Baseball and the American Military during World War

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Just as my grandpa spread the love of the game to my family, the United States Navy was instrumental in introducing and popularizing the game of baseball around the world. Baseball was first brought to Japan in 1870 and when U.S. naval ships docked later in the 1870s, they began playing against the local teams.

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From Japan, the game spread to Korea and Taiwan. Before the start of World War I, the U.S. Navy had introduced the game in China, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Nicaragua, and the Philippines.3 Countries surrounded by water were easily reached and were common stopping points for the U.S. Navy. During World War I, baseball was what brought soldiers together. It was an integral part of Navy training. The War Department developed the slogan Every American Soldier a baseball player and it was assimilated into training camp drills and activities. Throughout the course of the war, 440 major and minor league ball players fought overseas, and only six died. Baseball was often used as a diplomatic tool. Tensions in a meeting could be lessened on the playing field because sports bring people together in a way that nothing else does.

At the start of the 1941 baseball season, America was not yet involved in the war in Europe. A national publication that dominated in covering baseball called The Sporting News, released a cartoon that was titled Europe’s national pastime seems to be war; America’s is baseball. That season would be the last for a while, with the war raging on in Europe, many players enlisted to join the fight. The 1941 season was known for three things; Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees had a 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox accrued a .406 batting average, and the World Series was between two New York rivals – the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The United States entered the war just two months after the World Series ended, with DiMaggio and Williams both enlisting in 1943.

December 7, 1941 was the day that the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was to have their baseball championship. The baseball teams from the battleship USS Arizona and the USS Enterprise were set to play. Unfortunately, the game was delayed due to the USS Enterprise being unable to return to port on time, and the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred instead. 1,177 crewmen died on the Arizona, many of which were the baseball players who were meant to be playing in a game that day.5 The USS Arizona was completely destroyed during the strike and was sunk by the Japanese. Parts of the sunken battleship still lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor where there is a memorial to those who died on it. Pearl Harbor was the catalyst for propelling America head on into World War II.

Military leaders also recognized baseball as an excellent training device and tool for success. Army Commander General Brehon Somervell said The sandlots and big league ballparks of America have contributed to our military success. A million and a half kids from junior sandlot teams are in the Armed Forces. They learned the teamwork it takes to win a battle or war. We never dare forget that a campaign can be upset by a ninth inning rally. We dare not relax until the last man is out. In baseball, you learn that anything can happen to change the course of the game, just as in war. One base hit or one battle can mean the difference between winning and losing. It is also vital to remember that even if you are up two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the game is still on. Many sailors had these lessons instilled in them from a young age due to their playing ball, which was beneficial then being in the Navy. It is also important to note that sports train sailors to be better than the enemy both mentally and physically because they are used to the pressure, competitiveness, and dedication it takes to succeed in athletics.

One of the most important components of success during war time is morale. A military can have thousands of weapons and soldiers, but if they aren’t happy or invested in the cause, then that causes a problem. The United States War Department made it a goal to provide opportunities to increase morale. They recognized baseball as a crowd favorite with sailors. Leaders made it a priority to provide ships loaded with bats, balls, and other gear. Baseball fields were also constructed, especially in the Pacific, for sailors to play on in their free time. Professional players were sent out to these fields to play exhibition games for the troops as entertainment and a way for the men to escape the horrors of war for an afternoon. Baseball was so instrumental in raising sailor’s spirits because it reminded them of home. It’s America’s national pastime, it brings different generations together, teaches life lessons, and provides a time where everyone can forget about life’s problems for the length of the game. It can be played in the backyard with friends and family, or watched in a stadium with thousands of people. Baseball in the navy discouraged homesickness because picking up a bat and ball could bring back memories of playing ball in the backyard and make them feel like they were home. Playing also gave them something to do during long trips at sea or while docked waiting for instructions. Baseball was not only played and talked about, but it was utilized in military names. The Allied campaign in North Africa was named Play Ball, pilots named their planes Winning Run, and warships were named after famous players like the SS Lou Gehrig and the SS Christy Mathewson. These names also brought a sense of connection to home and what they missed.

Before sailors even went to war, they were first recruits trained in the United States. The main two training grounds were the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside of Chicago, where my grandfather was trained, and the Naval Training Station in Norfolk, Virginia. The Great Lakes Naval Training Station was founded in 1911 and remains to this day the Navy’s largest training facility. The station was also the first site to allow African American trainees in 1942. While at first segregated, all training was integrated by mid-1945. Over four million sailor served on active duty for the United States Navy in World War II, and over one million of those sailors were trained at the Great Lakes Training Station. After leaving the training center, sailors were sent out across the Pacific or Atlantic. It was on their ships that they made teams and scheduled games for when they reached land. Phil Rizzuto, a Hall of Famer who played shortstop for the New York Yankees said he never met anyone who didn’t like baseball while in the Navy.10 Sailors could talk about a good game for days, and they followed their favorite teams anytime they could get news. Baseball was one thing that everyone on the ship could have in common, a devout Christian from Texas and a Jewish sailor from New York could bond over their love of the game.

With the war in full force, the United States Military put on the Servicemen’s World Series from September 22nd to October 15th, 1944 in Honolulu. Navy defeated Army in eight out of eleven games awarding the title of champion to the United States Navy team. 50 players participated in the series and 36 of them had played in the major leagues back home. Although the Navy won many more games, all eleven games were played so that as many people could watch the games as possible and they were exclusively for servicemen with almost 20,000 attending each game. These games allowed for an escape from the fighting, and an opportunity for all the men in the military to come together and enjoy America’s favorite pastime, something they were all fighting to protect.

Over the course of World War II, over 500 major league players and 4,000 minor league players joined the United States Military, with 15 Hall of Famers joining the Navy. One of such men was Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller. In his seven years playing professional baseball before the war, he accumulated a record of 107-54. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Feller was driving back to Cleveland after visiting his terminally ill father in order to meet with his bosses to sign his 1942 contract with the Indians. Although Feller was exempt from military service due to his father’s illness, he gave up his chance to earn $100,000, which would be $1.7 million today, with the Indians to became the first professional athlete to join the Navy just two days after Pearl Harbor. Feller called fighting in the Navy one of the greatest experiences of his life. He went on inactive duty in August 1945 and started for the Indians two days after returning home. Since he was able to play during his time in the Navy and remained in shape during his four-year absence, he allowed only four hits during his first game back and won 4-2 against the Tigers. In an interview Feller did in 2006, he said you can talk about teamwork on a baseball team, but I’ll tell you, it takes teamwork when you have 2,900 men stationed on the U.S.S Alabama in the South Pacific. Teamwork is a vital aspect of both baseball and war, but if you have previous experience with teamwork in a sport, it is easier to apply it in a vital event like an invasion or battle.

The Bob Feller Act of Valor Foundation was created to educate youth about the valor, commitment, and duty to country. The Bob Feller Act of Valor Award honors service men and women who have recognized the importance of service to one’s country, and have sacrificed in times of national need. The inspiring part about Feller’s story is that he was at the peak of his career, would have continued to thrive in the major’s, and was about to make $1.7 million in one season, but gave it all up to serve his country. His sacrifice and courage over 70 years ago, still motivates people today. Feller stated over 67,000 people came to watch his first game back from the war. Baseball players who fought in the war and returned home were welcomed back with open arms and treated as even bigger heroes than when they left. They were idols for being more than just good ball players, they helped save millions of people too.

At the start of the war, there was much debate about whether professional ball players should be exempt from the draft or if there should even be a 1942 baseball season at all. Harry Williams, the secretary of the Pacific Coast League was quoted as saying, We went to the trouble of teaching the Japs baseball, and we don’t intend to let them obliterate it.15 In mid-January, Commissioner Landis wrote a letter to President Roosevelt asking if professional baseball should continue during the war. The President responded that in his personal opinion, baseball should keep going. His reasoning was that because of the war, less people were unemployed and were working longer, harder hours than before. This meant that everyone deserved a chance to relax and enjoy a night out more than before the war. Roosevelt stated that even if less players were able to play due to being drafted, the lower quality of teams would not dampen the popularity of the sport because it still provided entertainment to millions of people. Congressman LaVern Dilweg said that baseball was important to those at war because they “hungrily await news of sports,” and a journalist named Quentin Reynolds said, Hitler has killed a great many things in the past few years. Do not let him kill baseball. With the arrival of Roosevelt’s letter, the 1942 season began as scheduled.

After the season began, baseball pledged $25,000 towards purchasing equipment for the army and navy sports programs and donated all proceeds from the All-Star Game that year towards the Bat and Ball Fund. The first order from this fund comprised of 18,000 baseballs and 4,500 bats. Every destination received a package containing three bats, twelve balls, and a complete set of catching equipment. Troops also received copies of the Sporting News, the national baseball publication. The sport raised money by putting part of each ticket towards the purchase of a B-17 bomber, a second all-star game was suggested each season to raise money for the Bat and Ball Fund, players and umpires wore a patch on their uniform that supported a physical fitness program sponsored by the Office of Civil Defense, and people were encouraged to take part of their salary in war bonds. Throughout the season, autographed baseballs were auctioned off to buy war bonds, and some clubs allowed fans to get into games if they donated scrap mental instead of buying a ticket.

The war threatened a baseball player’s career in more ways than one. Other than the possibility of death and injury, a player may have only had a year or two left of his career when he joined the military for a three-year deployment. In addition, a player who was in his prime when he enlisted or was drafted may have lost his spark and never played the same again. After the Selective Service Director of the draft, Lewis Hershey, announced that deferments should be available to actors and reporters, the public went into uproar.20 Hershey then clarified by stating that no replaceable man would be deferred. Americans wanted movies and baseball to continue in full force, but they didn’t want the stars to get special treatment in the draft in order for them to continue. Many famous ballplayers enlisted on their own anyways, Phil Rizzuto and Bob Feller enlisted in the Navy, Joe DiMaggio enlisted in the Navy even though he could have been deferred.

It was the correct decision to continue professional baseball during the war. Although most rosters depleted and had to resort to much lower quality players, they survived the war. Many players who would never have normally seen the majors, played there for a whole season. Pete Gray who had one arm played for St. Louis in 77 games in 1945, and a fifteen-year-old pitched in a game in 1944 for the Reds. In the 1945 World Series, the Detroit Tigers played the Chicago Cubs and a sportswriter wrote that neither team was good enough to win. Major league attendance dropped to 7.5 million in 1943 but climbed to an all-time high in 1945 at 10.8 million tickets. Nevertheless, every season continued and baseball still remained a high point of American’s lives and in the lives of soldiers and sailors overseas. Baseball was necessary for keeping servicemen in good spirits during the war.

World War II and the Navy spread baseball everywhere they went, and popularized it more in places it already existed. It provided a connection to home and the lives that were left behind or put on hold during the war. Baseball taught teamwork, dedication, and to never give up until the game or battle was over. The game helped form friendships and bonds between sailors who had no similarities or connections to one another. It also forms bonds between family members, it gives them time to spend together like it gave me and my grandfather. There really is no sport like baseball.

Bibliography

Act of Valor Award. Bob Feller Act of Valor Foundation. 2018. https://www.actofvaloraward.org/

Baseball Warms up for World War II. Puget Sound Navy Museum. 2018. https://www.pugetsoundnavymuseum.org/baseball-warms-wwii/

The Birth of Navy Baseball. Puget Sound Navy Museum. 2018. https://www.pugetsoundnavymuseum.org/when-baseball-went-to-war/

The Origins of Baseball. World Baseball Softball Confederation. 2018.

https://www.wbsc.org/baseball/history-of-baseball/

Who Invented Baseball? History.com. March 27, 2013. https://www.history.com/news/who-invented-baseball

Frank, Joel S. “Reviews of Bullock, Playing for Their Nation: Baseball and the American Military during World War II and Powers-Beck, The American Indian Integration of Baseball.” Pacific Historical Review 75, no. 3 (2006): 530-32. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/phr.2006.75.3.530?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=baseball&searchText=AND&searchText=navy&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dbaseball%2BAND%2Bnavy&refreqid=search%3Acb44929b37a8d6bb51b29e6561b1b745&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Keene, Anne Raugh. During World War II, the Game of Their Lives. The New York Times. July 29, 2018. https://case.summon.serialssolutions.com/#!/search?bookMark=ePnHCXMw42LgTQStzc4rAe_hSmECnVdqagwsCS1NWWBHORkbG3Ign_HEyaDjAt6VpwBeQqIQnlik4OmpowA0R8E9MTdVIT9NIQQ0cK7gAzqMlYeBNQ0YOam8UJqbQdXNNcTZQxdWmsaDmqQFiQXAFlS8kYG5ubmloRF4Yw5x6gBziThQ

Roberts, James C. Baseball on the Home Front. American Veterans Center. 2016. https://www.americanveteranscenter.org/avc-media/magazine/wwiichronicles/wwii-chronicles-issue-xxxix/baseball-goes-to-war-the-national-pastime-in-world-war-i

Schwarz, Allan. Feller Proud to Serve in ‘Time of Need’. The New York Times. December 16, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/sports/baseball/17reflect.html

Steven P. Gietschier. “”Uncle Sam Needs Only to Call”: Baseball and othe United States’ Peacetime Military Draft, 194042.” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 24, no. 1 (2015): 29-56. https://muse.jhu.edu/

Werner, Dave. Baseball and the U.S. Navy: All Who Play Win. The Sextant. November 9, 2018. https://usnhistory.navylive.dodlive.mil/2018/11/09/baseball-and-the-u-s-navy-all-who-play-win/

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