Baseball During World War II

By Clay Cormany


President Franklin Roosevelt Throws Out First Pitch

Today, there is little doubt that football is the most-popular sport in the U.S., with 37 percent of Americans identifying it as their favorite, compared to 15 percent for basketball, just over 9 percent for baseball, and 7 percent for soccer. But on the eve of the U.S.’s entrance into World War II, baseball, “America’s pastime,” reigned supreme in the country’s sports world. Sixteen cities from St. Louis to Boston put a major league team on the field on opening day, 1941. Minor-league baseball was even more extensive with teams as far west as San Francisco and as far south as Orlando. Meanwhile, the Detroit Stars, the Homestead Grays, and other Negro league teams -- with players as skillful as those in the majors – travelled across the country to play in front of nonwhite crowds.


Bob Feller being inducted into the Navy


Ted Williams as a Marine Corps pilot


Pete Gray of the St. Louis Browns

World War II, of course, affected nearly every segment of American life, and professional baseball was no exception. In the wake of Pearl Harbor and with millions of men heading into the armed forces, baseball fans may well have wondered “Will my favorite sport survive?” President Franklin D. Roosevelt answered that question with a resounding Yes! In his “Green Light Letter” to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, FDR asserted “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than before. And that means that they ought to have a chance at recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”


Satchel Paige warming up


Homestead Grays team picture

So baseball would survive and continue, but that only served to bring another question to center stage. Who will be playing and how good will they be? It was a fair question since eventually some 500 major league players and over 2,000 minor leaguers joined the armed forces. Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, and other stars heeded the call to arms no less readily than rank-and-file players. It is unclear how many men from the Negro leagues went off to fight the Axis powers, but some undoubtedly did. Jackie Robinson, for example, served in the Army, and Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American league, went into the Navy. But with so much talent headed out of the dugouts and into the trenches, the question remained: Who’s going to be taking the field when the ’42 season begins?

There turned out to be more than one answer to that question. Players too old or too young to face immediate conscription into the armed forces filled some of the vacancies. Men deemed physically unqualified for military service provided an even larger pool of players for major league teams. Some of these players had infirmities that didn’t greatly interfere with their ability to play baseball. That was the case with Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Orie Arntzen, who suffered from a weak back. Other players, however, had to overcome severe disabilities. In this group, no one stood taller than Pete Gray. As the result of a childhood accident, Gray had to have most of his right arm amputated. Undeterred, Gray pursued his love of baseball and became an outfielder for the St. Louis Browns in 1945. He developed a quick and effective technique for catching a ball, removing his glove, and throwing the ball to the infield. Gray denied his technique came from any kind of training or rehabilitation. When playing with neighborhood kids, he asserted, “I couldn’t figure how to get the ball out…. And then that (idea) just came. It just came, and that was it.”


Insignia of the New York Cubans


Gilberto Torres of the Washington Senators

Latin American players provided another source of manpower for major league teams during World War II. Latinos had been playing baseball in the United States as far back as the 1870s, but after Pearl Harbor, they became especially valuable since they were not subject to conscription. Cubans in particular were highly regarded. The Washington Senators went so far as to hire a special scout, Joe Cambria, to find Cubans and other Latin Americans for their roster. It proved to be a wise strategy. In 1945, the Senators nearly won the pennant with a team that included Cubans Gilberto Torres, Fermin Guerra, Jose Antonio Zardon, and Armando Roche, as well as Alejandro Carrasquel, the first Venezuelan to play in the majors. It is worth noting that many black Latino players found a home in the Negro leagues during the war. One team, the New York Cubans, consisted entirely of black Latins – not just Cubans. This team, which included future Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo, won the Negro League World Series in 1947, coincidently, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors.


Philip Wrigley, founder of the All-American Girls Baseball League


AAGBBL players in action


Players for the Kenosha Comets receive a pep talk

The most dramatic and innovative measure taken to keep baseball alive in the midst of a global war was the establishment of the All-American Girls’ Base Ball League (AAGBBL) and its forerunner, the All-American Girls’ Soft Ball League (AAGSBL). The man behind this innovation was Philip Wrigley, president of the chewing gum company founded by his father and owner of the Chicago Cubs. Even before the war, Wrigley tried to draw more women to baseball by having Ladies’ Days from time to time. On those days, women could buy a discounted ticket and see the Cubs in action. Other teams followed Wrigley’s example and had Ladies’ Days of their own.

Wrigley’s wealth, his close association with sports, and his interest in drawing women into sports as spectators all figured in his decision to establish the AAGSBL. Above all other factors, however, was the government’s projected manpower shortage for 1943 and 1944. Such a shortage put the Cubs’ future at risk, and that, in turn, prompted Wrigley to find a viable, money-making alternative – women’s softball. Within the context of a male-depleted society, a women’s softball league made sense. After all, women already held down sports-related jobs, such as jockeys, caddies, umpires, and football coaches, once performed almost exclusively by men. Professional women softball players seemed like a logical next step. Even when it became clear major league baseball would not disappear, Wrigley believed the public would still support a women’s softball league if it bolstered the war effort as well as the social standards of the day. With that in mind, Wrigley articulated the following three guiding objectives for the AAGSBL:

  1. To furnish additional means of healthful recreation to the public who are all in one way or another under severe pressure from war work during this critical war time.
  2. To create the incentive on the part of girls and women employed in war work to get out and play softball themselves, thereby getting the exercise they need to carry on their jobs more efficiently.
  3. To keep all workers better satisfied with living in the community in which they are now located by furnishing additional entertainment which may now be available to them only in large cities.

The first four teams of the AAGSBL all represented smaller municipalities in the Midwest, specifically, Racine and Kenosha in Wisconsin; Rockford, Illinois; and South Bend, Indiana. Before the league folded in 1954, ten other teams joined its ranks representing both large cities such as Chicago and smaller ones such as Peoria and Kalamazoo.

Before any of these teams took the field, Wrigley implemented several changes in the way softball was played to make it more like baseball. He lengthened the pitching distance from 35 feet to 40 feet, put nine rather than ten players in the field, allowed base runners to lead off and steal, and permitted pitchers to start with only one foot on the rubber. These rule changes led to the league changing its name to the All-American Girls Baseball League midway through the 1943 season. At the conclusion of the ’43 season, however, the name changed again to the All-American Girls’ Professional Ball League (AAGPBL), since the underhand pitching style remained in place. At the end of the ’45 season, the league went back to being the AAGBBL with the adoption of an overhand pitching style. Whatever the name of their league, the women playing in it were expected to exemplify “the highest ideals of womanhood.” To assure players met this expectation, the league laid down firm off-the-field rules and hired team chaperones and charm-school trainers. The league’s desire to promote socially acceptable feminine behavior prompted one player to say, “They wanted us to look like ladies, and act like ladies, but play like men.”


Home plate at a little league game


Playing baseball with an anti-aircraft gun in the background


Shinichi Ishimaru Japanese baseball player

Adults were not the only ones keeping baseball alive during the war years. Children – mostly boys – also did their part through little league baseball. In 1941, teenage boys were already playing the game in leagues the American Legion composed as far back as 1925, but leagues for pre-teen boys were relatively new on the scene. The idea of creating baseball leagues for younger boys came from a Williamsport, Pennsylvania man named Stotz. During the summer of 1938, Stotz brought a number of neighborhood boys together to play on fields and with equipment appropriate to their smaller size. The following year, Stotz and his wife Grayce, with help from several other community members, organized the first three little league teams: Lycoming Dairy, Lundy Lumber, and Jumbo Pretzel. Stotz and seven other Williamsport residents eventually formed the first little league board of directors, which clarified that the purpose of little league baseball was to teach boys sportsmanship, fair play, and teamwork.

During World War II, little league’s growth was hampered by the fact that many fathers were serving in the armed forces. Just the same, little league baseball spread to several communities outside of Williamsport, although it wasn’t until 1947 that a non-Pennsylvania little league team – the Hammonton (NJ) All-Stars – took the field. Significantly, a game in progress at Williamsport was suspended on August 14, 1945, when it was announced that World War II had ended.


A baseball game at Manzanar Japanese concentration camp, 1943


The baseball team from Tule Lake Japanese concentration camp

If the end of the war brought relief and joy to Americans back home, it created a problem for U.S. Army leaders in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), who suddenly had to find new ways to keep hundreds of thousands of young restless soldiers occupied. They solved the problem by creating a massive athletics network that allowed soldiers to compete on what were essentially intramural teams. Not surprisingly, baseball attracted the most participants. G.I.’s often played pick-up games on makeshift diamonds when time allowed. Sometimes, they had bats and baseballs available, but when they didn’t, they improvised with whatever they could find. Now they had the chance to perform on a bigger stage, wearing uniforms and using high-quality equipment.

The Army brass created a large league with teams representing most of the divisions in the European theater. The majority of players had at least some pro experience and a few, like catcher Herbert Bremer and pitcher Ewell Blackwell, had been in the majors. Ironically, most games were played in the Hitler Youth Stadium (Stadion der Hitlerjugend), once the site of Nazi Party rallies. (Commanders made sure swastikas at the facility were painted over with red-white-and-blue emblems.) At the end of the season, a five-game World Series was held between the 71st Division Red Circlers and the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars. The latter won, three games to two. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the ETO teams was the fact they were racially integrated. Two key players on the champion OISE All-Stars were outfielder Willard Brown and pitcher Leon Day, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs and the Newark Eagles, respectively. Thus, the ETO baseball league was a harbinger of what would happen two years later when Jackie Robinson brought down the color barrier in the major leagues.

The end of the war eventually brought most major league players back home. Some of those players had seen their share of fighting. New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra acted as a gunner’s mate on the USS Bayfield and helped attack German positions on Omaha Beach. Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller also went into the Navy and saw action aboard the USS Alabama during Operation Flintlock and at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Another pitcher, Warren Spahn of the Boston Braves, became an Army combat engineer and received the Purple Heart for wounds he received in the European Theater. Sadly, not all professional baseball players who fought in World War II returned. Several minor leaguers lost their lives. Among them were second baseman Billy Herbert, widely regarded as the best player in the Class C California League, who perished at Guadalcanal, and pitcher Frank Schulz of the Flint (Michigan) Arrows who died while flying a B-24 in the Philippines. At the major league level, no star player lost his life, but Elmer Gedeon, who played in several games for the Washington Senators, died when his bomber was shot down over France.

Japan – where baseball was nearly as popular as it was in the U.S. – also saw its professional league hit hard by the war. Horace Wilson an English professor at the Kaisei Academy in Tokyo introduced the game to the Japanese in 1872, and it rapidly grew in popularity. However, the idea of baseball as a professional sport didn’t gain traction in Japan until 1934 when media mogul Matsutaro Shoriki established a team of all-stars called the Greater Tokyo Baseball Club. The first Japanese professional league arrived two years later and by 1950 had grown big enough to split into two leagues – the Central and the Pacific. During the war, however, the new league struggled. In 1944, the loss of manpower to the war forced league officials to cut the standard 80+ game schedule down to 35 games, and by 1945 nearly all players from the eight teams were in military service. Before hostilities ended, 69 of them died, including national superstars Eiji Sawamura and Shinichi Ishimaru.

Today, as noted earlier, baseball ranks third in popularity behind football and basketball, and soccer isn’t far behind. But baseball, more than any other sport, played a key role in buoying the spirts of Americans and giving them a valuable distraction during the dark days of World War II. That’s a good reason for even football and basketball fans to be grateful to “America’s pastime.”

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