Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Yankees During WWII

While it took only a month after FDR signed the Burke-Wadsworth Act into law for for the draft to begin, it took much longer for its effect to be felt on baseball. A few players, such as Yankee first baseman Johnny Sturm enlisted voluntarily, but most waited for their number to be called by the draft boards.

Many Major League players were not considered for the draft for a couple of reasons. First, men who supported a family, event those who were married without children such as Joe Dimaggio were originally bypassed by many draft boards. Phil Rizzuto, who was not yet married, was similarly overlooked because he supported his parents and younger brother with his baseball salary. Additionally, there we players like Tommy Holmes who had a condition that didn't prevent them from playing baseball, but did preclude them from military service. Holmes, who was an outfielder for the Boston Braves, had a sinus condition.

As a result, the Yankees (and most of the major leagues) remained largely intact during the early years of the war. The Yanks made it to the World Series in 1941 with a full compliment of players, including hitters Dimaggio, Rizzuto, Gordon, Charlie Keller, Tommy Heinrich and pitchers Red Ruffing, Spud Chandler and Tiny Bonham, where they beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 4-1.

The Green Light Letter wasn't written in January of 1942 and the rest of baseball started to feel the affects of the war. Not the Yankees though, who returned all those players the following year and went off as 2 to 5 favorites to repeat. The Yankees started slow but won 103 games that year en route to an American League pennant.

When time came for the World Series, Tommy Henrich wasn't around because he had been called to duty by the Coast Guard in August. However, the Yankees had replaced him with Roy Cullenbine, who hit .364 from then until the season's end.

The Yankees faced the Cardinals in the Fall Classic and won Game 1 behind Red Ruffing, who took a no-hitter into the 8th inning. They lost 4-3 in Game 2 with Tiny Bonham on the hill despite an 8th inning really and dropped all three in New York to lose the Series. Had it gone beyond 5 games, Phil Rizzuto wouldn't have been able to play, as he was ordered to report to the Navy in Norfolk, Virgina the following day.

Joe Dimaggio enlisted the following January. Outfielder George Selkirk, first baseman Buddy Haskett and even 39 year old Red Ruffing who had lost 4 toes in a childhood accident were all called upon to serve.

That season, the Yankees were also ordered to move Spring Training closer to home to cut down on unnecessary transportation. They chose Asbury Park, New Jersey whose seaside breezes were welcomed in the summertime, but not as much in early March, forcing the majority of the workouts to be held inside. With little actual baseball to base his decisions on, manager Joe McCarthy inserted Snuffy Stirnweiss into shortstop and named Johnny Lindell is right fielder.

Although their position players had been decimated and Stirnweiss was quickly demoted from his starting post, their pitching staff was still in good shape. Spud Chandler led the way that year, going 20-4 with a 1.67 ERA along the way to a league MVP. Tiny Bonham, Butch Wensloff and Hank Borowy all started close to 30 games and posted ERAs under 3, and their pitching staff allowed the fewest runs since the Deadball Era. They met up with the Cardinals again in the World Series and this time returned the favor, besting them 4-1.

As the war dragged on, the Yankees were no longer able to dodge the effects of the conflict. For Spring Training in 1944, the Yanks moved south the Atlantic City. They practiced inside of an armory, but needed to relocate once the space was necessary to care for wounded soldiers and were moved to an abandoned airplane hangar.

By the time the April rolled around, Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller and Billy Dickey were gone. A week into the season, Chandler left as well. Stirnweiss, who hit .219/.333/.288 the year before was suddenly the team's biggest star. Other teams were facing the same difficulties so the Yankees were still competitive but they faded down the stretch.

The St. Louis Browns, who were the perennial basement-dwellers of the American League finally won their first pennant in 1944 because their original roster included 13 players who were determined to be (4-F) or unfit for service according to the military.

Meanwhile, many of the Major League players who had been enlisted in the Army were still on American soil, playing baseball against one another. Many commanders sought to assemble great baseball teams instead of sending the best players overseas to fight.

As a result, many Major Leaguers never saw active duty (with Bob Feller being one notable exception) and only two men who could rightly be called Big Leaguers before the conflict started died in combat.

At the end of the 1944 season, the Yankees were still under the control of the estate of Colonel Jacob Ruppert, who, as Matt mentioned earlier, up for induction to the Hall of Fame. The team was sold that offseason to an ownership group consisting of former Dodgers GM Larry MacPhail, a jetset socialite named Dan Topping and construction mogul by the name of Del Webb. For $2.8M, they not only got the Yankees, Yankee Stadium and their entire farm system.

The team shifted from a family run business to one that operated with the single-minded profit goals of a corporation. MacPhail and Co. sold pitcher Hank Bowory to the Cubs for $97,000 a move which infuriated manager Joe McCarthy. The Yanks finished fourth that year, but it didn't seem to bother the ownership much.

Before the 1946 season, Spring Training moved back to Florida, but MacPhail took the Yankees on a series of 50 exhibitions against minor league teams across the country. Midway through the season, after a contentious flight to Detroit, McCarthy resigned as manager of the team. Winner of 7 World Series in 8 trips over his 16 year career with the Yanks, McCarthy had been driven to the edge by the new ownership and an era in the Bronx had ended.

The Yankees has returned Rizzuto, Dimaggo, Chandler, Keller, Heinrich and Ruffing, but weren't the same dynastic force they were before the war. Their players had aged and their manager was gone. The Yankees did beat the Dodgers in the 1947 World Series but Larry MacPhail was forced out of ownership due to his actions at the parties after the victory.

The Yankees fared very well during the war, all things considered. The won the AL pennant three times and the World Series twice while it was going on, and even in the years that their financial resources and large minor league system couldn't buoy them to the top, they still finished 3rd and 4th.

[As you can tell if you click through the hyperlinks, I relied heavily on Yankees Century by Glenn Stout and Dick Johnson and For The Good Of The Country by David Finoli. Both were invaluable resources in generating this post.]

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