Sunday, August 18th, 2019

Memorial Day: Baseball in Wartime

May 31, 2010 by  
Filed under Baseball History, Book Review

As we celebrate Memorial Day across America with our friends and family and give honor to those who have faithfully served our country, sometimes with the ultimate sacrifice, let us also remember the contribution that baseball players have made to our country’s war efforts throughout the years.  In fact, over 100 professional players lost their lives during World War II.  The very tradition of playing the Star Spangled Banner before baseball games began during World War II.

Today, across America, all thirty major league ball clubs will don special made caps featuring a “Stars and Stripes” logo in honor of these great soldiers.  God Bless America will replace Take Me Out To The Ballgame during the seventh inning.  Members of the Armed Forces will be recognized, honored, and remembered in the cities that inspired them to take an oath on their life to protect.  The National Anthem will be sung across this land and send goosebumps down the spines of people that stop and listen to the meaning of the song [Source: Baseball Digest]. Click to see rest of article…

Baseball luminaries like Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, and Joe DiMaggio all served their country with distinction in WWII while eschewing some of their prime baseball-playing years.   Sometimes, their service was in combat while other times it was to boost morale on army bases both home and abroad.  Their collective contributions were substantial.

At the onset of WWII, Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote to President Roosevelt to determine whether the season should be postponed.  “If you believe we ought to close down for the duration of the war, we are ready to do so immediately. If you feel we ought to continue, we would be delighted to do so. We await your order.”  FDR’s response, known as the “Green Light Letter” seen to the right, is part of baseball lore and American history.

While play continued, filling the rosters with players became a creative exercise.  A hodgepodge assortment of players, both young and old, filled the vacuum left by those who served in the armed forces. Fifteen-year-old phenom Joe Nuxhall pitched for the Cincinnati Reds; Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder, suited up for the St. Louis Browns; and former players Jimmie Foxx, Pepper Martin and the Waner brothers came out of retirement to play.   Other stunts like competitive sprints, egg tossing and cow milking contests kept the fans’ interest to counteract the dip in talent level.

Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson staged an exhibition at Yankee Stadium in August 1942 for the Army-Navy relief fund.  More than 69,000 people saw the exhibition between games of a double header between the Yankees and the Senators. (see video clip below).

These players kept the game alive in the big league cities, as did their counterparts on the minor league circuit, and provided lighthearted entertainment for millions of fans.

The ultimate website for Baseball in Wartime details -> http://www.baseballinwartime.com/

In addition, Philip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, organized the professional All-American Girls’ Baseball League (1943-54)–the only time women have played professional baseball in U.S. history. Principally from the Midwest, teams such as the Rockford Peaches, Kalamazoo Lassies, and Grand Rapids Chicks provided an interesting chapter in the annals of wartime baseball.   This league was the inspiration for the movie A League of Their Own.

Visit the official website of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League -> http://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm

Even prior to WWII, baseball players had made sacrifices in the name of America’s defense.  Legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson joined the Army during World War I and was exposed to mustard gas which led to pulmonary tuberculosis and ultimately, his death at the age of 45.

One of the most poignant tales involving service involved Washington Senator’s pitcher Bert Shepard.  Shepard lost a leg during WWII while on his 34th fighter mission.  While attacking an airfield near Ludwigslust, east of Hamburg, Germany, his plane was hit by enemy flak. With shells tearing through his right leg and foot. Shepard was knocked unconscious and, at 380mph, his fighter plane crashed into the ground.
Shepard miraculously survived and eventually came back to pitch for the Senators during the 1945 season. Initially, during the preseason, Shepard pitched  four innings against the Dodgers in a War Relief Fund game and in August 1945, he made his only major league appearance.

With the Senators down 14-2 to the Red Sox, Shepard took the mound in the fourth inning and struck out the first batter he faced, George “Catfish” Metkovich. He pitched the remainder of the game and allowed just three hits, one walk and one run.

Like Shepard, scores of lesser-known players, major and minor league alike, served their country.  Over 100 professional baseball players lost their lives during WWII.  In an open letter to Baseball, historian and editor of the website Baseball in Wartime,  Gary Bedingfield asks baseball why is hasn’t officially recognized these player-heroes more formally.

Baseball players made sacrifices during the Vietnam war as well.  Some served as “weekend warriors” in the National Guard to quell potential civil unrest during this tumultuous time while others, such as Roy Gleason, served in combat.

It was the fall of 1963 and Roy Gleason was 20 years old with a World Series championship ring from the Los Angeles Dodgers and a future that seemed to soar into the stratosphere.  Fate had other plans.

Gleason ended up as a squad leader in Vietnam, trading in his baseball cap for a combat helmet, his bat for an M-16 rifle and taking part in numerous search-and-destroy missions in the Mekong River Delta. Without his income from baseball, Gleason’s family lost the home his bonus money helped buy. Eight months into his tour, he suffered several shrapnel wounds to his arm and leg when a land mine detonated near him and threw him into a moat.  Those injuries, and a later vehicle accident, ended his playing days. Gleason was awarded a Purple Heart for his service injuries. [Source: Press Enterprise.com]


Below are some books about baseball during wartime:

For more information on Baseball during wartime, please visit:

Video of Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson exhibition for Army-Navy Relief Fund.

Advertisement appearing in Sporting News (7/29/43) showing how taking in a baseball game can help ease the stress of wartime for the folks back home

Click to enlarge

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