Can you imagine baseball stars like Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley and Cliff Lee doffing their stretch-knit uniforms to don military duds?
Probably not, but that’s what virtually every able-bodied ballplayer did during World War II. More than 500 major leaguers and 2,000 minor leaguers left the diamond to serve their country - and in most cases, without complaint.
Two former major leaguers were killed in the war, outfielder Elmer Gedeon of the Washington Senators and catcher Harry O’Neill of the Philadelphia Athletics, but no active players. Another victim was Jimmy Trimble, a star pitcher for St. Albans School in the District who had been signed by the Senators. Trimble died in hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese while on a scouting mission on Iwo Jima in 1945.
One of the most famous players who served, Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller, learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 while driving to Chicago from his home in Van Meter, Iowa, to sign a contract for the 1942 season. Feller turned his car around, returned home and enlisted two days later. He was sworn in by former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, then a Navy commander.
“I’m very proud of my war record, just as I am of my baseball record,” said Feller, who won 266 games in his 18-year career and might have surpassed 350 if he hadn’t lost four seasons during his 20s to the war. “I never would have been able to face anybody and talk about my baseball record if I hadn’t been in the service.”
That’s the way most players - and most citizens - felt in that distant era. Unlike today, there was little dissent once the United States entered the war. The goal was to beat Japan, Germany and their allies rather than to beat the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals or other powerful teams of that era.
A few weeks after the Japanese attack, baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt to seek guidance about whether baseball should be suspended. FDR’s reply soon became known as the Green Light letter.
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” the president wrote. “There will be fewer people unemployed, and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. … Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.”
Until then, most clubs with lights in their parks had limited night games to seven a season, but that number soon increased despite some fears that arc-lit stadiums on the East Coast would be tempting targets for German planes. (There was no major league baseball on the West Coast, then.)
Slugger Hank Greenberg, who had been discharged from the Army in February 1941, re-enlisted after Pearl Harbor and spent most of four seasons in the military. After being discharged in July 1945, Greenberg hit a pennant-winning grand slam on the last day of the season to send his Detroit Tigers into probably the worst-played post-season ever.
By August 1945, when the war ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the major leagues were populated largely by players who were too old, too young or had a 4-F draft status. Asked for his prediction before the World Series between the Tigers and Chicago Cubs, Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown famously replied, “I don’t think either team can win it.”
The Tigers finally did in seven games, thereby extending a championship drought for the Cubbies that now stands at a full century.
The seasons of 1944 and 1945 saw the quality of major-league baseball decline sharply, with more and more key players absent. Joe Nuxhall pitched for the Cincinnati Reds before reaching his 16th birthday. The St. Louis Browns featured one-armed outfielder Pete Gray, and the Senators used pitcher Bert Shepard for one game although he had lost a leg in the war. Meanwhile, some over-the-hill stars returned to the majors long after their glory days.
Three other prominent players of the early 1940s did not lose as much time to the war as Feller and Greenberg. Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees and Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox played in 1942, and outfielder Stan Musial of the Cardinals lasted through 1944 before entering the service.
The three slugging outfielders returned to baseball in 1946 and quickly resumed playing at or near their prewar levels. Other stars proved unable to do so, most notably shortstop Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators.