Baseball is good for the nation, even during wartime

In 1945, Cleveland Indians  pitching great Bob Feller waved
discharge papers at volunteer catchers at Chicago s Navy Pier.
In 1945, Cleveland Indians pitching great Bob Feller waved discharge papers at volunteer catchers at Chicago s Navy Pier.

THE 2005 major league baseball season will begin Sunday night. That this should be noted at all might seem odd.

After all, would not the 2005 season be like the 2004 season, the 2003 season, and those before which had all started as scheduled?

But 63 years ago, in 1942, a serious question existed whether the 1942 baseball season would begin as scheduled or indeed be played at all.

For in 1942 our country was well into its first year of fighting World War II.

The question of the 1942 season could also have affected each future season that we were engulfed in war.

That baseball did begin that spring 63 years ago was the direct result of the intercession of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt through his letter dated Jan. 15, 1942 to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

The letter, known ever since as the "green light letter," is now part of the permanent collection of our National Archives in Washington, D.C.

In the letter FDR wrote, "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 ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before."

Mr. Roosevelt's letter was in response to an inquiry from Mr. Landis whether, given the war, baseball should be suspended for the war's duration.

Mr. Landis confronted conditions wherein major league players might be drafted or enlist.

Additionally, questions existed as to whether there would be support for players playing a game while men and women were dying in battle. Also, would materials essential for baseball equipment such as rubber for baseballs be needed for the war effort?

Mr. Landis and other baseball officials also questioned how teams would travel since gasoline was being rationed, and general travel restrictions existed for civilians so that the military could travel more expeditiously.

President Roosevelt, replying to Mr. Landis, recognized the validity of these serious concerns, but as he also wrote, " these players (major leaguers) are a definite recreational asset to at least 20 million of their fellow citizens, and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile."

So baseball was played in 1942, though with certain restrictions.

Most importantly, players eligible for military service, in Roosevelt's words, "should go without question into the services."

Thus, even the great stars of that era: Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller served, but with endless questions regarding how they would play once their service ended. (The great pre-war stars, as it turned out, went on to even greater heights in the post-war years.)

As players left for military service, the quality of play did diminish, even more so in the minor leagues where players tended to be younger with fewer dependents and thereby more eligible for the draft.

Despite the loss of major league players, fans did support baseball as seen by their attendance and by responses to polls asking whether baseball should continue.

That view was echoed by members of the armed forces and even by our World War II allies.

Unfortunately for the game and for simple justice, the thriving Negro leagues would send no ballplayers to the majors or minors.

Commissioner Landis was unalterably opposed to using black players; it would be his successor, Happy Chandler, who would oversee baseball's integration.

(Two years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, he was barred from playing for the all-white team stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas.)

As for the concern about baseball materials needed for the war, the baseball itself abandoned rubber switching to balata, a South American gum of the rubber family. Balata was reclaimed from golf balls, which had no military use. Balata deadened the ball, causing a nose-dive in batting stats.

Regarding gasoline and travel, teams held their 1942 spring training in northern cities, despite the adverse weather, and had no special train cars for inter-city travel.

Players also made do with shortages of cabs, hotels, and meals while they were on the road.

(The 1945 All-Star Game was cancelled because of war-related transportation restrictions.)

To conserve gasoline, teams also were restricted to three long road trips instead of the customary four trips.

Baseball also encouraged fans to participate in scrap drives of steel, aluminum, and copper, with free tickets in exchange for materials brought to the parks.

President Roosevelt, hopeful that as many workers as possible could attend ball games, recommended that more night games be scheduled.

However, because lights were often turned off to foil potential air attacks by enemy planes, mid-game blackouts occurred.

At one minor league game, a blackout occurred just as a pitch had been thrown.

As one reporter wrote, "The catcher thought it was a perfect strike, whereas the batter said it was a foot outside. The umpire said nothing. He went home to bed."

But despite the lesser quality of play, the restrictions on materials and travel, and blackouts, the 1942 season was played, as would each subsequent war season.

For those who currently are New York Yankee haters (I'm from Boston), the Yankees lost the 1942 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, although the reverse would occur in 1943.

In 1944 it could be argued that baseball quality really diminished; the St. Louis Browns won their only American League pennant, but lost a cross-city World Series to the Cardinals.

As for 2005, PLAY BALL!

Gerald Bazer is a retired dean at Owens Community College. A version of this essay was presented a few years ago at a symposium at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. in collaboration with Steven Culbertson, professor of communications/humanities at Owens.