World War II: When MLB Players Went “Over There!”

Witte Arrmy Pic In the picture at left, that’s former Houston Buff and St. Louis Brown first baseman Jerry Witte toting his US Army duffel bag in the top center, back row position of the scene. Witte was merely one of hundreds of professsional baseball players who poured themselves into the business of fighting World War II from the very start of it all. The great Bob Feller was on his way to Cleveland to sign his 1942 playing contract with the Indians when the Japanese pulled off their sneak bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Instead of signing another baseball contract, Feller took the first opportunity the very next day to join the Navy and the fight.

Not everybody from the big leagues went right away – and not everyone of eligibility went until they felt the chill of the draft breathing down their necks, but they went. And they served, in combat and in programs of special morale service to all branches of the United States Military. Once FDR wrote his now famous letter to Baseball Comissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, declaring that keeping the big league game going during World War II was important to the morale of the American people, the level, if not the pigmentary complexion, of the big leagues began to change. Many of the minor leagues did shut down, but the President’s “keep playing” message offered no assurance that play could continue at a high quality level anywhere. Baseball players were offered no special deferment from service status based on their employment in a morale-building industry.

Over the years 1942-1945, the quality of play in the major leagues reduced considerably. How could it not? With stars like Bob Feller, Ted Williams,  Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Hank Greenberg all away serving in the military, there were no replacements out there who could even come close to filling their enormous shoes. Many overage stars of earlier years, people like Lloyd and Paul Waner, prolonged their careers, playing through 1945 in limited capacities as stars who had begun MLB back in the 1920s.

With the serious wounding and weakening of the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and Cleveland Indians through personnel loss, the always lowly St. Louis Browns managed to put together a 1944 club that was good enough to nip the Tigers at the wire by a single game for what would prove to be their only American League pennant in history. Unfortunately for the Browns, their same town rival Cardinals still had players like Stan Musial playing for them in 1944 and the frequent flyer winners of the National League pennant would go on to take the ’44 Browns in the World Series, four games to two. Musial would be in the service in 1945, opening the door for the also lowly Chicago Cubs to win their most recent National League  pennant.

Ted Williams Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller  lost  three seasons to World War II; Hank Greenberg (thanks to a correction supplied me by fellow SABR buddy Bob Kienzle of Dayton, Ohio) lost the better part of four and one-half seasons; Stan Musial only lost one year. Ted Williams, on the other hand, lost three seasons to World War II and almost all of two more years later when he was called back to fly combat fighter missions in Korea. You can play all day with the numbers on what they each lost to military service, but you know dadgum what? So did all our no-big-name parents and grandparents from everyday life who also put down their ploughs and welding rods at home to serve this country in wartime. They didn’t call them the “greatest generation” for any lighthanded reason.

If you really want to grab a handle on how broad and deep this cut into baseball careers ran red, click onto this link and take an especial look at “Those Who Served” from the left hand column on the home page.

Bob Feller I recently saw Bob Feller at the July 31st “Knuckle Ball” in Houston. Nearing age 91, the man still possesses amazing energy and alertness. I think if you asked Bob Feller today how he felt about the baseball time he lost to World War II, he’d answer with something like, “I didn’t lose anything. I gave my time to my country when it needed me to be there on the fighting line for America.”

Semper Fi!

And not just by the way, Happy V-J Day! On August 15, 1945, a jubilant announcement roared across America that Japan had surrendered, ending World War II. On September 2, 1945, the Japanese formally surrendered on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Pick either of these dates as V-J (Victory Over Japan) Day and remember what they were about while you are celebrating both. Like all our great victories for peace, V-J Day came at a great cost that is always born on the backs of our great people in the U.S. Armed Services.

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One Response to “World War II: When MLB Players Went “Over There!””

  1. Wayne Williams Says:

    Bill: Great column about the ML players at war. Interesting that none of the current ML group feel any patriotic need to serve there country at time of war. Any news about a Browns reunion in the fall? Wayne Williams, Colonel, USAF (ret)

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