring afternoon in New York, either to enjoy a respite from depressing war news or, more likely, just eager to see the first baseball game of the 1942 season in New York, a crowd of 42,653 plus about 1,500 servicemen turned out at the oval-shaped Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan to see the New York Giants host the defending National League champion Dodgers on Tuesday, April 14. Both lineups were virtually intact from the 1941 season except for the absence of Dodger third baseman Cookie Lavagetto, who had joined the navy in February as an aviation machinist mate but would spend practically all his four years in service playing baseball, as would most big leaguers who would serve in the military. Also missing from the Dodger roster was backup catcher Don Padgett, whom the Dodgers had acquired from the Cardinals in December 1941, but who had joined the navy on April 1.
As would be the case at almost every major league park on April 18, there would be military pageantry blended with a strong patriotic spirit at the oddly shaped Polo Grounds, whose dimensions were 257 feet to right field, 287 feet to left field, and almost 500 feet to dead center field. Before the game, both teams, along with New York's short, rotund, and colorful mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, marched to the flagpole in center field, where the army's 17th regiment band played the national anthem and a wreath was laid at the memorial to Eddie Grant, a former Giants infielder who was the only major leaguer to be killed during World War I while he was in the army and for whom a "liberty" ship (cargo ships built during the war) would be named in June 1943. Continuing the patriotic theme, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and Mel Ott, the Giants star outfielder, who was making his debut as the team's playing manager, presented war bonds amounting to 10 percent of their first paychecks of the season to La Guardia, after which the five-foot two-inch mayor threw out the first pitch—a strike right over the plate.
During the game, which the Dodgers won, 7–6, twelve balls were hit into the stands, and, following an announced request before the game that would become a standard practice before every big league game during the war years, eleven were thrown back for shipment to military bases. The twelfth was not, whereupon the man who caught the ball was booed vociferously but still declined to return the ball, incurring the wrath of fans around him.
Four days later at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, whose forty-foot-high right-field fence and close proximity of the grandstand to the playing field were its trademarks, a fan described by the New York Times as a "pugnacious patriot" threatened to punch a man who refused to return a ball hit into the upper deck behind third base. Relenting under the threat and a barrage of boos, the fan finally tossed the ball onto the field. The third New York team, the World Series champion Yankees, opened in Washington, where, following an opening ceremony during which Vice President Henry Wallace threw out the first pitch and an army band played the national anthem, thirty-eight-year-old Red Ruffing pitched a three-hit shutout and singled twice as the Yankees beat the Senators, 7-0, before a crowd of 30,000 along with almost 2,000 servicemen. In Boston, Ted Williams picked up where he left off in 1941, when he batted .406, by hitting a three-run homer in the first inning and adding two more hits as he went three-for-four as the Boston Red Sox beat the Philadelphia Athletics, 8–1, before a crowd of only 11,000, including 1,200 servicemen, at Fenway Park. Because Williams had had four hits in six times at bat in his final game the previous September, his three-hit opening day gave him a remarkable seven hits in his last ten times at bat. During his long career, Williams always hit particularly well on opening day and would end his nineteen-year career in 1960 with an opening-day average of .449.
In one of the day's most notable games, twenty-four-year-old shortstop Lou Boudreau made his debut as the youngest manager in major league baseball history by getting two hits in three times at bat to lead the Cleveland Indians to a 5–2 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Detroit before 39,627 fans, the second-largest crowd of the day. Boudreau would continue to manage the Indians throughout the war, since he had been rejected for military service because of chronically bad ankles, a condition he incurred as a star basketball player at the University of Illinois. To say the least, Boudreau, whom sportswriters would call the "boy manager," often led by example, such as in a one-game playoff in 1948 at Fenway Park, when he had four hits in four times at bat, including two home runs, as the Indians beat the Red Sox to win the American League pennant, which would be the team's last until 1993.
Excerpted from SEASON OF '42 by JACK CAVANAUGH Copyright © 2012 by Jack Cavanaugh. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jack Cavanaugh is a veteran sportswriter whose work has appeared most notably on the sports pages of The New York Times. He is the author of The Gipper (2010), Giants Among Men (2008), and Tunney (2006), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in biography. Currently an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a columnist for the Stamford Advocate, he lives with his wife in Wilton, Connecticut.
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