Play ball!

By Carl Zebrowski

Back in 1941, baseball was still the national pastime. Americans liked the relaxed pace. The break between pitches was just long enough to ponder some strategy, and shell and eat a couple of roasted peanuts. Football was struggling to get started back then, its earthier appeal still a long way from turning it into the country’s new preferred spectator sport.

As America went to war, Major League Baseball was not the first thing on everyone’s mind. Should people pay to watch grown men play a kids’ game while boys were overseas getting shot? Many thought not. League commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin Roose-velt in January 1942 to ask what to do. “If you believe we ought to close down for the duration of the war,” Landis wrote, “we are ready to do so immediately.” Roosevelt put all doubts to rest, telling one of his secretaries “Never!” He dictated a letter for Lan-dis. “There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before,” he reasoned. “And that means they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

Though the game continued without interruption, the players got no special draft treatment. Of the 5,700 men in baseball’s major league and 41 semipro minor leagues, 4,000 went to war. Some of the biggest stars left, and the New York Yankees, perennial employer of future Hall of Famers, lost the most talent. Their greatest, Joe DiMaggio, joined the army. Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams went off to fly fighters for the navy. Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish baseball star, was released from the army two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor and immediately reenlisted. Overseas, most players spent more time on baseball diamonds than battlefields. Their commanders realized they were more valuable helping their units win morale-boosting ballgames against other units than taking their chances against enemy bullets and bombs.

At home, middling and worse players filled the cleats of departed stars. Many of these replacement players had been deemed physically unfit for military service. The quality of play in Major League Baseball dropped to minor-league level. Some of the most unusual players in the history of pro sports took to the field. There were fat first basemen, squat center fielders, and storklike pitchers. Bert Shepard returned from the war missing a leg and pitched four innings for the Washington Senators. They won the game 4-3. Pete Gray, who had lost his right forearm at age six, played outfield for the St. Louis Browns for 77 games. He would catch the ball in the glove on his left hand, tuck the glove under his right upper arm, and remove the ball with his bare left hand to throw it into the infield. With only one arm, he couldn’t hit for power, but he compensated somewhat for it by mastering the art of the drag bunt, cheating his body toward first base for a head start as he stretched his bat over the plate. Aging players often postponed retirement to fill lean rosters. “Hey, Paul,” a fan yelled to 41-year-old Paul Waner, “how come you’re playing outfield with the Yankees?” Warner yelled back, “Because DiMaggio’s in the army.”

Chewing gum magnate and Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley saw opportunity in the decline of the quality of Major League Baseball. Figuring that a new, unique league could draw curious fans and make some money, he founded the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Players were chosen from among the 40,000 women on semipro softball teams across the country. Wrigley wanted women who could hit, pitch, field, and look good. “Femininity is the keynote of our league,” read an official letter from the league office. “No pants-wearing, tough-talking female softballer will play on any of our four teams.” Wrigley required the players to wear lipstick, longish hair, and skirts, and even hired charm-school instructors to try to make them more sophisticated. In the best of its 11 years, the league drew a million fans to its ballparks.

Whether they were out to watch the men or the women play, more Americans than ever went out to the ballpark during the war. Fans at home, meanwhile, listened to games on the radio. Roosevelt was right. The people needed diversion. And baseball gave them that and more. “Baseball is more than a National Game,” wrote the Feather River Bulletin of California. “It is America’s anchor.”

Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor of America in WWII. This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.

Photos: The San Francisco Seals wore a V for victory on their 1943 jerseys, but the Yankees won the World Series that year; the series program shows the games being broadcast to GIs overseas.