Wartime Baseball

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On a cold January day six weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt answered a letter from baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis concerning baseball’s survival during World War II: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going….everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation….Baseball provides a recreation…which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally. As to the players themselves…individual players who are of active military or naval age should go, without question, into the service. Even if the actual quality of the teams is lowered by the greater use of older players.”

Some people believed baseball should close down for the duration, but a majority of Americans supported the sentiments expressed in FDR’s letter. Although increasing draft calls cut the quality of professional baseball, three full major league seasons and most of a fourth were played while Americans fought the Second World War. Major league baseball had become a part of the rhythm of American life; canceling the nation’s pastime would have been the same as canceling Christmas. Like the rest of the country, baseball survived World War II by adapting to home front realities.

Simply being a visiting team became a problem because of wartime travel restrictions. The nation’s rail system filled military priorities first; civilian travel had to take a coach seat or no seat at all. Commissioner Landis decreed that the 16 major league teams make only three visits to the other teams’ cities instead of the usual four. While one less visit to a favorite city provided little hardship, Landis’ spring training order brought the war home to the ballplayers: For the war’s duration, spring training would be held north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Beginning in the spring of 1943, Florida’s balmy breezes were replaced by the Midwest’s howling March winds and the Northeast’s damp cold.

The Cubs, White Sox, Tigers, Pirates, Indians, and Reds all trained in Indiana, which sports writers quickly dubbed “The Limestone League.” The eastern teams trained along the Atlantic seaboard close to their home cities: the Yankees and Giants in New Jersey, the Phillies in Pennsylvania, the Athletics in Delaware, the Senators in Maryland, and the Braves and Red Sox in their home state of Massachusetts. The Brooklyn Dodgers were luckier than the rest, training at Bear Mountain, New York, close to the U.S. Military Academy; when the cadets were not using their field house, Army brass allowed Brooklyn’s bums in from the cold.

President Roosevelt had asked for more night games, but German U-boats kept the East Coast’s major and minor league teams from complying. Early in 1942, U-boats sank alarming numbers of merchant vessels off the East Coast. The military authorities believed city lights made the U-boat captain’s job easier by silhouetting passing ships. Therefore, in April 1942, the government ordered coastal “dim-outs.” Ballparks were allowed only one hour of artificial light, so teams began night games in the late afternoon. These games, at first called “dusk” games or “twights,” soon became known as twi-night games. Later in the war, when U-boats became the hunted instead of the hunters, the dim-outs ended. By war’s end, night games had increased substantially, and within a few post-war years night baseball became as ubiquitous as peanuts and crackerjacks.

Manpower, or more precisely the quality of manpower, was baseball’s biggest wartime problem. The nation’s first peacetime draft, begun in 1940, affected only a few major league players. But with the declaration of war, the draft calls began to take a heavy toll on baseball’s best players. By 1944, the level of play sank to a new low when the St. Louis Browns, probably the worst major league team of the first half of the twentieth century, won their first and only American League pennant. In Even the Browns author William B. Mead perfectly described the Browns’ pennant win: “As the war wore on, the rest of the American League was sucked dry of talent by the military draft. But the Browns improved. Finally, in 1944, they surfaced, like an ugly stump in a draining lake.”

The quality of play hit bottom during 1945. The final wartime season saw some incredible sights: an outfielder with one arm, a pitcher with an artificial leg, and a World Series described as so bad, “neither team can win.”

Pete Gray, who lost his right arm in a boyhood accident, played the outfield for the minor league Memphis Chicks during 1943-44, hitting .333 in ’44 and winning the league’s MVP award. The Browns signed Gray to a contract for 1945 in hopes of drawing fans — something physically whole Browns failed to do for most of their existence. During the 1945 season Gray committed only 7 errors in 77 major league games. In the outfield, Gray would catch the ball in a thin leather glove, then stick the glove under the stump of his right arm, pulling the ball out with his left hand. At the plate, Gray hit .218, swinging with one arm.

Burt Shepard, a pre-war minor league pitcher, lost his leg in Europe during the war and was repatriated in a 1944 German-American swap of disabled prisoners. The War Department, wanting to show disabled vets the capabilities of artificial legs, sent Shepard to the Washington Senators spring training camp. The Senators signed Shepard as a coach and he started and won an exhibition game against the Dodgers in July, then threw five innings of relief against the Red Sox in August.

“They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” wailed a 1944 pop hit; the song aptly described the 1945 major league season. The previous year Joe Nuxhall became the youngest player in major league history when he pitched for the Cincinnati Reds at the age of fifteen. Many retired stars grown fat and forty returned to uniform and stumbled around major league parks during the final season of war ball. The 1945 All-Star Game was canceled due to travel restrictions. Of course, everyone knew baseball’s All-Stars were not on the ball field, but in the service. And the World Series that year between the Cubs and Tigers, became known as “The Worst World Series.” (The Cubs lost.)

The final out of the Worst World Series mercifully brought down the curtain on wartime baseball. Spring training in 1946 saw the return from the service of almost all the major leaguers. Other than increased acceptance of night baseball, war ball proved a bizarre trip through the looking glass for baseball and its fans.

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