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How They Served and What it Cost Them: Baseball Stars and World War II

3:00 PM, Apr 4, 2011 • By RICHARD T. HISE
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In recent months, THE WEEKLY STANDARD discussed the military service of Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller during World War II. The latter piece addressed an important issue germane to Feller and other major league players who lost playing time during that conflict: “He might have put up even better numbers, were it not for the war. But then, the same might be said of all of that era’s great stars.”

Joe DiMaggio

There was a significant level of public support for canceling major league play “for the duration.” Eventually, FDR decided that “play ball” was the appropriate decision (morale at home would be boosted) and that the full 154-game schedule would continue. (During World War I, the owners voluntarily decided to end the 1918 season prematurely and limit the 1919 season to 140 games.) In 1943, 1944, and 1945, a government edict prevented teams from conducting spring training below the Mason-Dixon Line. Teams promoted the sale of War Bonds and made sizable contributions to various war-related charities.

Several other decisions, especially relevant for the players themselves, had to be made. Should major league players be exempt from the draft? The decision was, no. Would star players be exempt? No. Should drafted major league players be paid their baseball salaries while on active duty? Again, no.

With the absence of so many big name players, the smart money said that clubs with the best farm systems would be well positioned to be successful. Such speculation proved to be accurate as the St. Louis Cardinals—regarded as having the deepest farm system under the leadership of general manager Branch Rickey—won pennants in 1942, 1943, and 1944 and prevailed in the 1942 and 1944 World Series.

Most certainly, the absence of so many top players would trigger a significant diminution in the quality of play. This logical outcome was exemplified by the careers (as brief as they were) of outfielder Pete Gray (St. Louis Browns, 1944) who had only one arm (he hit .218 in 77 games) and pitcher Bert Shepard (Washington Senators, five-plus innings, 1945) who had only one leg. A number of teenagers donned major league uniforms. Joe Nuxhall debuted at age 15, the youngest player in the history of MLB. Nuxhall went on to have a solid career (135 wins), but did not pitch again in the majors until the ripe old age of 24.

The military services had to determine what types of jobs the major leaguers would perform, and where they would be deployed. Some insight to these questions were provided to me in dramatic fashion by my father who at that time was a Naval officer (hospital administrator) with a duty station at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. One afternoon in September of 1949, dad came home early from work and asked if the family would like to attend the Phillies-Dodgers game that evening, a game of significance because the Dodgers and Cardinals were in a close race for the National League (NL) pennant. So, of course, we three boys responded enthusiastically, “Yes!”

Our seats in jam-packed Shibe Park were in the second deck, third-base side, halfway between home plate and left field. Peewee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider (all future Hall of Famers) went down in order in the top of the first inning. As Brooklyn took the field and the Phillies came to bat, dad, still clad in his Naval uniform, got up from his seat and started walking toward home plate. When queried as to what he was doing, he nonchalantly said, “Boys, just watch me.” We saw him drop down to field level, cross behind home plate and continue along the aisle in the box seats closest to the playing field. By that time, the Dodgers had returned to the dugout to bat in the second inning. We could see our father leaning in the dugout, apparently saying something to the occupants. Soon, Peewee Reese sat on top of the dugout and they talked for the rest of the inning.

We besieged dad with numerous questions after he returned to his seat. He deflected many of them by explaining what had happened. “I leaned in the dugout and asked for Peewee. Burt Shotton, the Dodger manager, said, ‘What do you want?’ I told him to send the club house to get Reese and tell him that Ted Hise wanted to talk with him.”

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