Major League Baseball in World War II


Thursday, February 4, 2016

As they used to say in Brooklyn(ese), once home of the beloved Dodgers with a nod to Walt Whitman, here’s an ode to remember:

“Spring is sprung, da grass is riz,
I wonder where da Boidies iz?
The Boid is on da wing,
Don’t be absoid, da wing is on da Boid!”

You can ask any of your friends who originally came from either Bensonhurst, Flatbush, Borough Park, Sheepshead Bay, Bayridge, Midwood, Crown Heights, Coney Island, Williamsburg, Bedford Stuyvesant, Gramercy, Bushwick and so many other areas, (I’m sorry if I didn’t name them), that make up the great Borough known as Brooklyn for a translation.

However, to me, that simply means it’s time for Spring Training and Baseball. This week the pitchers and catchers go into camp. They will go all over the country seeking for the most part warmer climes. Primarily, they will workout in Arizona (The Cactus League) and Florida (The Grapefruit League).

I can feel the excitement … the anticipation that “This might be our year”. The smell of Neat’s Foot Oil on new leather gloves… The sound of the wooden Bat made out of Ash as it hits the approximately 9”round leather sphere that… the smell of freshly mown grass and an Umpire with his, or her hand upraised shouting “Play Ball” and the game is on.

To me there is no better sound in Sports than “Play Ball”… not, “Gentlemen start your engines”, or “At the Bell, come out fighting”, or even “You’ve won the toss and you decide whether to receive, or kick”. During my formative years, Baseball was the National Pastime.

World War II put a strain on every facet of life. World War II was a trying time for America and equally so for Baseball. 4500 players swapped their flannel (that’s what Baseball uniforms were made of then), for Military uniforms to serve their nation.

Future Hall of Famers like Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller and Ted Williams lost vital playing time in the prime of their careers. In his wisdom, knowing that Baseball was firmly entrenched as our National Pastime and would be a morale builder, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to a letter written by the then Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis by giving his personal approval to let baseball continue.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (sadly, many of today’s students do not know what Pearl Harbor was and what it means), it was unclear whether Major League Baseball could, or should continue, during the balance of World War II. The question was whether, or not at a time of deprivation, was a frivolous game necessary to be allowed to continue

After all, it was at a time when everyone in order to help the war effort, was scaling back. Each month, we were allotted so many ration stamps depending on our family needs. These stamps were for essentials such as milk, gas and meat.

My Uncle Eddie, like thousands of others, even had a Victory Garden. In this Garden he would grow carrots, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers and much more so our family could enjoy fresh vegetables.

In the eyes of many, Baseball, was arguably a luxury that a wartime society enduring great hardships could not afford. However, Baseball was so important that rather than complain, Americans took it to their bosom and craved it.

Radio Broadcasts (there was no TV yet) Baseball, along with dramas, game shows and soap operas, for brief moments each day helped to push the ever dire news from the War Fronts to the back of our minds. It allowed people to escape from reality and dream of a better day.

In order to continue playing, Baseball had to make many compromises. For example, The Department of Transportation issued an edict that the teams could no longer go to out-of-state and distant warmer climates for Spring Training. They had to train as close as possible to their home base. Basically, to preserve Gas which was in short supply and needed for the War Effort.

For example, the New York Yankees could not go to their normal site of St. Petersburg, Florida. Instead, they trained at Asbury Park, N.J…The Brooklyn Dodgers trained at Bear Mountain, New York instead of going to Jacksonville, Florida. I had the best of all worlds.

My beloved Red Sox, did not go to Sarasota, Florida, but trained instead at Tufts College in Medford, Massachusetts… two trolley rides and one transfer from my home. What a treat for a Baseball starved kid!

Today, however, in this fast-paced, electronic age, the NFL has come to satisfy to a great extent, America’s current need for instant gratification. That sums up today’s society, “Instant Gratification”. The pace of a Baseball Game with its nuances and its strategy today, is considered by many too slow.

Like my friend David Friedland who to me is a true Baseball Historian of a kinder, gentler time as well as others of our generation, Baseball gave us an outlet for our emotions. We grew up in a Great Depression and suffered through a World War with so many days of sadness, but there was always Baseball, our refuge of pleasure… Always and forever, our own National Pastime.