Pearl Harbor saw the nation besieged in a wave of overwhelming patriotism followed by an immediate rush to enlist. On December 9th, Hank Greenberg, at 30 years old, re-enlisted after having been discharged from the Army under a new law releasing draftees 28 or older from duty. He admitted "this doubtless means I'm finished with baseball." Like Greenberg, Cleveland's 23-year-old pitching sensation, Bob Feller, rushed to enlist as soon as he heard the news of the bombing. Feller joined the United States Navy and served as a chief petty officer aboard the battleship Alabama in the Pacific.
Hitler's declaration of war against the United States on December 11th merely fueled the enthusiasm. Industrial giants responded with a roar and factories, workshops, mills and mines swung into action. The vast automobile industry switched to the production of military vehicles, turning out a steady stream of trucks, Jeeps, tanks and airplanes, while manufacturers, more accustomed to handling refrigerators and vacuum cleaners, turned their straight-line production techniques to the manufacture of ammunition, guns and other essential war commodities. Even manufacturers of sporting goods equipment contributed to the war effort. Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bats, turned their wood turning skills to the production of stocks for the M1 carbine rifle. Within months of Pearl Harbor, America was impressively living up to the pledge it had given to become the "Arsenal of Democracy."
But would baseball survive the war? America's entrance into World War I had ended the 1918 baseball season on September 2nd, there was no World Series that year [actually, the World Series was held in 1918, but a month earlier than usual -- ed.], and only the armistice agreement saved the following season. Fears that the war would jeopardize baseball again in 1942, however, were quashed when President Roosevelt, in response to a direct plea from baseball's ruling head, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, sent his now famous January 15th "Green Light" letter. Roosevelt said, "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going," and added that he would like to see more night games that hard-working people could attend. Roosevelt also noted that baseball could provide entertainment for at least 20 million people, and added that although the quality of the teams might be lowered by the greater use of older players, this would not dampen the popularity of the sport.
But, although players were enlisting or being drafted into the armed forces from the beginning, there existed throughout the war, an undertone of displeasure towards seemingly fit men participating in sports and apparently evading military duties. Some thought baseball squandered manpower and should shut down for the duration. In hindsight this attitude is understandable, but there is little doubt that baseball was a major morale booster throughout the war years. In response to the negative undertones, the Sporting News took it upon themselves, in April 1942, to ask servicemen for their view on the situation - should baseball continue why they fight and perhaps die for democracy and freedom? An abundance of replies besieged the offices of the Sporting News in St Louis strongly backing the President's directive to keep baseball going. Private John E Stevenson, based at Fort Dix, New Jersey, wrote, "Baseball is part of the American way of life. Remove it and you remove something from the lives of American citizens, soldiers and sailors." Private Clifford P Mansfield at Fort Knox, Kentucky reiterated, "For the morale of the soldier and the morale of America itself, 'keep 'em playing'."
Copyright © 1999 by Gary Bedingfield. Reprinted with permission.