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.
Philip Francis Rizzuto was born September 25, 1917, and he spent his entire 13-year major league career (1941-1956) with the New York Yankees. During that time, the Yankees won an astonishing 10 American League pennants and seven World Championships.
From 1943 to 1945, Rizzuto spent some time away from MLB for a stint in the military, serving in the United States Navy during World War II. During those two years, he played on a Navy baseball team, alongside Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese.
In 1950, Rizzuto was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. He was known as a terrific defensive player, with 1,217 career double plays and a .968 career fielding average.
After his playing career, Rizzuto enjoyed a 40-year career as a radio and television sports announcer for the Yankees. He was particularly known for his trademark expression, “Holy cow!”
Phil Rizzuto was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994. He died in his sleep on August 13, 2007.
Rizzuto’s induction speech is a hoot. Enjoy!
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.
Here’s a piece by Michael Ceraolo based on the Jun 24, 1946 crash involving a bus carrying the Spokane Indians of Minor League Baseball. The bus crashed on Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State in what is considered one of the worst accidents in the history of American professional sports. Nine players were killed in the accident, and six were injured. Eight of those who died had served in World War II.
Since I was the player-manager
(though only 25),
I will take the responsibility to speak for the rest
Frederick “Marty” Martinez
and me, Mel Cole,
were members of the Spokane Indians team
On June 24, 1946,
enroute to Bremerton for the next day’s game,
our bus swerved to avoid an oncoming car,
falling three hundred feet down and bursting into flames
Marty, George Risk, the three Bobs, and I
were dead at the scene
Vic died on the way to the hospital,
George Lyden died the next day,
and Chris died two days later
Vic, not yet 19, was the best prospect among us;
the rest of us were older and had served during the war,
probably ending any major-league dreams for us
The driver of the oncoming car was never found
Having obtained his parents’ permission, Joe Nuxhall signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds on February 18, 1944 at the age of fifteen years old. Nuxhall would become the youngest player ever to appear in a major league game, tossing 2/3 of an inning for Cincinnati that June, with forty-nine days to go until his sixteenth birthday.
Last year for Jackie Robinson Day, I took a closer look at Robinson’s career as a football player. This year, I decided it would be fun to take a look at his career as a basketball player. In addition to playing professional baseball and semi-professional football, I was impressed to learn that Robinson also played a season of professional basketball.
As many know, Jackie Robinson was, and remains to this day, the only four-sport varsity letterman in the history of UCLA, lettering in football, baseball, basketball, and track. He played forward with the school’s basketball team and was a tremendous leaper, having also set the collegiate broad jump record. In 1940 and 1941, Robinson led the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division (now Pac-12) in scoring (12.4 average in 12 league games in 1940; 11.1 average in 12 league games in 1941). In addition to his scoring, Robinson was known as a quick player with excellent ball handling skills.
After his basketball career at UCLA had ended in 1941, Robinson abandoned his senior year spring track season and left college to pursue outside athletic interests. After some time playing semi-professional football, Robinson found himself drafted into the Army as the United States entered World War II. Following the war, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, eventually being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946 to play for the club’s minor league franchise, the Montreal Royals.
After completing the season with Montreal, Robinson returned home to Pasadena, California. In October 1946, Robinson signed a professional basketball contract with the Los Angeles Red Devils, a racially integrated professional basketball team. The Red Devils only lasted two seasons, but with a lineup that included forwards Jackie Robinson, Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member George Crowe, and Pasadena City College standout Irv Noren; guards Everett “Ziggy” Marcelle, a former Harlem Globetrotter, and USC All-American Eddie Oram; and Stanford star Art Stoefen at center, the team was a force to be reckoned with.
The Red Devils had been organized seeking to join the National Basketball League (NBL), which, in its merger talks with the NBA, wanted a West Coast franchise. The team played home games at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. During the 1946-47 season, with Robinson on their roster, they crushed the Sheboygan Redskins of the NBL, on two occasions. They also defeated the New York Renaissance, which had a lineup that included future New York City Basketball Hall of Fame member Clarence “Puggy” Bell and future NBA player Hank DeZonie. Like the Sheboygan team, the Red Devils defeated the Renaissance twice.
Jackie Robinson left the Red Devils abruptly in January 1947. At the time, few people understood why. In retrospect, the reason becomes clear: Robinson parted ways with the Red Devils just after a Branch Rickey visit to Los Angeles. A few months later, on April 15, 1947, Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbetts Field and went on to be named the 1947 Rookie of the Year.
In spite of his success on the baseball diamond, basketball still reached out to Robinson from time to time. Abe Saperstein offered Robinson a pro contract worth $10,000 with bonuses to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Though this amount was double what Robinson made with the Dodgers, he declined the offer. He also received a pro basketball offer from the Canton Cushites, an all-black team that featured future Football Hall of Fame member Marion Motley and future Baseball Hall of Fame member Larry Doby. Robinson declined that offer, also.
Though the Red Devils ultimately did not last, it does seem Robinson had some fond memories of his time with the team. “There were some exceptionally good basketball players with name value on the squad,” he reminisced. “We had, I think, a really fine team.”
Ted Williams won the American League Most Valuable Player award on November 14, 1946. The award was bestowed upon Williams after having finished second to the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio (1941) and Joe Gordon (1942). The Splendid Splinter missed the last three seasons due to serving in the military during World War II, but returned to baseball hitting .342 with 38 homers and 123 RBIs.
On September 9, 1945, Dick Fowler of the Philadelphia Athletics became the first Canadian to throw a major league no-hitter when he defeated the Browns, 1-0. It was Fowler’s first start in three years, having just returned from service in the Canadian Army during World War II. The no-hitter was also the first by an Athletics pitcher since 1916.
Before Jackie Robinson made his mark by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, he was a four-sport star at UCLA, playing baseball, football, basketball, and running track. He remains the only four-letter athlete in the school’s history. In his final year playing football for the school, Robinson led the Bruins in rushing (383 yards), passing (444 yards), total offense (827 yards), scoring (36 points), and punt return average (21 yards). You can see a bit of footage from Robinson’s football days at UCLA here:
Robinson even went on to play a bit of semi-pro football. In September 1941, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he played football for the semi-professional Honolulu Bears for $100 a game. His career with the Bears was cut short, however, when Robinson was drafted into the Army during World War II.
After World War II, Robinson briefly returned to football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He then was offered a job as athletic director at Samuel Houston College in Austin, and as part of that role, he coached the basketball team for the 1944-1945 season.
It was in early 1945 that the Kansas City Monarchs offered Jackie a place on their team in the Negro Leagues. Robinson then signed with the minor league Montreal Royals following the 1945 season.
The rest, as we know, is history.
Happy Jackie Robinson Day!