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Saluting America’s baseball greats — and World War II veterans

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Posted: Friday, July 12, 2013 11:50 am

Next week, baseball’s 84th All Star Game will be played at Citifield, home of the New York Mets. As has become the tradition over the last several years, the game will be preceded by a home run hitting contest and various special events featuring non-baseball celebrities. But during the World War II era, the Mid-Summer Classic was at risk of being cancelled. Baseball’s future was also in doubt.

When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act in 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 including many of baseball’s greatest stars.

Baseball’s commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, worried that playing baseball while America was at war would be frivolous, wrote to President Roosevelt for guidance. Roosevelt in his famous Green Light letter wrote back: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”

As global hostilities intensified in 1941, major league baseball hit its zenith. Ted Williams batted .406, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, 41-year-old Lefty Grove got his 300th career win, and Dodgers’ catcher Mickey Owen was forever immortalized for mishandling a pitch that cost Brooklyn the World Series. But that year, baseball bid a resounding farewell to players as they went off to war. The players responded patriotically and vowed to defend the nation with as much dedication as they had devoted to their honing their baseball skills

The Philadelphia Phillies’ veteran Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy was the first major league player drafted. The 27-year-old right-hander earned his nickname by losing 76 games between 1937 and 1940 as a starter with the National League’s worst team. After Mulcahy answered his call on March 8, 1941, he 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 and future Hall of Famer, received his call on May 7, 1941. “Hammerin’ Hank” had played in three World Series and two All Star games. In 1938, Greenberg hit 58 home runs in 1938 — just two short of Babe Ruth’s 1927 record — and was the 1940 American League’s Most Valuable Player. Greenberg gave up his $55,000 yearly salary for $21 per month Army pay and reported to Fort Custer, Michigan. In an interview with The Sporting News Greenberg said, “If there’s any last message to be given to the public, let it be that I’m going to be a good soldier.”

Because his father was terminally ill back home in Iowa, the Cleveland Indians’ fireballing Bob Feller was draft-exempt. Nevertheless, at the peak of his Hall of Fame dominance, Feller enlisted two days after the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Feller, who lost four years of his playing career to the war, later wrote that he was “proud to serve his country during its time of need.”

More than 500 major league players swapped flannels for khakis during World War II, and such well-known players as Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese as well as Williams (who also had a tour in Korea), Feller and Greenberg willingly did their patriotic duty. Two others who appeared only briefly on major league rosters died in combat. They were Washington Senators’ outfielder Elmer Gedeon and Philadelphia Athletics’ catcher Harry O’Neill.

As Feller recalled his war experiences, “Survivors come home. The soldiers that didn’t come back are the heroes.”

Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com

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