When the United States went to war with Germany and Japan in 1941, Major League Baseball did, too.
Bob Feller, the Cleveland Indians’ ace and baseball’s best pitcher at the time, enlisted in the Navy the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, a 10-time World Series champion, was aboard a landing craft during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Ted Williams, who would later go on to manage the Senators, missed three years of his prime (1943 to 1945) serving in the Navy.
So many players joined the armed services that military outposts established their own ballclubs, and they weren’t made up of a bunch of nobodies, either.
“They were Hall of Fame teams,” said Gordon Calhoun, curator at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Southeast D.C. in a phone interview “It’s kind of absurd how much talent they had.”
So much, in fact, they played active major league teams — and won.
Sailors from Norfolk Naval Station, formally Naval Training Station 9, defeated the Washington Senators, 4-3, at Griffith Stadium in front of a crowd of more than 29,000 that included a whole lot of celebrities on May 24, 1943.
Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich organized the contest and passed along the idea to Senators’ owner Clark Griffith. Spectators gained admission by purchasing a war bond; a $50 bond bought a general admission ticket and a $1,000 bond bought a box ticket, Povich told author William B. Mead in his book “Even the Browns: Baseball During World War II.”
The game raised $2.1 million to fund the Navy cruiser USS Norfolk, named in the base’s honor. All of the players signed two baseballs, with one to be auctioned off at the game and its twin to reside aboard the Norfolk. But as American forces turned the tides of the war, the Navy scrapped plans for the ship, Calhoun said.
“It was a ballgame to please the most critical,” Povich wrote in The Post the next day.
Charley Wagner, a Boston Red Sox right-hander with a career 3.91 ERA, started for the sailors and nearly went the distance, pitching into the ninth inning with a four-run lead before running into trouble.
The Navy pulled another pro ballplayer out of the bullpen for the final two outs (this was before saves were an official statistic). Maxie Wilson, who spent one season with Philadelphia before the war and another with Washington after it, got his first batter to foul out and the next to fly out to center fielder Dom DiMaggio, Joe’s brother, for the final out.
Even more stars stacked the sailors’ lineup. Pee Wee Reese, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ captain and 10-time all-star played third base. Future Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees played shortstop. Don Padgett, a career .336 hitter from St. Louis, did the catching. Jack Conway and Benny McCoy, journeymen big league infielders, filled out the right side of the diamond.
There were just as many stars in the stands as on the field. Army Lt. Jacob Chester Shively, an aviator injured flying bombing missions over German-occupied France, tossed out the first pitch, then sat beside Navy Sec. Franklin Knox in the presidential box.
Kate Smith, one of the nation’s most popular singers and a native Washingtonian performed the national anthem with the backing of the United States Navy Band, which waived protocol to accompany a vocalist. She implored fans to continue purchasing bonds and “not to stop buying until our boys stop dying.” (Pro sports teams in recent months have stopped playing her rendition of “God Bless America” over racist Depression-era song she recorded.)
Bing Crosby performed during the seventh inning stretch, stepping to the microphone at the pitcher’s mound and picking up the rosin bag, rubbing his hands like a pitcher with a new baseball.
He sang three songs, including “White Christmas” and told stories about Hollywood’s in crowd. “He gagged, told stories and sang as only Bing Crosby can,” Povich wrote.
Babe Ruth, not even featured in advertisements for the game, made a surprise appearance. Emcee Al Schacht, a former Washington pitcher who earned a reputation as the “Clown Prince of Baseball,” acted out Ruth’s famous called shot between innings, pausing at second base and pointing at right field as he mimed Ruth’s plodding home run trot.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he shouted. “Look coming out of the right field boxes, none other than baseball’s greatest figure, Babe Ruth!”
Dressed in a dark suit and spats, Ruth jogged to second base and finished the home run trot.
“They’re carrying on a bigger series across the oceans, you know, with shells for bats and cannons for baseballs,” Ruth said, stepping to the microphone. “We’re doing as much as we can, but that’s not enough. Those fellows over there are lying in trenches with mud and muck up to their necks, and we’ve got to pull them out.
"I went to Japan in 1934 on a round-the-world tour and must have been met by 1½ million Japanese, with their own flag in one hand and an American flag in the other. I know they’d like to do with our flag now, but let’s make them bow down and kiss it. The only way is for us to give our boys what they need. They’ll fight for us, if we fight for them. We can fight by buying war bonds and stamps to supply planes and shells and ships.
“God bless those men and women over there. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel and fight for them as they are fighting for us, to keep our flag flying forever.”
Other major league teams — Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis — put on war bond games until the fighting ended, Mead wrote. And the on-base ballclubs continued to occupy sailors’ time as a principal diversion from the violence overseas.
“They are a major distraction for what sailors might be thinking about,” Calhoun said. “There might be a war going on, but this game calms them down. This game is something they’re all familiar with. The lowest seaman all the way up to Capt. [Henry] McClure [in charge of the training station] himself attended every game he could. It’s a part of what World War II was all about. It impacted every facet of American society."