At the outbreak of the European conflict in 1939, the majority of Americans favored neutrality. There was little desire to become involved in a European problem, and in any case, the nation's fighting force was totally unprepared to do so. At that time, the ill-equipped army totaled a meager 240,000 men, while the fledgling Army Air Corps operated with obsolete airplanes and fewer than 20,000 personnel. Only the United States Navy could hold its head high with a Pacific Fleet of 82 warships.
Nevertheless, as the Japanese began to fulfill their territorial ambitions in the Pacific and war clouds loomed, the United States prepared to defend itself. The first stage towards increasing the nation's fighting force was the Selective Training and Service Act, or draft, signed by President Roosevelt on September 16, 1940. Every American male between the ages of 21 and 36 was required to register for 12 months of military service "to ensure the independence and freedom of the United States." The draft put nearly two million men in uniform by the end of 1941 - it was the greatest defense program in the history of the nation.
The draft affected every profession, and baseball was no exception. In 1941, major league baseball was at its zenith, enjoying a momentous year. Ted Williams batted .406, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, 41-year-old Lefty Grove got his 300th career win, and catcher Mickey Owen was forever immortalized for mishandling a pitch that cost Brooklyn the World Series. Meanwhile, major league baseball bid a resounding farewell to the first two players to enter military service. Holding the distinction of being the first major league regular to be drafted in World War II,
Hugh "Losing Pitcher" Mulcahy - a veteran with the Philadelphia Phillies - was inducted on March 8, 1941, and reported to Camp Devens, Massachusetts. The 27-year-old right-hander earned his nickname by losing 76 games between 1937 and 1940 as a starter with the senior circuit's perennial basement team. Mulcahy proudly told the Sporting News "My losing streak is over for the duration...I'm on a winning team now."
Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg, a celebrated star of the time and future Hall of Famer, received his draft call on May 7, 1941. Hammerin' Hank had played in three World Series and two all-star games - he hit 58 home runs in 1938 (just two short of Babe Ruth's 1927 record) and was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1940. Greenberg gave up his $55,000 yearly salary for $21 per month Army pay and reported to Fort Custer, Michigan. He told the Sporting News: "If there's any last message to be given to the public, let it be that I'm going to be a good soldier."
Likewise, minor league baseball's vast manpower pool responded dutifully to the nation's call to arms. Billy Southworth, Jr, an outfielder with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and son of the St. Louis Cardinals' manager, was the first professional ballplayer to enter military service by voluntarily enlisting in the Army Air Corps in December 1940. "I think it's my duty to enlist because they're going to need us," Southworth had confided to his father earlier in the year. "My baseball career can wait."
Despite the deteriorating international situation, these one-year draftees hoped peace would prevail and allow them to return to civilian life. But during the early hours of Sunday, December 7, 1941, that peace was violently shattered. The Japanese aerial attack that reined terror on Pearl Harbor and sunk or damaged 18 warships of the United States Pacific Fleet marked, with an authoritative stamp, America's entry into World War II.
Copyright © 1999 by Gary Bedingfield. Reprinted with permission.