Monday, June 16, 2014

Baseball During Wartime

 From a researcher’s perspective, the World War II era is a fascinating period of baseball history.  Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis questioned whether or not the game should continue with the U.S. officially embroiled in the war. On January 14, 1942, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt seeking counsel. Landis received his answer in short order—a resounding “yes.” Roosevelt, himself, was a fan of the sport and had attended multiple games during his term. He stated on one occasion that he would get out to the park more often if only he didn’t have to “hobble up and down the stairs in front of all those people.” The President was sensitive about the public’s perception of his disability and secret servicemen actively prevented members of the press from taking pictures during his arrivals and departures (very few photos exist).

In his famous “green light letter,” FDR referred to the game as a “recreational asset” and remarked: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” He also suggested playing more games at night so that people could pool their daytime efforts to support the war cause.

In the wake Japan’s attack on the U.S., a wave of patriotism spread throughout the nation, prompting many thousands of men to sign up for the armed forces. This included several prominent ballplayers, among them future Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller. Between the draft and voluntary enlistment, the directory of active all-stars began to rapidly dwindle. The New York Yankees were among the hardest hit clubs, losing a quintet of Cooperstown greats to military duty, including Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto and Joe DiMaggio. By the time the war was over, more than five-hundred players had served.

At the onset of WWII, baseball was America’s most popular sport, having survived a dramatic attendance collapse during the Depression years. By 1941, the turnstiles were back in motion. Though the quality of play was considerably lower due to the absence of so many high profile players, attendance was not seriously affected. After a slight drop in ‘42/’43, the number of paying customers soared to an all-time high of over ten million in 1945.

Any modern fan in attendance would have noticed a dramatic difference in the style of play during the 1940s. To begin with, games were shorter. Umpires kept things moving at a brisk pace and there was no loitering outside the batter’s box between every pitch. Pitchers worked relatively quickly and were expected to stay on the mound for as long as possible. The concept of a relief specialist was still in its infancy. Most teams used a bullpen by committee format with relief duties being shared by starters. There was no such thing as a five-man rotation and staff members worked on short rest constantly. It was an accepted practice to throw at hitters. Umpires tolerated this to a far greater extent. As a result, brawls on the diamond were more common.

Fielders’ mitts in the early-'40s were crudely designed. Lacing between the fingers would not appear until the end of the decade. Players left their gloves on the field between innings until the practice was prohibited during the 1950s. Stadiums were much smaller on the whole with some parks sporting ridiculously short foul lines. At the Polo Grounds in New York, the right field line was located a mere 258 feet from home plate. At Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, it was 298 feet. There were only eight teams in each league. Without a league playoff or wild card format, numerous clubs had little to play for by the end of July. There were no designated hitters and, as a result, many pitchers were more adept offensively. Right-hander Wes Ferrell, who retired after the ’41 slate, compiled a .280 lifetime batting average with 38 homers.

With the rosters seriously depleted, new stars emerged. Cardinals’ right-hander Mort Cooper, who had never won more than 13 games in a season before the ‘41 slate, collected at least 20 victories every year from 1942-1944. In the wake of a hunting accident that seriously damaged his right foot, Pirates’ hurler Rip Sewell experimented with a blooper pitch called the “eephus.” The offering was a soft toss with backspin that sailed in a high arc (roughly twenty feet or so) above home plate. He became one of the most popular gate attractions of the WWII era, averaging 20 wins per year between ‘42 and ’44.

Another peculiar wartime development, the lowly St. Louis Browns rose to prominence after spending most of their forgettable existence in the second division. They took on their inter-city brethren—the Cardinals—in the ’44 Fall Classic, losing in six games. Desperate to fill roster gaps the following year, the Browns promoted a one-armed first baseman named Pete Gray and penciled him into seventy-seven contests.

Fans of wartime baseball or history in general will be greatly pleased with my first novel, The Bridgeport Hammer, which was recently released through Black Rose Writing (an indie-publisher). The book chronicles the adventures of a U.S. counterintelligence agent as he attempts to foil a Nazi plot to assassinate President Roosevelt at the 1942 All-Star Game. Die-hard baseball enthusiasts will find many parallels between the characters in my novel and actual ballplayers from the past. I have done my homework. All of the characters and situations are firmly rooted in historical fact.

No comments:

Post a Comment