Thoroughly Worthwhile: Baseball in World War II

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Thalia Ertman
May 5, 2019

The 2019 Major League Baseball season is well underway, with over a week of play for the league’s 30 teams. This season, MLB is celebrating 150 years and many teams are planning on rocking some kind of throwback uniform at some point during the season. So, amidst all this history and renewed baseball fever, now seems like as good a time as any to look back on what “America’s pastime” was like during World War II, right?

Right. Here we go. Play ball!

Baseball during World War II is one of the most studied sports during wartime. There are hundreds of books written on the subject, blog posts, museum exhibits, newspaper and magazine articles, movies. We’re not try to reinvent the wheel here. Rather, look at this as a kind of roundup of WWII baseball information, a primer of sorts, to get you started on your journey to learn more about the many facets of this much studied topic.

Why is baseball’s history during WWII so intriguing to so many people? For one, a significant number of famous players served in the military – Hall of Famers like Yogi Berra, Hank Greenberg, and Ted Williams, to name a few. Military branches had their own baseball teams. Baseball on the home front was a distraction and release from the stress of working in a wartime economy and of having loved ones serving overseas.

Baseball was deemed so integral to American morale that even the President of the United States himself stepped in to make sure it would continue during the war. But, more on that later.

In short, baseball was integral to the American wartime experience in a lot of ways. And the connection between baseball and patriotism, baseball and America, really solidified during World War II.

Baseball’s story during WWII existed in several different realms: in the form of Major Leaguers who served; military baseball teams, who were service-members whose assignments were on teams that played to entertain the troops; and on the home from, to entertain the American public, including the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and the Negro Leagues.

Baseball survived and thrived during WWII and in many ways it mirrored American society at-large, while also providing much-needed entertainment. Women stepped in to fill roles men left open when they went overseas to serve and African-Americans had more opportunities. And baseball, through the AAGPBL, the Negro Leagues, the military teams, and service members playing just for fun in their down time, proved to be a small but integral piece of American morale.

America’s entry into World War II affected baseball like any other industry. Young, able-bodied men were either drafted or enlisted to serve their country, and baseball players – even the most famous ones – were among those who served.

More than 500 Major League Baseball players served during World War II. That number does not include to hundreds of Negro Leaguers, umpires, and baseball executives who also served their country, as well as the thousands of players from the from the minor leagues.

Baseball players, like many other young men and women, were eager to serve their country and many enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor, if they had not already been drafted.Among those who enlisted were:

• Cleveland Indians pitching ace, Bob Feller, enlisted in the U.S. Navy two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and requested a combat position. He was stationed as a gunner on the battleship, USS Alabama, which saw action in both the Atlantic and the Pacific

• Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg had served in uniform prior to the war and he reenlisted in the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor

• An 18-year-old Yogi Berra (whose Major League Career had not yet started) was in the U.S. Navy and saw action on D-Day, serving on a rocket launching vessel which capsized off the coast of France

• Red Sox home run power Ted Williams joined the U.S. Marines as a pilot and later flew combat missions during the Korean War

• Boston Braves pitcher Warren Spahn was in the U.S. Army and was nearly killed in the spring of 1945 when the Remagan Bridge collapsed into the Rhine River

• Negro Leaguer Monte Irvin saw action during the Battle of the Bulge

Two Major League players died while serving during the war: Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill. Gedeon played as an outfielder for the Washington Senators and was drafted in January 1941. He was assigned to the Army Air Corp and became a captain with the 394thBomb Group, on April 20, 1944, his B-26 was hit by antiaircraft fire and burst into flames. O’Neill was a catcher with the Philadelphia Athletics and enlisted in the Marines in 1942. He was serving on Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945 when he was fatally shot

Other baseball players were not in the military but still served their country, like Moe Berg, a catcher with the Washington Senators and the Boston Red Sox who served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA.

You can learn more about baseball players who served during World War II on our website.

Some baseball players were drafted or enlisted but did not serve in combat roles. Instead, they served their country by playing for official military baseball teams and providing recreation for the troops in the U.S. and overseas.

Many of the more well-known Major Leaguers like Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Pee Wee Rees played baseball in uniform for their respective service teams, entertaining the troops and helping to boost morale.

In addition to these official games, ad hoc games were common among deployed servicemen and in POW camps during the war. Service men played baseball to pass the time and to occupy themselves when they had downtime.

In fact, after the Nazis surrendered in 1945, the U.S. Army decided that the best way to keep hundreds of thousands of restless soldiers occupied was to set up, virtually overnight, a massive athletics apparatus with intramural competition in every sport imaginable. Baseball was the most popular among the G.I.s and a large league was formed.

Baseball also survived the war on the home front, despite some questioning after Pearl Harbor about whether that was proper. The baseball that existed during WWII looked different from the baseball that existed before (and after), but throughout the war it provided distraction and entertainment for Americans.

When the U.S. first joined the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was question about whether Major League Baseball should even continue.Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt on behalf of all the clubs, asking his advice about whether the MLB should shut its doors for the duration of the war, freeing up thousands of young, able-bodied men to serve

Roosevelt’s response, what became known as the “Green Light Letter,” was to keep baseball as a recreation and diversion for Americans who were working hard or serving their country. Roosevelt famously wrote “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” as it would provide the public with a “chance for recreation and taking their minds off their work.” He concluded, “That in my judgement is thoroughly worthwhile.”

The President had spoken and Major League Baseball obeyed. Baseball continued throughout the war, but because many of the most capable players were in the military, it was on a smaller and less impressive scale. Teams also held special games to sell war bonds and earned large sums for war-related causes like the Army and Navy Relief Fund.

The slightly diminished nature of the MLB during the war also led to opportunities for women to play baseball and significantly increased the popularity of the Negro Leagues.

Because Major League Baseball was scaled back during the war, Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley had the idea to start a women’s baseball league to keep the ballparks busy and keep people entertained. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) began play in 1943 and lasted a dozen years (beyond the end of WWII).

The AAGPBL gave more than 500 women an opportunity to play baseball.The original four teams were the Rockford Peaches, the South Bend Blue Sox, the Racine Belles, and the Kenosha Comets, but throughout it’s more than a decade of existence, it had at least 9 other teams.

The Negro Leagues also continued play throughout the war, despite the fact that around 120 Negro League players enlisted and served in uniform, mostly in combat roles.

During the war, the Negro Leagues also saw a huge jump in attendance at their games, as Americans on the home front sought baseball to watch while many Major Leaguers were at war. After the war, Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers began to seek out black players and in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color line.

When the war was over, some Major Leaguers came home and played some of the best baseball of their careers. Just look at Hank Greenberg, who hit 44 homeruns and had 127 RBIs in 1946. Other players’ careers never recovered from the time they took off to serve their country.

But, during World War II, baseball did prove itself as a worthy and patriotic form of entertainment and distraction during hard times.

We hope you’re enjoying the start to the MLB season!