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When the Boys Came Back
Baseball and 1946
By Frederick Turner

Chapter One

Stan Musial echoed the recollections of many of the players returning from the service when he said that the dominant feeling in the camps was one of joyful relief that the war was at last over and old teammates were together again under the sun. There wasn't much talk of the war at first or of what individual players had gone through: those stories would emerge gradually as the season progressed) spun out on the long train trips between cities; told in hotel lobbies before and after games or around a table of card players; or between two roommates, restless and unable to sleep in a hot hotel room on the road. For now, the boys laughed and cavorted and limbered up. Musial, who had a penchant for tricks and parlor magic, brought a false rubber thumb to camp and left it in the hands of unsuspecting teammates and writers who shook hands with him.

The condition of the Cardinals park at St. Petersburg wasn't a laughing matter, however. Waterfront Park had always had too much sand in its soil, making footing tricky, and the playing surface was now in even worse condition after having been used for the past three years as a military drill ground. Playing pepper one day soon after his arrival, Musial slipped and stretched ligaments in his left knee, setting him even further behind the others in his conditioning. Racing for a ball in the lumpy outfield, Terry Moore made a misstep and pulled a calf muscle, an injury that would nag him the rest of the season. And there were off-field problems, too, like the scarcity of rooms for wives and children, higher prices for everything from a shave to a steak, and blowouts on the team bus when recapped tires gave way. But for now, few were complaining. This certainly beat the service. From the perspective of the fans and the writers, it also beat what had almost laughably passed for spring training and big league baseball during the past three years.

In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, baseball's commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had written President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asking for instructions: should baseball be played at all in such an emergency, and if so, under what conditions? As a deep conservative, Landis deplored almost all of Roosevelt's policies and perhaps most especially his racial attitudes and is said to have despised FDR personally, but now baseball's dictator was obliged to ask for guidance from a higher authority. And although Landis subsequently took credit for getting the "green light" from Roosevelt to continue the game through the war years, it may well have been Roosevelt's friendship with Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith that proved more important in the decision. Whatever the case, Roosevelt wrote Landis back in mid-January 1942, saying he thought it would be good for the nation's morale if baseball were played. Roosevelt was a baseball fan and also a superbly canny politician who knew full well what a remarkable position the "national pastime" held in American culture and how much its continuance would contribute to the belief that there were certain aspects of American life that could be counted on, even in the most terrible of emergencies.(*)

In his letter to Landis, Roosevelt said that, although baseball ought to continue, able-bodied players should not be exempted from service, and before Japan surrendered more than 500 major leaguers and more than 4,000 minor leaguers wore service uniforms.([dagger]) Some, like Musial, served only briefly and far from the front lines. Some, like Musial's teammate, Enos Slaughter, followed closely behind the advance of the front lines and entertained the troops with exhibition games played on the newly won ground. Some saw heavy action and came back with scars and citations to prove it. And some, like the Cleveland Indians great pitcher Bob Feller and Cardinals outfielder Harry Walker, fought with the troops, played for them, and supervised their recreation and workouts.

Musial's outfield mates on the Cardinals had representative experiences. Center fielder and team captain Terry Moore had been thirty-one when he'd entered the army and had missed the seasons of 1943, '44, and '45. But during those years he'd had the opportunity to play a fair amount of service baseball, some of it in South and Central America where the weather was generally good but the playing conditions were often subpart When he was discharged in January 1946, Moore stayed on a few weeks in Panama, playing on a civilian team in a league he was leading in batting average when he left for the States and early camp in Florida. Moore saw no action, played in over a hundred exhibition games, and reported to the Cardinals in what he said was reasonably good shape. Yet the war had cost him prime years, and he knew very well it had been a long time since he'd faced top-flight competition.

Enos Slaughter had enlisted in the Army A* Corps in August 1942, with his team in a tremendous pennant race with their archrivals, the Dodgers. He finished the season (the Cardinals won 43 of their final 51 games to finish first), then went to San Antonio for what he hoped would be flight school. "I wanted to be a pilot," Slaughter said, "but they said I was color blind. They wanted me to be bombardier, but I said if I couldn't be the one flying the plane, I'd just as soon not be flying. So, I became a physical education instructor in charge of about two hundred troops." Afternoons and weekends Slaughter played baseball against other base teams in Texas, many of them like his own, stocked with professional players. A half century later he would recall that during the 1943 season there he'd made 116 hits in 233 at bats.

Then Slaughter was told that if he would go with other players to the South Pacific, he would be guaranteed a quick discharge when the war ended. He accepted the deal and followed the American forces as they island-hopped toward Japan. On Tinian the Seabees bulldozed out a ballfield on top of a coral reef, then fashioned bleacher seats out of bomb crates. On Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima huge crowds of troops sat at the edges of the rough-hewn fields in the blazing sun, drinking beer and Cokes, and cheering the ballplayers. And on some islands there were still holdout Japanese soldiers in the hills; when the games were in progress, they would come out of their caves to watch. Seeing these "fans" up there on the hillsides, gave the players a funny feeling, Slaughter said.

Slaughter got his discharge March 1, 1946. "When I come back," he said, "I was getting the same contract as before: eleven thousand dollars. They said I was an old man. I was thirty." Later that month, the "old man" came back to St. Louis, "had a hemorrhoid operation, got me a pillow, and drove to Florida."

Harry Walker was inducted immediately after the 1943 World Series and sent to Fort Riley where Pete Reiser met him at the bus stop and assured him things would be great there, that the colonel was a big fan, and that the base team would be a powerhouse. As it turned out, Walker played almost no baseball at Fort Riley because he contracted spinal meningitis there and almost died. When he eventually recovered he was sent to the European theater and wound up on the German-Austrian border in the last desperate days before the collapse of the Third Reich. There

Walker's reconnaissance unit was ordered to hold a bridge against a horde of routed German troops seeking to cross it. Whether or not he killed twenty-two men, as Stan Musial remembered, Walker was forced to kill a good many. He was on point in a Jeep with two machine guns mounted on it when, as he recalled it, "here they come, and I'm trying to stop them, and they wouldn't stop. So that's when I had to start shooting, and I just cut through the whole mess, and they were scattered everywhere, firing back and forth at you, and you're just out there on point like a sitting duck."

Days later, when the firing stopped and that part of the war ended, Walker began a new assignment when his commanding office approached him with what Walker thought was a suggestion: that he organize some ballclubs to play for the troops. When Walker said he'd kind of like to go home now that the shooting was over and play ball for money, the c.o. got to the point. "He said to me, `Walker, I didn't ask you if you wanted to do it. I said I wanted you to do it. I have about fifteen thousand GIs here, and I've got to entertain them, or they're going to give me a fit. We're not supposed to have anything to do with the Germans, so I want you to get those teams together and play two or three times a week.'"

Walker found earthmoving equipment in Czechoslovakia, requisitioned it, and built a ballfield in Linz. Later he starred on a team that played for the European theater championship in the Nuremberg stadium where Albert Speer once staged the monster rallies for Hitler. Down at one end of the now-ghostly complex was the baseball field, its infield made of finely crushed brick salvaged from shell-damaged buildings, and beyond the outfield fence stretched the concrete expanse of the runway along which the Nazis had once paraded military equipment more sophisticated than any in the world. The stadium that once shook with the thunderous chants of an intoxicated people now heard the cheers of 60,000 American GIs watching a version of their national pastime.

* * *

With Walker and the others away in the service for varying lengths of time, their places were taken by players of lesser skills, and as the teams' rosters changed with service call-ups, the leagues' standings gyrated wildly. The season of 1942 was not that much affected, though already the great players Feller, Hank Greenberg, and Cecil Travis had left. But beginning in '43, with the departures of Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, Yankee Joe DiMaggio, Reiser of the Dodgers, Johnny Mize of the New York Giants, and Slaughter, Moore, and Johnny Beazley of the Cardinals, the level of play definitely dipped, and it was to sink even lower during the next two seasons. Graybeards who under normal circumstances would have long since grabbed a lunch bucket and joined the workaday world, now hung on, often with pathetic results. These were players such as the great slugger Jimmie Foxx and two-time American League batting champion Al Simmons who tried to play in 1943 at age forty-one and hit .203; or Ben Chapman, a star outfielder for several American League teams, who turned pitcher in 1944 and '45. Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, a big winner in the 1920s and '30s, pitched for the depleted Dodgers at age forty-two in 1943 and was awful. Manager Joe Cronin of the Red Sox had gotten too old and fat to bend over at shortstop, but his squad was so thin he shifted over to play first base and hit only .241.

At the same time other old-timers who had put their mitts away and gone to work now returned to the diamond. Hod Lisenbee pitched against the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig in 1927 but hadn't pitched in the big leagues since 1936. In 1944 at age forty-six he made a comeback with the Cincinnati Reds. Pepper Martin, the hell-bent-for-leather star of the Cardinals in the 1930s, returned to his old club in 1944 after four years of retirement. Babe Herman had been a feared slugger with the Dodgers in the 1930s but hadn't been in a major league game since 1937. In 1'945, though, the Dodgers suited up the forty-two-year-old Herman and used him as a pinch-hitter.

Then there were the kids who should have been learning their profession in Class D baseball but who were now forced to learn it before the fans in big league ballparks. Joe Nuxhall was fifteen in 1944 when he toed the pitching slab for Cincinnati and got his ears pinned back by the Cardinals. In that same season seventeen-year-old Eddie Yost played briefly for the Senators. And there was Tommy Brown of Brooklyn's Bensonhurst section. In childhood Brown learned a baseball's tricky hops playing on the cobbled streets down near the navy yard. At twelve his childhood ended when he went to work on the New York docks, and by fourteen he was playing on weekends with those four and five years his senior on the diamonds at Brooklyn's Parade Grounds. In 1943 when he was fifteen a Dodgers scout invited him to an Ebbets Field tryout along with about 2,000 other aspirants.

"After the first day," Brown said, "if they called your name, you came back the next day. Next day, same process. They finally got it down to about thirty kids. So the following day I played in an intersquad game in Ebbets Field, and they told me they'd be in touch with me." In early December with parental consent Brown signed with the Dodgers, the team whose every doing he'd followed for years. That spring they sent him to Newport News in the Piedmont League. "I was hitting .297," Brown said, "and the manager got a telegram and said to me, `You're going to Brooklyn. [Leo] Durocher wants you to play shortstop.' You could make a movie out of it, I guess, but I didn't really want to go. But I rode the train all night and got to Ebbets Field in the morning. We're playing the Cubs a doubleheader, and I didn't expect to play. Durocher says, 'You're playing shortstop. Both games.' I coulda hit the floor. I was sixteen, and I used to keep a scorecard on these guys!"

Between the old-timers and the raw kids was an odd collection of men who had no past to speak of in the game and no future in it either, but who in 1943, '44, and '45 passed for big league players. Eddie Boland, an outfielder who'd had what the players termed a "cup of coffee" with the Phillies back in the mid-'30s, played for the Senators in 1944--on his vacation from the New York Sanitation Department. Sig Jakucki was a boozing, brawling journeyman pitcher who had never won a big league game and had been bouncing around in the minors for eight seasons until the St. Louis Browns found they could use him in 1944--when he was thirty-six. As it turned out, Jakucki was more than the equal of the league's hitters of that season and the next one, too, but he was completely uncontrollable and a menace to club morale. The Browns also had Pete Gray in the outfield. Gray had lost his right arm in a boyhood accident, yet he'd been able to excel in the minor leagues. With the Browns in 1945 Gray was simply overmatched, even by the pitching staffs of that season.

These years also saw the birth and rise to popularity of the All-American Girls Baseball League, begun by Cubs owner P. K. Wrigley in 1944 as a novel way of satisfying the homefront's hunger for baseball. The AAGBL game was a hybrid of baseball and softball and was short on slugging and long on strike-out pitchers and stolen bases. Still, it was a recognizable version of the national pastime and took fans' minds off the war and the loss of the star players to it. When the boys came back from the service and big league baseball returned to its prewar level, the popularity of the AAGBL sagged appreciably, and despite various measures designed to revive its popularity, the league eventually folded after the 1954 season.

During these years the level of major league play did not have to suffer quite as much as it did, for skilled and able-bodied players were available who might have made up for at least some of the losses to the service, but organized baseball had a firm if unwritten color barrier that forbid any owner, no matter how talent-starved his team, from dipping into the ranks of the Negro leagues. To be sure, the Negro league teams had themselves been hit by call-ups. Still, during the seasons of 1944 and '45 talented players such as Satchel Paige, Artie Wilson, Roy Campanella, Sam Jethroe, Willard Brown, Gene Benson, Roy Partlow, and Hilton Smith were available to any white owner who wanted to sign them. So too was the almost mythical slugger Josh Gibson, though by this point heavy drinking had apparently already eroded his great skills. Bill Veeck, the Young Turk who wanted to buy the hapless Phillies in 1943, recognized the nature and extent of this untapped pool of talent. His plan, which he unwisely revealed, was to buy the Phillies and stock the team with black players. Had he been able to do so, the Phillies with Paige, Partlow, Wilson, and the others, would have walked to the pennant. As it was, once the other owners heard of Veeck's plan' they arranged for the Phillies to go to another, more orthodox buyer, and Veeck and the blacks were frozen out.

Before the war's end Roosevelt's sense of the game's cultural and emotional importance was demonstrated many times, both on the home front and on the fields of battle where the game was discussed and even played when the smoke of an engagement had barely cleared. During the first days of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, German officers disguised as Americans were sent ahead of the Panzers to infiltrate Allied lines and spread confusion. To counter this, roadblocks were hastily thrown up by American forces and anyone going either way was interrogated. General Robert Hasbrouck, commander of the American Seventh Armoured Division, said that a favorite question at a roadblock was, "Who pitched for the Yankees in such-and-such a year?" "If you couldn't answer:' he said, "you were detained."

Interestingly, as Bill Gilbert points out in his book on wartime baseball, They Also Served, Selective Service's Lewis Hershey granted deferments to virtually everyone in the film industry. The reason for this difference in treatment must have been the industry's greater potential for creating and disseminating wartime propaganda.

(*) Before the war's end Roosevelt's sense of the game's cultural and emotional importance was demonstrated many times, both on the home front and on the fields of battle where the game was discussed and even played when the smoke of an engagement had barely cleared. During the first days of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, German officers disguised as Americans were sent ahead of the Panzers to infiltrate Allied lines and spread confusion. To counter this, roadblocks were hastily thrown up by American forces and anyone going either way was interrogated. General Robert Hasbrouck, commander of the American Seventh Armoured Division, said that a favorite question at a roadblock was, "Who pitched for the Yankees in such-and-such a year?" "If you couldn't answer:' he said, "you were detained."

Interestingly, as Bill Gilbert points out in his book on wartime baseball, They Also Served, Selective Service's Lewis Hershey granted deferments to virtually everyone in the film industry. The reason for this difference in treatment must have been the industry's greater potential for creating and disseminating wartime propaganda.

© 1996 Frederick Turner

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