- - Sunday, January 15, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION

There was a time when America’s presidents didn’t communicate 140 characters at a time.

There was a time when America’s presidents wrote letters with weight and purpose, recording history with their words.

Seventy-five years ago Sunday — Jan. 15, 1942 — Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a letter to then-baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that perhaps cemented baseball’s place in history as the national pastime.

Roosevelt declared that the game was an important part of American life, and, despite the declaration of war that happened five weeks earlier after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the president wanted major league baseball to continue.

He made that commitment to baseball as an integral part of American life in what was known as the “Green Light” letter.

Landis wrote a letter to Roosevelt raising the question about whether or not baseball should be suspended while America was fighting World War II.

With a war on, baseball was going to be missing some of its biggest stars. Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller and many others had already enlisted. More than 500 major league ballplayers would serve in the armed forces during the war, alongside more than 4,000 minor leaguers.

Landis wrote to Roosevelt, “The time is approaching when, in ordinary conditions, our teams would be heading for spring training camps. However, inasmuch as these are not ordinary times, I venture to ask what you have in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate. Of course, my inquiry does not relate at all to individual members of this organization, whose status, in the emergency, is fixed by law operating upon all citizens.”

Landis finished by saying, “Health and strength to you — and whatever else it takes to do this job.”

Roosevelt wrote back the very next day — Jan. 15 — with this:

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”

Roosevelt wrote that baseball could be a source of relaxation for American workers, whose hard work and well-being would be essential to victory.

“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 … If 300 teams (minor leagues included in this number) use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is totally worthwhile.”

He would not, though, exempt players from military service, and wrote, “even if the actual quality of the teams is lowered by greater use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport.”

Roosevelt’s letter was the “green light” baseball was looking for. It was front page news (for those young people unfamiliar with that concept, Roosevelt’s letter went “viral”).

It also created controversy. Some might say it was “trolling.”

Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith told reporters “Baseball feels honored that Mr. Roosevelt has chosen to regard our game as such a vital asset to popular morale.”

Some, though, questioned the notion of how any players could be able to play baseball and not be qualified for military service. Even Roosevelt’s director of war mobilization and reconstruction publicly raised those questions, as did others in letters to the editor (for those young readers, the “comments” section, except people had to put their names on the comments then).

Landis defended the game, pointing out that those who were found unfit for service were examined by service doctors, not baseball’s. And FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was forced to publicly state that, “If any ballplayer or other athletes were attempting to dodge service, it would be our job to look into such cases. But our records show there are few if any such cases among the thousands of ballplayers.”

For the most part, though, the public was behind Roosevelt’s “Green Light” letter, and the game became part of the war effort. Many exhibition game receipts went to Army-Navy relief funds, and through the sale of war bonds to fans, the games were used as fund raising vehicles.

All that began with Roosevelt’s letter, written 75 years ago Sunday, a letter that ended “With every best wish.” With spaces, that takes up 40 characters.

A different time indeed.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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