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Baseball During The War Time

American culture and values have always been reflected and many times, shaped by baseball. Rightfully designated as the National Pastime, it has brought our nation together in prosperous times and in times of crisis.

Baseball has listened when America has needed to mourn or has been engaged in global conflict. In recognition of the deaths of Presidents Warren Harding in 1923 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945, exhibition and regular season games were postponed. Because of World War I, the 1918 season was cut short by one month. When Allied forces invaded France, June 6, 1944, all of the day's games were canceled. Baseball again shut down completely after the tragedies of September 11 occurred in September 2001. Baseball was also a leader in telling America that it was time to return to work.

Like every other American citizen, baseball players understand the importance of giving one's self for their country. Hall of Famer Morgan Bulkeley served in the Civil War, and twenty-five Hall of Fame members served in World War I. Thirty-five Hall of Fame members and more than 500 major league players served in World War II. Five Hall of Famers served America during the Korean War.

Our nation has turned to Baseball to respond to any situation. Baseball has reacted swiftly and acted as a leader, whatever the crisis may be.

President George W. Bush reflected back to 1941, when addressing the nation after the September 11 attacks last year. On one peaceful Sunday morning, Americans saw their country come under surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, which led to the second "war to end all wars."

Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis contemplated shutting down the game shortly after the Pearl Harbor invasion that led America into World War II. As spring training approached in Januray, Landis wrote a letter to the president observing that in ordinary times, professional baseball teams would start heading south for spring training. Landis asked should baseball continue in a time of global conflict, in the opinion of the president.


Landis' missive sparked a response from President Roosevelt that is now referred to as the famous "Green Light Letter." It basically stated that baseball must continue for the morale of the nation. Roosevelt outlined all of the recreational benefits, and supported the commissioner to play more night games, giving the opportunity of occasionally seeing a game to day shift workers. A line from the letter read, "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going."

Landis responded, with letter in hand and the blessing from the president, "I hope that our performance will be such as to justify the president's faith." American League President William Harridge stated, "The president's letter confirms that the National Pastime has a definite place in the welfare of our country, and James Gallagher, general manager of the Cubs, stated, "I hope, and believe, our team will be a source of satisfaction to the fans next summer."


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Enos Slaughter remembers special significance in the "Green Light Letter." He spent three years in the Army Air Corps (today referred to as the Air Force). "It kept the spirit of the people up, and their minds off the war. I think it made everything go along a little better."

Baseball fans witnessed the decline of perennial powerhouse teams that had dominated the World Series throughout the war years. While nearly all everyday major leaguer served America overseas, rosters of fill-in players performed. War bond drives were held at every ballpark and players served in every branch of the military. Cubs owner Phil Wrigley donated light towers to the war effort and also began a baseball league for women, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Just after D-Day, Yogi Berra was in the Navy and stationed on a rocket launcher off the coast of Normandy Beach. Also participating in Normandy Leon Day was drafted into the Army, landing on Utah Beach with an amphibian unit. Hoyt Wilhelm served in the Army and earned a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge.

The legendary pitcher. Bob Feller, who authored three no-hitters and a record-sharing 12 one-hitters, compiled 266 wins and struck out 2,581 batters in his 18-year career, despite spending four years of his prime in World War II. Enlisting in the United States Navy just two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Feller became the first major leaguer to volunteer for active duty and served as an anti-aircraft gunner on the battleship Alabama with the Third Fleet. His fleet fought in battles at Tarawa, Iwo Jima and the Marshall Islands.

In reference to FDR's "Green Light Letter?, Feller said, "It was absolutely the right thing to do to have the 'Four Fs' and the players who were physically incapable of joining the service keep baseball going. I am no hero. I came back. I never met a bullet with my name on it." The anti-aircraft gunner earned five campaign ribbons and was studded with eight battle stars.

The winningest left-handed pitcher in history with 363 wins, Warren Spahn served three years as a combat engineer during World War II. He saw action during the Battle of the Bulge, was wounded in the foot and endured the collapse of the Remagen Bridge in Germany.

Spahn returned from the war with three battle stars, a citation for bravery and a Purple Heart, and also earned a battlefield commission as second lieutenant, the only major league player to earn such an honor. Spahn stated, "The Green Light Letter proves that baseball is a part of the American way. The game, that tradition and the love affair that the American public has for baseball survived, and it always will."

Reflecting back on what happened to the country and baseball during World War II, Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst states that our nation can find many similarities with the events of September 11. "It was part of America to keep everything going," says Schoendienst. "It meant so much, I think, not only to the ballplayers, but to our country, to the people, to the big fans of baseball."

For some players, injury during World War II and age led to an early demise from the game, but many players continued their magnificent careers despite it. Feller came back to win 26 games in 1946, Spahn led the American League in ERA in 1947 and Slaughter hit .300 with an NL-best 130 RBI in 1946 when the war was completed. Leon Day threw a no-hitter against the Negro league's Philadelphia Stars on Opening Day in 1946. Nestor Chylak, serving as an Army ranger, lost his sight for 10 days during the Battle of the Bulge. The arbiter was still able to return and begin a Hall of Fame umpiring career after receiving a Purple Heart and Silver Star.

Weather it is 1942 or 2002, in the end, baseball and the history of the United States will always blend together. That is why the sport continues to fulfill a role as our National Pastime.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum unveiled a permanent plaque in the Hall of Fame Gallery honoring those Hall of Famers that served America during times of war on Memorial Day 2002.


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