Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Life During Wartime

The United States military has spent the past seven plus years involved in military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Thanks largely to the abolition of the draft in 1973, not a single day of Major League service time was lost by players serving in the military. As we have explored here today, there was a time when that was not the case.

World War I was the first major military event to involve Major League players. Hundreds of former, current, or future Major Leaguers served, including Hall of Famers Pete Alexander, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, and Ty Cobb; eventual Yankees Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, and Casey Stengel; as well as future Yankee outfielder and eventual Chicago Bears owner George Halas.

Though retired, Christy Mathewson - a member of the Hall of Fame's innuagural class of 1936 - enlisted as part of the Chemical Service. He developed tuberculosis as a result of accidental exposure to mustard gas, leading to his early death in 1925. The continued enlistment of players in 1918 forced MLB to reduce their schedule to less than 130 games, down from the usual 154, finishing the regular season on Labor Day weekend and wrapping the World Series before mid-September.

Yet all of that pales in comparison to the impact World War II had on MLB. More than 500 Major Leaguers served. Despite that, President Roosevelt asked baseball to carry on, to provide some needed leisure to the war focused nation.

With rosters depleted, baseball was hardpressed to find players. Aging veterans held on longer than they would have otherwise; players like future Hall of Famer Ted Lyons and Hod Lisenbee finished their military tours of duty and temporarily ended years long retirements to help round out rosters. Joe Nuxhall debuted as a 15 year old pitcher for the Reds. The St. Louis Browns employed a one armed outfielder named Pete Gray. All time greats like Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams missed prime years of their careers.

Between his service time in WWII and the Korean War, the Splendid Splinter missed nearly five full years of his career, potentially costing him a shot at Babe Ruth's home run record. Though MLB had far fewer players involved in Korea, several of them still missed time due to military service, including Whitey Ford, Jerry Coleman, and Billy Martin. Major League players would continue to serve in the military until the end of the abolition of the draft in 1973, Tony Kubek, Thurman Munson, and Bobby Murcer amongst them.

Thankfully, our nation's volunteer forces have been sufficient for the past 35 years that conscription hasn't been needed. I'm certain that - God forbid - if the need were ever again to arise for a major military operation that baseball and the rest of us would step up as in the past. But for now, as far as MLB is concerned, life during wartime is far different than it was nearly seventy years ago.

Once again, thanks to all our nation's armed forces. Happy Veterans Day. We'll see you tomorrow.

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