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When Baseball Went to War
By Todd Anton, Bill Nowlin
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin
All rights reserved.
BASEBALL AND WAR
Our National Pastime
by Dr. Gordon H. "Nick" Mueller President/CEO, The National World War II Museum
It was December 1944. American forces were facing a German assault in Belgium and Luxembourg commonly known as "The Battle of the Bulge." Many German SS troopers donned American uniforms to cause havoc behind American lines. Their English was perfect: accent-free. How could a GI make sure he was talking to another "Joe" rather than a "Kraut"? The answer was simple: Ask baseball questions. "How did the Dodgers do this year?" "Who is Joltin' Joe?" "What's a Texas Leaguer?" "Where is Ebbets Field?"
You'd better know baseball to stay alive. Americans did. Stories such as this remind us of how baseball's myth and legend are part of popular American culture today. For well over a century, baseball has been the lifeblood of our nation. Even many who aren't fans of the game are familiar with Abner Doubleday's "invention" of the game in Cooperstown, New York, the legend of Casey at the Bat, Babe Ruth's "called shot" in the World Series, and the various curses that have hexed the Chicago Cubs for nearly 100 years. Hey, as most Cubs fans say, anyone can have a bad century. That may be true for the Cubs, but for America and its national pastime, that is hardly the case.
Baseball is America's game.
During World War II, heroes from the ballfield reported for duty. Stars such as Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers joined the Army as kids pleaded with him, "Don't let Hitler kill baseball." Radio broadcasts and newspaper boxscores helped create a sense of normalcy on the home front for millions working for national defense. Boys wearing olive drab uniforms — be they from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, from Iowa to California — could pick up a ball, bat, or glove in foreign theaters of war and, if only for the briefest of moments, feel like they were back at their neighborhood sandlot or field with their families and friends. They wanted to be throwing fastballs, not hand grenades. They wanted to hit home runs and "Texas Leaguers," not assault beaches named Omaha or islands named Iwo Jima.
Baseball helped win the war, but not by inflicting casualties on the enemy or through territorial gains on a map. The game helped remind Americans of the way of life for which they were fighting. It reminded them that they were all on the same team. It reminded them that once victory in this epic struggle was achieved, they could all return to the lives they were used to before the war. Baseball gave veterans their humanity. Baseball reminded them of the boys they once were and were never to be again.
Over Veterans Day weekend in November 2007, The National World War II Museum hosted a baseball conference in New Orleans, "When Baseball Went to War." In no professional sport have more men sacrificed for their country than baseball. This conference was sponsored by Humana and brought to the Museum many of baseball's military veterans, including Jerry Coleman, Johnny Pesky, Bob Feller, Morrie Martin, Lou Brissie, local Negro Leaguer Herb "Briefcase" Simpson who played with the Homestead Grays, and Dolly Brumfield White of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
These presenters were able to provide insight into their lesser-known but just as fascinating stories of their lives in World War II. By sharing their experiences, these veterans of the battlefield and ballfield told a sold-out audience how they felt about their service and how their war experiences changed them both as ballplayers and as men and women. The memories and wisdom of the players who saved baseball reawakened an important image — the greatness of baseball and the character of those who helped save it. It was amazing to see men in their seventies and eighties asking Bob Feller for an autograph as if they were still boys. It was truly a gift to hear the keynote address of legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda remind us all of the greatness of America and baseball. The conference was as diverse as our nation, but one common theme was as obvious in baseball as it was throughout America — "we're all in this together" and the goal was victory.
In recognition of their service, this conference provided an opportunity to thank these veterans/players. The Museum was honored to do so by bestowing its American Spirit Silver Service Medallion, presented by two members of our Board of Trustees — conference originator and baseball/WWII historian Todd Anton and current baseball pitching ace Curt Schilling of the World Champion Boston Red Sox — to the players in attendance.
The weekend was a grand slam, and as always, the veterans were the stars. Whether the players were in the Hall of Fame or not, the audience was enthralled to hear what these people had done for this nation, baseball, and the world more than 60 years ago. Never once were the baseball veterans bitter over lost records or lost moments on the field. One baseball veteran, when asked about his missing baseball years — those "gaps" in his statistics — responded with typical humility, "Imagine the gaps in my character as a man had I not served." Like all of the other men and women who put aside their normal lives for the duration of the war, they all wanted to — in Bob Feller's words — "Throw a few strikes for Uncle Sam!"
America is glad and grateful that they did!CHAPTER 2
When Baseball Went to War
by Gary Bedingfield
On September 16, 1940, faced with Japanese territorial gains in the Pacific and Nazi Germany's continued conquest of its neighbors in Europe, President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, better known as the draft. The draft affected every profession, and baseball was no exception. Every American male between the ages of 21 and 36 was required to register for 12 months of military service. These civilian soldiers began arriving at training camps all across the United States in October of 1940. By the end of 1941, nearly 2 million Americans were in uniform. Three hundred of them were professional baseball players.
Major League Baseball was at its zenith in 1941, enjoying a momentous year. Ted Williams batted .406, Joe DiMaggio captivated the nation by hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, and 41-year-old Lefty Grove got his 300th career win. The Brooklyn Dodgers finally made it to the World Series, although catcher Mickey Owen was to be forever immortalized for mishandling a Hugh Casey pitch that cost them the Series against the Yankees. Meanwhile, baseball bid a resounding farewell to the first two major league players to enter military service. Hugh "Losing Pitcher" Mulcahy — a veteran with the Philadelphia Phillies — holds the distinction of being the first major league regular to be drafted in World War II, being inducted on March 8, 1941. The 27-year-old right-hander earned his nickname by losing an astounding 76 games between 1937 and 1940 as a starter with the senior circuit's perennial basement team. "My losing streak is over for the duration," he proudly announced as he reported for induction at Camp Devens in Massachusetts. "I'm on a winning team now."
Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg, one of the first Jewish superstars in American professional sports and a future Hall of Famer, received his draft call on May 7, 1941. "Hammerin' Hank" had played in three World Series and two All-Star Games — he hit 58 home runs in 1938, just two short of Babe Ruth's 1927 record — and was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1935 and 1940. Greenberg gave up his $55,000 yearly salary for $21 a month Army pay and reported to Fort Custer, Michigan. "If there's any last message to be given to the public, let it be that I'm going to be a good soldier," he declared.
Despite the deteriorating international situation, these one-year draftees hoped peace would prevail and allow them to return to civilian life having missed just one season. In fact, for Greenberg and former White Sox slugger, Zeke Bonura — who had been inducted by the Army in June 1941 — a return to civilian life came sooner than expected. On December 5, they were both discharged after Congress released men aged 28 years and older from service.
Two days later, during the early hours of Sunday, December 7, peace abruptly came to an end as the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that sank or damaged 18 warships of the United States Pacific Fleet and claimed more than 2,000 lives. Pearl Harbor sent the nation into a wave of overwhelming patriotism as isolationists and interventionists united in an immediate rush to enlist. Within days, Greenberg and Bonura were back in service. "We are in trouble," said Sgt. Greenberg, "and there is only one thing for me to do — return to the service."
Cleveland's 23-year-old pitching sensation, Bob Feller, was among those who felt an overwhelming need to serve their country. Despite deferment as the only support of his parents, he went to the Navy recruiting office in Chicago on December 9 and, along with thousands of other young men, joined the armed forces of the United States of America. Feller later served in the Atlantic and Pacific as a gun crew chief on the battleship USS Alabama.
Hitler's declaration of war against the United States on December 11 merely fueled the enthusiasm. Industrial giants across the nation — including factories, workshops, mills, and mines — swung into action to produce the necessities of war. The vast automobile industry unhesitatingly switched to the production of military vehicles, turning out a steady stream of trucks, jeeps, tanks, and airplanes, while manufacturers that were more accustomed to handling refrigerators and vacuum cleaners turned their straight-line production techniques to the manufacturing of ammunition, guns, and other essential war commodities. Even manufacturers of sporting goods equipment were contributing to the war effort. Hillerich & Bradsby — makers of the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bats — turned their wood-turning skills to the production of stocks for the M1 carbine. Within months of Pearl Harbor, America was impressively living up to the pledge it had given to become the "Arsenal of Democracy."
Although professional athletes were enlisting or being drafted into the armed forces from the beginning, there existed an undertone of disapproval toward seemingly fit men participating in sports and apparently evading military duties. Some thought baseball squandered manpower and should be shut down for the duration. In hindsight, this attitude is understandable, but there is little doubt that for the overwhelming majority, baseball was a major morale booster throughout the war years.
In April 1942, in response to the negative undertones, The Sporting News took it upon itself to ask servicemen for their views on the situation: Should baseball continue while they fight and perhaps die for democracy and freedom? An abundance of replies besieged the publication's offices in St. Louis, strongly backing President Roosevelt's January 1942 directive to keep baseball going. Included was a letter from Pvt. John E. Stevenson, based at Fort Dix, New Jersey, who wrote: "Baseball is part of the American way of life. Remove it and you remove something from the lives of American citizens, soldiers, and sailors."
More than 500 major league players swapped their flannels for military uniforms during the war. Some never left the United States, enjoying an almost normal existence playing baseball for service teams as entertainment for military personnel. Others did the same in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. A much smaller group came face-to-face with the horrors of combat and the death of comrades in unimaginable conditions in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific.
On the home front, major league ballclubs were faced with a huge manpower shortage during the war and overcame this by packing their rosters with youngsters, old-timers, part-timers, and 4-Fs — "physically, mentally or morally unfit for service." And then there was Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder with the St. Louis Browns in 1945. There is no doubt Gray could play, and his courage was an inspiration to the veteran soldiers returning home from the war, many of whom were missing limbs. He was featured in newsreels and often visited hospitals and rehabilitation centers, speaking with amputees and reassuring them that they could still have productive lives. Yet, organized baseball continued to overlook the many able-bodied African-American ballplayers who could have helped fill the ranks of wartime rosters. They were allowed to fight and die on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific but couldn't play baseball on the major league ballfields of America. Fortunately, that injustice was addressed almost immediately after the war when Branch Rickey — possibly fueled by racial tolerance servicemen had witnessed overseas and the existence of integrated service baseball teams in Europe and the Pacific — signed Jackie Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers in October 1945.
Late 1945 and early 1946 saw the steady return of servicemen ballplayers, some of whom had been in the military for four years — a vast length of time in any athlete's life. Many — such as Cecil Travis, who suffered severe frostbite at the Battle of the Bulge — were never the same when they returned. The spring in their step had gone, the zip in their fastball or whip in their bat left behind on some far-off battlefield. What once came so easily now rarely appeared at all, and it wasn't only natural ability some were coming home without.
Bert Shepard, a minor league pitcher before the war, had his right leg amputated after his P-38 fighter plane crashed in Germany. Through sheer self-belief and determination, he taught himself to walk and then pitch on an artificial leg — all within the confines of a prisoner-of-war camp. By February 1945, Shepard was back in the United States and determined to pitch in organized ball. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith took a look at the amputee's pitching form in spring training and offered Shepard a job as a pitching coach. On August 4, 1945, Shepard became an inspiration to all wartime amputees when he pitched five innings for the Senators against the Boston Red Sox in a major league ballgame, fulfilling a dream that few could have imagined possible.
Adversity also faced Johnny Grodzicki, Lou Brissie, and Bill Fennhahn, all promising young pitchers who suffered serious injuries that should have shattered their hopes of playing baseball for a living. Grodzicki was a promising St. Louis Cardinals prospect before the war. He served in Europe as a paratrooper and was with the 17th Airborne Division when they made their first combat jump east of the Rhine River in Germany on March 24, 1945. Five days later an artillery shell exploded nearby and shrapnel tore into his right hip and leg. Grodzicki was removed to a field hospital, where it was discovered that his sciatic nerve had been badly damaged. There was a good chance he would never walk again. He was hospitalized in England, and then the United States, where he learned to walk again with a cane and steel brace on his right leg. When spring training came around in 1946, Grodzicki was in a Cardinals uniform doing all he could to earn a place on the team's roster. He pitched briefly for the Cardinals in 1946 and 1947, and then played in the minors until 1952.
In Italy, Lou Brissie was hit by artillery fire that shattered his left shinbone into more than 30 pieces and broke his left ankle and right foot. His leg should have been amputated, but somehow he was able to persuade field hospital doctors to send him to an evacuation hospital where the limb might be saved. Three years later, in a specially designed brace, Brissie was on the mound for the Philadelphia Athletics. He won a career-high 16 games in 1949.
Bill Fennhahn was with the 5th Ranger Battalion and hit by machine gun fire in Germany that broke both his legs, severed vital nerve fibers, and required 16 months of hospitalization. Yet Fennhahn still went on to enjoy a brief career in the minors. Tony Ravish, Fennhahn's manager when he played in the Canadian-American League in 1948, always pitched Fennhahn in seven-inning games because he would get tired naturally. "But for seven innings," recalled Ravish, "boy, he could fire that ball!"
Inevitably, some baseball players made the ultimate sacrifice in World War II. Two players with major league experience were killed in action. Harry O'Neill, a young catcher with the Philadelphia Athletics, lost his life in the Pacific, and Elmer Gedeon, a fleet-footed outfielder for the Washington Senators, died in Europe.
Excerpted from When Baseball Went to War by Todd Anton, Bill Nowlin. Copyright © 2008 Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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