Monday, January 15, 2007

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s autocratic commissioner and a staunch Republican, heartily disliked Franklin D. Roosevelt, the longtime Democratic president. Yet three weeks after Pearl Harbor, Landis swallowed his pride and wrote to the White House asking for guidance on how baseball should operate during World War II and whether it should operate at all.

FDR replied the next day “in solely a personal and not an official point of view” with what became known as the Green Light letter.

“I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” the president wrote on Jan. 15, 1942, 65 years ago today. “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.”

Obviously, FDR could not see into the future, to a time six decades hence when games routinely would take longer than three hours and it could cost a family of four more than $150 to see a ballgame. Yet his letter cleared the way for what was then the unquestioned national pastime to continue its erratic path to the end of hostilities against the Axis powers 3 years later.

Landis, who was elected commissioner with unlimited powers in 1920 after the Black Sox scandal broke and would reign until his death in 1944, was wise to seek the president’s opinion. During World War I, when the game was ruled by an impotent three-man panel called the National Commission, uncertainty was the watchword. The 1918 season ended abruptly on Sept. 2, and there might have been no season at all the following year had not the Armistice not been declared Nov. 11, 1918.

Although some Americans decried the idea of healthy young men playing a game rather than fighting in Europe and Asia, most people who cared about baseball seemed to feel it should go on for the duration. Responding to a poll conducted by the Sporting News, Army Pvt. John Stevenson wrote, “Baseball is part of the American way of life. Remove it and you remove something from the lives of American citizens, soldiers and sailors.”

With more and more players being drafted into the armed services, the quality of major league play declined precipitously during the war as has-beens, never-wases and 4Fs populated rosters. Matters got so bad, literally, that when sportswriter Warren Brown was asked to predict the outcome of the 1945 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs, he famously replied, “I don’t think either team is capable of winning.” (The Tigers finally did in seven games.)

Stars like Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, among others, lost several seasons each while wearing a different kind of uniform. On Dec. 7, 1941, Feller was driving from his home in Van Meter, Iowa, to baseball’s winter meetings in Chicago to sign his contract for the 1942 season when his car radio informed him of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The 23-year-old strikeout artist turned around, returned home and two days later became the first player to volunteer for duty, enlisting in the Navy.

Fireballer Feller missed almost four years of play during his prime, costing him a chance to reach 300 victories and set strikeout records galore. Despite being awarded five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars as an anti-aircraft gunner, Rapid Robert insisted, “I was no hero. I came back. I never met a bullet with my name on it.”

Red Schoendienst, star second baseman and later manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, strongly endorsed FDR’s letter.

“It was part of America to keep everything going,” said Schoendienst, citing similarities in the national mood after Pearl Harbor and September 11. “It meant so much — not only to the ballplayers but to the country, to the people — to be big fans of baseball.”

The first player to be drafted, nine months before Pearl Harbor, owned one of baseball’s most original and least complimentary nicknames: Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy — so tagged after he lost 20 games in 1938 and 22 in 1940 for the customarily comatose Philadelphia Phillies. Said Mulcahy proudly: “My losing streak is over. … I’m on a winning team now.”

True, baseball often seemed farcical during the war years. Clubs held spring training in northern locations to reduce travel; the Brooklyn Dodgers, for instance, warmed up (sort of) in frigid Bear Mountain, N.Y., in the heart of the Catskills. Clubs yo-yoed in the standings — the Washington Senators finished second in 1943, eighth in 1944 and second in 1945.

A pitcher named Bert Shepard appeared in one game for the Senators while tottering on an artificial leg. An outfielder named Pete Gray played for the St. Louis Browns despite having only one arm. And in 1944, the perennially pathetic Brownies won the only pennant in their 52-year existence.

All told, more than 500 major leaguers served in World War II, and none died as Eddie Grant of the New York Giants had in WWI. Many of the men who replaced them were weak substitutes, of course, but the mere fact that baseball continued at all was enough to lift the spirits of millions during a dark period of American history.

President Roosevelt did not live to see the end of the war, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Ga. Less than a month after V-J Day, however, successor Harry Truman did the most American thing imaginable: He went to a ballgame at Washington’s Griffith Stadium.

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