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.

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.]

The Green Light Letter & The Dawn Of Night Baseball

According to Census data, roughly 16.1 million Americans served in World War II. The entire population of the US at the time President Roosevelt passed the Selective Training and Service Act was about 133 million, meaning that better than 12 percent of the country aided with some part of the war. Which means that almost a quarter of males of any age were enlisted and a much, much higher portion of those who were able-bodied served the country.

This is a way of saying that the 500 major league and approximately 5,000 minor league baseball players that put their lives on hold to join the Armed Forces were only a small part of a much larger event. World War II occurred on such a grandiose scale and altered the industries in our country so dramatically, that it's difficult even to imagine for someone my age who has only lived through the Gulf War and recent conflicts in Iraq in Afghanistan.

Now, we selfishly couldn't accept our favorite athletes going to war, and because of the current nature of international conflict of the level of weapons technology, we don't have to imagine ourselves shipping out hostile areas on the other side of the Earth unless we choose to. During World War II, kids probably dreamed of being drafted into the Army and fighting the Nazis or in the Pacific. Now it's more likely they go to sleep thinking about being drafted by their favorite sports franchise and fighting against their opposition.

The one document that inextricably links baseball and World War II was the "Green Light Letter" sent from President Roosevelt to Commisioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. It was a response to this letter to the President written by Landis, asking if baseball should continue to operate during the war. It's hard to imagine now, but it was a very serious question at the time as World War I shortened the 1918 Major League schedule and the 1919 season might not have been played at all if not for the Armistice that today celebrates.

The draft was certain to significantly drain the talent pool, but baseball provided employment and entertainment fair beyond just the players. In his response to Landis, FDR gave his blessings for baseball to continue, saying in part:
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.

Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.
This last sentence gave way to the increased popularity of night games, although it still had to be settled between the owners and Landis. Some owners, like Clark Griffith, who controlled the Washington Senators, saw night games as a tremendous opportunity to open the game up to a new market. On the other hand, Ed Barrow who was then an executive for the Yankees opposed the measure out of a concern for security. He cautioned:
If I were a club president, I would not want the responsibility of luring enemy planes with a brightly lighted park too many nights a week.
Thankfully, Griffith turned out to be right and Barrow looks paranoid in hindsight.

Perhaps it would have happened eventually, but Roosevelt's nudge towards moving the games to a time when they would be more accessible to fans was a major step forward along baseball's trip to becoming as popular and profitable as it is today.

Happy Veterans' Day

When I first started watching baseball in the late eighties and the announcers would refer to someone as a "veteran player" I thought that meant the guy was an actual war veteran. At seven or eight years old I didn't have a full grasp on recent American history, but I knew from repeated watchings of First Blood and First Blood Part II that it had been been awhile since the Vietnam War had ended. I kept thinking, "how old are these guys"?

Childhood misconceptions aside, there's a big difference between a veteran ballplayer and actual veteran. While the former get the attention and the adulation, today is a day to honor latter, a group that makes far bigger sacrifices and gets far less credit for what they do.

Veterans Day falls on November 11th because of Armistice Day, which initially commemorated the cessation of fighting on the Western front in the first World War "on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" - hence our 11:00 AM post this morning.

We all know someone who is or was in the military: family, friends, former classmates. I'm sure we have some military personnel amongst our readership here as well. So from Fack Youk to all military past and present, thank you.

Non-Player Hall Of Fame Candidates

Good morning Fackers. We're still a good two months away from the Hall of Fame balloting being announced and the inevitable tearing of garments and indignation that will follow. Yesterday however, the Hall announced a list of twenty former managers, executives, and umpires that will be considered by the Veterans Committee (h/t BBTF).

Just like players, the candidates will need to be named on 75% of the ballots to be inducted. However, rather than being voted upon by the crumudgeonly BBWAA, the non-player candidates will be evaluated by their peers. Historically this has been a path of less resistance for those not elected by the writers, but since being reconstituted in 2001 the Committee has elected no players and only five non-players. Results will be announced at the Winter Meetings on December 7th.

The managers category includes former Mets manager Davey Johnson, former Royals and Cardinals manager (and former Yankee farmhand) Whitey Herzog, and former Yankee player and manager Billy Martin. Other candidates include Gene Mauch, Tom Kelly, Charlie Grimm, Danny Murtaugh, and Steve O'Neill. Umpire candidates are Doug Harvey and Frank O'Day.

The executive category includes longtime Yankee owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert, former Angels owner Gene Autry, former Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, former MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller (one of the five most influential people in baseball history), former Yankee GM Gabe Paul, as well as former National League President and longtime Yankee broadcaster Bill White.

Quotes From Damon And Pettitte

Last night, Johnny Damon and Andy Pettitte both appeared on the XM Radio show "October Nights" with Reggie Jackson and Bill Pidto. It was the last installment of a six part series airing on Mad Dog Radio and the hosts had some questions for both of the guys in regards to their plans for next season and beyond:
Jackson: “You’re a free agent. One of the things people don’t know much about is you’re close to 3000 hits. You’re about three years away…”

Damon: “Yeah, I believe I’m at 2425 now so it’s going to have to be three very good years or four pretty decent years so I have to try to keep going strong.”

Jackson: “Are you telling us that you’d like to play another three or four years?”

Damon: “Yeah, absolutely. I feel like with my body type, the fact that I’ve been able to play in at least 140 games over the past 14 seasons, I feel like I can keep it going. I’ll find a way to try to win at all costs. So, that being said, I’m going to take a little break now because the offseason just got here but I’m going to start working out sooner this offseason. It seems like when you start to mature in age a bit your workouts tend to start happening a lot sooner after the season. So I’m going to give myself ‘til probably December 1 and then I’m going to get going very hard. And hopefully by then I’ll know what lies in store for me and hopefully it’s back in pinstripes.”

Host, Bill Pidto: “So all things being equal, Johnny, you’d like to come back to the Yanks?”

Damon: “Why not? I mean, we just won a championship. That new stadium is incredible. The Steinbrenners have been the best owners in the game as long as I can remember. They want to win and they proved it last offseason. The Yankees, it’s amazing when you have the pinstripes on and you walk through the clubhouse and you see guys like Reggie Jackson walking around, you see Tino Martinez, you see Yogi Berra. These guys are life-long Yankees and they’ve been accepted into the family because of what they did and how they played the game. And they won in New York City. So, that being said, I’ve loved playing for New York these past four years. You know, if it works out that I do come back then that’d be great and if not, we’ll see where I restart my future at.”


Pidto: “In recent years you’ve thought about retiring, taken a long time to make up your mind. I know it is really early, the season not even over a week, but what are you thinking about for 2010?”

Pettitte: “You know, really I just need to kinda just get down here and get away. If you immediately start thinking about it right now and you start counting the numbers and you’re looking at the calendar you’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s only 90 days to spring training. Are you kidding me?’ [...] I’m not trying to hold anybody up. I don’t want to hold anybody up. People can do what they want to do, you know? But I just want to make the right decisions for my family. I don’t want to leave my kids hanging and regret not seeing my kids do their stuff. They’re not able to be in New York with me no more, you know? I went the last month and a half, two months of the season not seeing my family at all except for the couple of times they flew up during the playoffs.”
Nothing earth-shattering, but the quotes are coming from the horses mouths as opposed to third parties trying to read the tea leaves. Pettitte's answers come as no surprise but Damon talking about playing for three or four more years might be an indication of the kind of contract he's looking for. Not a 4 year deal, realistically, but that would seem to take a single season contract out of the equation.

Will the Yankees guarantee him two years? Would any other team? He's been exceptionally durable and even if his defense slipped this year, his ability to his for power and run the bases remain intact. However, his home run power is largely a function of Yankee Stadium and his limited defense makes him best suited for the AL. It's clear that the Yanks and Damon are the best match for each other, it just remains to be seen if another team will make a serious play for him. So far, nobody has been seen kicking the tires.

Thanks as always to Andrew from XM for sending the transcriptions over.