Baseball Goes To War: The National Pastime In World War II
By James C. Roberts
The national pastime played a key role in the American war effort during World War II and it is a story that has not been fully told.
From the frozen tundra of Iceland to the jungles of the South Pacific; from the deserts of North Africa to the Nazi stadium in Nuremberg, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines played baseball whenever, and wherever, they could.
All told, over 500 major league and more than 2,000 minor league baseball players went into the armed forces. Among the first of these was Bob Feller, the former right-handed star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Feller was the sole support for his family because his father, an Iowa farmer, was dying of cancer, and because of this he could have easily gotten a deferment. Instead, upon hearing of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he drove to Chicago and reported to a Navy recruiting office.
“We were losing the war,” Feller said. “We needed heroes.”
Feller subsequently served as a gun captain on board the battleship Alabama and saw action in the Atlantic and then in the Pacific theater, participating in numerous battles. But baseball was not left behind. Feller played baseball and softball in Scotland, Iceland and on numerous islands in the Pacific.
Among the many other baseball stars serving were Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, Yogi Berra, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzutto and Hank Greenberg.
Baseball on the Home Front
Given the loss of professional players to the services, there was much speculation that professional baseball would be suspended for the duration of the war.
However, in his famous “green light” letter, to Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, President Roosevelt expressed his personal hope that baseball would continue during the war because of its impact on the citizenry.
Baseball responded to this request, maintaining a full schedule of games and drawing on teenagers, over-the-hill veterans and “the lame, the halt and the blind” to fill out the major and minor league rosters.
Among the more unusual replacement players was Pete Gray, an outfielder for the St. Louis Browns. Gray had lost his right arm in an accident, but nonetheless managed to bat one-handed, as well as field fly balls and grounders in the outfield and then throw them into the infield by a remarkable method of flipping and rolling the ball.