Major League Baseball, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and World War II, 1941-1942

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher and Dr. Sylvia Naylor, Archivists at the National Archives at College Park.

During the summer of 1940, as German military forces overran France, many Americans began to support the need for compulsory military training in the event that the United States entered the war in Europe. In September, Congress adopted the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. This law established the Selective Service System and required registration of all men between ages 21 and 45, with selection for one year’s service by a national lottery. The term of service was extended by one year in August 1941. After Pearl Harbor, the law was further amended to extend the term of service for the duration of the war and six months and required the registration of all men 18 to 64 years of age.

At the 1940 Major League Baseball annual winter meeting in Chicago, discussions were held about the relationship between baseball and the national defense. In mid-January 1941, Ford Frick, the President of the National League, came to Washington and, among other things, met with General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army on January 15 to offer the services of the National League to the national defense.

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Marshall memorandum of January 15, 1941

Frick made several suggestions regarding how Major League Baseball might be of service to the nation. After the meeting, General Marshall wrote Maj. Gen. E.S. Adams, Adjutant General for the Army, about the visit and suggested steps the Army should consider taking. A week later, Adams wrote Frick acknowledging his offer of cooperation, explaining the military situation and possibilities of cooperation, and expressing the War Department’s appreciation of his offer.

Not long after, Clark Calvin Griffith, President of the Washington Base Ball Club since 1920 and previously the manager of the Washington Senators from 1912 to 1920, stopped by General Adams’ office to offer the cooperation of his team in providing for the recreation of soldiers. Adams was not present, but wrote to Griffith as soon as he learned about his visit.

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Adams letter January 28, 1941

At the annual dinner of the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association held in New York City on February 2, 1941, a letter from President Roosevelt, identified by The New York Times as the “Nation’s No. 1 Fan,” was read.  He wrote:

It is a fortunate thing for this country that there is no lessening of interest in the great American sport, baseball. That was apparent a couple of years ago when we celebrated the centenary of the game.

We should be more grateful than ever this year to General Doubleday for giving us baseball. Of course, the national defense is the paramount issue today. All else is subordinate to the test whether it contributes in the final analysis to the strengthening of the defensive forces of the nation.

The country is witnessing an unprecedented expansion in its armed forces on land, on sea and in the air. And in building up of morale-whether in the armed forces or in the civilian population-we all know the part that recreation always has played and of necessity must continue to play. That is where baseball comes into its own. Whether we follow a world series, watch the fortunes of a minor league or look in on a sandlot team in our back yard, all of us want to know what the sports writer thinks about it.

With a quickened sense of the importance of your mission I send greeting to my friends of the New York Chapter, Baseball Writers Association of America. I hope the success of the dinner will be in keeping with the importance of the work you are doing.  The best of luck to all.[1]

President Roosevelt attended the opening day game at Griffith Stadium between the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals on April 14, 1941. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch, as he had every year since 1933 (except 1939 when, because of the press of business, he sent Vice President John Nance Garner).

The First Ball

1941: US president Franklin D Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) prepares to throw the first ball of baseball season while gripping the arm of his Presidential Secretary, General Edwin M Watson (R), for support. (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)

He also threw out the first pitch for the 1937 All Star Game at Griffith Stadium. Earlier, in 1918 and 1919, Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, accompanied Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, to the season opener in place of President Woodrow Wilson. This annual tradition began when President William H. Taft threw out the first pitch at Nationals Park to start the 1910 season.

Joe DiMaggio, the 1940 American League’s batting champion, in the first inning of the 1941 opening game, tripled against the center field fence to drive in the first run of the game, which the Yankees won 3-0. Thus began a record breaking year for baseball. During the year DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games. After being hitless in the 57th game, he hit safely in 16 more consecutive games for a streak of 72 of 73 games. Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox ended the season with a .406 batting average. Since this 1941 season, no professional baseball player (qualifying for the batting title) has hit over .400. On June 1 Mel Ott of the New York Giants hit his 400th home run and on July 25, Lefty Grove of the Boston Red Sox, earned his 300th career win, which was also his last.

The 1941 season also witnessed ball players entering military service. Even before the season began, on March 8, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy became the first big leaguer drafted into the Armed Forces for World War II. Detroit Slugger Hank Greenberg, the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1940, received his draft call on May 7. He would soon be giving up his $55,000 yearly salary for $21 per month Army pay.

On June 5, The Major League Advisory Council, composed of Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, President Will Harridge of the American League and Ford C. Frick of the National League decided that proceeds from the ninth annual All-Star baseball game to be played at Detroit on July 8 would be donated to the United Service Organizations (USO) for National Defense, Inc., which was sponsored by the government to raise funds for Army and Navy recreational activities. The game netted $53,226.27 for the USO. [2]

During 1941 the size of the American armed forces increased from 458,365 to 1,801,101 soldiers. After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Americans rushed to the recruiting offices to join the war effort. Among them was the Cleveland Indians’ 23-year old pitching sensation, Bob Feller, who went to the Navy recruiting office in Chicago on December 9 and enlisted in the Navy.

The annual winter baseball meeting began in Chicago on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Baseball Commissioner Landis, when asked that day what would war do to baseball, he replied “No one can even guess. I would be going way out on the limb if I ventured a prediction.” Will Harridge, the president of the American League, said “The Nation’s welfare is, of course, our first concern and we will do whatever is desired by the Government, but I’m sure that baseball will carry on its schedule as it always has.” Mel Ott, recently appointed manager of the New York Giants, in a similar vein, said “This is a serious business, this attack on us by Japan, and the first thought of everybody is the defense of our country.” “But,” he continued, “as soon as things get back into their normal stride I am sure baseball will do its part in the program and I am equally certain that whatever the government wants baseball men to do, they will do it.” At the meeting, some of the baseball leaders thought the war might halt night baseball in some section if blackouts should become necessary and the clubs which had arranged to train the following spring on the Pacific Coast were somewhat disturbed. Some thought the war would curtail baseball activities and shorten the playing season as it had in 1918.[3]

In mid-December, Frick and Griffith met with Maj. Theodore Banks, chief of the Army’s athletics and recreation branch to put in motion plans to distribute $25,000 in baseball equipment among the soldiers and sailors as soon as possible. The money had been raised at the baseball meeting in Chicago earlier in December.[4] Major League Baseball launched its balls-and-bats-for-service-men campaign in Washington, D.C. on December 30 by placing an initial order for 18,000 baseballs and 4,500 bats to be distributed to men in the armed forces. Griffith, who led the drive to supply Army camps with baseball equipment during World War I and played a major role in keeping major league baseball going in 1917-1918, formally placed the equipment order after a conference with Ford, Capt. Frederick H. Weston of the Army morale division and representatives of three sporting goods manufacturing firms. He informed the press that the conference dealt only with the equipment campaign and that no discussions were held regarding any possible blackout of night baseball during the 1942 season or of curtailing next season’s major league schedule. Griffith said he was confident that a “full 154-game schedule” would be played in 1942, but he emphasized that his immediate interest was “supplying the boys in the service with bats and balls.” He was also quoted as saying that orders up to $42,000 would be placed for “service baseball kits” and later they may total as much as $100,000. He added that most of the funds would come from proceeds of the 1942 All-Star game. Griffith also noted that the equipment would be supplied throughout the war and would be distributed by the joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation. [5]

Will Harridge, President of American League, wrote a piece for the press the first week of January 1942, in which he stated that all baseball stood ready to do its part in the crisis which faced the nation. He wrote:

No one can foresee what that part may be. But regardless of what this war year may bring, the American League enters 1942 confidently hopeful it will be able to perform an important role in the recreational and morale portion of our national defense program.

Sports-and particularly baseball-long have been an important part of the lives of millions of our people. Now baseball may be approaching the finest opportunity for service to our country that the game has ever had-the opportunity for providing a recreational outlet for millions of fans who will be working harder than ever to help achieve our common cause of victory. [6]

Judge Landis wrote President Roosevelt on January 14, asking him what he had in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate. “Of course,” he wrote, “my inquiry does not relate at all to individual members of this organization, whose status, in the emergency, is fixed by law operating upon all citizens.” He concluded his letter “Health and strength to you-and whatever else it takes to do this job.”

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Landis letter January 14, 1942

Roosevelt responded the next day:

As you will, of course, realize the final decision about the baseball season must rest with you and the Baseball Club owners—so what I am going to say is solely a personal and not an official point of view.

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.

As to the players themselves, I know you agree with me that individual players who are of active military or naval age should go, without question, into the services. Even if the actual quality of the teams is lowered by the greater use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport….

Here is another way of looking at it—if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreation asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens—and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.

On January 16 Landis made public the president’s letter. Of particular interest to the major league executives was the President’s expressed desire that more night games than the seven then permitted each club be scheduled. Griffith said that in view of the President’s letter, he would write Landis asking permission to schedule more night games. One of the most outspoken opponents to playing more than seven night games when the question came up at the December meeting was President Alvah Bradley of the Cleveland Indians. But he recanted, stating that in view of President Roosevelt’s letter he had reconsidered his opposition. At this point, all the major league clubs except the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, and Boston Red Sox were equipped with lights. For these teams to host night games, they would need lights, and getting such lighting would be a difficult proposition, given wartime priorities. The International News Service observed “But regardless of the question of baseball under the lights, baseball men accepted the President’s letter as giving the national game ‘the green light’ for 1942, at least.” Landis issued a statement from his Chicago office stating “I hope that our performance will be such as to justify the President’s faith.” “The President’s letter,” Harridge said, “confirms the conviction held by all baseball men that the national pastime has a definite place in the welfare of our country, particularly during times of stress.” [7]

On January 20, Landis called a joint meeting of major league club owners to be held in New York on February 3 to consider expansion of night baseball. At the meeting, Owner Phil Wrigley of the Chicago Cubs said that he was in the process of equipping Wrigley Field for night baseball when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and that all preparations were stopped. He said that 165 tons of steel, 35,000 feet of copper wire and other items of equipment were immediately turned over to the Government. “We felt,” he said, “that this material could be more useful in lighting flying fields, munition plants or other war defense plants under construction.” [8]

During the February 3 meeting, the owners, acting in accordance with what they considered to be the wishes of President Roosevelt, voted to allow each ball club to schedule 14 night games, except for the Washington Senators, who could play 21 such games. They also decided to play two All-Star games. The first would be on July 6 in a National League city with increased price of admission and the second on July 7 in an American league city. At the latter there would no increased admission price but fans would be required to purchase $1 worth of war savings stamps for themselves. All the club owners and Landis also committed themselves to investing 10 percent of their salary for the year to defense bonds and expressed the hope that all their players and other employees would take similar action. [9]

The 1942 baseball season began in April. During the year hundreds of major league ball players would be drafted or would enlist in the armed forces. By end of the year there were 3,915,507 individuals in military service.

On April 15, just as the season was beginning, Horace Stoneham and Larry MacPhil, the presidents of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers announced that all the proceeds of two games played between the two teams would go to the Army Emergency Relief and the Navy Relief Society. MacPhil said the “entire proceeds means just that. Every member of the press will be asked to pay. There will be no passes of any kind at either game, and that goes for the umpires, too.” That same day the Major League Advisory Council (Landis, Frick, and Harridge) announced that the two All-Star games would be played at night at the Polo Grounds and Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium and all the proceeds would go to the Baseball Equipment Fund, commonly referred to as the Bat and Ball Fund, which furnished bats, balls, and paraphernalia to Army bases and Navy camps.[10]

On May 8, baseball’s first benefit-game contribution to the war effort was played at Ebbets Field between the Giants and Dodgers. This was scheduled to be the first of sixteen war-relief engagements involving every major league club. Everyone who entered the park had to pay. This included the players, umpires, sports writers, ushers, and, peanut-vendors. The crowd for the game, one of the largest in the park’s history, included several thousand service members whose tickets of admission were paid by patriotic citizens and organizations. The game raised $59,859 for the Navy Relief Society. [11]

The 1942 All-Star game was scheduled to be played in the Polo Grounds in New York on July 6; to be followed on July 8 by a game between the All-Stars of the winning league and an all-star team composed of service personnel. On July 1, Ford Frick, the National League president, told the press that it was estimated that baseball would contribute to various war service funds about three-quarters of a million dollars by the end of the 1942 season. He said they hoped to raise $200,000 from the double all-star games for the benefit of the Baseball Equipment Fund and the Army and Navy relief funds. In addition, they expected to raise about $200,000 from each major league for Army and Navy relief from games which each club was playing for those funds. He noted that the National League had already raised $161,000 from six games and two more were to be played. Frick explained that the first $100,000 realized from the two all-star games would be turned over to the Baseball Equipment Fund, commonly referred to as the Ball and Bat Fund.  $44,300 had already been spent by the fund, at an operating cost of only $62.67. He noted that a shipment of baseball equipment had already been sent to Iceland and another to Africa and that any surplus (beyond the first $100,000) from the all-star games would go to Army-Navy relief. [12]

The two early July all-star games turned out to be successful fund raisers for Army-Navy relief funds and for the Baseball Equipment fund, as 33,694 attended the annual All-Star game and 62,094 attended the game between the American League all-stars and a service team of all-stars. Together the two games raised some $160,000 for relief work and the Ball and Bat Fund. [13]

As the season progressed, more funds would be accumulated and donated to the Army and Navy relief organizations. On August 25, the Army Emergency Relief and Major League Baseball Equipment Funds increased by $162,890.40 when checks for that amount were presented by Horace Stoneham, president of the Giants, to Colonel John Thomas Taylor, of Washington, director of Army Relief. The money represented the proceeds of the major leagues’ All-Star game at the Polo Grounds in July and the benefit game between the Dodgers and the Giants on August 3. Of the $89,314.58 raised by the All-Star game, $50,000 went into the fund to buy baseball equipment for service men and the remainder to Army Relief. All of the $73,575.82 raised by the Brooklyn-New York contest went to Army Relief.[14]

Major League baseball’s largest single financial contribution of the year was made on October 31 when $362,926.65 was turned over to the United Service Organization. The sum represented the USO’s portion of the receipts from the St. Louis Cardinals-New York Yankees World Series. Accepting the monies were Walter Hoving, chairman of the USO board of directors and Prescott S. Bush, national campaign chairman. By the way, Bush’s son, George H.W. Bush, after his military service during World War II, became captain of the Yale University baseball team and played in the first two College World Series. [15]

For the 1942 season, baseball contributed $1,314,825 to war relief and recreation activities. This included $238,205 from the American League; $267,895 from the National League; $89,314 from the All-Star game; $71,611 from the All-Service game (American League all-star team versus a military team played at Cleveland; $24,000 from the Baseball Equipment Fund; $1,000 from the Baseball Writers’ Association); $362,926 from World Series proceeds; and $259,871 from the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (the minors). The Army and Navy Relief Societies together received $567,026, which included funds from benefit games as well as the All-Star contests in New York and Cleveland. [16]

During the remainder of the war, Major League Baseball would survive, with fewer star players and decreased attendance. But it continued to contribute to the war effort, raising monies for service personnel and families and providing a recreational outlet for the public and military personnel.

President Roosevelt would continue to support baseball during the war years, though with the understanding the war effort came first. On March 12, 1945, Clark Griffith made his annual call at the White House with season passes for the President and Mrs. Roosevelt. Griffith, who scheduled as many games as he could under the lights for his Washington Senators, described Roosevelt as “a night baseball man.” Griffith recalled the President telling him: “You got to give me credit for night baseball.” Griffith said he agreed with that, remembering a Presidential statement a year or so ago that games after dark would provide recreation for day shifts in war plants. Roosevelt told Griffith that it was possible he would be able to toss out the first ball when the Senators started their schedule on April 16. The next day, at a news conference, Roosevelt said he was all in favor of baseball so long as it did not require perfectly healthy people who could be doing more useful war work. A reporter quickly asked if the President thought it possible, under that theory, for the leagues to operate in 1945. Roosevelt, asked right back, “Why not?” He added that, while baseball under wartime condition might not be quite so good, he for one even would be willing to go out and watch sandlot teams. A story in The Washington Post the next day noted that baseball people were elated over the President’s remarks. It was the third time, it reported, that Roosevelt had gone to bat for the game during wartime. [17]

President Roosevelt, who would not live to see the 1945 season, died just days before the season began.


Sources:

The 1941 documents are from file 353.85 Baseball 1-1-40—2-28-41; the 1942 documents are from file 353.85 Baseball 3-1-41—2-3-45, Central Decimal Correspondence Files, 1940-1945, NAID 895294, Records of the Adjutant General, 1917-, Record Group 407

Readers may enjoy these two articles in Prologue:

“Beyond the Box Score: Baseball Records in the National Archives” by David A. Pfeiffer and John Vernon and “When FDR said ‘Play Ball’” by Gerald Bazer and Steven Culbertson 


Footnotes:

[1] John Drebinger, “Writers at Frolic Twit Baseball Executives Over Season’s Misadventures,” The New York Times, February 3, 1941, p. 22.

[2] “All-Star Game Proceeds Will Go to Army-Navy Recreation Fund,” The New York Times, June 6, 1941, p. 27; Associated Press, “All-Star Game Netted $53,226,” The New York Times, July 31, 1941, p. 20

[3] Judson Bailey, “Baseball Heads Pause To Ponder War News,” The Washington Post, December 9, 1941, p. 26; John Drebinger, Support Pledged by Major Leagues,” The New York Times, December 9, 1941, p. 49.

[4] “Baseball Heads Give $25,000 for Army Sport,” The Washington Post, December 18, 1941, p. 26.

[5] “1500 Baseball Orders Made for Service Men,” The Washington Post, December 31, 1941, p. 19.

[6] Will Harridge, “Harridge Defines Baseball’s Role,” The New York Times, January 8, 1942, p. 30.

[7] International News Service, “Baseball Men Hail Request of President,” The Washington Post, January 17, 1942, p. 18.

[8] Associated Press, “Landis Calls Meeting on Night Ball,” The Washington Post, January 21, 1942, p. 18.

[9] John Drebinger, “Majors Raise Limit of Home Night Games to 14, Except for 21 at Washington,” The New York Times, February 4, 1942, p. 24.

[10] Louis Effrat, “Plans Set for Four Major League Games to Aid War Effort,” The New York Times, April 16, 1942, p. 27.

[11] Arthur Daily, “Baseball’s War Benefit Program Starts Today in Brooklyn Game, The New York Times, May 8, 1942, p. 28; John Drebinger, “Dodgers Defeat Gaints in Twilight Game Raising $59,859 for Navy Relief,” The New York Times, May 9, 1942, p. 16.

[12] Louis Effrat, “Baseball’s Gift to Service Funds in 1942 Put at $750,000 by Frick,” The New York Times, July 2, 1942, p. 27; John Kieran, “Sports of the Times: Baseball Beyond the Stars,” The New York Times, July 2, 1942, p. 28.

[13] John Drebinger, “American League All-Stars Win on Homers by Boudreau and York in First,” The New York Times, July 7, 1942, p. 23; Associated Press, “Service All-Star Game a Success But Not Likely to Be Repeated, The New York Times, July 9, 1942, p. 25; Judson Bailey, “Future of All-Star Service Game Doubted,” The Washington Post, July 9, 1942, p. 20.

[14] “Baseball Contributes $162,890 for Army Relief and Play,” The New York Times, August 26, 1942, p. 25.

[15] John Drebinger, “$362,926 Series Cut Presented to USO,” The New York Times, November 1, 1942, p. S7.

[16] Associated Press, “Baseball Donated $1,314,825 to War Charities in Year,” The Washington Post, December 18, 1942, p. 14; Associated Press, “Baseball Gave $1,314,825,” The New York Times, December 18, 1942, p. 41.

[17] Associated Press, “President Is for Night Baseball, Griffith of the Senators Reports,” The New York Times, March 13, 1945, p. 26; Associated Press, “Roosevelt Wants Baseball To Go On,” The Washington Post, March 14, 1945, p. 24.

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