In defeating the St. Louis Browns 12-1 on September 8, 1939, Bob Feller became the youngest pitcher ever to record 20 wins in a season. The 20-year-old Indians pitcher would finish the season with a 24-9 record and an ERA of 2.85.
On December 9, 1941, just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller enlisted in the United States Navy, becoming the first American professional athlete to volunteer for World War II. Feller was not required to participate in the war, being eligible for deferment because his father was terminally ill, but Feller was determined to join the fight. He would be discharged from the Navy on August 22, 1945, having earned six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
Several years ago, I wrote about baseball during World War I with the intention of following up with a post about the game during World War II. It has taken longer than I intended to circle back, but today, I finally make the return to what I started.
World War II began in September 1939, though the United States did not enter the war until December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. During the 1941 season, prior to the U.S. entering the war, Ted Williams batted .406, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, and Lefty Grove earned his 300th career win. These led Major League Baseball to enjoy one of its most popular seasons to date, with its fifth-highest attendance total of 9.6 million spectators. As the war raged on through the 1942 and 1943 seasons, baseball would see a decline in attendance to 8.1 million and 7.4 million respectively. However, attendance would rebound during the 1944 season to pre-war levels, and by 1945, the league experienced an all-time high of 10.8 million people attending baseball games.
At first, there was some speculation as to whether or not baseball would even continue during the war. On January 14, 1942, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking if baseball should stay in operation. FDR’s response to Landis became known as the Green Light Letter, stating, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. […] And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.” Roosevelt did also stress that any ballplayer capable of joining the military should absolutely do so, but he felt the popularity of the sport would not be diminished as a result.
Over 500 major leaguers and 4,000 minor leaguers saw action during World War II. The first major leaguer drafted into the war was pitcher Hugh Mulcahy, and the first to enlist was pitcher Bob Feller. Other major leaguers involved in the war included stars like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, and Hank Greenberg. As a result of so many major leaguers joining the war effort, many players who previously did not see a lot of action on the diamond and a lot of minor league players now had the opportunity to play big roles on major league ball teams.
Some players were classified as 4-F during the draft, meaning that they were not fit for military service. There was some criticism of the fact that there could be some individuals identified as unfit for military service, yet still in good enough condition to play baseball. Others noted that 4-F status was determined by Army and Navy doctors, and therefore was not related to their status as baseball players. Furthermore, while some 4-Fs may not have served in the military, many of them did serve in defense industries, and thus still contributed to the war effort.
During the war, military personnel showed overwhelming support for the continuation of baseball. Myriad service men’s teams formed across all theatres of war, and equipment was even made available to these teams. Exhibition games were put on by military teams for the entertainment of the troops, and pickup games were aplenty among deployed servicemen and in POW camps during the war.
Some known baseball stars were deliberately kept out of harm’s way, such as Joe DiMaggio, who spent most of his military career playing for baseball teams and in exhibition games against fellow major leaguers and minor league players. But this wasn’t the case for all major leaguers. Warren Spahn, for example, served as a combat engineer in Europe and was decorated with a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and a Battlefield Commission for action at the Battle of The Bulge. Hoyt Wilhelm also earned a Purple Heart fighting in Europe.
In the fall of 1942, many minor league teams disbanded, as many minor league players found themselves being drafted to serve in the war. This plus the concern that major league teams might be in danger of collapsing prompted Philip K. Wrigley to begin the All-American Girls Softball League. Before long, the rules were changed and the name of the new organization was updated to the All-American Girls Baseball League. 280 women were invited to tryouts in Chicago, where 60 were ultimately chosen to become the first women to play professional baseball. Teams consisted of 15 players, a manager, a business manager, and a woman chaperone, and salaries ranged from $45 to $85 per week. League play began May 30, 1943, and each team played 108 games in the season. The league peaked in 1948, when a total of ten teams attracted 910,000 fans. However, following the war, the league began to break down and eventually folded in 1954. In the end, the AAGPBL gave over 600 women the opportunity to play professional baseball.
The end of World War II finally came on September 2, 1945, when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri. Over the course of the war, two MLB players lost their lives in battle: Captain Elmer J. Gedeon (Washington Senators) died during a bombing mission over France on April 20, 1944 and First Lieutenant Harry O’Neill (Philadelphia Athletics) was killed by a sniper on Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945. Hundreds of men who served in World War II played Major League Baseball, with even more having spent time playing for minor league teams. Most survived the war, and continued their careers on the field, but a small number paid the ultimate sacrifice, and never returned to the field.
The 1939 All-Star Game was held on July 11th at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, where the American League defeated the National League, 3-1. Two of the three AL runs were driven in by Yankees players (the third was an unearned run scored on an error), including a DiMaggio home run. Indians pitcher Bob Feller, only twenty years old at the time, threw 3.2 scoreless innings to earn the save.
The box score for the game can be found here.
Ted Williams was the greatest hitter I ever saw, but DiMaggio was the greatest all around player.
In his first major league appearance on July 6, 1936, seventeen-year-old Indians rookie Bob Feller pitched in an All-Star break exhibition game against the Cardinals’ Gashouse Gang. After the first batter was thrown out trying to bunt, Feller proceeded to strike out eight consecutive batters in three innings.
A major league player association was formed on December 11, 1956 with future Hall of Famer Bob Feller named its first president. Feller held the position until 1959, when he was succeeded by Frank Scott. This organization followed up many previous attempts to create a labor organization in Major League Baseball. It would eventually become successful ten years later when Marvin Miller was hired to be the MLBPA’s first executive director in 1966.
The Sixth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns explores the national pastime during the 1940s, which was quite the tumultuous decade in American history. It was a decade of war as the United States recovered from the Great Depression and found itself in a position of having to enter World War II. It was also the decade of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, of women’s professional baseball, and of Jackie Robinson.
In a chronological sense, the Sixth Inning was an easier one to follow along with than any of the Innings that preceded it. The first part of this disc was dominated by two of the game’s greatest hitters. 1941 was the summer of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, whose hitting performances captivated the baseball world. Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak and Ted Williams’s .406 season average have both remained unmatched ever since.
The 1941 World Series resulted in a devastating loss for the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Yankees. At the end of the season, Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail , drunk and belligerent, threatened to sell off all his players. The Dodgers instead opted to let go of MacPhail and brought in Branch Rickey, thus setting the stage for the breaking of the color barrier in the coming years.
When the United States entered the war, Franklin Roosevelt insisted that baseball ought to continue. The country would be working longer and harder, and thus recreation became more important than ever, he said. However, this didn’t shield players from the draft, and baseball still suffered as a result. Players like DiMaggio and Bob Feller joined the war effort. Meanwhile, baseball turned to signing players (and umpires) who didn’t meet the usual caliber of play just to keep going.
As the war also drew away a number of minor leaguers, Philip Wrigley came up with the idea of starting a women’s professional baseball league in order to fill the baseball void as minor league teams fell apart. Women from all over, particularly softball players, were recruited. They had to be able to play ball, but they were also required to remain unequivocally feminine. Off the field, any time they were in public, they were required to be in skirts, heels, and makeup — a requirement that I, for one, would find very difficult to swallow.
Following the war, the disc goes into the story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. The story from Rickey’s time coaching at Ohio Wesleyan University, checking into a hotel in South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame, is absolutely heartbreaking, and certainly explains a lot regarding his determination to integrate baseball.
Branch Rickey certainly did his homework when choosing a player to break the color barrier, and clearly, he choose well. Promising not to retaliate and turn the other cheek for three years (three years!), Jackie Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals.
Burns breaks from the Jackie Robinson saga long enough to cover the 1946 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox. Though the Sox were the heavy favorites to win, the Cards employed the “Williams shift” to prevent Ted Williams from having much success at the plate. Thanks in part to this strategy, the Cardinals won that year’s Series. Roger Angell says it well when he explains that baseball is not a game about winning, like we think it is, but rather, it is a game about losing.
Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was certainly an event, one that we continue to celebrate today. As expected, he endured an endless stream of taunts, threats, and even attempts at actual bodily harm. Through it all, he bit his tongue. Instead, he let his performance on the field speak for him. Not only was he named Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, he was also determined to be the second most popular man in America, after Bing Crosby. Robinson’s efforts eventually allowed other black players, including the great pitcher Satchel Paige, to break into the majors as well.
Ken Burns does a good job of pointing out that, for all the virtues that surrounded Robinson’s trek into Major League Baseball, it was a devastating event for the Negro Leagues. The Brooklyn Dodgers became the team of black America, and attendance at Negro Leagues games declined. As we know now, the Negro Leagues would eventually meet its end as a result.
The disc ends with the death of Babe Ruth in 1948. It’s only appropriate that the Sultan of Swat would receive this kind of nod (and convenient that he would die at the end of a decade — not to be morbid or anything). Burns never touches on what Ruth thought of Jackie Robinson, nor on what Robinson thought of Ruth. Perhaps nobody knows. But as Buck O’Neil points out, both men were giants in the game. Each of them, in their own way, changed baseball forever.
Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s. The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s. As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically. Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.
Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s. It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle. Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.
Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball. (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.) While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished. Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues. And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play. Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.
We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball. He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige. Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games. He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality. He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him. Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.
Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot. No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades. As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older. When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball. Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight. Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.
As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability. While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson. Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance. The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil. In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.
We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.” In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees. DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series. Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.
During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round. They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different. They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.
Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population. Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself. Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over. Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.
In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career. On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.
1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class. It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839. The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter. O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.