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.
On December 21, 1926, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis dismissed a claim by Dutch Leonard alleging that Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker bet on a fixed game six years previous. The commissioner declared the matter closed, clearing both Speaker and Cobb of any wrongdoing when Leonard did not show up at a hearing to defend his accusations.
In an effort to speed up the game and add more offense, on December 11, 1928, National League president John Heydler proposed instituting a designated batter for the pitcher. The American League oppose the idea, however, and the NL withdrew the proposal before it could get to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to break the deadlock.
On September 28, 1920, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, Joe Jackson, and Happy Felsch admitted to a grand jury that they had thrown the 1919 series in return for a bribe. The grand jury would indict eight White Sox players on charges of fixing previous season’s World Series against the Reds. The eight members involved in the Black Sox Scandal would go on to be cleared of the charges, but they would be banned for life from baseball by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner.
On January 15, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt penned the famous “green light” letter to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In the letter, President Roosevelt addressed Commissioner Landis’s query about playing baseball in the wake of the Second World War. FDR believed that playing the sport would be good for Americans, and he encouraged baseball owners to hold more night games in order to allow workers to attend games.
This short video from the Baseball Hall of Fame is a few years old, but I love the fact that it includes brief snippets from the opening ceremony in June 1939. In the video, you’ll hear a few words from1939 inductee Eddie Collins as well as from Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, 1937 inductee Cy Young, and 1936 inductee Babe Ruth. Videos of many induction speeches from those early years have proven hard to find, so coming across this video feels like a positive step in the right direction.
U.S. District Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis accepted the offer to become baseball’s first commissioner on November 12, 1920. The decision to hire a commissioner came in the wake of the 1919 World Series scandal, which involved eight White Sox players who were paid off by gamblers to throw the Series against Cincinnati. Landis would officially begin his new role in January 1921.
After the bankrupt team had been taken over by the National League, William D. Cox purchased the Philadelphia Phillies from the NL on February 18, 1943. At the age of 33, this made Cox the youngest owner in the league. However, evidence surfaced later that year that Cox had placed some bets on his own team. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis launched an investigation, and Cox eventually admitted to making some “sentimental” bets on the Phillies. Landis responded by banning Cox from baseball on November 23, 1943.
Joseph Michael Medwick was born on November 24, 1911 in Cateret, New Jersey. His parents, John and Elizabeth Medwick, were Hungarian immigrants, having immigrated to the United States in 1893.
He attended Cateret High School, where he was a star athlete in track, baseball, basketball, and football. In fact, Medwick was offered scholarships to play football at the college level. He turned down the scholarships, however, in favor of pursuing a career in baseball, signing with the St. Louis Cardinals.
After spending a few seasons in the minor leagues, Medwick made his Major League debut on September 2, 1932 at the age of twenty. He had an unusual waddle, earning himself the nickname “Ducky” or “Ducky Wucky,” though Medwick (understandably) preferred his other nickname, “Muscles.” With the Cardinals, he earned a reputation as a hard-nosed and mean-spirited player. Fortunately for Medwick, he also proved to be an excellent hitter, producing a batting average of .300 or better for most of the seasons he played as a major leaguer, finishing with a lifetime average of .324.
During the early 1930s, the St. Louis Cardinals became known as the “Gas House Gang,” a nickname that reflected not only their enjoyment in playing baseball, but also the aggressive style with which they played. Their uniforms, always dirty, came to resemble the grease-stained clothing worn by car mechanics — hence the nickname. Besides Joe Medwick, prominent members of the Gas House Gang included Frankie Frisch, Ripper Collins, Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, and brothers Dizzy Dean and Paul Dean.
Joe Medwick was perhaps the most aggressive of the aggressive Gas House Gang members, not hesitating to brawl even with his own teammates. He was known to punch his own teammates for infractions such as scolding him for a lack of hustle (Ed Heusser) or walking in front of him too many times while being photographed (Tex Carlton). Pitcher Dizzy Dean once commented, “Dawgonnit. That Medwick don’t fight fair at all. You argue with him for a bit and then he beats you before you’ve even had a chance to speak your piece.”
The most infamous display of Medwick’s demeanor came during the 1934 World Series between the Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers — a Series that went into Game Seven. In the sixth inning of that deciding game, Medwick hit a triple into centerfield, sliding into third base with his spikes high. Medwick then proceeded to start kicking at Tiger third baseman Marv Owen, resulting in punches being thrown. Umpire Bill Klem broke up the scuffle, though neither player was ejected. However, when Medwick jogged out to left field in the bottom of the inning, Detroit fans made their feelings known by throwing fruit and pop bottles in Medwick’s direction. From his box at the ballpark, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis called a meeting with the umpires, the two managers, and Medwick. When it became evident that Medwick felt no remorse for his actions, Landis decided to remove Medwick from the game. The Cardinals went on to win the game, and the Series, 11-0, but the incident did nothing good for Medwick’s reputation.
In June 1940, Medwick was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers in a multiplayer deal, as the Cardinals were no longer willing to tolerate Medwick’s temper. Just days after the trade, the Dodgers and the Cardinals faced off against one another, and St. Louis pitcher Bob Bowman beaned Medwick in the temple. Brooklyn players rushed the field, believing the beaning to be intentional, as Bowman and Medwick had exchanged words in the hotel elevator just that morning. Bowman ended up being escorted from the game by policemen. Medwick, meanwhile, was carried away on a stretcher.
Medwick was found to have a concussion as a result of the beaning, though he stubbornly made his way back into the Dodger lineup just four days later. The beaning, however, would reignite interest throughout the league in the use of batting helmets, and Spalding Sporting Goods took advantage of the incident to start advertising a batting helmet with ear flaps.
For the rest of the career following the beaning, Medwick displayed a noticeable drop in power at the plate, though he did continue to rack up multiple seasons with a .300 or better batting average. He bounced around between teams, including the Dodgers, the New York Giants, and the Boston Braves, before finishing his major league career where he started, with the St. Louis Cardinals. Medwick played his final Major League game on July 25, 1948, though he continued to play minor league baseball until 1951.
Over the course of his career, Medwick was named to the National League All-Star team ten times. In 1936, he set a National League record with 64 doubles. In 1937, won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award, as well as the Triple Crown.
Tris Speaker resigned as Indians manager on November 29, 1926, after a scandal broke in which pitcher Dutch Leonard claimed that Speaker and Ty Cobb fixed at least one game between Cleveland and the Detroit Tigers. Umpire Billy Evans called these accusations “purely a matter of personal revenge” for Leonard, who is reported to have been upset with Cobb and Speaker after a trade ended with Leonard in the minor leagues. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis cleared both Speaker and Cobb of any wrongdoing when Leonard did not show up at a hearing to discuss his accusations.