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Against the backdrop of the Nuremberg trials and a nation awash in the uncertainties of a postwar economy, spring training was a welcome diversion. In all, 500 major leaguers had served in the armed forces; Turner (The Culture of Hope, 1995, etc.) focuses on players from the pennant-winning Red Sox and Cardinals but also examines the return of DiMaggio, who'd been gone since 1942, and Feller, who had missed almost four full seasons. Some players, such as Musial, had it relatively easy during the war. Teammate Harry Walker, on the other hand, contracted spinal meningitis while at Ft. Riley, saw intense combat in Germany, and was a much-decorated veteran. As Turner follows the pennant races, he takes a look at the blossoming of rookies such as the Pirates' Ralph Kiner and the sad case of the Senators' Cecil Travis, a shortstop who had batted .359 in 1941 but who was unable to overcome frostbitten feet and four years of military life. In recounting the final days of the pennant races and the World Series, the author pays particular attention to the contributions made by the returning veterans and the impact they made on their teams' fortunes. Feller, whose Indians were out of it, finished with an astonishing 348 strikeouts in 371 innings, 10 shutouts, and a no-hitter. DiMaggio, injured early on, had, for him, a so-so season. The Cardinals, stacked with returning stars, defeated the Red Sox in the World Series on Enos Slaughter's famed "Mad Dash" from first base on a single off the bat of Harry Walker.
Turner's writing could be livelier, but baseball fans will enjoy this account of a unique season.
Stan Musial echoed the recollections of many of the playersreturning from the service when he said that the dominant feeling in thecamps was one of joyful relief that the war was at last over and old teammateswere together again under the sun. There wasn't much talk of thewar at first or of what individual players had gone through: those storieswould emerge gradually as the season progressed) spun out on the longtrain trips between cities; told in hotel lobbies before and after games oraround a table of card players; or between two roommates, restless andunable to sleep in a hot hotel room on the road. For now, the boys laughedand cavorted and limbered up. Musial, who had a penchant for tricks andparlor magic, brought a false rubber thumb to camp and left it in thehands of unsuspecting teammates and writers who shook hands with him.
The condition of the Cardinals park at St. Petersburg wasn't a laughingmatter, however. Waterfront Park had always had too much sand in itssoil, making footing tricky, and the playing surface was now in evenworse condition after having been used for the past three years as a militarydrill ground. Playing pepper one day soon after his arrival, Musialslipped and stretched ligaments in his left knee, setting him even furtherbehind the others in his conditioning. Racing for a ball in the lumpy outfield,Terry Moore made a misstep and pulled a calf muscle, an injury thatwould nag him the rest of the season. And there were off-field problems,too, like the scarcity of rooms for wives and children, higher prices foreverythingfrom a shave to a steak, and blowouts on the team bus whenrecapped tires gave way. But for now, few were complaining. This certainlybeat the service. From the perspective of the fans and the writers,it also beat what had almost laughably passed for spring training and bigleague baseball during the past three years.
In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, baseball's commissioner,Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had written President Franklin Delano Rooseveltasking for instructions: should baseball be played at all in such anemergency, and if so, under what conditions? As a deep conservative,Landis deplored almost all of Roosevelt's policies and perhaps mostespecially his racial attitudes and is said to have despised FDR personally,but now baseball's dictator was obliged to ask for guidance from ahigher authority. And although Landis subsequently took credit for getting the "green light" from Roosevelt to continue the game through thewar years, it may well have been Roosevelt's friendship with WashingtonSenators owner Clark Griffith that proved more important in the decision.Whatever the case, Roosevelt wrote Landis back in mid-January 1942,saying he thought it would be good for the nation's morale if baseballwere played. Roosevelt was a baseball fan and also a superbly cannypolitician who knew full well what a remarkable position the "nationalpastime" held in American culture and how much its continuance wouldcontribute to the belief that there were certain aspects of American lifethat could be counted on, even in the most terrible of emergencies.(*)
In his letter to Landis, Roosevelt said that, although baseball ought tocontinue, able-bodied players should not be exempted from service,and before Japan surrendered more than 500 major leaguers and morethan 4,000 minor leaguers wore service uniforms.([dagger]) Some, like Musial,served only briefly and far from the front lines. Some, like Musial'steammate, Enos Slaughter, followed closely behind the advance of thefront lines and entertained the troops with exhibition games played onthe newly won ground. Some saw heavy action and came back withscars and citations to prove it. And some, like the Cleveland Indiansgreat pitcher Bob Feller and Cardinals outfielder Harry Walker, foughtwith the troops, played for them, and supervised their recreation andworkouts.
Musial's outfield mates on the Cardinals had representative experiences.Center fielder and team captain Terry Moore had been thirty-onewhen he'd entered the army and had missed the seasons of 1943, '44, and'45. But during those years he'd had the opportunity to play a fair amountof service baseball, some of it in South and Central America where theweather was generally good but the playing conditions were often subpartWhen he was discharged in January 1946, Moore stayed on a few weeksin Panama, playing on a civilian team in a league he was leading in battingaverage when he left for the States and early camp in Florida. Mooresaw no action, played in over a hundred exhibition games, and reportedto the Cardinals in what he said was reasonably good shape. Yet the warhad cost him prime years, and he knew very well it had been a long timesince he'd faced top-flight competition.
Enos Slaughter had enlisted in the Army A* Corps in August 1942,with his team in a tremendous pennant race with their archrivals, theDodgers. He finished the season (the Cardinals won 43 of their final 51games to finish first), then went to San Antonio for what he hoped wouldbe flight school. "I wanted to be a pilot," Slaughter said, "but they said Iwas color blind. They wanted me to be bombardier, but I said if I couldn'tbe the one flying the plane, I'd just as soon not be flying. So, I became aphysical education instructor in charge of about two hundred troops."Afternoons and weekends Slaughter played baseball against other baseteams in Texas, many of them like his own, stocked with professionalplayers. A half century later he would recall that during the 1943 seasonthere he'd made 116 hits in 233 at bats.
Then Slaughter was told that if he would go with other players to theSouth Pacific, he would be guaranteed a quick discharge when the warended. He accepted the deal and followed the American forces as theyisland-hopped toward Japan. On Tinian the Seabees bulldozed out a ballfieldon top of a coral reef, then fashioned bleacher seats out of bombcrates. On Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima huge crowds of troops sat at theedges of the rough-hewn fields in the blazing sun, drinking beer andCokes, and cheering the ballplayers. And on some islands there were stillholdout Japanese soldiers in the hills; when the games were in progress,they would come out of their caves to watch. Seeing these "fans" up thereon the hillsides, gave the players a funny feeling, Slaughter said.
Slaughter got his discharge March 1, 1946. "When I come back," hesaid, "I was getting the same contract as before: eleven thousand dollars.They said I was an old man. I was thirty." Later that month, the "old man"came back to St. Louis, "had a hemorrhoid operation, got me a pillow,and drove to Florida."
Harry Walker was inducted immediately after the 1943 World Seriesand sent to Fort Riley where Pete Reiser met him at the bus stop andassured him things would be great there, that the colonel was a big fan,and that the base team would be a powerhouse. As it turned out, Walkerplayed almost no baseball at Fort Riley because he contracted spinalmeningitis there and almost died. When he eventually recovered he wassent to the European theater and wound up on the German-Austrian borderin the last desperate days before the collapse of the Third Reich. There
Walker's reconnaissance unit was ordered to hold a bridge against a hordeof routed German troops seeking to cross it. Whether or not he killedtwenty-two men, as Stan Musial remembered, Walker was forced to kill agood many. He was on point in a Jeep with two machine guns mounted onit when, as he recalled it, "here they come, and I'm trying to stop them,and they wouldn't stop. So that's when I had to start shooting, and I just cutthrough the whole mess, and they were scattered everywhere, firing backand forth at you, and you're just out there on point like a sitting duck."
Days later, when the firing stopped and that part of the war ended,Walker began a new assignment when his commanding office approachedhim with what Walker thought was a suggestion: that he organize someballclubs to play for the troops. When Walker said he'd kind of like to gohome now that the shooting was over and play ball for money, the c.o. gotto the point. "He said to me, `Walker, I didn't ask you if you wanted to doit. I said I wanted you to do it. I have about fifteen thousand GIs here, andI've got to entertain them, or they're going to give me a fit. We're not supposedto have anything to do with the Germans, so I want you to get thoseteams together and play two or three times a week.'"
Walker found earthmoving equipment in Czechoslovakia, requisitionedit, and built a ballfield in Linz. Later he starred on a team thatplayed for the European theater championship in the Nuremberg stadiumwhere Albert Speer once staged the monster rallies for Hitler. Down atone end of the now-ghostly complex was the baseball field, its infieldmade of finely crushed brick salvaged from shell-damaged buildings, andbeyond the outfield fence stretched the concrete expanse of the runwayalong which the Nazis had once paraded military equipment moresophisticated than any in the world. The stadium that once shook with thethunderous chants of an intoxicated people now heard the cheers of60,000 American GIs watching a version of their national pastime.
* * *
With Walker and the others away in the service for varying lengths oftime, their places were taken by players of lesser skills, and as the teams'rosters changed with service call-ups, the leagues' standings gyratedwildly. The season of 1942 was not that much affected, though alreadythe great players Feller, Hank Greenberg, and Cecil Travis had left. Butbeginning in '43, with the departures of Ted Williams of the Boston RedSox, Yankee Joe DiMaggio, Reiser of the Dodgers, Johnny Mize of theNew York Giants, and Slaughter, Moore, and Johnny Beazley of the Cardinals,the level of play definitely dipped, and it was to sink even lowerduring the next two seasons. Graybeards who under normal circumstanceswould have long since grabbed a lunch bucket and joined theworkaday world, now hung on, often with pathetic results. These wereplayers such as the great slugger Jimmie Foxx and two-time AmericanLeague batting champion Al Simmons who tried to play in 1943 at ageforty-one and hit .203; or Ben Chapman, a star outfielder for severalAmerican League teams, who turned pitcher in 1944 and '45. Fat FreddieFitzsimmons, a big winner in the 1920s and '30s, pitched for the depletedDodgers at age forty-two in 1943 and was awful. Manager Joe Cronin ofthe Red Sox had gotten too old and fat to bend over at shortstop, but hissquad was so thin he shifted over to play first base and hit only .241.
At the same time other old-timers who had put their mitts away andgone to work now returned to the diamond. Hod Lisenbee pitched againstthe Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig in 1927 but hadn't pitched in the bigleagues since 1936. In 1944 at age forty-six he made a comeback withthe Cincinnati Reds. Pepper Martin, the hell-bent-for-leather star of theCardinals in the 1930s, returned to his old club in 1944 after four years ofretirement. Babe Herman had been a feared slugger with the Dodgers inthe 1930s but hadn't been in a major league game since 1937. In 1'945,though, the Dodgers suited up the forty-two-year-old Herman and usedhim as a pinch-hitter.
Then there were the kids who should have been learning their professionin Class D baseball but who were now forced to learn it before thefans in big league ballparks. Joe Nuxhall was fifteen in 1944 when hetoed the pitching slab for Cincinnati and got his ears pinned back by theCardinals. In that same season seventeen-year-old Eddie Yost playedbriefly for the Senators. And there was Tommy Brown of Brooklyn's Bensonhurstsection. In childhood Brown learned a baseball's tricky hopsplaying on the cobbled streets down near the navy yard. At twelve hischildhood ended when he went to work on the New York docks, and byfourteen he was playing on weekends with those four and five years hissenior on the diamonds at Brooklyn's Parade Grounds. In 1943 when hewas fifteen a Dodgers scout invited him to an Ebbets Field tryout alongwith about 2,000 other aspirants.
"After the first day," Brown said, "if they called your name, you cameback the next day. Next day, same process. They finally got it down toabout thirty kids. So the following day I played in an intersquad game inEbbets Field, and they told me they'd be in touch with me." In earlyDecember with parental consent Brown signed with the Dodgers, theteam whose every doing he'd followed for years. That spring they senthim to Newport News in the Piedmont League. "I was hitting .297,"Brown said, "and the manager got a telegram and said to me, `You'regoing to Brooklyn. [Leo] Durocher wants you to play shortstop.' Youcould make a movie out of it, I guess, but I didn't really want to go. But Irode the train all night and got to Ebbets Field in the morning. We're playingthe Cubs a doubleheader, and I didn't expect to play. Durocher says,'You're playing shortstop. Both games.' I coulda hit the floor. I wassixteen, and I used to keep a scorecard on these guys!"
Between the old-timers and the raw kids was an odd collection ofmen who had no past to speak of in the game and no future in it either,but who in 1943, '44, and '45 passed for big league players. EddieBoland, an outfielder who'd had what the players termed a "cup ofcoffee" with the Phillies back in the mid-'30s, played for the Senators in1944—on his vacation from the New York Sanitation Department. SigJakucki was a boozing, brawling journeyman pitcher who had never wona big league game and had been bouncing around in the minors for eightseasons until the St. Louis Browns found they could use him in 1944—whenhe was thirty-six. As it turned out, Jakucki was more than theequal of the league's hitters of that season and the next one, too, but hewas completely uncontrollable and a menace to club morale. TheBrowns also had Pete Gray in the outfield. Gray had lost his right arm ina boyhood accident, yet he'd been able to excel in the minor leagues.With the Browns in 1945 Gray was simply overmatched, even by thepitching staffs of that season.
These years also saw the birth and rise to popularity of theAll-American Girls Baseball League, begun by Cubs owner P. K.Wrigley in 1944 as a novel way of satisfying the homefront's hunger forbaseball. The AAGBL game was a hybrid of baseball and softball andwas short on slugging and long on strike-out pitchers and stolen bases.Still, it was a recognizable version of the national pastime and took fans'minds off the war and the loss of the star players to it. When the boyscame back from the service and big league baseball returned to itsprewar level, the popularity of the AAGBL sagged appreciably, anddespite various measures designed to revive its popularity, the leagueeventually folded after the 1954 season.
During these years the level of major league play did not have tosuffer quite as much as it did, for skilled and able-bodied players wereavailable who might have made up for at least some of the losses to theservice, but organized baseball had a firm if unwritten color barrier thatforbid any owner, no matter how talent-starved his team, from dippinginto the ranks of the Negro leagues. To be sure, the Negro league teamshad themselves been hit by call-ups. Still, during the seasons of 1944 and'45 talented players such as Satchel Paige, Artie Wilson, RoyCampanella, Sam Jethroe, Willard Brown, Gene Benson, Roy Partlow,and Hilton Smith were available to any white owner who wanted to signthem. So too was the almost mythical slugger Josh Gibson, though bythis point heavy drinking had apparently already eroded his great skills.Bill Veeck, the Young Turk who wanted to buy the hapless Phillies in1943, recognized the nature and extent of this untapped pool of talent.His plan, which he unwisely revealed, was to buy the Phillies and stockthe team with black players. Had he been able to do so, the Phillies withPaige, Partlow, Wilson, and the others, would have walked to thepennant. As it was, once the other owners heard of Veeck's plan' theyarranged for the Phillies to go to another, more orthodox buyer, andVeeck and the blacks were frozen out.
FNT[(*) Before the war's end Roosevelt's sense of the game's cultural and emotional importance wasdemonstrated many times, both on the home front and on the fields of battle where the game was discussedand even played when the smoke of an engagement had barely cleared. During the first daysof the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, German officers disguised as Americans were sentahead of the Panzers to infiltrate Allied lines and spread confusion. To counter this, roadblocks werehastily thrown up by American forces and anyone going either way was interrogated. General RobertHasbrouck, commander of the American Seventh Armoured Division, said that a favorite question ata roadblock was, "Who pitched for the Yankees in such-and-such a year?" "If you couldn't answer:'he said, "you were detained."]FNTFNT[([dagger]) Interestingly, as Bill Gilbert points out in his book on wartime baseball, They Also Served,Selective Service's Lewis Hershey granted deferments to virtually everyone in the film industry. The reasonfor this difference in treatment must have been the industry's greater potential for creating anddisseminating wartime propaganda.]FNT(*) Before the war's end Roosevelt's sense of the game's cultural and emotional importance wasdemonstrated many times, both on the home front and on the fields of battle where the game was discussedand even played when the smoke of an engagement had barely cleared. During the first daysof the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, German officers disguised as Americans were sentahead of the Panzers to infiltrate Allied lines and spread confusion. To counter this, roadblocks werehastily thrown up by American forces and anyone going either way was interrogated. General RobertHasbrouck, commander of the American Seventh Armoured Division, said that a favorite question ata roadblock was, "Who pitched for the Yankees in such-and-such a year?" "If you couldn't answer:'he said, "you were detained."]FNTFNT[([dagger]) Interestingly, as Bill Gilbert points out in his book on wartime baseball, They Also Served,Selective Service's Lewis Hershey granted deferments to virtually everyone in the film industry. The reasonfor this difference in treatment must have been the industry's greater potential for creating anddisseminating wartime propaganda.
Copyright © 1996 Anne Mendelson.All rights reserved.
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|PROGRAM: THE PLAYERS AND THEIR TEAMS, 1946||269|